WE have thus far known Raphael only in Umbria and in Florence. Born and bred in Umbria and deeply imbued with Umbrian tradition to which his nature was most congenial, his sojourn in Florence did not seriously modify his Umbrian character. This was the more true because he seems to have been little known in Florence and to have had no standing alongside Leonardo and Michelangelo. Even Perugino appears to have been more esteemed than Raphael, if we may judge by the large commissions given him, not only in remoter parts of Italy but in Florence itself, while Raphael found employment only in Umbria or by Umbrian patrons. This tended to perpetuate his Umbrian manner. The beautiful works which reflect Leonardo’s influence found no purchasers. Perhaps a lively popularity and a number of Florentine commissions during this period would have transformed the susceptible young artist into the Florentine type, but as it was, he left Florence, not without deep indebtedness to Leonardo and others, but almost as Umbrian as he came. Florence had merely stimulated him to the fuller realization of his Umbrian ideals, serenity, refinement and reposeful harmony. He seems to have caught nothing of the vivacity of Giotto’s narratives, or the instinctive realism of Masaccio’s shivering youth, or the dramatic intensity of the Battle of Anghiari, or the pathos of even the earlier Michelangelo works. That he escaped at this time influences so far from his nature, was probably due to his immaturity and to his absorption in problems nearer at hand.
Raphael is best known to us, however, as a citizen of Rome, where he passed the last twelve years of his brief life. It was the most splendid period in the history of papal Rome, and the great metropolis, still central in men’s thoughts, was drawing to herself both the tribute and the talent of the Christian world. The contrast with Umbria was the greatest possible. Life in the one was tranquil and centered about simple and harmonious ideals. In the other it was turbulent, and subject to powerful and varied influences. As the young Raphael was called to Rome by no less a patron than the pope, and thus put at once and forever beyond the reach of Umbrian patrons, the conservative Umbrian influence was wholly removed. With powers fully matured, early ideals somewhat outgrown, the stimulus of great commissions and large rewards, and the example of other artists whom it was his passion to emulate, Raphael underwent a transformation so rapid and complete that we hardly recognize him under these changed conditions. Yet in the variable alloy of this much influenced later work, we can still easily discern Raphael’s self as the main ingredient. Personality may be disguised, but never permanently suppressed.
The sudden change which accompanied Raphael’s transfer to Rome was accentuated by special conditions. As we shall have occasion to note in connection with Michelangelo, it was the good pleasure of the enemies of the great Florentine to unite in an effort to push Raphael to the fore. This espousal of his cause had its ulterior motives, but it was none the less genuine and sincere. Raphael had the invaluable gift of everywhere evoking affection. His infinite serenity, apparently untroubled by any echoes of sadness, was a thing so lovable that even with less of genius he would have been one of the most beloved of men. Add to this his rare taste, his absolute facility and adaptability, and his passion for assimilating the ideas and spirit of all with whom he came in contact, and his claim upon the affection of men was complete. It mattered not that men like Bramante found Raphael a convenient pretext for their opposition to Michelangelo. Even without this reason he could hardly have lacked their enthusiastic support. His pathway, therefore, was made smooth, too smooth, in fact, for it was Raphael’s misfortune to find tempting opportunity open in every direction, and with his facile and adaptable nature, he did not always know where to draw the line. Coming upon the scene at the moment when Michelangelo held all attention, his greatest opportunity came almost at the outset. The pope, to be sure, refused absolutely the request of his friends that he should be given a part in the Sistine Ceiling. Doubtless he desired that opportunity. Beyond question he would have given us works of high merit, however incongruous with the work of the greater master. But if the refusal brought dis-appointment there was no trace of it in Raphael’s demeanor. The refusal was accompanied, by way of compensation, by a commission to paint the so-called Stanze, or Apartments of the Vatican, a series of rooms whose original function was varied, and whose subsequent use has been merely to house the most famous of Raphael’s creations. Like the Sistine Ceiling, these Stanze had already been decorated, and in part at least, by artists of high merit, some of the decorations having been barely completed. The ruthlessness of this time is more or less characteristic of every creative age. Inferior work should not stand in the way of the more perfect possibilities of the time. And so as the earlier ceiling was destroyed to make way for Michelangelo’s creations, the decorations upon the walls of these apartments were destroyed to make way for those of Raphael. They were doubtless of unequal merit, but some of them certainly we lose with regret. In one case Raphael deliberately refused to destroy the work of a predecessor, the splendid ceiling by his own master, Perugino. Posterity has certainly honored him for the refusal. The ceiling is one of the finest of Perugino’s works, and so far superior to any that Raphael or his helpers executed in the adjoining rooms that it raises the query whether in other connections the loss has been compensated by the gain. It is certainly a matter for regret that Pope Julius could not have found vacant walls for Raphael’s use.
