In 1768, with the personal blessing of George III, the Royal Academy of Arts was founded as “a school or academy of design for the use of students in the arts”. The British nation was late in possessing such an institution – the French Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture had been established more than a century earlier, in 1648 – but the new academicians were determined to slough off any residual cultural cringe and catch up with their continental peers. So, in 1769, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the RA’s inaugural president, delivered the first of 15 Discourses.
The Discourses, for the edification of the RA’s 77 students, laid out Reynolds’ vision of art, one based on the emulation of the Renaissance masters and the antique. In Discourse Five, delivered in 1772, he grappled with the problem of exactly which great name the students should best look to for inspiration and example. The choice, he was clear, lay between Michelangelo and Raphael (neither Leonardo nor Titian was even considered). “These two extraordinary men,” he said, “carried some of the higher excellencies of art to a higher degree of perfection than probably they ever achieved before. They have certainly not been excelled or equalled ever since.”
Although, he conceded, Michelangelo would win the duel if “the sublime” – in the sense of a moody and rumbling intensity – were the measure, it was Raphael (1483-1520) who was Reynolds’ clear choice because he alone exemplified “the great style”. (In 1787, prompted by a visit to the Vatican, Goethe plumped, almost reluctantly, for Michelangelo instead. “It is so difficult to comprehend one great talent, let alone two at the same time,” he concluded, adding that, “To make things easier for us, we take sides.” It would always be this way, he thought, until the unlikely event that mankind “acquires the capacity to recognise and appreciate equally, different kinds of greatness”.)
For Reynolds though, “the excellence” of Raphael was surpassing. It “lay in the propriety, beauty and majesty of his characters, the judicious contrivance of his composition, his correctness of drawing, purity of taste, and skilful accommodation of other men’s conceptions to his purposes”. This last trait was of particular importance to art students and nobody excelled Raphael “in that judgement, with which he united to his own observations of Nature, the energy of Michael Angelo [sic], and the beauty and simplicity of the antique”.
For more than a century those who sided with Goethe were heavily outnumbered. Raphael – talented, multifarious, soigné, socially adroit, and dead at just 37 – fully merited Vasari’s sobriquet the “prince of painters”, since he showed not only how to paint but also how to be the ideal artist. Raphael’s pre-eminence was not to survive, however. Post romanticism, artists and aficionados began to desire less “purity of taste” and more grit in their oyster, and they found it in Michelangelo’s terribilità, Leonardo’s universality and Titian’s emotive colour.
Even Ruskin failed to be swayed by Raphael’s merits, later writing waspishly of his first encounter with the painter in Rome in 1840: “Of Raphael, however, I found I could make nothing whatever. The only thing clearly manifest to me in his compositions was that everybody seemed to be pointing at everybody else, and that nobody, to my notion, was worth pointing at.”
Raphael’s reputation as one of the greatest of the Renaissance’s Renaissance men has survived but he is perhaps more often admired than loved. The quincentenary of his death fell in 2020 and was due to be marked by an assortment of celebrations, including a much anticipated exhibition of his work at the National Gallery. That show twice fell victim to the Covid pandemic but is now, belatedly, taking place and offers the opportunity to see why Reynolds and so many others held him in such esteem.
One reason was that Raphael seemed preordained for greatness – he was the golden child who went on to fulfil his destiny. Vasari called him “Nature’s gift to the world” and ascribed his sweetness of temperament to being breastfed by his mother, rather than by a wet nurse. Raphael’s mother, Màgia, died when he was only eight, which may account for the centrality of Madonna and Child paintings throughout his career. The boy’s early training was with his father, Giovanni Santi, official painter (and sometime poet) at the highly cultured court of the Duke of Urbino. By the time of Giovanni’s death in 1494, his 11-year-old son was precocious enough to work as his assistant.
Some time around 1500 Raphael joined the Perugia workshop of Pietro Perugino, one of the leading painters of the day, and also received his first recorded commission, for an altarpiece: in the contract, although just 17, he was recorded as magister, “master”. Raphael’s ability to absorb the influence of other artists, remarked on by Reynolds, was evident in his adoption of Perugino’s softly harmonious and jewel-like manner and it was further demonstrated from around 1504 when he first started to visit Florence to learn from the art there. Both Fra Bartolommeo and Leonardo were synthesised in his work, and a drawing of a young woman of 1505-06 shows that he had clearly seen the Mona Lisa in Leonardo’s studio, while another depicts Michelangelo’s recently unveiled sculpture of David.
