The famous Cappella Chigi designed by Raffaello, in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, Italy.
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Raphael & Rome after Lockdown

For art lovers, now is the perfect time to visit The Eternal City

Raphael died on 6 April, 1520. It was his 37th birthday. The 500th anniversary of the death of one of the great artists of Western civilisation is an entirely suitable occasion for celebrating the life and work of a man who has been regarded as the greatest of them all – an artist who, in the past, was placed on a pedestal even higher than the one occupied by Leonardo, by Michelangelo or indeed by any of the most celebrated Old Masters.

Several exhibitions this year will commemorate Raphael. There’s a show devoted to his drawings in Washington DC in the US. In Brussels, there’s an “impossible exhibition” devoted to 45 digital reproductions of Raphael’s work, including a gigantic digital version of the fresco The School of Athens. The National Gallery in London’s special exhibition devoted to Raphael, which was due to open on 3 October, has been delayed by the pandemic. It is now scheduled for the spring of 2022. And then there is the biggest and most splendid of the lot: the “Mostra Raffaello” at the Scuderie of the Palazzo Quirinale in Rome.

The plethora of exhibitions is pleasing but, in some ways, surprising, because Raphael is today frequently associated with saccharine depictions of Mary and the infant Jesus. His work has been criticised for lacking depth – ideal for Christmas cards, but too complacently consoling to be authentically great.

The bust of Raphael that sits above his coffin, in his resting place in the Pantheon in Rome, Italy.

It is certainly true that Raphael’s art is not valued for the profundity of its messages. “Leonardo promised us heaven”, said Picasso. “But Raphael gave it to us”. Delivering heaven is not, however, thought to be very deep or meaningful these days, especially now that we no longer believe it exists. If Raphael’s place in the Pantheon of art’s great geniuses is secure, it is because of his wonderful technique rather than for anything his work “says”. It is a nice fact that Raphael is the only artist who actually has a monument in the real Pantheon in Rome. Raphael himself designed it. It was put there soon after his death, and it has been a place of pilgrimage for Raphael devotees ever since. But if there were a vote amongst today’s critics on which artists deserve a special memorial, Raphael would probably not make it in to the top ten choices.

I have never shared in the denigration of Raphael. It seems to me to be based upon the mistaken belief that only art that makes you suffer can be serious. Raphael’s art is not about suffering. It is a celebration of beauty, harmony, grace and perfection. Which is why I was eager to get tickets for the Raphael retrospective in Rome as soon as they were available. Unfortunately, Covid-19 intervened. The exhibition opened on 5 March. But on 9 March, Giuseppi Conte, Italy’s Prime Minister, imposed a national lockdown. The exhibition closed immediately and didn’t open again until the Italian Government lifted the restrictions on people moving from their homes – which wasn’t until June.

As soon as I heard that the exhibition was going to re-open, I called the number for reserving tickets. I have to use a wheelchair, which usually entitles me to a discount at galleries and museums in Italy. I explained this in my very bad Italian to the charming woman at the other end of the reservations phoneline (she did not speak English).

“Are you 100 per cent disabled?”, she snapped.

“Um…no”, I replied. “If you are 100 per cent disabled, technically – you are dead…In fact you are dead. At least in the UK.”

“Not in the EU!” she replied.

There was a long silence. Then she asked: “So are you 74 per cent disabled?”

I have to confess I was flummoxed by that question. Am I 74 per cent disabled? I have no idea.

“I can’t walk, and I can’t stand up”, I explained. “But I can use my arms. In fact, the top half of my body is OK. It’s just my legs…”

“Then you are obviously not 74 per cent disabled,” she interrupted huffily. “and obviously do not qualify for a discount”.

“Oh” was all I could manage by way of reply. It doesn’t sound any better in Italian.

“But your carer qualifies for one”, the voice at the other end of the line suddenly continued, now more cheerily. “You have to pay. But they go free”.

I purchased four tickets immediately. One for me, one for my wife, and one each for two Italian friends.

The first available entrance to the exhibition was on 9 July, at 9am. I was told that my party and I needed to be outside five minutes before 9am. And masks were compulsory: no mask, no Raphael. Masks are required in Rome in all churches, museums and galleries, though not on the street or in bars and restaurants. When we arrived in front of the Scuderie of the Quirinale Palace at half past eight in the morning on 9 July, there was already a queue of people waiting to get in.

