Raphael Review – The Renaissance Master Who Made Saints and Virgins Shine | Arts
IIf you wanted a great portrait set in early 16th-century Italy, a few frescoed rooms or even a bathroom, Raphael was your artist – even before his contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He could paint with as much authority as Leonardo, but without the long delays and distractions the older genius was prone to when pausing commissions to build a flying machine or simply do arithmetic for a few months. As for the other artistic titans of the period, Raphael mocked Michelangelo in his fresco The School of Athens, spectacularly recreated in this exhibition as a wall-filling facsimile. Michelangelo is represented in this grand vision of classical Greece as the philosopher Heraclitus, seated alone, a sullen loner, his face resting in his hand in the attribute of melancholy.
Raphael was well dressed and charming. Of the Big Three of the High Renaissance, he was the most straightforward, the most prolific, and for 300 years the most influential. In his early 20s, he saw the Mona Lisa and other works by Leonardo and transformed their style into his own, as you can see here in his 1507-8 painting La Muta, which depicts a woman of Mona Lisa-like mystery and reserve displays. The adaptation to Leonardo’s style was a sensational success – he refined the classic noses and poses but removed the bizarre chiaroscuro. Thus emerged a noble, balanced, clear figurative art that was taught for centuries as a correct, perfect style, until modernism toppled it from its pedestal.
This exhibition lets you feel the original joy of this pure, almost mathematical method. Raphael’s Madonnas are composed so calmly, so light and graceful in their colors that they seem to float in the air without being attached to the wall. The Alba Madonna is a circular painting (a ‘tondo’) in vivid blues and pinks, depicting the young Jesus and John the Baptist playing on Mary’s lap in a meadow. Beyond is the landscape a misty bluish veil of mountains and water under a clear, bright sky. But what’s uncanny is the sense of proportion: Mary and the boys are exactly where they need to be within the circle to make this feel like a geometric theorem. Raphael makes the music of the spheres visible.
To say that the Renaissance was driven by admiration for ancient Greece and Rome is a cliché, but it was Raphael who took this ideal to the extreme. In this exhibition is a letter from the Vatican Library in which Raphael tells Pope Leo X about his research on the ancient remains of Rome. He studied the ruins alongside ancient texts, he says. One book was Vitruvius On Architecture, which explains the theory of perfect proportion – how a building or a human body should be planned through musical intervals. Raphael even does this in The Massacre of the Innocents, which he designed as a print with his collaborator, the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi. It is a scene of the mass murder of children, yet the naked soldiers move like ballet dancers and the women pose like statues in a stately parade of pain.
Cold? Not for a second. Raphael’s classical calm does not so much dampen the horror as lends it a tragic dignity. Instead of being stunned by the chaos, we can slowly absorb details, like bass notes in a miserere. A woman’s screaming features catch your eye – boom. A dead baby lies on the ground, its little snub-nosed face hanging upside down. blow.
Raphael’s mastery of classic proportion and geometry is accompanied by an unsettlingly natural, effortless, human touch. His sympathies are never hidden. He is full of love. It always brings you back to those Madonnas. Has an artist ever portrayed the mother-child relationship so heartily? The mother in the Tempi Madonna presses her baby’s face to her cheek and gazes at him with boundless love. For all Raphael’s precision, it’s about the emotion that always comes through in a simple, innocent way. In The Holy Family with the Palm Tree, Joseph also joins in the domestic lovemaking by kneeling beside a Jesus who is looking intently at him.
These happy families represent Raphael’s lost childhood. He was an orphan. Born in 1483 at the famous court of Urbino in Marche, at the age of 11 he lost his mother and father, a minor artist and poet. His sweet depictions of the holy family are certainly lyrical memories of his own mother and father, utopian projections.
Raphael has an ease and sympathy with women that makes his saints and virgins shine. And this love is not only spiritual. Raphael was a handsome youth, as he shows us in his lyrically tender self-portrait, which he lent us from the Uffizi. He knew he was handsome. In a later self-portrait, he poses bearded but still polite next to his pupil Giulio Romano. By this time in the 1510s Raphael was so much in demand to fresco Rome that he worked with a large team of assistants led by Romano. But he also found time for fun, says his 16th-century biographer Vasari. He was so engrossed in his love life that an employer had to let his girlfriend move into the villa he was painting or he wouldn’t have made it.
Here she is. This dazzling show keeps its biggest treat for the end. Suddenly the human Raphael comes out from behind his art to share his private life. His painting La Fornarina shows his beloved seated in a garden and showing her breasts. It’s really about intimacy: Raphael focuses more on her face than her body. She smiles shyly while her large eyes slide shyly to the side: she seems about to burst out laughing.
At least he died happy. Shortly after painting this, his last work, Raphael died on the night of Good Friday 1520 at the age of 37. Vasari claims he was exhausted from too much sex and then killed by the doctors who drew blood from him when he needed food and rest. He celebrated life with every painting he painted. He showed us something we all need – a dream of beauty and harmony. Gentle Raphael. It has been out of fashion for more than a century and is considered just too perfect to move us turbulent modernity. This great show is like falling in love all over again.