Curators at London’s National Gallery have wondered for several years how Raphael will play to the troubled, hurried world of the early twenty-first century. No artist has ever worked harder to disguise his labors: his elder contemporary Michelangelo sweated and hewed his way to glory, an ugly Titan whose only effortless-seeming work, the Pietà, grapples on the plane of ideas with the fathomless tragedy of a mother mourning her dead child. Leonardo struggles to snare life itself in a fury of drawing; many of his paintings were—and are—magnificent technical failures. Titian revels in his paints with voluptuous pleasure. But Raphael’s paintings sometimes look as if no one painted them at all. Like those Greek icons described as acheiropoiêtoi, “not made by hand,” they seem to have sprung into being of their own volition, or by divine decree. There has never been so fine a fresco painter, a seeming magician who can force chalky plaster to shimmer like velvet pile, quicken like flesh, or tingle on a sea breeze. Raphael was to painting what Mozart was to music, and like Mozart he died before he had turned thirty-eight. Unlike Mozart, however, Raphael died rich and well loved, the manager of a large, diversified workshop that applied precocious ideas of global marketing to what had hitherto been a jealously guarded craft.
The National Gallery’s exhibit of panel paintings and drawings concentrates on the first stages of Raphael’s career, to reveal, from many different directions, just how hard this smoothest of artists worked to achieve his famous facility. He began, like Mozart, at an impossibly early age. The London show opens by making a persuasive argument, through pictures, for the importance of the painter’s father to his meteoric rise. Giovanni Santi, however, was no Leopold Mozart, no domineering impresario. He worked as a painter for the court of Urbino, a small but influential duchy on the east coast of Italy, whose reigning lord, Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, served as a mercenary captain for more powerful Italian states (one of the family symbols was a fire-pot, the fifteenth-century equivalent of a hand grenade). Giorgio Vasari had little to say for Giovanni Santi as a painter, but he awarded Giovanni and his wife Magia di Battista Ciarla high praise as parents, for rather than sending baby Raphael out to a wet nurse in the countryside, they kept him at home, and that initial diet of mother’s milk, Vasari contends, lay at the heart of the painter’s sweet style. The London show invites us to associate the Virgin Mary in Giovanni Santi’s Madonna and Child, a panel of the early 1480s, with Magia Ciarla and their son—and indeed, what models could Santi possibly have preferred to the pair he had at home? Furthermore, the long, sleepy baby bears a tantalizing resemblance to the charcoal self-portrait of a solemn youth that opens the show. He is an attractive if unremarkable-looking young man, unremarkable, that is, except for his searching eyes. Unlike his portraits of others, Raphael’s self-portraits, at every stage of his life, never give anything away except his ravenous gaze.
Giovanni Santi was not a great painter, but he was certainly competent. On the whole, he leaves the impression that his hand could never quite keep up with his evident intelligence (Vasari explicitly calls attention to Santi’s refined intellect). He favored the sculptural figures and exotic colors of the elegant Tuscan painter Luca Signorelli, filling his panels with forest greens and sea greens, salmon pinks, wine reds, lemon yellows, turquoise, all applied with the meticulous accuracy of the Flemish and Burgundian painters who were so admired in Urbino and elsewhere in Italy. Inspired by the Northerners’ technical virtuosity, Santi makes the jacquard fabric that hangs behind the Madonna’s head seem to protrude its starchy folds and intricate brocades into real space, although curator Carol Plazzotta notes that Santi is more interested in the concept of verisimilitude than in its precise execution: the folds are all of different sizes.
Giovanni Santi also wrote poetry; his verse biography in vernacular terza rima of Federico da Montefeltro, the first Duke of Urbino and father of Giovanni Santi’s own patron, is still preserved in the Vatican Library, a substantial volume of well-wrought verse whose worn condition attests to generations of readers. The painter’s sizable, comfortable house still stands in Urbino, a civic landmark as dearly beloved by the Urbinati as Duke Federico da Montefeltro’s sprawling, refined palazzo. The little family’s idyll would not last long. Magia Ciarla died in 1491, when her son was eight years old; Giovanni Santi followed his wife three years later. At eleven, the orphaned Raphael was taken in by his great-uncle, a priest, and seems to have worked alongside the elder members of Giovanni Santi’s workshop, Bartolomeo di Maestro Gentile and Evangelista di Pian di Meleto, and probably also with the better-known painter Timoteo Viti, who returned to Urbino in 1495, the year after Giovanni Santi’s death. By the end of 1500, at the age of seventeen, Raphael had become master of his father’s workshop in his own right.
