A century ago Raphael was a fact of life. “Should you like to go to the Farnesina, Dorothea?” says Casaubon. “It contains celebrated frescoes designed or painted by Raphael, which most persons think it worth while to visit…. He is the painter who has been held to combine the most complete grace of form with sublimity of expression. Such at least I have gathered to be the opinion of the cognoscenti.” The fourth centenary of Raphael’s birth in 1883 was marked by the appearance of two great monographs. The first was the work of Eugene Müntz, the historian of High Renaissance Rome, and the second of Crowe and Cavalcaselle. “The life of Raphael,” we read in the preface to the second book,
has been the subject of countless biographies and essays in which admiration and praise were justly lavished on the greatest painter of any age….Yet the outcome has not been commensurate with the labor extended; and we are still without a life of Raphael which deals exhaustively with his relation to the art and artists of his own and previous centuries.
The fifth centenary has produced no successor to these books. If a student nowadays wishes to see Raphael’s work in its historical context, it is to Müntz or Crowe and Cavalcaselle that he must return.
The centenary of Raphael is the centenary of a cipher. Today we know no more about him as a human being than was known a hundred years ago. When we look at works by Michelangelo, we can visualize the person by whom, and the pressures under which, they were produced. They are the products of a real not an artistic personality. With Raphael this is not the case. Even Vasari, writing a mere thirty years after his death, saw him through a scrim of mystery. Suckled by his mother, not by a nurse, in order that he might “see the ways of his equals in his tender years,” Raphael was socially adroit and “as excellent as gracious, and endowed with a natural modesty and goodness sometimes seen in those who possess to an unusual degree a humane and gentle nature adorned with affability and good-fellowship, and he always showed himself sweet and pleasant with persons of every degree and in all circumstances.” Even the members of his studio (and they were a temperamental lot) “lived united and in harmony, all their evil humours disappearing when they saw him, and every vile and base thought deserting their minds.”
The trouble with this account is that it is incredible. The High Renaissance preeminently was a period of private enterprise in which success was unattainable without a strong ambition to excel, and an ambition to excel is not normally found in beatific characters. Raphael incurred the hatred of Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo, and younger painters were threatened with assassination if they criticized his work. This resentment was in part directed at the kind of artist Raphael was. Lacking the blazing originality of Michelangelo, his art was delicately balanced upon compromise, and great as it was, it rested, as was recognized in later art schools, on an assimilative process that, to a mind like Michelangelo’s, was indistinguishable from eclecticism. One of its strengths lay in the area of invenzione, the capacity to translate the written or spoken word with all of its unstated implications into a visual image of consummate clarity. The process was not mechanical—in the form in which it was employed by Raphael it resulted from a deeply serious, though often (to judge from his preliminary drawings) rapid, act—but by hostile critics it could be so construed, and it was so construed by the disciples of Michelangelo.
In a physical sense we know Raphael’s work better than our predecessors did a century ago. The frescoes in the Vatican have been responsibly restored, and so have the altarpieces in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, one of which, the great Transfiguration before whose reputation scholars used to quail, became, a couple of years ago, the subject of an excellent monograph by Fabrizio Mancinelli. Over the last ten years some exemplary work has been done in the Louvre, whose holdings of Raphael have been studied in depth. In New York the portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, one of the treasures of the Bache collection, has been cleaned with disappointing consequences, while in the Colonna altarpiece some marbling added to the Virgin’s throne, by nuns in the convent of Sant’Antonio in Perugia presumably, and other overpainting have been removed, and we now know that Raphael played a much larger part in the painting of the lunette than was supposed. Throughout the world the imminence of the centenary has caused a flurry in restorers’ workshops. The Francesco Maria della Rovere from the Uffizi and the Donna Gravida have been cleaned, and very beautiful they look, the superb underdrawing of the youthful Self-Portrait in Florence has been photographed, and the two Doni portraits in the Pitti are being spruced up too.
