Commoner with the divine touch

Raphael, as dedicated a lover as he was a painter, died at 37 at the height of his powers and fame, illustrates Michael Prodger

On Art

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In 1787, Goethe pondered the nature of artistic reputation. “It is so difficult to comprehend one great talent, let alone two at the same time,” he concluded. “To make things easier for us, we take sides; that is why the reputation of artists and writers is always fluctuating. Now one rules the day, now another.”

His observation was prompted by a visit to the Sistine Chapel where he saw the work of Michelangelo and Raphael side by side. He acknowledged that man “never acquires the capacity to recognise and appreciate equally, different kinds of greatness” and so, forced to choose, he came down on the side of Michelangelo.

Two episodes go some way to capture the extraordinary esteem Raphael once enjoyed

In this particular face-off, Michelangelo has been winning the day ever since. Indeed, when it comes to the reputation of Raphael (1483-1520) against that of his High Renaissance peers, he has lost out to Leonardo and Titian too.

Raphael, however, once eclipsed the others: they had faults — Michelangelo was too mannered, Leonardo too distracted, Titian too much of a colourist and not enough of a draughtsman — while the courtly boy from Urbino was the master of the grand manner who combined harmony of colour with perfection of design and an all-encompassing sweep of the imagination. And while the others were long-lived, he died at 37, at the height of his powers and fame.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death, and he was to be celebrated by major exhibitions in Rome and at the National Gallery. The Quirinale show started, stopped and started again: the National’s has been postponed until 2021. So the chance to reassess Raphael by a grand gathering of his work has been hamstrung.

Two episodes, however, go some way to capture the extraordinary esteem he once enjoyed. The first was evidenced by his death. According to Vasari, the unmarried Raphael was as dedicated a lover as he was a painter and “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 object of his diversions was Margherita Luti, traditionally identified as the half-naked subject of his portrait La Fornarina, and when, after ineffectual bleeding by his doctors, the end was approaching he sent her away (“leaving her the means to live honourably”), arranged his worldly a airs and died “on the same day that he was born, which was Good Friday”.

What followed was Rome in communal lamentation: his funeral procession, lit by 100 torch bearers, was accompanied by a crowd of mourners who turned out to say their farewells to the city’s adoptive son; while his bier, surmounted by his altarpiece of the Transfiguration, was carried by four cardinals. Raphael’s body was buried in the Pantheon, and the Medici pope Leo X wept and kissed the dead painter’s hand before he was interred. All this for a commoner from Le Marche.

The second instance brings a touch of divinity to his story. In 1517, Raphael was commissioned by a wealthy Sicilian lawyer to produce an altarpiece for the Olivetan monks of Santa Maria dello Spasimo in Palermo. It showed Christ collapsing under the weight of his cross on the path to Golgotha. His mother, following behind, sees her prostrate son and experiences a shudder of grief and pain so severe as to bring her to her knees: her spasm gives the painting its name, Lo Spasimo di Sicilia.

In 1520, the completed picture left the painter’s studio, was loaded on to a boat and sent on its way. The vessel was hit by a storm and sank with everything and everyone on board. However, the crate carrying the painting washed up at Genoa: “Here being drawn to shore,” says Vasari, “it was seen to be a thing divine, and was taken care of, being found uninjured, even the winds and waves in their fury respecting the beauty of such a work.” The Genoese became so attached to this painting, so hedged about with the miraculous, that they refused to relinquish it until ordered by the pope.

When Lo Spasimo finally arrived in Sicily it became “more famous than the mountain of Vulcan”, Mount Etna. Its legend brought it to the attention of the pious Philip IV of Spain who acquired it in 1661 and hung it in the chapel at the Alcázar in Madrid. Shortly after the picture left Sicily, Santa Maria dello Spasimo burnt to the ground. In 1737, the Alcázar suffered the same fate but again, Lo Spasimo was one of the few paintings to survive.

In 1813, it was taken to Paris by Napoleon and ruinously transferred from its wooden panel to canvas. Its wanderings ended only in 1819 when it was returned to Spain and the Prado. By then it was so badly damaged and maladroitly restored that modern art historians long thought that it must be a studio work: only recently has Raphael’s authorship been proved.

With the Romantic era this reverence for Raphael was lost, so his anniversary year is an appropriate time to honour him again, this time more in the observance than the breach.

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