by Roderick Conway Morris

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Renaissance Superstar

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 3 June 2022
Louvre, Paris/photo Gérard Blot
Self-portrait (left) with Giulio Romano by Raphael, 1519-20



When Raphael died on Good Friday 6 April 1520 there was an extraordinary outpouring of public grief. The Pope himself, Leo X, was distraught at the loss. That the artist was just 37, and that he had died on the same day Christ was crucified, instantly conferred a kind of mystic status on him. Raphael's appearance was compared to artists' representations of Christ and, as in the biblical accounts of Christ's death, there was supposed to have been a earth tremor that shook the foundations of the Vatican (in reality the collapse of a pavement caused by a construction fault).

Raphael's body lay in state beneath his last painting, a 'Transfiguration', and was then buried with the sacred bones of early Christian martyrs in the ancient Roman Pantheon. His tomb there, for which he had left a hefty sum, became and continues to be a place of pilgrimage.

How and why Raphael achieved such enormous admiration not only in his lifetime but continuing to command a kind of reverence long after his death is demonstrated by the spectacular exhibition Raphael at the National Gallery, expertly and stylishly curated by David Ekserdjian, Tom Henry and Matthias Wivel. The show was originally timed to mark the 500 anniversary of his death, was delayed for obvious reasons but has been well worth waiting for.

Raphael was born in Urbino, a remote hill town in the Italian Marches, which thanks to Federico da Montefeltro had been transformed into one of the most dazzling courts in Europe, attracting artists and intellectuals from all over Italy and beyond, among them Alberti, Bembo, Botticelli, Bramante, Francesco di Giorgio, Piero della Francesca, Netherlandish and Spanish painters - not to mention Baldassare Castiglione, who immortalized Urbino in The Book of the Courtier in 1528.

The 16th-century Florentine art historian Giorgio Vasari dismissed Raphael's father Giovanni Santi as 'not a very good painter', but there has been a radical re-assessment of his talents in recent years. In reality, Santi who was both an artist and poet was much valued by his highly discriminating patron Federico, and his father's court connections guaranteed the young Raphael access to the lively intellectual and artistic life of the palace and the humanist education fostered by the ducal school, where promising boys from poor families were admitted free.

When Santi died in 1494, Raphael became at the age of 11 the heir to his father's thriving studio. He was unquestionably an artistic child prodigy but his experience of running a large workshop from an incredibly young age was also a major factor in enabling him successfully to carry out the plethora of tasks he was later called upon to undertake.

Raphael obtained his first commission outside Urbino in 1500, at nearby Città di Castello, and was referred to as 'magister' in a contract, indicating his position as an independent master. He soon moved on to spend time in Perugia and Florence, both fulfilling commissions and studying the works of the great Umbrian and Florentine masters, notably Perugino, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He may also have made at least one excursion to Rome, judging by intriguing early drawings of the Pantheon. As Vasari put it: 'through studying the efforts of old and modern masters, he took the best from each of them, and gathering this together, enriched the art of painting.'

In 1506 Gian Paolo Baglioni, Lord of Perugia, surrendered his fiefdom to Pope Julius II. This warrior pontiff and patron of the arts had a few months previously laid the foundation stone of the new St. Peter's that was to be built under the supervision of Raphael's friend and fellow Urbinate, Donato Bramante. It may well be that Julius's presence in Perugia in the wake of his conquest provided Raphael with the first opportunity to show the pope one of his paintings, 'The Marriage of the Virgin'.

In the autumn of 1507, Julius moved into his new apartments on the third floor of the Vatican and from the outset planned to adorn them with a scheme of frescoes unprecedented in their scope and magnificence. Around a year later, Raphael was summoned to join a team of painters, including Perugino, already at work on them. By this time Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. So striking was Raphael's contribution to the first task he was entrusted with, the ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura, Julius's private library, that he was commissioned to fresco the entire room. The artist and his assistants would go on decorate all the remaining rooms of the pope's private quarters.