One of the projects entertained by that patron saint of Raphael studies, the prince consort, was the holding of a comprehensive Raphael exhibition. What would have been feasible in 1883 is not feasible today, since Raphael’s paintings are in great part on panel, and the tide is firmly set against the loan, indeed the movement, of panel paintings. As a result the centenary is commemorated—with the exception of a major exhibition in Paris and a superb and admirably cataloged exhibition at the British Museum in which the whole of the vast holdings of the Royal Library, the Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum itself, and a host of other English public and private collections are shown for the first time as a unity—by a quantity of small, pedestrian exhibitions. One of them, at Urbino, contains not one universally accepted work by Raphael. Another, at the National Gallery of Art, was rich in Raphaels but was organized around a topic of marginal interest, Raphael’s reputation in the United States. Yet a third, in Rome at the Palazzo Barberini, is devoted to a single work, the portrait of a lady naked to the waist against a background of foliage, which has been thought to represent the painter’s mistress, the Fornarina. The picture was better known and more highly esteemed in the late eighteenth century than it is today; Gavin Hamilton reproduced it in 1773 from a print with the caption Raphaelis Amasia vulgo La Fornarina, and in 1833 Alfred de Vigny planned a poem describing Raphael’s death in this lady’s leathery arms.
The exhibition has the merit of singlemindedness—it contains practically nothing save the painting and a number of engravings and X-ray photographs—and of an exhaustive catalog. The only thing that it does not clear up is what the painting means. Does the presence of Raphael’s name on the sitter’s armband mean that he was proud to have painted the picture? Or does it signify, as the authors of the newest mini-monograph on Raphael insist, that she was the painter’s property?
The heroes in almost all these exhibitions are conservators, and our gratitude is to them and not to art historians if the frontiers of falsehood are occasionally pushed back. The most novel of the recent books on Raphael’s paintings is the work of a restorer, Hubertus von Sonnenburg, and it deals, in detail and with great intelligence, with three famous paintings by Raphael at Munich. One of them, the Canigiani Madonna, the most elaborate of Raphael’s pyramidal figure groups, has always made an odd effect both in reproduction and in the original since its upper corners were originally filled with luminous groups of angels that an unnamed gallery inspector at Düsseldorf in 1775 covered with sky. These have at long last been recovered, as has the underdrawing, photographed by infrared photography. Not only does Sonnenburg provide one of the best single accounts of the genesis of a painting by Raphael, but he pursues the image through the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, when it was adapted by Overbeck and reproduced by the notinsensitive porcelain painter Christian Adler. The sublime Tempi Madonna has likewise been cleaned and is also discussed, and so is the Madonna della Tenda, a counterpart of the Madonna della Seggiola in Florence, painted (as Sonnenburg rightly points out) under the strong influence of Lotto and Sebastiano del Piombo. Much traveled, like so many Raphaels, it was installed in the Escorial by Philip II, was moved to England after the Napoleonic wars, and was eventually bought by Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria.
As long ago as the middle of the nineteenth century an amateur enthusiast, the prince consort, recognized that the key to Raphael’s work lay in his drawings, but not until the end of the century, in 1898, did a little book about the drawings first appear. It was in effect a preface to the great corpus by Fischel of Raphaels Zeichnungen, of which the first volume was issued shortly before World War I, and the last was published after World War II had begun. Fischel’s strength was the sensibility he showed in analyzing individual sheets, but his attitude to Raphael’s work, even by the standards prevalent at the time, was sentimental and old-fashioned—as an undergraduate at Oxford I once heard him lecture; there were ten auditors and three of them failed to stay the course—and when his long-awaited monograph on Raphael finally appeared in 1948, it did a positive disservice to Raphael studies. Raphaels Zeichnungen is an unwieldy book, and many students must have longed for a one-volume publication in which all of Raphael’s drawings were reproduced. This need is met by Paul Joannides’s The Drawings of Raphael.
The study of Old Master drawings is a means to an end. Enthralling as the individual sheets may be, their importance resides in what they tell us about the creative procedure of an artist. This is the principle behind Berenson’s Drawings of the Florentine Painters, and for that matter of that behind Fischel’s Raphael volumes as well. In recent years, however, the study of drawings has become an ever more sophisticated study, pursued in the main in museum print rooms and weighed down by extensive bibliographies. The first merit of Joannides’s book is that it breaks with this academic tradition. It contains a concordance in which the opinions of selected earlier scholars can be verified, but in the entries there is not a single reference to the views they have expressed. This blessed innovation is not the only aspect of the book for which we should be grateful. Joannides has looked, really looked, at all the drawings in an attempt to unravel the creative processes that they reveal. To take one instance only, there are four surviving double-sided and one single-sided sheets of studies for the Madonna im Grünen in Vienna, and here we can follow Raphael’s thinking from the moment when he folded the first sheet and began drawing on the upper half of it, to the point at which, in a wash drawing now at Oxford, he “defines the basic volumes of the group and their behaviour under the fall of light” in what (this is, I think, an original observation) “may have been made as a study for the underpainting.”