One of Raphael’s first independent commissions, an altarpiece in the nearby town of Tolentino, now broken up into pieces, once portrayed the Coronation of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino. Enough of the whole survives to show the hallmarks of Giovanni Santi’s influence on his son’s painting: details like the rainbow burst behind God as the heavens gape open to admit the holy epiphany, the sculptural solidity of the figures, the slight harshness of the flesh that comes from the contrast between stony lead whites and shocking pinks (the effect works better for conveying God’s majesty than for lending any kind of tenderness to the faces of the Virgin or the cherubim). The altarpiece shows something else as well: a fluidity to the lines, a shapeliness to the faces, a convincing depth to what is left of the pictured space, that Giovanni Santi could never have achieved himself. God’s hands and face seem to glow with the warmth of real flesh. These fragments of painting, like the little charcoal portrait of a boy not much younger than the painter of the Tolentino altarpiece, point already to an extraordinary talent.
That talent drew Raphael from Urbino to other cities of central Italy: first Città di Castello, where Luca Signorelli had been the dominant painter until Raphael arrived, and then Perugia, where eyes trained on the acerbic, linear Florentine style of Botticelli and Pollaiuolo and the monumental dignity of Piero della Francesca were newly enchanted by the soft modeling and pure primary colors of a native son, Pietro Vannucci, known to his contemporaries as “Perugino,” just as Raphael would eventually become “l’Urbinate.”
For the first time, around the turn of the sixteenth century, we can watch what happened when Raphael encountered a new artist’s work: he made a rapid study, and then just as quickly devoured it. The exotic colors he had learned from his father and Luca Signorelli give way to Perugino’s primary colors, his marmoreal flesh tones to Perugino’s smooth, flushed skin, its textures built up in translucent greenish glazes rather than Giovanni Santi’s opaque lead whites. As the London curator Tom Henry notes, Raphael also adopted Perugino’s clever trick of aiming a cluster of eyelashes straight from the iris of his figures’ eyes along their line of sight, giving their glances both physical direction and expressive purpose. At the same time, the younger artist’s departures from Perugino are just as evident; for if Perugino was an impeccable technician, Raphael was incomparable. Perugino’s Madonna of Humility may be a more polished, graceful production than Raphael’s nearly contemporary Crucifixion, but Raphael’s figures, still slightly awkward, lumber toward the imposing physical presence that Giotto first brought to Italian art in the late thirteenth century; the flying angels who collect the Lord’s blood in their chalices look back explicitly to this most stately of painters, and we realize that while Perugino may have been the artist of the hour, Raphael was already thinking about how to paint for all eternity. If we are to believe Vasari, Perugino often worked from dummies, and it shows in figures like the baby Jesus in his Madonna of Humility, a doll’s torso perched on real baby legs. Perugino also painted from real models, as we see from a fine preparatory drawing for his panel from the same triptych of Tobias and the angel. Still, when Raphael drew from life, he grasped as eagerly as Leonardo after its lingering traces to capture them in line, volume, and color.
Perugia’s other native painter, Bernardino di Betto, nicknamed “Pinturicchio” (“the little painter”), enjoyed a fame nearly equal to that of Perugino at the turn of the sixteenth century; in 1501, the richest man in Italy, the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, declared that “there are no other masters in Italy who are worth anything.” If Perugino was the more refined technician of the two, Pinturicchio was by far the more daring, a devoted pursuer of ancient Roman art who numbered among the first adventurers to explore the buried ruins of Nero’s Golden House in Rome. There he scrawled his name on one of its painted vaults as he sketched its vibrant ancient paintings by candlelight; the graffito still survives. Inspired by the art of Imperial Rome, Pinturicchio began to design his frescoes on a grandly architectural scale, for the grandest of patrons, Pope Alexander VI Borgia, and then, in 1502, for a Sienese cardinal, Francesco Piccolomini, who commissioned a frescoed life of his uncle, Pope Pius II, for the walls of a library inserted into a side chapel of Siena cathedral. Here, remarkably, Pinturicchio, the great innovator, began to rely on Raphael for his preparatory drawings in flagrant breach of his contract, which specified that Pinturicchio himself would create all the designs. Yet if the elder artist, literally immersed in Roman ruins for decades, had acquired an ancient Roman’s sense of architectural space, Raphael seems to have acquired that same feel for monumental grandeur from no more than Pinturicchio’s example.
