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 palette—in Rome—and become the Caravaggio we know best.

The vast expanses of the Scuderie del Quirinale provide a majestic venue for exhibitions. Directly across from Italy’s presidential palace (formerly the summer residence of the popes and then the home of the king), they have become a kind of national gallery for temporary shows. Because of its original purpose, however, the building also has its peculiarities: the pontifical horses lived in grand style on two levels of soaring stalls, connected by a monumental, gently sloping ramp of travertine bricks. A spiral staircase, decorated with a Doric frieze, led to the two mezzanines: one, now reserved for the coffee shop and restaurant (and closed for Covid), hosted the saddlery, while directly above it, the topmost floor, scaled to human tenants, housed supplies and grooms. Today visitors to the Scuderie sweep up the travertine horse ramp to the cavernous upper stables (the lower stables now contain offices and the bookshop), and then climb the spiral staircase to reach a sequence of low-ceilinged, intimate spaces, finally to emerge onto a glassed-in fire escape with a spectacular panorama of Rome, affording one of the city’s best views of the ruins of the second-century Temple of Serapis—in the new Covid-conditioned itinerary, the fire escape, too, is rightly allotted its five minutes of glory.

For this distinctive setting, Raphael’s artistic trajectory presented a stiff logistical challenge because it runs so precisely counter to the built-in rhythm of the Scuderie: like every Renaissance artist, he started small and only worked on an epic scale for the last twelve years of his life. The curators of “Raffaello 1520–1483,” Marzia Faietti and Matteo Lafranconi, with the help of Francesco Paolo Di Teodoro and Vincenzo Farinella, faced the problem with ingenious aplomb: they decided to reverse time’s arrow and begin with a full-scale facsimile of Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon, progressing backward in time to end with the tiny, tentative works of his youth.

The scale of the Scuderie’s first-floor interior allows for displaying an astounding array of epically oversize objects: the cartoons (paper patterns) Raphael and his assistants used for frescoing the papal apartments in the Vatican, two of the tapestries he designed to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel (one real, one a life-size high-resolution photograph of the cartoon in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), architectural models and ancient statues, and large-scale paintings, all interspersed with smaller drawings, printed books, manuscripts, engravings, painted panels, ancient artifacts, and architectural plans to provide a glimpse into Raphael’s world as well as his working methods. The upstairs galleries contain some of his best-known portraits, an impressive collection of working drawings for St. Peter’s Basilica, of which he was named chief architect in 1514, and some little-known gems like an exquisite rock crystal vessel for holy water crafted around 1517 by the goldsmith Valerio Belli, whom Raphael honored with an appropriately fine-grained miniature portrait (also on display), decades before Nicholas Hilliard made a specialty of the genre.


This reverse ordering of Raphael’s life offers its own insights. As the mature man’s skill and sophistication are gradually stripped away, we realize how remarkable his career really was, and how utterly unlikely; how many factors, how much hard work and ruthless self-criticism, combined to transform a promising young painter into an artistic entrepreneur of a kind that Italy had never seen before: painter; architect; designer of jewelry, sculpture, and graphics; pioneer of historical preservation; artistic theorist. The catalog even has a refreshingly serious look by Lucia Bertolini and Francesco Paolo Di Teodoro at Raphael’s sonnets, usually summarily dismissed as inferior to Michelangelo’s.

He shared a penchant for thinking large with contemporaries as disparate as Pope Julius II, who hired him to portray a vision of the Church triumphant through space and time on the walls of the papal apartments, as well as the pope himself, in a penetrating oil portrait that is one of the highlights of the exhibition; the banker Agostino Chigi, who hired him to decorate his opulent palace, now known as the Villa Farnesina, with a vision of commerce on an imperial scale; the architect Donato Bramante, the distant uncle who introduced him to Rome and first discerned the overarching system that governed ancient architecture; Germans like his fellow artistic impresario Albrecht Dürer, with whom he exchanged drawings; the papal banker Jakob Fugger, for whom he designed an altarpiece in Rome; and a onetime visitor to Rome, Martin Luther, who would use art and print with an acuity as sharp as Raphael’s to diffuse the vision of a Christian Church radically different from that of the papacy.

The early sixteenth century was a veritable age of entrepreneurs, every one of them giddy with the excitement of intercontinental exchange. Raphael’s frescoes for a loggia in Chigi’s new headquarters include meticulous likenesses of plants from the New World and China, as well as allusions to ancient Greco-Roman myth. The Rome that excited Raphael was not simply the Rome of classical antiquity, but also, and especially, the modern Rome that fully intended to surpass the ancients in this life as well as the next. Indeed, Rome’s identity as the Eternal City came to urgent life with Raphael’s artistic maturity under the reign of Pope Julius II (1503–1513), and it is in many ways that same vision of Rome, five hundred years young, that spreads at our feet when we emerge from the exhibition onto what must be the city’s most glorious fire escape.