Most astonishing of all these marvellous frescoes was 'The School of Athens' (1509-11), an encylopedic gathering of ancient philosophers, at the centre of which stand Aristotle and Plato as the supreme representatives of the empirical and idealist schools. This enormous image is a unique visual summation of the triumph of the Renaissance humanist project, the recovery of ancient thought and learning, glorified by Raphael's painted classical architectural setting. Julius's approval was demonstrated by his appointment of the artist as Scriptor Breverium (papal scribe), a sinecure with an annual income.

The artist's other major patron at this time was the wealthy Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, who commissioned Raphael to design the decorations for his private chapel at Santa Maria della Pace, elegant stables for his horses and frescoes for his retreat on the banks of the Tiber, now known as Villa Farnesina. This last, including 'The Triumph of Galatea', represented the first of Raphael's ventures into the world of classical mythology and enabled him to display his mastery of the male and female nude.

The death of Julius II in 1513 might have brought Raphael's favoured position at the papal court to an abrupt end, but his successor, the Florentine Pope Leo X, was a no less enthusiastic devotee. On the death of Bramante in 1514, Leo appointed Raphael chief architect of St. Peter's. He also commissioned him to design a series of huge tapestries for the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel, providing Raphael with the chance to let his works be judged alongside those of Michelangelo. In the same year, Leo made Raphael the supervisor of Rome's antiquities and tasked him with creating a graphic reconstruction of ancient Rome.

Having received his early education in Federico's beautiful, classically inspired palace in Urbino - 'the fairest that was to bee found in all Italie', in the words of John Florio's 1561 translation of Castiglione's Book of the Courtier - Raphael displayed an exceptional ability to create buildings based on ancient models. This was reflected not only in outstanding representations in his paintings, tapestries and drawings but also in the ground-breaking edifices he designed in Rome. He brought a new rigour to architectural drawing and planning, and was a pioneering analyst of the five architectural 'orders' of classical architecture.

Related projects included organizing a new translation of the most important surviving treatise from the ancient world, 'On Architecture' by Vitruvius. Despite his relatively short life, Raphael managed to see a number of his buildings completed, but sadly his most ambitious palazzo was later demolished to make way for Bernini's Colonnade at St. Peter's.

Raphael's provincial although culturally rich background may have provided an extra spur to his determination to achieve the widest possible fame. Seeing how Albrecht Dürer had achieved this, above all through his prints, Raphael set up his own print workshop under the leading contemporary engraver Marcantonio Raimondi. These prints were not solely reproductions of Raphael's painted works but also included numerous original compositions. And Raphael and Dürer exchanged prints as tokens of mutual esteem.

While Raphael's early years in Rome had been dominated by his commissions for frescoes, he later returned to altarpieces. Only one of these was painted for a Roman church. Others were dispatched to Piacenza, Bologna, Naples and Palermo. Even the 'Transfiguration' that accompanied his lying in state, commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, later Pope Clement VII, was initially destined for Narbonne in France and only kept in Rome after the artist's untimely demise.

'He was by nature endowed with all the modesty and kindness seen at times in those rare individuals blessed with natural, gentle humanity and a beautifully subtle affability,' according to Vasari. Raphael clearly had a genius for friendship and by all accounts an active love life. Indeed, his premature death was rumoured to be the result of amorous over-indulgence (it was more likely due to his punishing work load combined with illness, perhaps malaria).

Raphael's most obviously personal works were his portraits of close friends, such as 'Baldassare Castliglione', the artist's chief assistant and heir Giulio Romano, and his putative lovers, the mysterious 'Donna Velata' (Veiled Lady) and 'La Fornarina' (The Baker's Daughter). These are shown alongside self-portraits in the final room of this splendid exhibition - and it is through these that we are afforded a glimpse of the private man behind the celebrity artist.

Raphael; National Gallery, London; 9 April - 31 July

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024