The example of these artists resulted in Raphael imbuing his forms with greater weight and clarity and, through the expressive use of pose and gesture, endowing his pictures with resonant emotion (Leonardo’s notion of the “moti dell’anima” – motions of the soul) and a sense of storytelling. This step change is clear in his painting of The Deposition (1507) in which the heft of the dead Christ’s body and the pain of grief that runs throughout the cortège combine in a narrative that Vasari said would “move the hardest heart in pity”.
In the autumn of 1508, at the summons of the Della Rovere Pope Julius II, Raphael moved to Rome and was to remain there for the rest of his life. He initially worked on Julius’s private library in the Vatican and so impressed the pontiff that he was tasked with frescoing the suite of four ceremonial rooms known as the Stanze. At the same time, Michelangelo was at work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling a mere hundred yards or so away. It was Raphael’s frescoes, completed either by himself or to his detailed designs by members of the workshop that quickly formed around him, that made his reputation.
In paintings such as The School of Athens, Parnassus and The Deliverance of St Peter, Raphael found new ways of handling large numbers of figures in lucid and rhythmic compositions (it has been claimed that he never repeated a pose in his work); of using a telling variety of expressive gesture, foreshortening and colour; of inventing innovatory light effects (The Deliverance has moonlight, dawn sunlight, torchlight, reflected light, and divine light), all in the service of a sophisticated melding of Christian and pagan theology. The 19th-century critic Walter Pater described the frescoes, in effect a summation of Renaissance humanist thought, as “large theoretic conceptions” that are “addressed, so to speak, to the intelligence of the eye”, and Kenneth Clark had this harmony of conceit and expression in mind when he called Raphael “one of the civilising forces of the Western imagination”.
Some of the figures also show a debt to Michelangelo. At some point before the first part of the Sistine ceiling was unveiled in 1511, Raphael managed to sneak into the chapel to see Michelangelo’s work in progress and, as a result, a new monumentality emerged in some of his figures. The proprietorial older artist was outraged by the trespass, by the appropriation and by the fact that Raphael gave this assimilated style a public airing in the figure of The Prophet Isaiah painted for the church of Sant’Agostino in Rome. Raphael’s popularity with the Pope, with whom Michelangelo himself had fractious relations, only further soured his mood and it rankled: as late as 1542 he claimed sourly that, “What he [Raphael] had of art, he had from me.”
As with all his designs, Raphael first refined his figures and harmonised groupings in drawings of exquisite beauty. These were worked up to full-scale cartoons by his assistants (who were frequently also his models) and transferred to the walls for frescoing. Drawings were the basis for his oil paintings too, as well as being used as gifts (he exchanged drawings with Dürer, for example), as models for engravings, tapestries, sculptures and medallions, and as the basis for paintings by other artists. Reynolds thought Raphael’s greatest genius lay in his frescoes, but others might argue that it was with pen or chalk in hand that he was truly peerless.
Raphael’s closeness to the seat of spiritual power also gave him added lustre in the eyes of Rome’s patron class. Among those to employ him was Agostino Chigi, the Pope’s banker and a man so rich he would have gold plates made bearing the arms of his dinner guests, which he would then encourage them to throw into the Tiber at the end of the meal. While they went away staggered by his liberality, he ordered the goldware hauled out again in nets he had hidden in the river. Raphael would design two chapels for the Chigi family – ensembles of architecture, statuary and metalwork – as well as decorations for Agostino’s villa then on the edge of Rome, now the Villa Farnesina, which included his celebrated fresco of The Triumph of Galatea (1512).
In the figure of the water nymph, derived from his own gently ecstatic painting of St Catherine (1508), he not only showed his mastery of mythological subjects and the female nude but his conception of ideal beauty. In a letter traditionally thought to be from the painter to his friend Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Book of the Courtier (1528), Raphael wrote that, “To paint one beautiful woman, I would have to see several beauties… but, since both good judgement and beautiful women are scarce, I make use of a certain idea that comes to mind.” Just as he transmuted the work of other artists so he sought to depict not simply nature but nature improved.
Within two years of painting Galatea, Raphael was appointed chief architect of St Peter’s by Pope Leo X, and a year later, in 1515, supervisor of Roman antiquities and excavations. The leap from artist to architect was not as great as might be imagined (Michelangelo had held the same role): the great architect Donato Bramante was a distant kinsman, mentor and fellow Urbinite and Raphael included imagined architecture in many of his paintings, as well as inventing more practical iterations for his stage and chapel designs. As “Prefect of stones and marbles” Raphael was a proto-conservationist, reluctant to take material from Rome’s ancient buildings for reuse in its new ones, notably St Peter’s. In his “Letter to Leo X”, written in 1519 with Castiglione, he hymned antique Roman architecture, while he also embarked on a survey of ancient Rome that was incomplete at his death.
