Raphael As A Product Of His Environment(s) November 17, 2004
by PETER SCHJELDAHL
Young Raphael, in London.
"What he had of art, he had from me,” Michelangelo complained of Raphael, whose early career, from 1500 to 1513, is the subject of an enticing exhibition, “Raphael: From Urbino to Rome,” at the National Gallery in London. Michelangelo, who was eight years older than his contemporary but survived him by forty-four years—Raphael died on his thirty-seventh birthday, in 1520—thus claimed first place in what could have been a long line of miffed masters. “Influence” scarcely covers the relation to Raphael’s work not only of Michelangelo and the other titan of the High Renaissance, Leonardo, but also of Raphael’s father, Giovanni Santi; Perugino, who may have been his teacher; Pinturicchio; and Fra Bartolommeo. The show, which incorporates works by most of those elders, demonstrates that the prodigy from the Marches extracted the formal essence of each man’s art to feed a synthetic style that would become a beau ideal of Western painting for the next four centuries. Raphael was preternaturally talented in all elements of picture-making, afire with ambition, and so charming that no one, be it a colleague, a mistress, or a Pope, could do enough for him. I don’t like him. I fairly swoon before his best paintings—including, in the show, the “Alba Madonna” (1509-11), “Portrait of Pope Julius II” (1511), and “Portrait of La Velata” (1512-13)—but his perfectionism has something callow at its core. His relative neglect since the late nineteenth century, when the academic tastes that exalted him succumbed to the sterner inclinations of modern art, is no more than a trifle unfair.
An only child, Raphael was breast-fed by his mother—this was unusual for the time—at the behest of Santi, an accomplished poet and courtier as well as painter, who was determined to shield his son from the low company of peasant wet nurses and their kind. (The young Michelangelo had suffered and, ultimately, profited from just such rough society.) Raphael’s childhood, though marred by his mother’s death, when he was eight, was sheltered, rich in aristocratic culture, and industrious. He was assisting in his father’s workshop at the age of eleven, when Santi died. Entrusted to an uncle, he obviously thrived. The show opens with a startlingly adept and subtle self-portrait drawing from his adolescence, which depicts a clear-eyed, self-consciously irresistible boy. Equally precocious paintings from the same period, though rather forced in their prescribed religious content, conquer the style—sharply contoured active figures in atmospheric landscapes, sumptuously colored—of Perugino, then the leading painter of Central Italy. (Raphael’s practical edge, from the start, was a yeoman’s approach to preparation, proceeding through many drawings to fully resolved cartoons that were transferred to surfaces, usually wood, for painting. Other artists worked this way, but none more pertinaciously.) At the same time, Raphael not only absorbed the decorative grandeur of history paintings by Pinturicchio but provided that artist, almost thirty years his senior, with designs for major frescoes in Siena.
In 1504, at the age of twenty-one, Raphael arrived in Florence to take on Michelangelo and Leonardo, who were both working there. Perugino’s manner vanished from Raphael’s style, which soon displayed Leonardo’s “chromatic unity, interlocking gazes, and pyramidal composition,” in the accurate judgment of the art historian David Drogin. A portrait drawing from 1505-06 closely follows the “Mona Lisa” (1503-06), complete with a game approximation of the dumbfounding smile. Raphael added sugar to Leonardo’s recipes, softening craggy landscapes into beamish vistas and demystifying shadows with warm tones. Meanwhile, Michelangelo’s twisting, contrapposto figuration invaded Raphael’s pictures, sometimes directly. He copied a stretching Christ child from a Michelangelo relief and, with adjustments, popped it into the “Bridgewater Madonna” (about 1507). (In how many endearing ways can a naked baby disport itself on a mother’s lap? The Renaissance counted them.) And a dashing, ever so slightly epicene drawing after the sculptor’s “David” bespeaks less inspiration than light-fingered grand theft. Gravitas falls away, leaving gladness in finely muscled, limber flesh. Raphael passed every subject through the filter of his self-contentment.
In 1508, it was on to Rome, where Michelangelo was starting to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—and would never forgive the architect Bramante, his friend, for allowing the young challenger a sneak peek at the work-in-progress. Raphael applied what he had seen to become the premier decorator of the Vatican. In that role, he went on to produce frescoes and tapestry cartoons (which are outside the scope of the London show) that counteract most misgivings about him, including mine. Those works realize a genius for architecturally integrated design—mighty compositions of vivacious figures in deep space, appearing to expand the real area of a room—which constitutes Raphael’s original, sadly truncated, contribution to art. It hardly matters that much of the actual painting was done by assistants: the pictures’ majesty is chiefly a feat of organizational intelligence. Having inherited Bramante’s position as the Pope’s head architect, Raphael might today be at least as famous a designer as a painter but for his premature death. He had it in him to outgrow the simpering allure for which we are obliged to remember him. As it is, the powerful composition and exquisite color of the circular “Alba Madonna,” from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.—in freshly restored mint condition—must compete with the longueurs of cutely manly toddlers (Jesus and John the Baptist) and a Virgin decked out in racy chic, which, as a religious painting, is an epicurean travesty. (The English Pre-Raphaelites of the nineteenth century quixotically sought to restore painting to the point before Raphael “ceased to be a truly Christian painter,” in the words of the art historian Nicholas Penny.)
Rome fell hard for Raphael’s charisma. Vasari summarized his greatness this way: “Nature sent Raphael into the world after it had been vanquished by the art of Michelangelo and was ready, through Raphael, to be vanquished by character as well.” Raphael’s “gentle humanity” was unsullied by the “touch of uncouthness and even madness” that marks most artists. He “was never seen leaving his house to go to court but that he was accompanied by fifty painters, all able and excellent artists, going with him to do him honor.” He was a confirmed lover. Vasari writes that the only way one patron could get Raphael to finish a commission was by moving his mistress into quarters at the site. (Picasso made a late series of lyrically pornographic etchings in which Raphael and his amour engage in necessarily acrobatic congress, given that he never lets go of his palette and brushes.) Vasari gives as the cause of Raphael’s death a fever enkindled by too much sex. Pope Leo X, who succeeded Julius in 1513, “wept bitterly” at his passing. Vasari exclaims, “When this noble craftsman died, the art of painting might well have died with him; for when Raphael closed his eyes, painting was left as if blind.” It was left with an untenable model, certainly.
For me, Raphael’s version of the beautiful is the sublime of the pretty: sheer comeliness, to the nth power. His paintings lack the element of reverent awe that informs beauty. They are about liking, albeit intense liking, rather than love. In this, Raphael was less a creator of the Italian Renaissance than its definitive human creation, a demigod whose capacities rivalled those of the divine. It’s perfect that Leo X evidently planned to make this skirt chaser a cardinal. That was the historic moment when the profligate amorality of Rome, financed by the sale of what amounted to get-out-of-Purgatory-free passes to the faithful, brought on the Reformation. (Luther posted his “Ninety-five Theses upon Indulgences” two and a half years before Raphael’s death.) The next youthful phenomenon of Italian painting, Parmigianino (1503-40), trying to square Raphaelite pleasures with the time’s mounting religious and political anxieties, kicked off the long, floundering hysteria of Mannerism. There would never again be anyone like Raphael—as his more alert contemporaries must have sensed—because never again would a fully developed, energetic, urbane culture coast on a tide of such complacent aplomb.