Sometimes it is Raphael’s early efforts, by their very lack of success, that most clearly reveal the extent of his ambition, and they reveal it as pure hunger. A series of predellas, the little devotional panels that surrounded Italian altarpieces, show how doggedly Raphael strove to give his figures weight and volume even on a minute scale, to place them in plausible spaces so that worshipers in candlelit chapels would seem to see the holy events really played out in front of them. In these small, secondary paintings he experiments with the massing of figures in a crowd, and with challenging poses. An Agony in the Garden folds Christ’s disciples into complicated, difficult crouches. Fifteen years later, Raphael would portray these same disciples in a painted vortex that forms—an image of pure wind—the center of his phenomenal Transfiguration, spinning each of them off on his own headlong spiral trajectory, every twist and turn of a body in space now totally under control. In a little Pietà, Saint Nicodemus leans oddly over the dead Christ in an attitude somewhere between standing and kneeling (in fact he is standing behind an improbable knoll). Two thousand years before Raphael, the sculptor who carved the pediment for the great temple of Zeus at Olympia created a similar visual anomaly by concentrating so hard on conveying the substance of bodies behind drapery that even a freely hanging fold seems to have a solid leg behind it. And as at Olympia, these figures make so insistent, so weighty a claim on our attention that their occasional clumsiness hardly matters. The artist is learning before our eyes how bodies twist and turn, lengthen and foreshorten, spin in space or create the effect of architecture by nothing more than the way they stand next to one another.
Some of Raphael’s earliest paintings are already tiny gems. The allegorical Dream of a Knight (really a Dream of Scipio) is the size of a cocktail napkin (see page 16). Scarcely larger are the two soldier saints, George and Michael, one charging across the ancient Tuscan lakebed of the Valdichiana, the other striding an infernal plain peopled with wild-eyed monsters and spectral sinners. Saint George, especially, shows how closely Raphael has looked at Leonardo, from the little painting’s powerful preparatory drawing to the panel itself, where the saint’s feathered helmet seems to be drawn directly from Leonardo’s studies of armor, and the landscape takes not only its shape from Leonardo’s views of the Arno valley but also its sense of drama. A shared chivalry links these three otherwise incongruous heroes: a saint, an archangel, and an ancient Roman general all portrayed as noble knights. Raphael’s own discipline in these years must have been equal to that of his sturdy young warriors, each one an exquisite little inspiration to virtue, painted at the very moment when Cesare Borgia was beginning his campaign to conquer a central Italian fiefdom in the company of Machiavelli, and not far from where Raphael was working; Tom Henry argues in his entry on the Saint Michael that by locating the saint’s battle with Satan in the eighth circle of Hell, among the hypocrites, Raphael is alluding to Borgia outright.
In Città di Castello, Raphael soon outdid Luca Signorelli in popularity; in Perugia, he began to receive the commissions that used to go to Perugino. It was inevitable that he make his way to Florence, to measure himself against the city’s giants, Leonardo and Michelangelo. One spectacular room in the London show assembles all three together: Leonardo’s magnificent drawing of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, a good copy of Michelangelo’s Bathers from his unfinished Battle of Cascina, and Raphael’s drawings of Michelangelo’s David and Leonardo’s Leda and the Swan. Leonardo works in a frenzy of lines, each as irregular as reality itself; one of his drawings of a Madonna, child, and cat puts two restlessly squirming creatures into the patient arms of a sharp-eyed mother; the drawing shoots off lines as energetically as the baby and cat change their positions and the vigilant Madonna scoops them up again. Michelangelo portrays each rippling muscle of his human subjects with the same kind of specificity as Leonardo, concentrating on asymmetries, bulges, contractions.
Raphael, by a radically different procedure, eventually resolves every natural shape into ovals; for all their solidity, his figures are also powerfully abstract. His quick, simple drawing of a Madonna and Child looks all the more starkly minimal when displayed next to the complex layers of Leonardo’s drawing of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. Raphael’s study of Leonardo’s Leda and the Swan focuses almost exclusively on Leda’s exaggerated contrapposto pose, recasting it as a succession of rounded forms, and yet at the same time he gives Leda herself an unmistakable personality. Neither she nor the sardonic baby at her feet seems inclined to believe for a moment that she has just hatched him from an egg; instead, she launches the large bird that is the infant’s putative father a look of pure skepticism.
