The boy wonder from Urbino

The National Gallery’s splendid Raphael survey – organized, appropriately enough, with limpid lucidity – has been in a large part made possible by the enduring British love for the artist. The gallery’s director, Gabriele Finaldi, notes that the exhibition “draws, in the first instance, on the extraordinary richness of the collections in this country … as well as the academic expertise on the artist represented in Britain”. We are indeed fortunate to have the seven incomparable tapestry cartoons, acquired by the future Charles I in 1623 with the help of Daddy’s magic money tree. We are equally graced with the largest and finest group of drawings (London, Oxford, Windsor), and perhaps even of prints. We also have fine oil paintings from most phases of his career (London and Edinburgh).

Starting with the painter and critic Jonathan Richardson – “Calamity … is seen more by the Distress of the People, Variously, and Finely express’d, than by the Flames themselves” (1722) – some of the most acute scholarship and warm appreciation of This boy wonder from Urbino has been British, not least the portrait painter and unsurpassed drawings collector Sir Thomas Lawrence. A little later, the art historian Anna Jameson believed Raphael more resembled “an antique divinity, a young Apollo” than a human being, while Robert Browning extolled “Raphael of the dear Madonnas” in an incantatory love poem to his wife. More recently, in an emotive article headlined “Don’t Take our Raphael!” (New York Review of Books, December 19, 2002), James Fenton waxed lyrical about the “free” underdrawing of the jewel-like “Madonna of the Pinks”, revealed by an infrared reflectogram. Fenton’s advocacy helped the National Gallery, at a reported cost of £22 million, forestall its Babylonian exile to the Getty. Co-curators David Ekserdjian and Tom Henry, whose pandemic-delayed exhibition was meant to mark the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death in 1520, express their “passionate hope” that his star will continue to shine for the next 500 years. Stoking our own passions, there is an entire room of Madonna and Childs; a dizzying total of nineteen are stardusted through the exhibition.

Yet despite or because of all the veneration, Britain’s most distinguished contribution to the Raphael cult is in fact the demolition of his reputation. Several perfidious sons of Albion have taken iconoclastic action against the meteoric art saint who was born on Good Friday and died on Good Friday, at the youngish age of thirty-seven. Joshua Reynolds, as a student in Rome, painted a parody of Raphael’s “School of Athens”. (The fresco is represented here by an nearly impressive life-size photographic replica, and preparatory drawings.) Reynolds substituted grotesque Grand Tourists for Greek philosophers, and gothic architecture for Roman. He was disappointed by Raphael’s frescoes (an emerging trend, only partly due to their poor condition) and, like most modern tourists, made a beeline for the Sistine, later blaming his deafness on a chill caught during his long hours studying Michelangelo in the vast unheated chapel. For the previous 150 years, to prefer the lawless, uncouth Michelangelo, by his own account nursed by a stonemason’s wife, to the impeccable Raphael, supposedly breastfed by his devoted courtly mother, was radical revisionism. (Richardson had repeated a nasty seventeenth-century anecdote about Michelangelo crucifying a man in his studio to study his death agonies.) Later on, in a series of published lectures given to students of the Royal Academy, of which he was the first president, Reynolds compared to the two art gods. Michelangelo was the Homer of painting, to whom Raphael owed the grandeur of his late style. The younger man may have been more versatile, his genius a “more pure, regular, and chaste flame”; but he “never takes such a firm hold and entire possession of the mind as to make us desire nothing else”.

The differences had been first articulated by Vasari, in a famous set-piece comparison that was slyly critical of Michelangelo’s tunnel vision, but Reynolds’s face-off was informed by his friend Edmund Burke’s treatise on the sublime and the beautiful. Michelangelo represented the “sublime in painting”, beside which the “little elegancies of art” became unworthy of notice. The romantic triumph of the sublime and its correlate, the disturbing, would put the pro-Raphaelites on the defensive for ever after. They needed to explain why Raphael was more than simple beautiful – meaning confected, trite and worldly. The pre-Raphaelites, with perverse fanatical logic approved by Ruskin, cut him off at the knees. They consider Raphael’s Roman flame to be insufficiently chaste and spiritual. They preferred his Perugino-style juvenilia, with their insipid identity parades of dozy droopy-heads. In the exhibition’s first room, a large crucifixion with attendant saints in an idyllic Tuscan landscape precisely pastiches a Perugino altarpiece in Perugia, albeit with greater bodily amplitude and evanescent spatial depth.

During the nineteenth century, as part of a rescue, we start to see an ingenious hunt for Raphael’s dark and intense side, and this is manifest in parts of the catalog. It bore early strange fruit in Nietzsche, who would have adored the last room of the exhibition, dominated by five superb portraits, two of beautiful women. Vasari wrote that Raphael died due to a “surfeit of love”, a claim dismissed by Jameson and others as a shameful slander. In The Will to Power Nietzsche instead insisted that Raphael, like other great artists, sometimes got a little tipsy, but his vast vats of surplus sexual energy were usually sublimated into his art. The exhibition catalog, in a similar if more sober vein, highlights Raphael’s “passionate engagement with new forms of figural expression”. This “passion” is most obviously manifest in the two strikingly poised, self-assured portraits of women, one naked, one sumptuously clothed, who are often thought to be his lover, the baker’s daughter La Fornarina. Paradoxically, despite the fact that the baby-eyed nude wears an armband adorned with Raphael’s name, the hard contours have persuaded some scholars to attribute it to his principal assistant, Giulio Romano.

