“Raphael Revealed” offers abundant opportunities to view an array of Raphael’s masterpieces up close in the context of the Rome of the early 16th century. One of the richest achievements of European art and culture once again becomes accessible and understandable.
Exhibition on Screen, the long-running and highly popular series of high-definition documentary films about great artists, is back for another season. Following programs devoted to the Italian High Renaissance artists Leonardo and Michelangelo, the third figure in this exclusive club gets his cinematic apotheosis in Raphael Revealed, due out this December.
The series uses a recent museum show as a starting point and springboard for a new film. To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, “Raffaello: 1520-1483,” a long-planned blockbuster exhibition of over 200 works opened at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome a few days before the COVID-19 lockdown. When the Italian government lifted the ban on visiting museums, the reopened show ran until the end of August, selling every available ticket. I don’t know anyone in the U.S. who could have managed a trip to Rome, but filmmaker Phil Grabsky and his team were on the ground in Rome for the opening. More than any other film in the series, this one seems like a heavenly benediction.
The exhibition began at the end of the story, with the painter’s death at 37. The artist spent the twelve most creative years of his short career in Rome not only as a painter to the Popes but as their architect. In the process, he became an archeologist and conservator of the remains of the ancient city. A funeral fit for a lord culminated in burial in the Pantheon in a prominent spot designated and designed by the artist himself. Such was the prestige of this artist in the High Renaissance.
The film wisely and adroitly switches back and forth between the exhibition and the biography. We visit Raphael’s hometown, the small but culturally rich duchy of Urbino. As a boy, he possessed a natural gift for drawing and a sweet and affable character. These skills were shaped and refined by exposure to the court, where his father served as the official painter and poet to Duke Montefeltro. The young man’s excellent manners were to play a critical role in his meteoric advancement in Rome. After his father’s death while still a teenager, Raphael took over his workshop and came under the influence of Perugino, a highly regarded painter of altarpieces in a characteristically meditative style. Working on these large complex ensembles, Raphael learned the vital importance of maintaining cooperation and collaboration with other artists to ensure that they completed projects on schedule.
An irresistible love of painting drew him to Florence, the vital artistic center of Italy, to examine the revolutionary work of Leonardo and Michelangelo up close. One of Raphael’s altarpieces from the Florentine years is a dramatic narrative of the Entombment of Christ. As we marvel at the panel—a bold advance beyond his earlier work—the narrator’s words (taken from Renaissance historian Gorgio Vasari) resonate on the soundtrack. The artist “imagined the grief of loving relations in carrying the body of their dearest, the one on whom all the welfare, honor, and advantage of the family depended.” That the composition drew as well from an ancient sarcophagus of Death of Meleager only added to the painting’s prestige among the cognoscenti.
Rome beckoned with an offer to work at the Vatican. Raphael’s kinsman, the papal architect Donato Bramante helped establish the younger man in the city. Rome in 1508 was not at all what it had been in ancient times or what it was to become later in the century. Instead, it was a small rundown town much inferior to Florence, Venice, or Milan. The ambitious popes, beginning with Julius II (1443–1513), followed by Leo X (1475–1521), viewing themselves as the heirs of the emperors, were determined to transform their city into the greatest one in Christendom. With their wealth, they commissioned grand and glorious art and architecture.
Raphael’s first job was to fresco the Pope’s private library rooms, the Stanza Della Signatura. His most famous wall painting, the School of Athens, shows ancient philosophers, mathematicians, and thinkers led by Plato and Aristotle—each identified by striking poses and characteristic details—engaged in intellectual conversation, debate, and collaboration. Along with the other frescoes in the room representing the fields of theology, poetry, and jurisprudence, the ensemble caused a cerebral sensation. In these frescoes, reason and revelation support each other and work in harmony. These pictures were, for centuries, the canonical visual statement of the philosophical core of Western civilization.
While serious research into the sculpture and architecture of antiquity had been a growing movement for more than a generation, Raphael took it to another level. He investigated the Domus Aurea, or Golden House of Nero recently rediscovered underneath a pothole on the Esquiline Hill. Raphael descended by rope to study the frescoes and architecture. The wonders of the classical world strewn across Rome and nearby Tivoli (where Hadrian’s Villa still stood) offered new artistic inspiration different from what he learned from his contemporaries. With Bramante’s death in 1514, he became the chief architect of St. Peter’s, the most important church in Christendom. In addition to paintings, Raphael designed palaces, villas, and palazzi. In a celebrated letter to Pope Leo X, he expressed how much he had learned from the “divine quality” of the ancients: “much of what we consider impossible seemed, to them, exceedingly simple.”
As we can see from the gallery of his pictures of patrons, friends, and lovers, Raphael was one of the greatest portrait painters of all time. Julius II, infamously known for his terribiltà, is depicted “so wonderfully life-like” that, according to Vasari, his portrait “inspired fear as if it was alive.” Leo X with Two Cardinals presents the corpulent Medici pope outfitted in the most sumptuous velvet, damask, fur, gold, and silk garments surrounded by an extraordinary still life of an open illuminated Bible, magnifying glass, sophisticated goldsmith’s bell, and the golden pommel of the curial chair in which the reflection of the room can be seen. Raphael’s portrait of the diplomat Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Book of the Courtier, is a marvelous depiction of refined vivacity and intimate friendship (look at the eyes), all done within the narrowest range of greys, whites, and blacks. Raphael’s women’s nobility and ideal beauty are legendary, as we can see in his beloved Virgin and Child pictures from both the Florentine and Rome periods. The Alba Madonna, one of the greatest treasures of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is given the loving prominence it deserves by the filmmakers.
We hear from the distinguished scholars Nicholas Penny and Tom Henry that Raphael was considered more important in his time than any other artist. For centuries afterward, his influence was profound. How did he do it? This question was first asked and perhaps best answered by the historian Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists. Most of the artists of the Renaissance, despite their genius, possessed “elements of savagery and madness,” which made them “strange and eccentric.” Raphael, on the other hand, commanded the rarest artistic gifts combined with “grace, diligence, beauty, modesty, and good character” so that he became the model for later artists of “what labor, study, and diligence” can accomplish.
Raphael Revealed offers abundant opportunities to view an array of his masterpieces up close in the context of the Rome of the early 16th century. One of the richest achievements of European art and culture once again becomes accessible and understandable.
Raphael is Dead! Long live Raphael!
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The featured image is “The Deposition” (1507) by Raphael (1483–1520) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.