The queue was unexpected, at least by my wife and I. We had been in Rome for a couple of days before we arrived at the exhibition. The habitual press of people – usually unavoidable in Rome — and the snarls and scowls that go with being squashed and squeezed and having to push and shove to see anything or get anywhere — had been totally absent from the city. Rome was without tourists and without queues. The few people around were serving in the cafes, bars, and restaurants, or were politicians on their way to Italy’s Parliament: someone once said that in Rome, other than serving tourists, the only industry is power – and that remains true. There were very few beggars, and no buskers. The only language we heard was Italian. The posh shops on the Via Condotti were doing a brisk trade in designer face masks – but not much else.

Rome has never looked so beautiful or so magical and mysterious. It sometimes appeared as if the whole of the historic centre had been specially cleared for our benefit. There were about five people at the Trevi Fountain, three in the Piazza Navona, and no-one at all at the Spanish steps. The churches were empty. The museums were empty. So were the galleries – all of them except, it seemed, the Scuderie of the Quirinale where Raphael’s paintings and drawings were on display.

But that turned out to be pretty empty as well. The queue had been created by the custodians. There seemed to be as many of them as there were people visiting the exhibition. And they would only let eight people in at any one time.

The first thing to note about the exhibition is that – prodigious though the number of works by the master on display is – it is organised back to front. It begins with a room devoted to works Raphael produced in the last year of his life. Subsequent rooms contain pictures that are exhibited in exactly opposite order to the sequence in which Raphael painted them. The curators may have thought that they had come up with a brilliantly original way of arranging Raphael’s works. Original it is. But brilliant it ain’t. To go backwards from the end of Raphael’s life of the beginning is confusing rather than illuminating. It makes it much harder to see how he developed as an artist, and it obscures the continuities as well as the innovations in his style over the course of his life.

If you like Western art produced between 100 BC and the end of the 19th century, this is the time and place to see it

The organising idea may be a silly gimmick, but the exhibition contains many glorious things. The sheer range of Raphael’s output on display is breath-taking. There are several of Raphael’s most effective portraits, including his portrait of Pope Julius II (from the National Gallery); his portrait of Pope Leo X and his nephews, the cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi; and his marvellous late self-portrait with an unidentified friend. There is Raphael’s stunning portrait of Baldassarre Castiglione – a work that exerted a colossal influence on later portraiture, and when you look at it, you can see why: it has a completely new psychological depth, as well as an unprecedented combination of realism and painterly effects. And there is Raphael’s portrait of La Fornarina, the baker’s daughter who was his mistress, whom he depicted topless, and with whom Vasari alleges Raphael was so sexually active that, after one particularly frenzied session, he died of exhaustion. I am reliably informed that this is not medically possible for a reasonably fit man under 40, especially as Raphael did not die suddenly of a heart attack, but of a fever over a period of two weeks. It is much more probable that he caught one of the dozens of potentially fatal infections circling round Rome in the spring of 1520. But death by sex is too good a story ever to be decisively refuted.

Inevitably, there are several of Raphael’s grand religious pictures in the exhibition. I was struck by the surprising touches of humour he often manages to insert into his depictions of the serene piety of the Holy Family: the winged cupids who hover above or look up from below appear gloriously bored at the whole spectacle of holiness (see, for example, The Sistine Madonna; or The Canigiani Holy Family). I have no idea if Raphael was trying to poke fun at religious solemnity. But his cupids appear to be capable of playing a mischievous trick on the holy Madonna and her sacred bambino.

Looking at the sheer scale of Raphael’s output, and the amazing way in which he absorbed other artists’ innovations and transformed them into something utterly personal, you can’t help asking yourself: how did he do it? How could one man possibly manage to produce so much at such a supremely high level – especially given that he had less than twenty years (from the age of 17 to 37) as a fully trained and active artist?