A chronological exhibition might well begin with one of the final gems in “Raffaello 1520–1483”: a tiny tempera panel from London’s National Gallery often called The Vision of a Knight, but more prosaically titled An Allegory on the museum’s website. A winsome cavalier reclines on his shield, a slender laurel tree supporting his back, his shining armor—navel and all—improbably twisting with his somewhat chunky torso, as two young women, a plain brunette and a fancy blond, hold out gifts: a sword and book from the austere figure, a blossoming branch from her rival, whose other hand makes a gesture suggesting that more than flowers may be on offer. A lush central Italian landscape stretches behind the trio, extending uphill on the left, downhill to flowing waters on the right. The scene looks like a chivalric version of the ancient Greek tale of Hercules at the crossroads, in which two women presented the hero with the choice between arduous virtue and luxurious vice, and he chose the hard road to glory. As Xenophon tells that story, however, Hercules was wide awake. Hence this sleepy Lancelot also conjures up memories of another ancient hero: the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus, who toured the cosmos in a dream and learned (at least according to Cicero) that the reward of virtue is a place among the stars in heaven.


Raphael painted this panel in Florence around 1504, when he was twenty-one, and it is tempting to see the little knight as a self-portrait, a handsome youth with a head full of dreams whose body clearly declares that he wants it all, virtue and pleasure alike. In 1504, thanks to a romantic dialogue by the Venetian writer Pietro Bembo, who would one day become one of Raphael’s friends, lovelorn swains were all the fashion, and the knight’s posture seems to be making a modern argument that love and virtue need not be enemies. It is a captivating painting that provides a poignant glimpse into a young man’s aspirations as he moves among cities in central Italy: Florence, Perugia, Siena.

In this chivalric idyll, it is hard to discern the steely ambition that drove Raphael no less than Hercules and Scipio Aemilianus. But visitors who come to The Vision of a Knight in the exhibition will already have seen Raphael’s drawings and cartoons for the Hall of Constantine in the papal apartments, where ancient Roman soldiers are dressed like ancient Roman soldiers rather than Knights of the Round Table, in metal armor that behaves like metal armor. Once he reached Rome, Raphael studied ancient statues and sarcophagi and the great military friezes on the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius until he knew exactly what ancient Romans, male and female, wore, in what epochs and on what occasions. He studied the human body with the same fierce concentration; the exhibition is filled with sketches of his shop assistants, all young because he himself is so young, taking an infinite variety of poses, sometimes naked, sometimes dressed as Madonnas, Apostles, ancient gods and heroes, and, in a pinch, lovely young girls. As Raphael knew firsthand, one of the professional benefits of serving Pleasure as well as Virtue was ample access to female models, and we can see the difference between his female nudes, drawn from the women in his life, and Michelangelo’s women, with breasts like citrus fruit and the bone structure of the boys in his workshop.

A just-completed restoration of the frescoes in the Hall of Constantine has revealed, among other wonders, a marvelous range of greens that had darkened over time, and with them a knowledge of botany as specific and exacting as Raphael’s grasp of human anatomy and ancient Roman costume.* The flower that Pleasure holds out to the sleeping knight may be the branch of a blooming cherry tree, but the likeness is not exact enough to identify it beyond a doubt. The exiguous laurel tree that supports his armored back is pure fiction: in nature, Laurus nobilis grows as a bush. Fourteen years later, in 1518, when Raphael painted exotic plants for Agostino Chigi, he had his botany down as exactly as every other part of his visual world.

Similarly, the turreted structures in the background of The Vision of a Knight look vaguely like the ducal palace at Urbino, where Raphael spent his childhood (it was designed by a Slav from Dalmatia, Luciano Laurana), but they are vague and fanciful. The backgrounds of the frescoes in the Hall of Constantine furnish recognizable portraits of the Roman countryside, with recognizable antique structures; by this time, Raphael was an architect in his own right, an architect who, moreover, had designed some of the most influential buildings in Renaissance Rome. The Hall of Constantine also displays Raphael’s explorations of different kinds of perspective, from the flattened effect of ancient Roman historical reliefs (like the sarcophagi and the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius) to distant, deep landscapes in perspective, to an entirely new way of presenting heavenly space as a spiraling vortex (which may well have inspired El Greco’s fantastic celestial cloudscapes).

Thanks to curator Francesco Paolo Di Teodoro, the exhibition’s treatment of Raphael as an architect marks a milestone in assessing the true extent of his importance as a builder and theoretician, and is reinforced by spectacularly detailed photographs of architectural drawings. The palazzi he designed in the neighborhoods around the Vatican—Palazzo Alberini, Palazzo Jacopo da Brescia, Palazzo Branconio dell’Aquila, the latter two later demolished—like the related projects of associates like Giulio Romano and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, permanently transformed early modern Rome because they hewed to such a consistent style, and they achieved consistency by adhering to a systematic set of theoretical principles inspired by the ancient architectural writer Vitruvius, and to a standard repertory of basic forms drawn from ancient buildings like the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Basilica Aemilia in the Forum, and the Forum of Augustus. For Raphael, archaeological correctness was not an end in itself; rather, clear understanding of how the ancients thought and worked was crucial to creating good architecture to fulfill present-day (that is, sixteenth-century) purposes.

