Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Big Three

The School of Athens, 1509-10, Raphael
When we think of Renaissance painting, we often "in the same breath," so to speak, think of what we might call the big three, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, artists so familiar that we know them mostly by their first names. And, for the most part, we know their work even more intimately in that we can immediately pull up mental images of Leonardo's Last Supper, Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, or Raphael's...well, here we founder a bit. Raphael's what?  His Madonnas? His Ascension? His School of Athens? His Expulsion of Heliodorus? His Liberation of St. Peter from Prison? His Mass of Boselena? His Fire in the Borgo? Hmm...looks like we're in need of an art history lesson.
Mass of Boselena, 1512, Raphael

The "big three" were acquainted with one another but hardly friends. First of all, they represented three different generations. Leonardo, the eldest, born in 1452, was not on speaking terms with Michelangelo, whom he considered an impudent, upstart rival; and not without good reason.  Leonardo had a brilliant mind but was infamous for taking on more than he could ever possibly complete, leaving many projects unfinished. Michelangelo, born in 1475, was an impudent young upstart, and definitely a rival of Leonardo; but at least he finished most of his major commissions (except for the impossibly ambitious tomb of Julius II). Raphael, the youngest of the three, born in 1483, was the most amiable of the three with friends in high places and the best reputation for completing what he started. Michelangelo hated him, looking upon Raphael with much the same distaste as Leonardo did him, even going so far as to accuse Raphael of plagerism. Given the fact that there was some 30 years difference in age between Leonardo and Raphael, little is known of anything more than a nodding acquaintance between them (if even that).
The Transfiguration, 1520,

Why is it then that we know 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, his one failing (if you could call it that) was that he never completed his 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 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 Disputa with the same ease we can Michelangelo's Last Judgment.
Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican. Raphael's Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (Disputa)
at left is seen opposite his School of Athens, both from 1509-10.

No comments:

Post a Comment