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Monday, June 10, 2019

The Real Raphael

The Transfiguration, and Ascension of Christ into Heaven, 1516–20, Raphael--final work completed after the painter's death by an assistant.
If one were to question a group of art layman (non-artist) today asking them to name some of the painters of the Italian Renaissance, the responses would probably surprise (and dishearten) you. Virtually every response would include Leonardo and Michelangelo, artists we have come to know on a first-name basis. Fine, but after those two, would follow a lot of blank stares or blank space if this were a quiz. Actually there are enough painters alone to fill a whole sheet of notebook paper. Yet, there is at least one more Renaissance painter we often refer to by his first name yet he would likely land several lines down--that of Raphael (or Raphaello di Sanzio). And even though some might readily recognize and recall the name (even his last name), few people could identify even one of his works.
School of Athens, 1509-11, Raphael
Why is it then that we are somewhat familiar with the name, but are so unfamiliar with the work of Raphaello de Sanzio? Well, first he worked constantly in the shadow of Michelangelo...and a huge shadow it was. Second, while he could be relied upon to complete that which he started (unlike Leonardo), his one failing, if you could call it that, was that he never completed his own life. He died suddenly of a mysterious ailment in 1520 at the age of 37, leaving behind his one unfinished painting, his work depicting the Transfiguration and ascension of Christ into Heaven (later completed by an assistant). The third reason is that, while outliving both his rivals (Leonardo died in 1519), Michelangelo's star continued to rise (as did Leonardo's in spite of his death). With Raphael, that was not the case. He left a dozen or more major masterpieces but none were to become art icons. His School of Athens (above) comes closest, and is on a par with anything (other than Michelangelo's ceiling) done by the other two. However it seems his work was either too cerebral or too "sweet" (sometimes both at the same time) to have earned him the "superstar" status he so richly deserved. Though his memory glowed for a short time after his death, only in the 1800s did his work come to be really studied and admired again. Who knows, maybe it will take another hundred years or so before we can call to mind his Transfiguration (top) with the same ease we can Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

The Alba Madonna, ca. 1510, Raphael

Doni Tondo, 1507, Michelangelo
According to Renaissance hist-orian and architect, Giorgio Vasari, Raphael was the one who suggested Michelangelo for the commission in the hopes that he’d fail, since Michel-angelo was mostly known as a sculptor. Yet Raphael seems to have respected Michelangelo’s style: From the older artist, Raphael learned how to imbue the figures that inhabit his The Alba Madonna, completed in 1510, has a monumental quality. While Raphael was at work on The School of Athens, Michelangelo was painting his frescoes on the Sistine Ceiling. The Alba Madonna (above), completed in 1510, has a degree of monumentality not seen in Raphael's earlier works. We have only to compare Raphael's Alba with Michelangelo's Doni Tondo (right, completed in 1507) to gauge the effect Michelangelo works, both in the Sistine Chapel and elsewhere to get a first glimpse of the "Real" Raphael.

Raphael Self-portrait, 1506
However telling, Raphael's larger com-missions expose only one aspect of his personality and character. Born on Good Friday, April 6, 1483—the same day on which he’d eventually die—in Urbino, Raffaello di Sanzio took over his artisan father’s workshop as a teenager. In 1500, at 17 years of age, the boy received his first commission: an altarpiece for the church of Sant’ Agostino in Perugia, an assignment that would launch his precocious career. He began charming wealthy patrons from a young age, ensuring that he always had commissions to execute and money to spend. His self-portrait, painted around 1506, helps explain his success: Raphael rendered himself with long curly locks, searching brown eyes, smooth skin, and plush lips, glorying in his image as a sensitive, soulful aesthete. From his adolescent years on until his death, women found him attractive. Beyond this romantic reputation is a prolific artist who produced a varied body of work that brought Renaissance painting to its pinnacle. In his 2006 biography Raphael: A Passionate Life, Antonio Forcellino writes that the young artist “...acted as the interpreter of a very particular world, the dream of a golden rebirth to be brought about through literary studies and painting.” Raphael’s oeuvre likewise reveals a sense of “harmony, culture, and intellectual and sensual equilibrium.”

Lady with a Unicorn, 1505, Raphael
Two portraits, one from early in his career (above) and the other, painted over the final years of the artist's life (below) illuminate Raphael the man. Raphael's Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn, painted 1505 when the artist was twenty-two, depicts an elegant blonde woman holding a small unicorn, her head framed by two columns and a far-off landscape of green earth and blue sky. Yet for centuries, the picture showed a different scene. In the 1930s, conservationists revealed that the painting had undergone multiple revisions. Raphael had initially painted a dog instead of a unicorn. Then sometime in the 17th century, another artist had painted over Raphael’s composition entirely, turning it into a picture of St. Catherine holding a broken wheel, the symbol of her martyrdom. The vandal also added a shawl over the subject’s shoulders, which had originally remained bare. Subsequent scholars have come up with myriad interpretations of the painting. Some note its compositional similarity to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, began around the same time, in 1503. Both women look out at the viewer with impenetrable glances and pursed lips, and the paintings similarly employ a half-length format in which their subjects appear seated, the frames cutting them off at their waists. But the identity of Raphael’s sitter, and the symbolic meaning of the unicorn, remain puzzles for historians. The mythical creature may have functioned as a symbol of purity: Legend maintained that only virgins could attract a unicorn. Of course, these virgins’ powers of persuasion also warned potential suitors of seductive cunning.

La Fornarina, 1518–20, Raphael
Through his painting, La Fornarinawe see Raphael at his most lascivious. Against a dark, leafy background, a woman with a bare torso and pert nipples holds a sheer cloth by her left breast, while her left arm, encircled with a blue band that reads “Raphael Urbinas" rests on her lap. A colorful turban wraps around her dark hair, which is elegantly parted down the center. Her large brown eyes look left, out of the frame. She was probably his lover Margherita Luti, a baker’s daughter, or fornarina. The armband is often interpreted as a token of the woman’s ownership rather than of the painting’s authorship.” Raphael died before he could complete the work, which remained in his studio for the remainder of his life, suggesting that the artist may not have intended it for public view. Even centuries later, the intimate portrait remains one of the most erotically charged paintings in Western art.


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