How bountiful and benign does heaven sometimes show itself by pouring out upon one person the infinite riches of its treasures, and all those graces and rarest gifts which it is customary to divide over a long period of time among many individuals…
Giorgio Vasari on Raphael, The Lives of the Most Outstanding Painters, Sculptors and Architects (quote from 1568)
Perhaps the best way to explore the enduring allure of 16th-century painter Raphael—currently the subject of a blockbuster exhibition at London’s National Gallery—is to begin with an explicit moment of rejection.
In 1848, a new group of painters calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood identified Raphael’s art as a turning point for Western art. They adopted the name “Pre-Raphaelites” to indicate the intention of their movement to maintain the qualities that were characteristic of Italians four hundred art (art from the 15th century).
As for the Pre-Raphaelites, the works of the Italians four hundred artists – such as Raphael’s teacher Fra Bartolomeo, Masaccio, Fra Angelico and especially Sandro Botticelli – showed meticulous attention to nature and were characterized by meticulous attention to detail. All this was arranged in astonishingly intricate and pleasing compositions; four hundred art was considered beautiful and truthful at the same time.
In stark contrast, the group viewed the work of Raphael (and Michelangelo’s contemporaries and especially Correggio’s) as mannered and overdone. In their works, the Brotherhood believed that realism gave way to exaggerated poses, and attention to detail was overshadowed by an almost abstract emphasis on shapes and forms. Real attention to nature, they argued, was sidelined in favor of an exaggerated and over-polished idea of contrived ‘art’.
This rejection was best summed up by John Ruskin, the writer most closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1845 he complained that Raphael’s work in Rome was so perfect that it could only be followed by an inevitable period of decline:
The perfection of execution and the beauty of the features achieved in these works and in those of his greatest contemporaries made the finish of the execution and the beauty of the form the main objects of all artists; and henceforth execution was sought instead of thought, and beauty instead of truthfulness.
In other words, Raphael’s stylistic emphasis on beauty, serenity and grace had become an end in itself. Art became art for art’s sake, and a manicured idea of a perfect ideal replaced an honest and truthful focus on nature.
As a result, Raphael has become easy to ignore. But it’s this idea of tasty yet superficial eye candy that the National Gallery’s exhibit simply titled “Raphael” is trying to challenge.
Man of many talents
Raphael is definitely more than blonde Madonnas and luscious nudes. He was not only an accomplished painter, but was also celebrated as a great architect. He delighted patrons with monumental fresco ensembles and magnificent tapestries. A prolific draftsman and graphic artist, he was also compiling an archaeological survey of the monuments of Rome.
He ran one of the most prolific workshops in the city, capable of commissioning across a variety of genres and media. Raphael was the consummate courtier and businessman, carrying a workload that none of his contemporaries could match, while seldom compromising the quality of his work.
It was, in fact, that “perfection of execution and beauty of character” that characterized these works; for Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites this marked a turning point of decline. But for Raphael’s contemporaries, the grace, serenity and beauty of the works were the reason they were so sought after. For a 16th-century patron, owning a work by Raphael was an important marker of their own identity and reputation.
In 1972, the art historian Michael Baxandall famously wrote that “a 15th-century painting is the repository of a social relationship”. For his patrons, Raphael’s images indicated that they belonged to an educated and privileged elite who shared moral and political values. By displaying their Raphael, they made this visible.
No other painter could satisfy this need in image-hungry Rome. Who was there? Michelangelo, the socially awkward loner who is happier with a chisel in hand than at the head of a workshop? Leonardo? As Ruskin pointed out rather succinctly in 1853, “Leonardo brooded over his life in engineering, so that there is hardly a photograph left bearing his name.”
Although he died relatively young (compared to some of his peers) at the age of 37 in April 1520, Raphael became synonymous with the image of Renaissance Rome in the way that Hans Holbein has become synonymous with creating the likeness of Henry VIII. Easy to stereotype, easy to ignore, but well worth a second and even third look.
The triumph of the National Gallery exhibition lies in bringing together these myriad aspects of Raphael’s work and inviting us all to take another look.