The final room also contains a majestic charcoal drawing of the head of a startled apostle that would have delighted Nietzsche. It was made for the tumultuous lower half of Raphael’s last altarpiece, the “Transfiguration”, which Nietzsche eulogized at the start of The Birth of Tragedy. He discerned Dionysian disquiet in the possessed boy and terrified disciples; Conversely, the levitating Christ in the upper portion represented Apollonian calm. One of six surviving auxiliary cartoons pricked for transfer, the twisting head of the alarmed but still self-controlled apostle was sold at auction from the Chatsworth collection for nearly £30 million in 2012.

The National Gallery co-curator Matthias Wavell writes in a post-Nietzschean vein in the catalog. Having quoted Ruskin’s criticism of Raphael’s excessive “perfection of execution and beauty of feature”, he truffles out “the underworld of Renaissance rationality” in Raphael’s pioneering grotesque decoration – seen here in decorative designs and in a five-meter tapestry border. Yet Raphael’s grotesques, inspired by the wall decoration in the recently discovered Golden House of Nero, are a luminous lively side world rather than a dark underworld, a dainty parallel universe.

More promising, and interestingly, Wavel discerns in Picasso’s convulsive “Guernica” “an organic sense of structure and human interconnectedness” akin to Raphael’s. The best example in the exhibition is a marvelous print of “The Massacre of the Innocents”, executed by Marcantonio Raimondi after Raphael’s drawings, two of which are shown alongside. Raphael realized that prints could both publicize his work and allow him to speedily explore interesting subjects. The massacre is a brutal ballet involving naked soldiers, baby boys and distraught hair-dressed women in tunics. The action is visually roofed over and compressed by a curved stone bridge that spans the background like a sabre-sword of Damocles. The action is located in an urban piazza, but might just as well be under the roof of a low-ceilinged cellar. At the composition’s beating heart, a woman runs open-mouthed towards us, clutching her baby like a ball-carrying rugby player charging through a scrum. She is one of the most astonishing motifs in all art, and entirely original.

Raphael pioneered advancing central figures – notably Plato and Aristotle in the “School of Athens”, the latter with arm and open hand stretched out towards us. The most extreme example is the mysterious double portrait in the last room, said here to be Raphael standing behind Giulio Romano. The former seems to push the latter forward, and the outstretched arm of “Giulio” points aggressively towards the viewer. Leonardo pioneered the pump-action projecting arm, but only in seated figures. As the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin would say of the figure “collapsing backwards” in the tapestry cartoon “The Death of Ananias”, he “tears a hole in the composition”. The Apollonian veil does occasionally get ripped and snagged by Raphael.

The exhibition is boldly striving to gain new converts in a largely lukewarm world. As such, it mostly avoids internecine scholarly nitty-gritty that might baffle and bore neophytes. Raphael was the supreme sponge, able to drink deep and assimilate the best art in the vicinity, whether it be in Urbino, Perugia, Florence or Rome. By not including comparative material, the exhibition gives us Raphael distilled and on his own terms. Divided into thirteen roughly chronological sections, it emphasizes his astonishing versatility and prodigious skills as a designer and even archaeologist of ancient Rome, facilitated by brilliant management of a large workshop. The catalog offers an excellent readable overview, with five essays followed by succinct entries for the eighty-eight exhibits. The sections on architecture, tapestry and fresco are brought to startling life by large-scale reproductions as well as originals. It is exhilarating to see the levitating God in a small painting of “The Vision of Ezekiel” (40.7cm x 29.5cm), based on a Raphael drawing, beside a recently rediscovered tapestry of the same subject, more than 100 times the size ( 440cm x 347cm). Woven in Brussels under the supervision of one of Raphael’s associates, it served as a canopy to a ceremonial bed belonging to Pope Leo X, one of his greatest patrons. God’s curly hair has grown and is further frizzed up in the tapestry to make the Godhead “carry”.

There are many stunning foreign loans, including the cool-breeze, almost grisaille portrait of the artist’s friend Castiglione, author of The Courtier and apostle of sprezzatura. One of the biggest and best surprises is the magnificent altarpiece from Bologna of St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, surrounded by four standing saints. It is sumptuously colored and sensuously detailed. Cecilia has dropped her earthly instruments to the ground on hearing the superior music of a choir of angels. She lowers a small organ, and we see its pipes sliding out of the wooden frame to join other instruments on the ground at her feet. She is fully dressed in gold patterned brocade, but it feels as though she’s shedding her real clothes.

At the end of his essay, Wavel rows back from post-Nietzschean meditations. Reflecting on another drawing of started apostles from the “Transfiguration”, he discerns compassion and sympathy for the possessed boy. Raphael “presents us as a species that survives and thrives in a community. A dream of who we might be.” By the same token, Arnold Nesselrath, writing on the Stanze in the Vatican palace (“Patience and Power”), emphasizes Raphael’s patience in the face of market and patronal pressures. He claims, rather unconvincingly, that the late addition of the brooding Michelangelesque “thinker” figure in the “School of Athens” was forced on him by Pope Julius II, and is an “alien and disruptive presence”. When culture “becomes a commodity, it loses its human dimension”. Here, Raphael is being reborn for an age of mindfulness and of “slow” community-centred living. This perfectly executed exhibition means the latest rebrand may just work.

James Hall is Research Professor at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. His latest book is The Self-Portrait: A cultural history2014

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS at the TLS Shop

The post The boy wonder from Urbino appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment