Standing with Michelangelo and Leonardo as one of the three “greats” of the Italian Renaissance, Raphael easily rose to the critic Giorgio Vasari’s description of him as the “universal man.” His prolific work in painting, drafting, tapestries, mosaics, frescos, architecture, design, archeology, and other fields left a staggering legacy when he died at the tender age of 37. Beloved in his lifetime, his death—either from a “fever” or from what Vasari called “a surfeit of love”—on Good Friday, 1520, even led to comparisons with Christ. His larger-than-life image has hovered over Western art for more than half a millennium. Yet only now has London’s National Gallery ventured to assemble what it describes as the first exhibition outside Italy “to encompass all aspects of Raphael’s artistic activity across his career.” Can anything new really be said? The exhibition opened on April 9th—502 years and three days after the artist’s death—and closed on July 31st. It claimed to offer “new insight” but may be better understood as a well curated retrospective of his short but extremely productive life.
Raphael, or Raffaello Santi (or Sanzi), had good fortune in birth. His father, Giovanni Santi, was court painter to the Dukes of the Italian city state of Urbino, in the Marche region east of Tuscany. Both of his parents died by the time he was eleven, leaving him in the care of an uncle who was a priest. He appears to have taken over his father’s studio while in his teens. A natural talent for elegance, precision, and luminosity is already evident in his black chalk drawing Head of a Boy, possibly a self-portrait, which is believed to have been executed around 1498, when Raphael was 15 or 16 years old. Combined with his winning personality, a natural ambition born of exceptional skill quickly led to prestigious commissions and a beckoning away from his hometown. The Mond Crucifixion (1502-1503, so named for its late nineteenth-century owner Ludwig Mond), from the National Gallery’s own collection and originally created for a church in the neighboring town of Città di Castello, betrays a keen sense of line and symmetry while sacrificing nothing of the scene’s portentous shadow and redemptive light.
By the time Raphael was 21, his attention migrated to the mercantile capital of Florence, which had recently emerged from the theocracy of Girolamo Savonarola. Raphael keenly preserved his patronage networks and continued to place works throughout central Italy, but five years in Florence exposed him to the work of his contemporaries Leonardo and Michelangelo, both of whom were heavily engaged in the city. His portraits particularly began to mimic the vivid inner life found in Leonardo as well as Michelangelo’s rawer physicality. A self-portrait of 1506 shows the 23-year old youth casting a supremely confident gaze directly at the viewer, with knowing eyes bracketing an aquiline nose resting above a pert, unsmiling mouth. The effect presaged more sophisticated but still familiar gazes in his later portraits of the Florentine ruler Lorenzo de Medici (1518) and Raphael’s friends Bindo Altoviti (1516-1518), a noted banker and art collector, and Baldassare Castiglione (1519), whose Book of the Courtier served the Renaissance gentleman as a guide to elegant conduct and gracious behavior. The knowing gaze also turns up in Raphael’s late life Portrait of a Woman (1519-1520), which depicts a bare-breasted lover who wears an armband with his name on it.
Warmer insights emerge in Raphael’s Madonnas. The Virgin and Child (1506-1507), also known as “The Madonna of the Pinks” for her gossamer veil, humanizes Mary’s maternal relationship with the Christ child through gentle hues that draw out the figures’ contented smiles and admiring gazes. Michelangelo’s influence can be seen in Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1507), in which the Christian convert reveals the passion of her faith through bodily contortion, with her head turned up and to the right, skyward, while her body faces forward toward liminal reality.
The Tempi Madonna (1507-1508) indulges more maternal instincts, while the Christ child’s expression gestures toward self-awareness. The later Garvagh Madonna (1510-1511) shows a greater sophistication in dress and color, with the figures (which include the infant John the Baptist) evolving from more icon-like impressions to quintessentially Renaissance depictions of humans enraptured by feeling and faith. The Alba Madonna (1509-1511) explores Christian symbolism by placing a cross within reach of the Christ child, a portent of his ultimate fate. The Madonna of the Fish, painted for Naples in 1516, is still livelier, showing the holy mother and child interacting with the Archangel Raphael and the young Tobias, whose baptismal fish are brought to restore his father’s sight and drive demons from his bride. Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, is also present, a portent of Christ’s mission and revelation.
Raphael’s Madonnas overlapped with his move in 1508 to Rome, where he spent the rest of his life working first for the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi and then the artistically (as well as militarily) ambitious Pope Julius II and his successor Leo X. Working for Chigi allowed Raphael to develop his multimedia talents, for his commissions included chapels in two of Rome’s best known churches, Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo (though only the former was completed in his lifetime).
Portrait of Pope Julius II (1511-1512), a 108 × 80.7 cm oil on wood by Raphael (1483-1520).
Raphael’s principal creative work for the Popes was vast wall frescos for the Vatican’s Apostolic Apartments (Stanze). He labored on them for eleven years, leaving them unfinished at the time of his death. They reveal an enormous talent in a new medium, but their inclusion in the exhibition was a letdown since they could only be represented by a stale print reproduction of the artist’s School of Athens (1509-1511), a stunningly detailed work from the Stanza della Segnatura that includes a disguised Michelangelo as Heraclitus and, according to Giorgio Vasari, a subtle self-portrait. Despite the artistry of the original, displaying a nearly-to-scale print reproduction in a room without natural light evoked the wall decorations of a gaudy Italian restaurant in New Jersey. More successfully displayed was Raphael’s Portrait of Julius II (1511), an intimate, penetrating likeness in which the pontiff is seated and arrestingly lost in thought, with his head held down at an angle. Vasari described it as “so lifelike and true that it frightened everyone who saw it.”
Perhaps most significantly of all, Raphael’s archeological interests led him to urge Pope Leo X to save what remained of ancient Rome from further plunder for building materials. We almost certainly owe the Eternal City’s remaining legacy from antiquity to the artist. The exhibition included an original letter drafted by Castiglione, with Raphael’s technical details prominently featured. Even as he painted glorious images of man redeemed, Raphael also worked determinedly as Rome’s head of excavations and, from 1515, as the chief architect of Saint Peter’s Cathedral, then rising in the heart of the Vatican. Sample architectural drafts betray a technical precision that would not be out of place in drafting studios today, while tapestry selections, mainly designed for the walls of the Sistine Chapel, display his oft-overlooked talent in that medium as well.