Raphael’s rise led to an unrealisable demand for his work. At one point he sustained a workshop, or perhaps more accurately an artistic enterprise, of up to 50 artists, many of the first rank. Giulio Romano, who would become one of the leading painters of the next generation, was his most notable assistant; Marcantonio Raimondi was the foremost engraver in Italy; Giovanni da Udine was its leading decorative still life painter; and the Flemish weaver Pieter van Aelst, who brought Raphael’s tapestry designs – including the ten monumental hangings he designed for the Sistine Chapel – to fruition, was the most accomplished tapestry weaver of the age. What impressed Vasari most, however, was not how hard Raphael had to work – for all his preternatural talent – but his ability in keeping harmony between normally fractious artists. Meanwhile his literary friendships encompassed not just Castiglione but Pietro Aretino and Pietro Bembo too.
This sense of sympathy, a gift for human relations, emerges clearly in his portraits. His depiction of Julius II (1511-12), for example, is not an image of religious authority but of extraordinary, indeed daring, intimacy in which the Pope is shown not as St Peter’s heir but as an elderly man weighed down, almost broken, by the responsibility of his office. However, Raphael could paint power too: his 1518 portrait of Julius’s successor, Leo X flanked by Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi (Leo’s family cardinals), is above all a summation of dynastic potency.
Although Raphael left many patrons frustrated by his unwillingness to take on commissions or by his tardiness in completing them, he seems always to have found time to paint portraits of his friends. In contrast to his papal portraits he made a series of informal works for private rather than public view that show the trust and ease between painter and sitter. In paintings such as his Double portrait of Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazzano (1516), Bindo Altoviti (1516-18), Baldassare Castiglione (1519), Self-portrait with Giulio Romano (1519-20), and La Fornarina (1519-20), a calm amiability is tangible: these are records of relationships that are as comfortable with silence as with conversation.
Just occasionally, Raphael’s equability could crack. He was once teased by two cardinals who complained that in one of his paintings, St Peter and St Paul were too red in the face. Raphael snapped back that the Church fathers “must be as red in heaven as you see them here, out of shame that their Church is being ruled by such men as you”. There are, however, only two existing letters from his hand, so his true personality remains elusive and shaped by the anecdotes of others.
That he was widely loved as well as revered is nevertheless clear from his death. Vasari records that the unmarried Raphael had an eye for the ladies and that “pursuing his amours in secret, Raffaello continued to divert himself beyond measure with the pleasures of love; whence it happened that, having on one occasion indulged in more than his usual excess, he returned to his house in a violent fever”. The doctors bled him but that only made his condition worse, and Leo X was so concerned that he sent emissaries to offer what aid he could at least six times. Neither medicine or prayer worked and when Raphael realised the end was coming he dismissed his mistress from his house (courteously “leaving her the means to live honourably”), made his will and confessed his sins.
He died on 6 April 1520, “on the same day that he was born, which was Good Friday”, and a story quickly circulated that a crack appeared in the Vatican Palace foundations at the moment of his death. In fact it was due to a construction error and had appeared days earlier but it served nevertheless to reinforce the links between the painter and Christ. Raphael had bought a burial plot in the Pantheon, the former Roman temple turned church, and his funeral procession, with four cardinals carrying his body (there were rumours too that the Pope had been about to offer the painter a cardinal’s hat) was lit by 100 torchbearers and accompanied by a huge crowd. Leo X wept and kissed the dead painter’s hand and the bier was surmounted by Raphael’s last work, the huge altarpiece showing The Transfiguration.
Some 300 years later, in 1833, Pope Gregory XVI ordered Raphael’s tomb to be opened so that his body could be studied. While the public bought tickets to view his remains, scientists examined his skeleton to see if it would yield clues as to his genius. The most interesting finding was that he had a large larynx, which suggested the gentle artist, contrary to the image of his hagiographers, had an unusually loud voice. Hans Christian Andersen was among those present when Raphael was reinterred and recalled the solemnity of the moment being broken when the coffin was tipped while being reinserted into the tomb and the bones rattled noisily to one end.
Perhaps Raphael was due a moment of posthumous bathos after a life – and body of work – of such conspicuous grace.
National Gallery, London WC2, 9 April – 31 July
[See also: Algernon Newton: rediscovering British art’s “Canaletto of the canals”]
This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special