The short answer is that he didn’t do it — at least not on his own. No single human being could. His secret was that he used his pupils very effectively to execute pictures that he had designed and drawn. Within a few years of arriving in Rome at the age of 25, he had a studio of 50 artists working with him. All contemporary accounts of Raphael stress that he was a very agreeable individual, with none of the jealousy, bitterness, egotism and persecution mania that characterise many great artists. Everyone liked him, except irrationally resentful characters such as Michelangelo, whose envious hatred of Raphael was such that he continued to spread vicious lies about Raphael for 20 years after Raphael was dead.

Raphael could not charm Michelangelo, or Michelangelo’s acolytes such as Sebastiano del Piombo. But he charmed everyone else who encountered him. Raphael’s pupils were all exceptionally fond of him and appreciated the opportunities he gave them to help him with completing some of his most important commissions. He became very rich, lived in a palace, and attained social status high enough to be on equal terms with dukes and cardinals, while still treating everyone else without condescension, and with the decency and humanity for which he was famous.

Raphael’s work as an architect is copiously represented in the Rome exhibition, and it is a very good example of his capacity for creative collaboration. I wasn’t fully aware of the extent that Raphael practised architecture until I saw the drawings on display here. Pope Leo X put him in charge of rebuilding St Peter’s, but although he produced some detailed plans, his designs for that colossal project were never executed. Nearly 30 years after Raphael’s death, Michelangelo took over as chief architect of St Peter’s – and when he did, that was the end of Raphael’s conception. But Raphael also designed palaces in Rome, and several of them were built. A portion of one, the Villa Madama, survives. It was much admired by, and had a significant influence on, Palladio. There are designs for various palaces in the exhibition, most of them drawn to Raphael’s instructions by Antonio San Gallo the Younger, who was Raphael’s architectural assistant. San Gallo knew a great deal about the technicalities of building in stone. Raphael did not – but he was sensible enough, and modest enough, to realise he needed help from someone who did.

The astounding breath of Raphael’s creativity is beautifully represented in the exhibition. The trouble is – there is no time at all in which to look at any of it. I have had to rely on the wonderfully reproduced images of Raphael’s work in the catalogue in order to describe what is in the exhibition. You are told as you enter that “due to Covid-19”, you will be allowed precisely five minutes in each room. Five minutes in each room containing ten masterpieces by Raphael! It sounds ridiculous, and it is. You scarcely have time to glance at just one of them before a buzzer intrudes and a custodian taps you on the shoulder and informs you very firmly that it is now time to move to the next room. I suppose a tiny dose of Raphael is better than none at all – but it is intensely annoying and frustrating not to have more time. You desperately want to be able to contemplate just one of Raphael’s great masterpieces. You can’t. Five minutes is not long enough even to start that process. I was with a very distinguished Italian professor of art history, expert at getting around bureaucratic rules and persuading Italian officials to suspend them for his benefit. But even he could not extend his visiting time allotted to each room beyond five minutes and 30 seconds.

Fortunately, there are plenty pictures by Raphael in Rome where you can linger as long as you like – and at the moment, you will not be disturbed by anyone at all, because there won’t be anyone else there. My wife and I went to the Vatican Museums. We stood before Raphael’s School of Athens – his miraculous depiction of the process of learning, explaining and understanding – alone. We had the same experience in front of Raphael’s Liberation of St Peter, his Miracle of the Mass at Bolsena, and The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple. We wandered on to the Sistine Chapel. There were at most six other people there – and two of them were custodians.

One of the greatest benefits of the total absence of crowds is silence. When the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel are full of people, the noise level is deafening, and extremely stressful. It makes it almost impossible to concentrate on the art. When you are surrounded by an atmosphere of silence and peace, it is a totally different experience. Tranquil appreciation is suddenly possible – which it is not when you are surrounded by noise.

I cannot recommend strongly enough going to Rome immediately. Get on a plane as soon as you can. Hotels are still offering rooms at less than half of the normal price, and restaurants that are usually booked up weeks in advance will welcome you with open arms. Even if you are one of those people unfortunate enough to dislike Raphael, if you like any Western art produced between about 100 BC and the end of the nineteenth century, this is the place, and now is the time, to see it. The Eternal City is never going to be like this again. Once mass tourism returns – and it will, within months – Rome’s magnificent art will recede again, disappearing behind the crush of people. There is now a once in a life-time opportunity to see it under perfect conditions. Will you be able to forgive yourself if you miss it?

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