Passion For Art


“Raffaelo Sanzio was the youngest of the three giants of the High Renaissance. He was born in Urbino in 1483 and received his first instruction in the techniques of painting from his father, Giovanni Santi, a minor artist. Urbino, where Raphael spent his youth, was also the seat of the warfaring but art-loving condottiere Federico 11 da Montefeltro. At Federico’s court, Raphael was introduced to the works of such artists as Paolo Uccello, Luca Signorelli, Melozzo da Forlí and Francesco di Giorgio, as well as the Flemish artists Hieronymus Bosch and joos van Gent. At the age of seventeen, his father sent him to Perugia to become an apprentice under the highly-regarded Perugino. In the four years he spent in Perugino’s workshop, Raphael learned all that his master could teach him, and the period passed without problems or challenges. In his early works, Raphael remained faithful to the Perugino School. This is understandable, insofar as the stylistic characteristics which he had acquired from his teacher, namely a clear organization of the composition and the avoidance of excessive detail, also provided useful means through which to express the new spirit of the High Renaissance. In some works it is not easy to distinguish between the hand of Perugino and that of the young Raphael. The idealizing beauty of Peruginesque women, with their calmly contemplative expressions and strikingly small mouths, lingers on for some time In the faces of Raphael’s Madonnas (such as that in the Solly Collection and the Madonna del Duca die Terranuova in Berlin). Slowly and tentatively, however, Raphael began to modify the style he had learned, gradually assimilating the new techniques of Leonardo and Michelangelo. The conception, structure and style of his early, famous Sposalizio (Marriage of the Virgin) of 1504 correspond closely to those of the work of the same name by Perugino, and it is assumed that Raphael was here executing a repeat commission passed on to him by his teacher. But while the faces of the figures, such as that of the girl on the left, could have been painted by Perugino, Raphael can elsewhere be seen to introduce elements which reveal his interest in the achievements of the new age. The domed building in the semicircular upper half of the picture may be derived from Bramante’s contemporary ideal of architecture, as expressed in his round tempietto at S. Pietro in Montorio in Rome. The scene is one of tranquility. Mary graciously receives the ring from Joseph, who is depicted barefoot in accordance with the custom of oath-taking ceremonies at that time. In contrast to the calm figures of the main group, one young man in the foreground is shown in motion; angered at his failure to win Mary, he is breaking a dead stick over his knee. Joseph’s stick, on the other hand, has blossomed afresh in accordance with apocryphal legend, indicating that he has chosen for Mary.

“In 1504 Raphael went to Florence, bearing a letter of recommendation from the Duchess of Montefeltro to the gonfalonier Soderini. The intensive debates surrounding the new directions being taken in art at that time must have made a forceful impression on the young 21-year-old. It was a period in which Leonardo, just returned from Milan, was astounding the public with his Mona Lisa; Fra Bartolommeo was exhibiting his Last Judgement; and Michelangelo, who had come back to Florence from his first trip to Rome three years previously, had completed his David and was now working on the cartoon of the Bathing Soldiers, part of a series of historical and battle scenes planned for the Palazzo della Signoria. Leonardo also produced a design for another fresco in the same series, The Battle of Anghiari. As Benvenuto Cellini later recalled: “One of these cartoons was in the Medici palace, and the other in the Pope’s hall: and while they remained intact they served as a school for all the world.” Raphael responded to the artistic challenge posed by these cartoons in drawings in which he took up the theme of battle, such as his Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs sketch of around 1504.

