Thoughts on Raphael: Courtier, Wanderer, Superstar Portraitist

Thoughts on Raphael: Courtier, Wanderer, Superstar Portraitist

Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520), Portrait of Guidoboldo Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, oil on panel, 1502; and Portrait of Elisabetta Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino, oil on panel, 1502.
(Public Domain/via Wikimedia)

A courtier, a wanderer, a high-stepping superstar portraitist with the gift of empathy


ell, “random thoughts” mightn’t be precise since I never do anything that’s random. I’m still absorbing the many works by Raphael (1483–1520) I’ve seen in the past few days, and now that I’m in Florence, I’ve seen many more. As I wrote earlier this week, I visited the Vatican Museum to see Raphael’s frescoes for the private apartments of Popes Julius II and Leo X. I also went to the Villa Farnesina to see what he did for Agostino Chigi, probably the richest man in Italy at the time.

First of all, I’ll return to the show’s title, “Raffaello: 1520–1483.” The Raphael exhibition begins in 1520, when the artist died, and moves chronologically to his early work in Urbino. I think starting at the end was smart. What he did in Rome, after all, made him an art superstar. Why he’s important — more than Leonardo or Michelangelo, he launched the High Renaissance — isn’t what happened in Urbino. The show’s not biographical but thematic. In any event, Raphael’s time there was the subject of a comprehensive exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino in 2009. I saw that show. Since my mother was Italian and I have a big Italian family near Urbino, I felt it was my patriotic duty.

For this story, I’ve focused on Raphael in Urbino and Florence. Next week, I’ll write something about Raphael’s decade in Rome, from 1509 to the point in 1520 when he shagged himself to death.

Without digging too deeply in the show about Raphael in Urbino, I think Urbino is relevant to Raphael’s stupendous fame in two respects. Obviously, he launched there, with his artist father, with whom Raphael worked as a boy, pushing him toward Pietro Perugino, whom Raphael assisted and from whom Raphael learned much. More weighty, though, was the cultural heft of the Urbino court.

Raphael was born in the milieu of a great court, and he died in another. From his childhood to his death, he was surrounded by rich people who adored him. He never slummed it.

Piero della Francesca (1416-1492), The Duke and Duchess Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, oil on panel, 1473-1475. (Uffizi Gallery/via Wikimedia)

Creating this ambience in Urbino was Federico da Montefeltro (1422–1482), the duke, who ruled in splendor. He assembled one of the great libraries of his age and made Urbino a magnet for intellectuals throughout Europe. Piero della Francesca worked in Urbino throughout the 1470s until his death in 1492. Raphael’s father brought Piero to Urbino, and Raphael knew him. Montefeltro’s marquetry studiolo, his library and office, is one of the most splendid spaces in Italy.

Around 1506, Raphael painted two handsome portraits of Duke Guidobaldo (Federico’s son and successor) and his wife. I saw them this week at the Uffizi. They’re austere, so simple and planar, they look modern. They’re tight, taut people — Guidobaldo was impotent and gouty, which might explain this. They look like medieval icons and seem to come to us from the grave. They’ve got a dash of Piero, thinking of his portraits of Guidobaldo’s parents, which are also at the Uffizi.

Raphael was a great portraitist, and I keep coming back to this. The Portrait of Julius II created a model for papal portraits and inspired artists up to Velázquez, who painted Innocent X in almost the same format in 1650 when he was in Rome. Raphael painted a portrait of Francesco Maria I della Rovere, too, who was Guidobaldo’s nephew and heir. Francesco had another well-placed uncle: Pope Julius II, a della Rovere.

Urbino punched above its cultural weight in part because of Federico’s discerning taste but also because of his political savvy. Under his long leadership, Urbino became a rich, small city. Florence, Milan, Venice, and the popes courted Federico for his wealth, but, as a practical matter, Urbino was in a geographic sweet spot where the Marche, Tuscany, Umbria, and Emilia-Romagna meet.

So Raphael was experienced in the ways of court life. He learned how to maneuver smoothly in a complex organization. Never noble himself — he wasn’t well educated and was an artist’s son — by the time he was in his early 20s he’d painted portraits of dukes in a rich, powerful, culturally advanced court with connections to the Vatican. In Urbino, he learned how to be a courtier, not how to hobnob with the rich and powerful but, rather, how to make himself useful to them, and they useful to him.

