The Virtuoso

Raffaello 1520–1483

an exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, June 2–August 30, 2020
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Marzia Faietti and Matteo Lafranconi, with Francesco P. Di Teodoro and Vincenzo Farinella
Skira, 543 pp., €46.00 (paper) (in Italian; an English translation will be published in October 2020)
An Allegory (The Vision of a Knight); painting by Raphael
National Gallery, London
Raphael: An Allegory (The Vision of a Knight), circa 1504

Like the artist himself, the long-anticipated Raphael exhibition that opened in Rome on March 5, 2020, was struck down by infectious disease. Raphael succumbed to a sudden fever on April 6, 1520, his thirty-seventh birthday. The exhibition that marked the five hundredth anniversary of his death lasted only four days. On March 9, the Italian government issued a decree prohibiting “every form of gathering in public places” to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and every public institution in Italy shut its doors. Raphael’s birthday came and went with his legacy under lockdown.

Thanks to those strict provisions, however, Italy emerged from the Covid-19 crisis fairly quickly, which has enabled “Raffaello 1520–1483” to reopen from June 2, its original closing date, until August 30. Conditions are different, of course: the virus is still among us. Visitors are now admitted to the imposing Scuderie del Quirinale, the pope’s former stables, in groups of six to eight people at five-minute intervals. After temperatures have been taken and shoes and hands decontaminated, a guard (reliably well-informed, courteous, and efficient) guides each little group through the exhibition. The tour allots five minutes to each of twelve display spaces, the whole choreography regulated by an electronic gong. With a break in the middle and a lingering stop at the exit to admire a view of Rome gleamingly unpolluted by the usual smog, the visit lasts eighty minutes. Five minutes, eighty minutes, are never enough, but still the experience feels like a miracle, because it is a miracle, really a whole set of them: a thoughtful, practical, and courageous response to the threat of lethal contagion, and then the twin miracles of Raphael and Rome, and the inseparable partnership forged between a gifted young painter and a city of infinite resilience.

Raphael’s career is inconceivable without Rome, and Rome, ever since his arrival in 1508, has been inconceivable without Raphael. No less than Michelangelo but much more subtly, he brought on revolutions in art and architecture, and in thought itself. His virtuosity as a painter—his natural facility was on a par with Mozart’s in music and Michelangelo’s in stone—can distract our attention from that ferociously analytical mind and its relentless urge to subvert every kind of convention. An early painting (circa 1507–1508; not in the exhibition), nicknamed La Muta, seems to show an austerely attractive young noblewoman sitting placidly for her portrait, but all the while she is poking her index finger against the edge of the picture, literally, and knowingly, pushing its envelope of illusion—hence the mischievous glint in her eye. La Muta also provides an early example of the vivid contrast between dark background and luminous skin that would one day inspire Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio to change his…

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