In the same way that his drawings (and hence his paintings) began to distill first the elements of the human body, and then entire compositions, into symphonies of ovals, so he began to think with similar universality about the orderly elements of architectural design. It was he—or perhaps Bramante, but Raphael was the first to write about it—who began to apply the term “orders” to the various kinds of ancient columns, such as Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian (ancient writers called them “families”). He did so in an addendum to a letter (on display in the exhibition) he wrote to Pope Leo X in 1519 or so, in which he decries the destruction of Rome’s ruins by careless contemporaries (and thus makes a pioneering plea for historical preservation), presents the first known discussion of historical style by noting that the Arch of Constantine exhibits well-thought-out architecture but is decorated by crude sculpture, and ascribes a certain grace to the architecture that he calls German and we call Gothic.

Raphael studied Vitruvius in Latin, but he also commissioned a translation into Italian to ensure that he truly understood what the ancient writer meant. And then he struck out on his own, creating new forms that maintained the qualities he admired in ancient art but also drew from the works of Rome’s Middle Ages. Renaissance architects, who grew up beneath the towering naves of medieval churches, finally lifted the ceilings of all Rome’s surviving early Christian basilicas; to their eyes, ancient proportions were too squat to be truly beautiful. When Raphael looked back, he did so in order to look forward. He would have navigated through the time warp of his current exhibition in perfect tranquility.

However deftly he came to shape the irregularities of the human body into graceful ovals, Raphael’s portraits reveal his delight in the quirks of personality. Like La Muta, quietly poking at her pictorial frame, Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena overturns his stately pose and silken robes with unruly shocks of sparse, frizzled hair; this was a man who loved to laugh, and only because of his bozo hair can we accurately read the mirth in his eyes. Raphael’s portrait of portly, wall-eyed Tommaso Inghirami turns a physical peculiarity (that still runs in the family) into an eye trained on the higher realm of inspiration. The curators reject the often-floated idea that the nude portrait known as La Fornarina, or the baker’s daughter, is by Raphael, or that it depicts his lover, despite the armband that explicitly claims his authorship. The harsh, glossy execution and the hopelessly clumsy left hand show that this is one of the courtesan portraits that Giorgio Vasari says Raphael’s workshop furnished to the members of Rome’s demimonde (in a city of nominally celibate churchmen, prostitutes made up the largest female professional class, and “Fornarina,” as the curators suggest, probably refers to her profession—think “a bun in the oven”—rather than her father’s). As a workshop product, the painting fully qualified as a Raphael, but the ostentatious signature is a bit vulgar. The gorgeous Florentine banker Bindo Altoviti may have been painted by Raphael’s workshop too—albeit by his best student, Giulio Romano—but Bindo was far too rich and refined to need to flaunt the painter’s identity; everyone of taste would have recognized it at once.

La Velata; painting by Raphael

Galleria Palatina, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence

Raphael: La Velata, circa 1512–1513

To see Raphael’s real hand, the exhibition gives us what truly must be the portrait of his lover, La Velata from the Galleria Palatina in Florence, all soft focus and soft textures except for the incredible silken sleeve that X-ray analysis reveals to have been an afterthought—the afterthought that raises the painting to its sublime greatness. Placing this brilliant distraction between viewer and subject makes the “veiled woman” all the more elusive, and the evident brushstrokes, by contrasting with the imperceptible modeling of her face, once again call attention to the fact that this is a painted simulacrum, however emphatically it seems to be alive.

The Mantuan count Baldassare Castiglione was one of Raphael’s partners in his studies of Vitruvius, and the person he relied on to cast his letter to the pope into the most elegant possible language (several drafts are on display, with scratched-out corrections). Castiglione’s wife said that keeping company with Raphael’s portrait of him, in its muted grays, blacks, and browns, was practically like having Baldassare there in person, and the affection between the painter and his friend shows in the loving execution of every detail, from his fuzzy, luxuriant beard to his clear, intelligent blue-gray eyes. The catalog’s excellent illustrations faithfully show one of the tiny details that give this extraordinary painting its uncanny vivacity: a tiny dash of scarlet at the top of the gray fur cummerbund that stretches across his chest: totally unrealistic, yet totally effective at bringing the image to life. Like the illustrations of architectural drawings that show every crumple, scoring, pen stroke, and wash, these glimpses into Raphael’s workmanship provide a lasting memento of an unforgettable exhibition.