Raphael still acclaimed for great ‘body’ of work

Peter Murray says the Renaissance artist’s sensual, uninhibited depictions of male and female beauty made his reputation and reflected his sexual zeal

Raphael, A Passionate Life

Antonio Forcellino Translated by Lucinda Byatt

Polity Press 2012, £23.75

ITALIAN writers, such as Valerio Manfredi, are skilled in reworking conventional histories into imaginative narratives. The reader contemplates not just past lives and events, but ‘witnesses’ them, as might a living bystander. This literary device ‘brings’ the reader onto city streets, walking among people who lived hundreds of years ago, much as the protagonist in a computer game, such as Assassin’s Creed, races through recreations of Renaissance Florence or Rome.

In the introduction to Raphael, A Passionate Life, Antonio Forcellino asks readers to imagine themselves in Rome, in 1520, where the 37-year-old artist Raphael Sanzio lies dying, surrounded by his lamenting pupils. The premature death of Raphael brought to an end a career that was astonishingly successful, even by the standards of his contemporaries, among them Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Forcellino then switches to a more conventional historical approach, informed by his detailed knowledge of how Raphael created The Sistine Madonna or La Madonna della Seggiola, paintings as popular today as they were five centuries ago.

A conservation expert and restorer, Forcellino’s technical knowledge informs his writing, as he described how the coloured pigments were prepared, and egg yolks and vinegar mixed to create a medium to bind these colours, and the resulting paint applied to gessoed panels.

His book is an excellent introduction to the workshop of the Renaissance artist, and to the careful and patient techniques employed in the making of timeless art works.

From 1508, when this ambitious young artist from Urbino arrived in Rome, to 1520, when, at the height of his success, he built a palatial home on Via Giulia, near the Vatican, Raphael’s career was marked by universal acclaim.

Only rival artists, such as Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo, whom he sidelined from receiving lavish commissions, were grudging in their praise. Where Michelangelo created massive, tortured figures, Raphael painted slender and sensual physical beauty. Michelangelo’s heavy-painted architecture on the Sistine ceiling compares with Raphael’s lighter trellis-work and garden architecture in the Loggia dei Psyche in the villa of Augustino Chigi.

Leonardo da Vinci was also in Rome, after 1514, living at the Vatican Palace under the protection of Giuliano de’ Medici, where he continued his obsessive researches into science and anatomy, even participating in the dissection of the corpses of women who had died in childbirth. Leonardo’s questioning of the existence of the soul after death brought him close to being marked as a heretic, at a time when religious conformity was being enforced under Pope Leo X, and his experimental painting techniques resulted in the ruin of several masterpieces.

Avoiding the controversies of Leonardo and the tortured psychology of Michelangelo, Raphael completed his most famous paintings, The Transfiguration, and his frescoes in the Loggia de Psyche in the Villa Farnesina, arousing the most intense jealousy among his rivals. The frescos in the Villa Farnesina celebrated male and female beauty in a frank and uninhibited way, one that had hardly been seen in Rome for a thousand years.

Raphael also distanced himself from the fratricidal wars, assassinations and brutalities of the period. He worked in a time when the murderous Borgias held sway in Italy, and the lascivious entertainment in the Vatican, organised by Pope Alexander VI, scandalised even liberal churchmen. But while the blood of assassinated noblemen ran on the streets of his native Urbino, Raphael painted beautiful women and heavenly visions, images that seem a world apart from such grim realities.

Under the patronage of the later pope, Julius II, who understood the value of the visual arts in underpinning political and religious power, Raphael crowned his successful career by decorating a series of rooms and loggias, within the Vatican palace, with mural paintings depicting classical philosophers, gods and goddesses, as well as scenes from the bible.

His initial work, The Disputation of the Blessed Sacrament, so impressed the pope that he ordered work by other artists be destroyed, and Raphael to be given the task of decorating all the rooms.

The artist from Urbino rose to the task magnificently, and, today, the seven million visitors who troop through the Vatican museum each year can still marvel at his achievement, albeit in rooms that are now almost always crowded, noisy and uncomfortable. Raphael’s most famous fresco in the series, The School of Athens, shows his ability to create extremely convincing classical architectural spaces, peopled with naturalistic philosophers and saints.

He also designed a set of ten large tapestries, which were woven in Flanders, and hung in the Sistine Chapel. These tapestries, with their confident images, enlivened with gold and silver thread, were greeted with enthusiasm by all who saw them. Unfortunately, during the sack of Rome seven years later, the tapestries was dispersed to different parts of Europe.

The Renaissance writer Pietro Bembo held that Raphael had outdone the painters of classical times in his imitation of nature. For his contemporaries, and, indeed, for today’s art historians, the young artist from Urbino was not only the living embodiment of the Renaissance, but had surpassed the artists of ancient Greece and Rome.

While most historians consider that Raphael was apprenticed to Pietro Perugino, whose influence on the younger artist’s work is evident, Forcellino puts forward the reasonable argument that as Raphael’s father was an artist, it is likely that the boy learned the art of painting in the family studio, and continued the business after his father’s death. Forcellino attributes the closeness of Raphael’s work to Perugino’s as a deliberate strategy to cruelly show up the older artist, by outdoing him in the arrangement of figures within architecture, and so exposing the archaic qualities of Perugino’s compositions.

Forcellino emphasises the sensuality of Raphael’s paintings, which are more pagan than they are Christian, and, in loving detail, describes in the Loggia de Psyche frescoes how the artist portrayed male and female physical beauty, not omitting details such as pubic hair, and incorporating visual metaphors that spoke frankly of sexuality.

Indeed, Forcellino says that Raphael’s early death was hastened not only by hard work, but also by his attraction to the opposite sex, an attraction the artist was never slow in returning.

Forcellino’s knowledge of the techniques of tempera and oil painting, and of the art of fresco painting, aid in understanding how Raphael created some of the most memorable images in Western art.

The text, translated by Lucinda Byatt, is straightforward and readable. There are a few small errors and repetitions: the temple in the background of Perugino’s The Betrothal of the Virgin, for example, is described in the book as rough and square, while the reproduction of the painting clearly shows an octagonal building.

However, these are minor quibbles and Forcellino, overall, has done a very creditable service in his re-examination of the life of an artist who, more than any other, embodied the spirit of the Italian Renaissance.

* Peter Murray is director of the Crawford Gallery

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