Raphael (1483-1520), St. George and the Dragon, oil on panel, 1506. (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

If Urbino was a crossroads, Raphael himself was both a sponge, drawing from many artists, and a roamer. I think Raffaello: 1520–1483 leaves Urbino for the end to minimize the role of Perugino in his development. Raphael draws from Perugino his sweetness. Raphael’s early figures seem fragile, with not much anatomy evident. Many, such as St. George, from 1505, are quiet even when violent. They’re cool and precious. They’re a savant’s juvenilia, lovely to look at but delicious like hors d’oeuvres.

Raphael went to Florence in 1504 to learn, and in Florence he became famous. I can’t help thinking that, culture-wise, Florence around 1500 was New York, an intensely creative maelstrom, and Rome was, well, Washington, a company town where people lived and breathed politics.

When Raphael was in Florence, he quickly got commissions from the top of the social ladder. He was there between 1504 and 1508 but was everywhere, it seems. While based in Florence, he did an altarpiece for the Poor Clare nuns of Monteluce, near Perugia, and in the 1505 contract he said he didn’t consider himself a permanent resident anywhere. He might, he said, be in Assisi, Gubbio, Florence, Urbino, Venice, Siena, or Rome, or he might be in Perugia.

In part, he was young and peripatetic, but having come from a crossroads like Urbino, he was comfortable anywhere.

Raphael started doing the Madonnas in Florence. He did about 20 of them. They were, for rich Americans like Isabella Stewart Gardner, the most coveted collecting prizes. Walking through the Uffizi, which has the best collection of Florentine painting in the world, I loved seeing the “progression of Mary” from Duccio around 1285 — Duccio is Sienese, and while his Mary is flat as a pancake, she’s expressive — to Giotto, where she starts to turn an illusory 3-D. Fra Angelico’s Virgins are, well, angelic. Botticelli’s are balletic. Raphael admired Fra Bartolommeo, whose Madonnas have gravity.

Left: Raphael (1483-1520), The Small Cowper Madonna, oil on panel, c. 1505. (National Gallery of Art, Washington)
Right: Raffaello, Madonna con life bambino (Madonna del Granduca), oil on poplar panel, 1506-1507. (Galleries DeVlieger Uffizi, photo courtesy of the Uffizi)

I looked at eight of these Madonnas over the past week. All my art-historian friends have said the same thing about Raphael. “Oh, he just doesn’t do it for me.” Most of them don’t have children, and none of them likes babies. I’m in both camps, but I have to say The Madonna Granduca, from 1508, is wonderful. Raphael’s babies are beefy, wiggling two-year-olds who don’t mind being naked. They’re deeply innocent. The Madonna Granduca, or the Small Cowper Madonna, from 1505 (now at the National Gallery in Washington), is suitably tired. She’s modest and decorous.

It’s essential to remember that Raphael was painting these Madonnas in Florence soon after the nutty, puritanical priest Savonarola ruled the roost. In 1498, Florentines hanged and then burned him after having found his campaign against vice and his apocalyptic prophecies too disruptive. Yet Savonarola’s odor still lingered and, besides, Florence was an extraordinarily violent place as the yet-unrestored Medicis fought republicans and, as was often the case, the French army was around the corner. Raphael’s reserved, tranquil Madonnas, tenderly nurturing Baby Jesus, reflect the times in their ladylike restraint. If you can’t have peaceful streets, peaceful art looks mighty attractive. His Madonnas are deep in reflection, too, and if we’re open to it, it’s not hard to see the gravity they feel. Mary couldn’t predict the future, but she knew her son was going to do something big.

I’ll forgo a rant on why we live in times that are indecorous as well as narcissistic and neurotic. Suffice it to say the times are such that they make Raphael an acquired taste.

