Raphael: angel with a clipboard

The aesthetic richness of Raphael’s works—as well as his more practical side—are on full display in a new exhibition
May 12, 2022

The Victorian painter William Holman Hunt garlands Raffaello Santi (1483-1520) with the faintest of praise. Raphael was a quick learner, said Holman Hunt in his Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who “seized in a day” what it had taken his teacher Pietro Perugino, and his elder contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, years to learn. But the Transfiguration, intended for Narbonne Cathedral and subsequently displayed in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, contained “deadly artificialities and conventions.” And after that, the rot really set in.

“Pre-Raphaelitism is not Pre-Raphaelism,” Holman Hunt concedes. A “Raphaelite” could be anyone from Giulio Romano, who worked alongside the maestro in Rome and then took up a post as court painter in Mantua, to Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy in the 18th century—details of chronology didn’t matter. The problem was that in establishing a kind of factory to produce frescoes, easel paintings, stucco ornament, buildings, sculpture, tapestries, mosaics and more during his 12 years in Rome, Raphael had reduced art to a set of formulae: “the prodigality of his productiveness, and his training of many assistants, compelled him to lay down rules and manners of work; and his followers, even before they were left alone, accentuated his poses into postures.”

A suave, expensive-looking new exhibition at the National Gallery until 31st July, (originally planned for 2020 to mark 500 years since Raphael’s death but thrown off course by the pandemic), celebrates the artist’s versatility and practical nous alongside his pursuit of ideal beauty—and declines to find any contradiction between the two. The clipboard-toting project manager—whose good looks and noble character were celebrated by Vasari and other biographers of the time to a frankly tedious degree—and the artist whose very name spoke not just of angelic qualities but saintly ones too, are one and the same.

The show is organised more or less chronologically (though there’s a room at the end showcasing Raphael’s unexpectedly vivid and insightful portraiture). We are taken from Umbria and the Marches, where Raphael did indeed lose no time mastering Perugino’s somewhat sickly visions of celestial bliss, to four years in Florence; and thence to Rome, where he gained the patronage of popes Julius II and Leo X, along with wealthy individuals including Agostino Chigi and the boyband-pretty Bindo Altoviti.

Since most of the key works produced during the latter period are still attached to the walls of palaces and churches and others still too fragile to travel, there is an inevitable reliance on reproductions and videos. (An imitation of the 1511 School of Athens, in the Vatican, takes up an entire wall here.) But there’s a good selection of drawings, notably from the Ashmolean Museum’s impressive Raphael stash; these are nicely interposed among smaller paintings and one or two larger ones—the Saint Cecilia altarpiece from Bologna, a couple of fantastic tondi or round paintings. We also see works produced in relief by members of Raphael’s team, one of the Sistine Chapel tapestries (together with a copy of one of the V&A cartoons for it), a few architectural drawings and a number of prints after Raphael by Marcantonio Raimondi and others.

The cumulative effect is one of intense aesthetic richness—if you like the serene idealism of the central-Italian high renaissance, this will be like taking a long and perfumed bath. But it is also far from uninformative about what goes into the Raphael brand. A good example is a beautiful red chalk drawing of a seated angel from the Ashmolean, which crops up again in mosaic, executed by the Venetian Luigi de Pace, in a video tour of the Chigi Chapel. The drawing shows an idea in the process of crystallisation: it has freshness and energy; you can imagine it being carried around to show clients and fellow artists. The mosaic glitters with gold, has lasted for centuries and will abide, let us hope, for many more; but it’s solid and static, an object (seemingly) not made by human hands.

The breadth of antique references in the work underlines a sense of Raphael’s high-powered intellect. (Holman Hunt backhandedly called this “rapacious.”) There are poses based on Roman statuary, representations of ancient buildings that merge with modern and even as yet unbuilt ones in Raphael’s eponymous stanze in the Vatican—Pope Leo X’s private apartments. Notably, the so-called grotteschi, elaborate decorative schemes at the Vatican, the Farnesina villa in Trastevere and the Villa Madama on the slopes of Monte Mario, were derived from wall-paintings and plasterwork found at the Golden House of Nero, which was thought on its rediscovery in the 15th century to be a cave or “grotta.” Raphael and his team took all the mischief and inventiveness of these ancient decorations and made them new: there’s even a little panel depicting the studio at work.

In terms of scale and budget, Raphael’s most substantial achievements were in architecture, a field which has sometimes been called the mother of all art forms (generally by architects, it has to be said). But, of course, there was no such thing as an architect in 1514, when he was placed in charge of the chaotic rebuilding of St Peter’s in the Vatican. A design for the new church generally credited to him exists, and though it was never built, it arguably informed the eventual decision in the 17th century to elongate the church to the east. Elsewhere, in the small riverside church of Sant’Eligio degli Orefici and the more opulent Chigi Chapel, you can see traits that also feature in the paintings: a rigorous formal purity underlying (where this was executed and survives) a pretty decorated surface; an overall effect of harmony, which a Raphael-sceptic might just describe as bland.

There is indeed a risk of impersonality in some of this work. Raphael’s conception of the “ideal” is at odds with strict naturalism (“the truth in painting,” as a good Pre-Raphaelite would have understood it) and doesn’t leave a huge amount of room for a personal style. But at the National Gallery, his drawings and at least some of his paintings are tactile and distinctive. His collaborators—from Giulio, a Stan Lee to Raphael’s Walt Disney, to Giovanni da Udine, who worked on the grotteschi and had a special talent for mildly suggestive vegetables, to Marcantonio and his crisp, dynamic style of engraving—all speak to us eloquently in their own voices, too.

It’s pleasing to plot vectors from Raphael’s work, this extraordinary explosion of ideas and skill, into later centuries: to the French Renaissance and to the Carracci, to Poussin, to David, to Manet, even to Picasso (who responded both to Raphael’s exacting draughtsmanship and his notoriously prodigious sexual appetite). Compare Andy Warhol, another artist who ran a kind of factory: if you want to know who did what on his pictures, you’ll have to read the memoirs.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael is on until 31st July at the National Gallery in London