In the prosecution of this work Raphael stands in marked contrast with Michelangelo. His lease of life was short, but this at the outset he could not know. The work dragged on slowly, interrupted at frequent intervals, and, worst of all, broken by continuous and repeated changes in the artist’s ideals and methods. The marvel of the Sistine Ceiling is that in all its vastness there is such a unity of spirit. The opposite is true of Raphael’s work. The greatest diversities of manner and inequality of thought and spirit characterize these works that come most unequally from his hand. In our tour of the Stanze we first enter the so-called Room of the Conflagration (Sala del Incendio), which takes its name from Raphael’s picture upon the main wall. It is here that Raphael has preserved the ceiling executed by his master. It is a beautiful design in blue and gold, a splendid decorative scheme in color, with little of the pictorial even in the great medallions that fill the triangular spaces of the intersecting vaults. For the most part only flat design covers the ceiling, leaving the shape of the vaults undimmed, the medallion pictures themselves being greatly subdued as regards their pictorial character. The gentle refinement of Perugino’s manner is manifest in the whole. Only perhaps in the massive decorative lines that map out the seams of the vaulting and so the structure of the building, is there a bit of surfeit in the wealth of detail that the artist has lavished upon his work. All in all, however, considering the fidelity with which the artist has stuck to his architecture and made that deter-mine his design, the brilliancy and refinement of his color and the subordination of his pictorial effect, we must call this one of the finest wall decorations in Rome. Merely as a decoration, that is, the beautifying of a thing whose own character is recognized and respected, it is far superior to Michelangelo’s immortal ceiling. The decorative quality of the Sistine Ceiling is admittedly subordinated to its vaster spiritual suggestion. Not so with Perugino ; there is not too much to think about in his decoration as such. There should not be. The mind is left relatively free to deal with the larger concept of the building itself. When we pass to the next room, most famous in Raphael’s work, we shall at once see the superiority of Perugino’s design. There is a certain similarity between the two. Here again there is beautiful coloring, wealth of detail, even charming faces and pictorial effect, but the artist of feebler decorative sense has moved his medallions round, right across the ribs or seams in which the vaultings join, these junctures being pared down or obscured in order that his medallions may find a place upon the curved surface. Everywhere he has broken the architectural line, flouted, ignored it. With all its elegant detail, it is deliberately and egregiously bad as a decoration.
But, passing from the ceiling, it will suffice to notice briefly Raphael’s work upon the walls of this first apartment. It is not his earliest work nor in any sense his best. If there is one thing clearer than another it is that Raphael was not primarily dramatic. The essence of the dramatic is to seize upon momentary situations and interpret them primarily in terms of passion. Not a character with its permanent potentiality, but a moment with its unexpected conjunction of passion; character torn by contrasted impulses and revealing itself by its choice under these strange circumstances ; that is the essence of the dramatic.
Now this is very far from being the natural theme in painting. In pictures we may represent the relations of people in space but we can only give a single moment of time. We cannot represent what happened before or happened after.
Moreover, the moment which we do give, we cannot give as a moment ; it becomes fixed and permanent. It is obvious that the things of the moment do not fit in a thing so permanent, so static ; still less things that involve successive moments, different one from another. All that is a truism of art criticism, though the artist will never get over the desire to somehow triumph over these limitations of his art, and if highly gifted with the power of psychic suggestion, as was Giotto, Michelangelo, or Titian, he can accomplish wonders in making his art do the impossible. But if his sympathies are rather with the reposeful, the placid and the calm, he will feel most keenly these limitations inherent in his art and will find the line of least resistance, that is the line of greatest achievement, in quite a different direction. Such was Raphael. He had nothing of the tremendous passion of Michelangelo ; his very power and beauty lay in his freedom from it. Yet the age, led irresistibly by the genius of Michelangelo, craved this new and difficult theme in art. To be dramatic, to give us not the serenely beautiful but the soul-stirring that was the desire of the age, and particularly of Rome, where men had been most aroused to this new possibility.
The fresco in this first room is an attempt on Raphael’s part to meet this new demand for dramatic compositions. It tells us an old story of a conflagration that broke out in the Borgo, or suburb of Rome in which St. Peter’s is situated, and of the miraculous extinguishing of the fire by the pope who appeared in a balcony holding the sacred Host. Raphael has placed both pope and miracle quite in the background, but with little profit, for the foreground is occupied by figures unplausibly chosen and disposed, who are supposed to represent the confusion and disarray caused by the fire but who, if the truth must be told, represent primarily Raphael’s emulation of Michelangelo’s powerful nudes. The youth escaping over the wall and hanging by his fingers is the one thing that remains in memory as we leave this extraordinary work. He is a conspicuous, not to say an impertinent display of anatomical knowledge. Hardly more satisfactory are the group of women who, with charming contour and inane gestures, fill the middle foreground of the picture. It may be that our knowledge of feminine character furnishes justification for the silly and helpless posing that this group displays, but at least it is not the feminine at its best. No, this is cheap theater, not life, and the painter of the ineffable Madonna is here wasting his time. It must only be remembered in extenuation that he was but partially responsible for the choice.