The book is organized with great lucidity; it consists of a first-rate introduction, dealing, chronologically, with the techniques that Raphael used, forty-eight full-scale plates with a full page of commentary, and a catalog of 115 pages with small reproductions and shorter notes arranged by completed works, or if the work cannot be identified, by date. Joannides has, moreover, recognized that the impalpable subtlety of Raphael’s drawings can be transmitted only in language that is itself subtle and articulate. Witness his account of the famous black chalk drawing at Oxford for the heads and hands of Saints Peter and John in the Transfiguration:
Even in this sublime drawing the purist could point to weaknesses—the thick lines which do not fully define the position of St. John’s hands, for example, or the slightly awkward contour of his nose, and it is significant that these can be found, for they emphasize the fact that almost nothing can escape a hypercritical examination of detail. But it would be tragic blindness to overlook the visionary beauty of this sheet…. This drawing, as much as anything Raphael ever produced, is not only evidence of his supreme command of his art; it also reveals a depth of spirit and a sublimity of soul equal to anything in western painting. Whether or not it is true, the legend that Raphael’s body was laid in state beneath the Transfiguration has a poetic rightness, for the painting, and drawings for it like this, have the quality of a testament.
This book is, in the full sense, worthy of the artist with whom it deals.
Raphael’s drawings explain the genesis of individual works, but not the totality of his achievement. How was it that in a working life of less than twenty years he transformed the art of painting? How was it that he created so vast a number of memorable images? How was it that in his Roman frescoes he generated concepts that remained an active force in European painting for three, even for four centuries? Vasari, in his first paragraph, pays a conventional tribute to Raphael’s official persona—“in Raphael,” he tells us, “the rarest gifts were combined with such grace, diligence, beauty, modesty and good character that they would have sufficed to cover the ugliest vice and the worst blemishes.” But his account of Raphael is by and large an unattractive one. To him we are indebted for our knowledge of Raphael the sensualist (“Raphael was very amorous and fond of women, and was always swift to serve them. Possibly his friends showed him too much complaisance in the matter”); Raphael the plagiarist (“Raphael borrowed from him [Fra Bartolomeo] what he thought would be of service, namely a medium style in design and colouring, combining it with particulars selected from the best things of other masters”); Raphael the careerist, who kept on deferring his marriage in the hope of being made cardinal; and Raphael the entrepreneur, who “never went to court without having fifty painters at his heels, all good and skillful, who accompanied him to do him honour” and who “kept draughtsmen in all Italy, at Pozzuolo and as far as Greece, to procure everything of value to assist his art.” The only extended writings of Raphael that we know, reports to Pope Leo X on the antiquities of Rome and on the plans for the Villa Madama, read like the work of a clear-headed civil servant. Yet the fact remains that he was one of the most serious, communicative, and emotional artists who ever lived.
Konrad Oberhuber, to whom students of Raphael owe an immeasurable debt, takes an anti-Vasarian view in Raffaello, published in Italian. Raphael was born on Good Friday, 1483, and allegedly died on Good Friday, 1520; and Pico della Mirandola, writing to Isabella d’Este, describes how on his death, as at the death of Christ, a minor earthquake occurred, which caused Leo X to flee from his rooms in the fear that the Vatican palace would collapse. A distich written at the time describes Christ as the God of nature and Raphael as the god of art, and Lomazzo likewise compares his features with those of Christ.