Raphael’s babies often have a definite life of their own; off to the side of the 1505 predella that shows John the Baptist Preaching, two rambunctious infants wrestle with each other, presaging the two watchful little angels who scan the levitating grownups in the Sistine Madonna with inscrutable eyes. Few Madonnas have had to contend with such active infants as Ra-phael’s, not only the swan-diving Christ child who squirms his way free of the Bridgewater Madonna, but also the chubby-thighed charmer who melts into his mother’s arms and rounds out the flawless curves that make up the Madonna of the Chair (painted around 1514, it was not included in the show).
With his Entombment of 1507, Raphael begins to react to another encounter, this time with ancient art. He still uses Perugino’s colors, but his figures have now been shaped by Mi-chelangelo, as with the muscular youth who strides across the foreground, and the statuesque Madonna who faints from grief but not from weakness. But Christ’s pose, a limp arm dragging alongside his winding sheet, is drawn from a famous ancient Roman sarcophagus, whose sculpted marble side shows, in relief, the death of the hero Meleager. Raphael’s contemporaries noted how cleverly the ancient sculptor contrasted the stiffness of Meleager’s body, gradually freezing into rigor mortis, with the limp grace of his trailing arm, still warm and pliable. If only we still had their eyes to see that ancient coffin—modern scholars write it off as a mediocre Imperial Roman factory product. The real Entombment, on wooden panels, is too delicate to travel from its home in Rome’s Borghese Gallery; the National Gallery displays a fascinating substitute, a copy by the later sixteenth-century master known as the Cavaliere d’Arpino.
The last two rooms of the London show are devoted to Raphael’s first years in Rome, where he once again drew on Giotto, Luca Signorelli, Perugino, Michelangelo, the ancients, and, above all, encountered that human tornado, Pope Julius II, elected in December of 1503. By 1508, Raphael took part in an ambitious campaign to decorate the Pope’s apartments in the Vatican Palace. Julius, an inveterate rival of the late Alexander VI, resisted living among Pinturicchio’s lavish frescoes of life under the Borgias. Raphael was assigned the room that held the Pope’s private library of three hundred volumes; at precisely the same moment, Julius was also forcing the sculptor Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, deaf to his protests of incompetence.
A picture book describes this moment in Rome’s history as A Season of Giants, and none of these giants was greater than Julius himself. Raphael’s portrait of the fearsome Pope is one of the National Gallery’s greatest treasures, and it anchors the last room of the present show, flanked by a life-size red chalk drawing of the pontiff’s head. The painting’s background is now a sea of pentimenti; Julius once sat in front of a blue-and-yellow curtain woven in a pattern of papal keys and his family crest, a stylized oak tree. It was too busy and Raphael canceled it in a grass-green drapery that turned the painting into the triad of colors: red, white, and green, the colors of faith, hope, and charity and, eventually, the Italian flag. Bits of blue still show along the Pope’s left sleeve; yellow pokes through the green on the tips of crossed keys, but Raphael’s instinct was right. Julius needs no embellishment. He is sufficient unto himself.
Most portraits of the man show him with averted eyes: Botticelli, on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, places the fortyish Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere in the foreground of his Temptation of Christ, where the powerful prelate, a papal nephew, seems to be off in a world of his own, thinking things over. In Raphael’s portrait, painted thirty years later, Cardinal Giuliano, now Pope Julius, inclines his head at the same angle, looking away with the same concentration on something far beyond the picture. His body, wracked by gout and syphilis, is still a coiled spring of energy; he can hardly keep still on his massive throne. His mouth is set in a grim horizontal line; as his beard proclaims, it is 1511, and Julius is set on expelling France from Italian soil. He had no rational reason to believe that his mercenary troops could match the French armies that occupied Genoa and Milan, but then he had no rational reason to believe that Michelangelo could paint a barn like the Sistine Chapel, or that dilapidated Rome could be transformed into a glittering European capital. He simply made all three miracles happen; if anyone could bend reason itself to his stubborn will, it was Julius II.