“In autumn 1508, shortly after summoning Michelangelo to Rome, Julius II also sent for Raphael. If Vasari is to be believed, the Pope acted upon the recommendation of Bramante, the architect of St.Peter’s, who was also originally from the Urbino area. A suite of papal rooms was to be decorated on the basis of a theologically-determined concetto. Some of the preliminary work had already been executed (perhaps not altogether to the Pope’s satisfaction) by the artists Sodoma and Peruzzi. In contrast to the multiple small components typical of Early Renaissance frescoes, such as those by Fra Angelico in the Vatican and by Gentile da Fabriano in the Lateran (now lost), a freer, more generous style, appropriate to the might and breadth of the Roman papacy, was now the order of the day. It was an ambitious commission, and Raphael found himself obliged to recruit an increasing number of pupils and assistants for the task, so much so that in the later rooms, in particular, it is not always easy to distinguish between the various hands. In the case of the first Stanza, however, the Camera della Segnatura – so called, because it was here that the Pope signed acts of grace – the frescoes stem entirely from the hand of Raphael. He commenced work at the beginning of 1509, and from the very start broke away from the passionate love of detail so characteristic of Florentine painting, and thus away from the style of Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Piero della Francesco. He developed instead an expansive style of composition which presented itself as a homogeneous and easily intelligible whole. In large, arched frescoes Raphael brought to life the subjects he had been instructed to paint: the theological Disputa (Disputation Concerning the Holy Sacrament) and its pendant, The School of Athens, portraying the secular sciences of philosophy. Aristotle and Plato are seen in conversation at the centre of the picture. just as one might imagine a scholarly discourse taking place in Ancient Greece, they are walking – in true Peripatetic manner – through a lofty lyceum. The gesture which Plato is making with his upward-pointing finger is symbolic in meaning: he is pointing to the source of higher inspiration, the realm of ideas. Aristotle, on the other hand, is gesturing downwards, towards the starting-point of all the natural sciences. Like Michelangelo in the Sistine Ceiling, Raphael also incorporates a number of his contemporaries into his fresco. This Plato is probably a portrait of Leonardo, while Archimedes, bending down to draw on a slate tablet with a pair of dividers, may be recognized as Bramante. The figure immediately behind and slightly above is that of Federico Gonzaga. In addition to these and many others whose identities are now lost to us, Raphael also included himself: together with Sodoma, he looks out towards the viewer from beside the pillar at the extreme right-hand edge of the picture.

“The Triumph of Galatea, which Raphael painted in 1512 in the palazzo owned by the banker Agostino Chigi (the later Villa Farnesina) is perhaps the supreme evocation of the glorious spirit of antiquity. Much of the beauty of Galatea’s face lies in its hint of shyness and innocence, as if she were utterly unaware of her physical charms; the expression of devotion on her face is not unlike that of Leonardo’s angel in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ. The composition is clearly constructed upon the interplay of diagonals. The arrows strung in the bows of the putti establish directional lines which are taken up in the lower half of the picture. Thus the diagonal issuing from the arrow top left, for example, is continued in the dolphins’ reins, while the arrow top right is restated in the body of the twisting sea nymph. Raphael positions the head of the beautiful Galatea subtly but clearly at the exact centre of the composition.

“The above-mentioned works may be seen as high points of what we understand as High Renaissance painting in its most evolved form. The transition to a new approach to art was complete. A painting was no longer to be the mere portrayal of an event, but was to translate and interpret its subject-matter in its composition. The movement of the body was now understood as an analogy for the animation of the spirit or the emotions; the external structure of a scene proclaimed its inner content. Everything in the picture was aimed at harmonious balance; each individual figure became an inseparable part of the whole. In this lies Raphael’s significant contribution to the painting of the High Renaissance.

“Raphael’s style was by no means uninfluenced by Michelangelo’s painting. Following the preliminary unveiling of the Sistine ceiling in 1509, the figures in Raphael’s pictures acquire more voluminous bodies and more powerful arms, and there is a reduction in their numbers. The bold twisting position adopted by the young woman in the Expulsion of Heliodorus – a pose which reappears in reverse in Raphael’s late work, the Transfiguration – would be inconceivable without the influence of Michelangelo. Any question as to the cause of the widely-acknowledged sudden change in Raphael’s style after 1509 is removed for good, however, when we compare the Sibyls and Prophets executed by Raphael in the Capella Chigi in S. Maria della Pace (1512) with those by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. In addition to the thematic kinship of these frescos with Michelangelo, Raphael’s new approach to body volumes and twisting poses makes patently clear the enormous impact which the Sistine ceiling had made upon him.