Oberhuber’s opening section, “Raffaello santo e pittore,” is faithful to this mystical view of Raphael as an artist who not only invested Christian art with new and profound humanity, but in whom “l’amore, al di là della carità cristiana, si estendeva anche al regno dei sensi” (“love extended beyond the bounds of Christian charity to the realm of the senses”). Oberhuber’s belief in artistic production as a miracle and in the artist as a God-created wonderworker is compounded by a strain of anthroposophy postulating the existence of seven-year productive rhythms and of a broader pattern of the moon cycle of eighteen years, seven months, and four days—a pattern that supposedly explains the deaths of Raphael, Watteau, Mozart, Byron, and Van Gogh at the termination of the second cycle at the age of thirty-seven.
These convictions might have given rise to an irrational book. That they have not done so is itself something of a miracle; it is attributable to the depth of Oberhuber’s knowledge of Raphael’s work. One of the differences between the attitude adopted toward Raphael on his fourth centenary and that adopted on his fifth lies in the way in which we look at works of art. People who sit for hours before a television set find it difficult to engage themselves with books, and in the same way people who are used to daydreaming before Monet waterlilies demur at reading paintings. One of Oberhuber’s signal merits is his sensibility to content, not simply to the differing character of the early Madonnas in Berlin, but to the small companion panels of St. Michael and St. George in Paris, some of the most fascinating juvenilia in the history of art. He argues, convincingly, that the panels are not, as is generally supposed, contemporary, but that the St. Michael was painted at Urbino probably in 1504, and that its pair, the St. George, was painted at the end of 1505, since the horse reveals the influence of Leonardo and the fleeing princess that of Fra Bartolomeo. This is no less evident in his account of the Brera Sposalizio with its temple at the back where “la magica inquadratura della porta conduce lo sguardo attraverso l’edificio e fuori nell’infinita immensità del cielo, come un occhio incantato” (“the magical projection of the open doorway leads us, like an enchanted eye, through the building and beyond it to the infinite immensity of the sky”). With the Stanze in the Vatican he preserves a near perfect balance between formal and literary analysis. One of the most puzzling of the frescoes is the Meeting of Attila and Pope Leo the Great in the Stanza of Heliodorus, which was planned in 1511, modified in 1512, and developed in its final form early in 1513. Oberhuber gives an exemplary account of its inconsistent figure style, and interprets its landscape, a tranquil view of Rome on the left surmounted by the flying figures of Saints Peter and Paul, and a romantic Giorgionesque scene with burning houses on the right, as a reflection of the foreground of the painting.
Throughout Oberhuber’s book the influence of German romantic criticism is extremely marked. How much greater an artist Perugino would seem if we could with Novalis see the faces of his saints as infused with nostalgia for the homecoming of death. Novalis’s inquiry whether Raphael was a painter of the soul is indeed answered in this book, in a beautiful passage in which the ethereal figure of the gold-clad lady on the left of the Mass of Bolsena is interpreted, in contradistinction to the portraits opposite, as a symbol of participation in the miracle. The book, as it deserves, is conspicuously well illustrated, but when it is translated into English, as it should be, an effort must be made to ensure closer correlation between the illustrations and the text.
A number of the transparencies used for color plates in Oberhuber’s book also occur in Jones and Penny’s Raphael. But here the resemblance ends. Even as popular art history concocted for a centenary, theirs is a callow, unserious piece of work. Its frontispiece is a detail of the left breast of the Fornarina—that, we can imagine Jones sniggering to Penny or Penny to Jones, will wake them up—and as we turn the page we find a reproduction of the battered little Romagnole Portrait of a Girl which acquired some notoriety when it was bought by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as Raphael some years ago. “An attractive portrait of a girl…also perhaps by Raphael,” Jones and Penny call it, but they may not have seen it in the original. A paragraph later we come on “St. Michael pirouetting on top of a squashed demon”—the little painting in the Louvre of which Oberhuber gives so distinguished an account—and the first chapter ends with an ill-considered paragraph on Raphael’s contribution to the frescoes by Pinturricchio in the Piccolomini Library in Siena, whose “noisy vulgarity…would not, if Raphael ever saw it, have impressed him.” Were I confronted by a student with the early chapters of this book as a qualifying paper, I should advise him to give up art history. Both Jones and Penny were, however, by their own admission trained at the Courtauld Institute at a time when Raphael was well taught there, and something of this experience rubs off in the later Roman chapters and in a competent essay on Raphael as an architect, which makes popular use of information hitherto confined to learned periodicals.
December 22, 1983