Raphael warmed to the fierce old Pope and his ideas as no other artist. We can see from his preparatory drawings for the Stanze Vaticane how his own horizons burst outward in response to the pontiff’s epic thinking—just as Michelangelo was transforming the design of the Sistine Chapel ceiling from a series of apostles to a gigantic tale of the papacy told from the beginning of the universe to the time of Christ. Both artists rethink their enterprise from its roots. Both of them eventually painted the Church as an architecture of spirit, as Saint Paul described it in his Letter to the Ephesians, but to paint an institution as spiritual architecture means transforming a whole set of abstractions: Church, spirit, architecture become concrete figures that can be arranged to convey a complex message. The Sistine ceiling sets Hebrew prophets and pagan sibyls within a titanic painted vault, where God spins off planets on one side and Noah emerges from the Ark on the other end. Raphael’s Triumph of Theology for the Stanze Vaticane (a fresco traditionally known as the Disputa although its dispute is already resolved) ranges Hebrew prophets and Christian saints on a bench of celestial cloud around an epiphany of the Holy Trinity. They look like an ethereal version of the Augustinian friars who sat in carved choir stalls behind the altar of Santa Maria del Popolo, the Roman church where Raphael’s portrait of Julius II was displayed in state. (In 1511, one of these friars was a German visitor named Martin Luther.)
Like Raphael’s portraits of himself, his portrait of Pope Julius conceals as much as it makes plain. Raphael’s self-images are almost entirely taken up with the intensity of his own looking, not looking at himself but looking as an inveterate habit; his Julius, on the other hand, averts the blazing eyes that struck such terror into the Pope’s contemporaries. With the great portrait known as the Donna Velata, the Veiled Lady, Raphael achieves something altogether different: pure sensuality (see page 18). Layer upon layer of translucent glaze give the skin of the dark-haired sitter a luminous glow; a stray strand of curly hair begs for a touch to smooth it back into place. The lady rests her hand on her breast, a fingernail strokes the corner of her bodice, and then, in the midst of so much brushwork that is so fine as to be invisible, Raphael attacks her sleeve as pure paint. The Donna Velata aims straight for the senses of touch and smell, those physical basics that paint cannot possibly satisfy in any real way, and so the Donna Velata leaves us with a yearning as palpable as Raphael’s evident desire for her. We can no more touch her or breathe in her scent than we can look into the eyes and mind of Julius, the papa terribile.
The fact that Raphael makes us want to do these things so desperately gives us the measure of his genius. To stand in a room between these two paintings—really these two people, each one a polestar of Raphael’s life in Rome, is to break down every distance that separates our era from theirs. It is no wonder that the curators of the show, when they unpacked the Donna Velata from her wrappings and hung her across from their old friend Pope Julius, gave in to a few minutes of uncontrollable emotion. Isn’t this the greatest pleasure that art can give us, a sudden immersion in our own humanity?
By showing the young, struggling Raphael, the National Gallery eases viewers conditioned by the modernist ethos (“function,” “honesty,” “issues”) into his radically different sensibility, a sensibility that hides not only the physical toil of painting, but also the social maneuverings by which this personable young man set up a stable of creators, a circle of patrons, a whole aesthetic climate in which he presided almost invisibly, letting volatile, cane-waving Julius II dominate the scene, or histrionic Tommaso Inghirami, the Pope’s librarian, or Agostino Chigi, the J.P. Morgan of the early sixteenth century, the plain-spoken, ruthless Sienese banker who was also a genuine friend both to the Pope and to their favorite artist.
In his last ten years, Raphael became more and more involved with pure design than with painting, creating the plans for frescoes, plates, prints, panels, and buildings that the members of his workshop would execute. The London show stops with works in which the touch of the master’s own hand is still dominant, the touch that none of his pupils, associates, or imitators could ever match. The irony of Raphael’s maturity is that less-skilled craftsmen were usually the ones to implement his increasingly bold ideas, ideas that had irrevocably altered the course of Italian art when Pinturicchio and Perugino were still working on as if nothing had changed. As the London curators wisely realize, the mature Raphael requires another story than the one they tell here.
The exhibition’s catalog, richly illustrated with paintings from every period of Raphael’s life, strikes a judicious balance between technical expertise—history, attribution, scholarship—and a wider public’s interest in how pictures are made, how highly organized workshops such as Raphael’s were set up, what people have seen in Raphael in earlier eras, what they themselves should be seeking out, and seeing, in the works on display. Raphael is a quiet Titan, but he is as great as any of the giants who walked the earth in those days when every Italian seemed to be born with paintbrush, pen, or sculptor’s chisel in hand. The National Gallery has presented him with consummate taste, and, crucially important for this achiever who was also a beloved friend to people from every stratum of his stratified society, evident affection.
December 16, 2004