Raffaello, Madonna and Child with St. John, oil on panel transferred on canvas, c. 1510. (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection © National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Raphael is forever the high-stepper. During his time in Florence he worked for the Doni family, painting the moneybags Agnolo Doni and his wife, Maddalena, around 1507. They’d married the year before. To commemorate their marriage, Agnolo commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Doni Tondo, Michelangelo’s take of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Michelangelo (1475–1564) was Raphael’s contemporary and more established in Florence though still young.

Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), Holy Family, known as the Doni Tondo, tempera grassa on wood, 1505-06. (Galleries Uffizi. Photo courtesy of the Uffizi.)

Comparing the Doni Tondo and Raphael’s Madonnas is like comparing a torpedo rushing through the water and a warm, soothing bath. I’d select Raphael if I were looking for empathy. Leonardo had returned to Florence in 1500. He’d just finished The Last Supper in Milan, and among his many Florence projects were the Mona Lisa, probably a Florence noble Raphael knew, and the lost Battle of Anghieri fresco. With Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo in town, Florence must have quivered with cultural vitality.

Raphael, Portrait of Bindo Altoviti, oil on panel, c. 1515. (National Gallery of Art, Washington.)

In Florence, Raphael worked for the Doni family but also for the Baglionis. He met Bindo Altoviti, the richest man in Florence, though he didn’t paint Altoviti’s portrait until 1515, when he was in Rome. It’s one of the great portraits of the era. He was fluent in the ways of the rich and powerful.

Julius II wanted an outside spark when he decided to redecorate the Vatican Palace. He despised his predecessor, the Borgia Alexander VI, whom he called “an apostate and an uncircumcised Jew,” which is about as insulting as a pope can be when describing his predecessor. Pinturicchio, Perugino, Bramantino, and Sodoma were listlessly working on projects for Julius, and he wasn’t happy. Bramante, then the Vatican architect, suggested a breath of fresh air. He was from Urbino and was Raphael’s cousin. Raphael had already painted a portrait of Francesco della Rovere, Julius’s nephew. By early 1509, Raphael was working for Julius. Within a year, the other Vatican painters were out the door. Raphael had arrived.

I spent this past Thursday at the Uffizi. It’s one of Europe’s great museums. On this visit, I used most of my time looking at the Florentine art leading to Raphael as well as the many works by Raphael that were not in the Rome show. This reminded me that I forgot to say earlier this week that the Uffizi collaborated with the Scuderie del Quirinale in presenting Raffaello: 1520-1483. Marzia Faietti, who was in charge of Old Masters at the Uffizi for many years, was one of the two curators of the Rome show, working with Matteo Lafranconi from the Scuderie. I admire them both.

Italian museums opened in June. Italy, as we know, was hit hard by the Chinese coronavirus. After a spring lockdown, the Scuderie, the Uffizi, and the Pitti Palace, and hundreds of other museums, are taking reasonable steps to protect the health of visitors, with lots of sanitizers, crowd control, a mask mandate, and plexiglass barriers for the visitor-service staff. It’s not rocket science, and they did what they needed to do months ago. I know that museums in places such as New York only recently got local approval to open, but there are many museums in America that could have opened as early as late spring but didn’t. Some still haven’t.

Why? Laziness is surely one reason. In many museums, the top brass have had an easy summer by the fishin’ hole, on the beach, or Zooming in their jammies. Lucky duckies they are. I’m not sure incompetence explains much. I think everyone who goes to a grocery store knows what needs doing in terms of new health protocols. I’ve read so many lamentations about “how much we miss you” and “we’re working hard to prepare.” They sound smug and fake.

I think, factoring in laziness, it’s clear that many museum leaders really don’t care about accessibility or inclusion since some will have kept their doors locked to the public for six months. It’s embarrassing and illuminating. Many sprang to life with nauseating salutes to Black Lives Matter and, of course, fundraising appeals, all the while barring the public from its heritage.

Italians, for better or worse, have lived through Caligula, the Visigoths, bad popes too numerous to mention, the Black Death, the Bourbons, Mussolini, the Nazis, and Berlusconi. Little fazes them. Culture is among their highest priorities, along with good food, and so was opening their museums with dispatch. They love their art, take pride in it, and look at good art as a public right. I wonder how many museum leaders in America feel the same, or feel it with passion.

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By: Brian T. Allen

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