“The young painter from Urbino thus adopted the artistic innovations of his elder colleagues, in particular those of Leonardo and Michelangelo, and synthesized them with his own aims. This did not pass Michelangelo by; in 1541, long after Raphael’s death, he was still complaining in a letter that “everything he knew about art he got from me.”

“After the death of Bramante in 1514, Raphael was appointed architect of St. Peter’s. He also became increasingly involved with the excavations and surveys of ruins in Rome. He was adroit enough to leave the remaining frescos in the Papal apartments more and more to his assistants, including his important pupil Giulio Romano. Although he provided the designs for the Burning of the Borgo in the third Stanza and for the decoration of the loggias in the Vatican, and although he no doubt supervised their execution, they were largely painted by his pupils.

“Raphael produced a number of other important works during his time in Rome. These included Madonna paintings such as the Madonna della Sedia (1513-14), and a series of famous portraits, including that of Julius II (1511-12), the Donna Velata, Baldassare Castiglione, and Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de’Medici and Luigi de’Rossi. He also provided the decorations for the upper zones of the lateral walls of the Sistine Chapel, which thus directly adjoined the works by his great rival Michelangelo. Instead of frescoes, however, Raphael’s contribution took the form of a tapestry cycle depicting scenes from the lives of the Apostles. Raphael’s cartoons for the cycle, which are today housed in London, were produced between 1515 and 1518. The tapestries were woven in Arras under Pieter van Aelst, and seven were hung in 1519.

“One of the most frequently discussed and best-loved paintings of the Renaissance is Raphael’s so-called Sistine Madonna. For many people it remains the supreme example of western painting, and its popularity is virtually as great as that of the Mona Lisa. All who have written about this picture have acknowledged the strange and baffling expressions worn by Mary and the child Jesus, although attempts to decipher their meaning have frequently been evasive – “visionary pictorial composition” was one interpretation. Whole anthologies have been devoted to the problem. Famous painters and authors, including Goethe, Runge, Schlegel, C. G. Carus, Hebbel, Schopenhauer and R. A. Schröder (to name only German commentators), not to mention a host of art historians, have attempted to explain the painting, and others again have confessed, as Grillparzer did, how much they “would love to get the bottom of the matter”. Schopenhauer spoke of the “terror-stricken” face of the boy Jesus; for the dramatist Hebbel, “The child is wild, teeth clenched, eyes blazing…” In the past, the pointing finger of the Holy Father was almost always interpreted as a gesture commending the worshipping viewer to the Madonna. It was also assumed that the Mother and Child were looking at the viewer. But it is precisely here that the puzzle arises. Why does Mary look so troubled? Why is the child, staring transfixedly out of the picture with his ruffled hair, appear to shrink back? Raphael painted the picture for the high altar of S. Sisto in Piacenza. The small town had become part of the Vatican state in 1512, and the picture arose shortly afterwards. Some see a portrait of Pope Julius II in the figure of St. Sixtus on the left, looking up at the Virgin and pointing out towards the viewer. Only recently have the questions surrounding this painting finally been resolved. As recent research by A. Prager has shown, the key to the mystery lies in the position in which the altarpiece originally stood. Taking again the intriguing question of what the Pope is pointing at and what the Mother and Child are looking at, the answer is as astonishing as it is persuasive. It has long been forgotten that, as in many churches, opposite the altarpiece in S. Sisto and above the rood screen at the far end of the chancel there stood a crucifix. The expressions of horror on the faces of Mother and Child are thus their reaction to the sight of death. It is interesting to note that, long before this successful interpretation, it was a writer, and not an art historian, who came closest to understanding the mystery: R. A. Schröder saw the “deepest horror” written in the face of the child, “before which even Death itself is frightened to death”.”

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