We will hasten to the next room which is the crowning glory of Raphael’s later work. Here, upon these four walls, we find, not indeed the thing that charmed us most in the youthful days of Perugia and Florence, but the thing that charmed, and justly charmed his contemporaries. Here is seen at its best that beautiful symmetry and unconstrained grace of grouping which characterizes his work here above all others. We will begin with the scarce noticed wall on the farther side. It is the smallest of the four and offers but a long and slender sector of a circle in which to dispose his figures. Prudence, Force, and Moderation (C 169) are the names they bear, but any others will do as well. It would certainly baffle the most acute analysis to know why these names are applied, or which of the figures should lay claim to each. But that need not greatly concern us. Such names suggest the most arid themes in art, themes that, unless embodied in some concrete situation or circumstance, are little more than intellectual concepts, themes for philosophy rather than for art. Raphael is the last man to take such themes seriously. But if their interpretive value is slight, their decorative charm is superlative. Of all painters that the Renaissance knew, none succeeded so well as Raphael in adjusting a group of figures in a space, more particularly, in such a way that the space seemed made to order, the only possible space that could accommodate lines and groupings whose beauty sufficiently explained their , existence. The way in which the curves, longer and shorter, echo the confining curve and thus make hidden music within its space, is simply above all praise. It is the perfection of a single plane decorative composition, for decorative, rather than pictorial, it obviously is. There is no far-reaching vista or spacious background, there is no enveloping light and shadow or subsidiary detail, just a beautiful group of figures, arranged in a single plane and for reasons of their own, not too serious but quite sufficient, weaving themselves into a pattern so exquisite that it commands our unqualified admiration. This we may take as a model, perhaps, of the higher decorative feeling of the Renaissance in its simpler form. Beyond this there is nothing of moment in the picture, and the observer who appreciates this, will crave nothing more.
The wall on the right is better known and, with the possible exception of its rival opposite, is the most famous creation of the master. It is interesting to note, by the way, that all of these pictures which the public has deemed worthy of fame have been renamed. The subjects of the frescoes upon these three walls, as Raphael would have given them, seem to have been, Divine Philosophy, Secular Philosophy, ‘and Poetry. It is not without significance that they are popularly known as the Discussion (Disputà) Concerning the Trinity, the School of Athens, and Parnassus. Something concrete the popular mind demands, and if official titles do not give it, so much the worse for official titles.
(C 160) The Disputà is an astonishing work. We no longer have a group of figures arranged in a single perpendicular plane, outlining themselves in a charming pattern as in the fresco already considered. The space was much too large for that, and Raphael’s purpose much too ambitious. First and lowest of all, there is a pavement which looks much as though it were going to be the pavement of a church. In the rear is a raised platform where we find, as we expect, the altar and upon the altar the Host, the most significant symbol of the church. But, amazing to relate, we find no church about it. We look over the heads of the spectators, grouped on either side, into a landscape, all delicate, Umbrian, charming, such as Raphael had learned from Perugino. Nothing could well be more unplausible than this, but we readily forgive its unplausibility. Above this landscape vista we come next to a mass of clouds, but curious to relate, these clouds, instead of being formless and irregular, as clouds are wont to be, now range themselves with architectural regularity into a curving platform, and on this platform sit in most beautiful symmetry the worthies of the church, the Christ himself in the center, above his head the Dove, and higher still, the figure of God the Father, thus representing in conventional form the Trinity. This, aided by the lively conversation going on below, has given the picture its popular name. And now above these worthies and these sacred symbols we find angels, grouped again in beautiful regularity, and other angels still, the very substance of clouds, that in infinite profusion fill the cloudy vault, again with dome-like regularity. And this time their character is farther enhanced by long streaming rays of light that descend from the central point above. In a word, we start with architecture, and suddenly change our minds and take in the charm of out of doors, and then when we are accustomed to that, we rise to the clouds and as suddenly the clouds become architectural and build the comeliest of domed backgrounds in the upper part of the scene. The conception is as surprising as it is pleasing. It is no small tribute to our artist that the work pleases despite our surprise.
But if we ask what it is that has made this picture so famous, what new principle it illustrates, what signal triumph it embodies, we must venture somewhat farther into an inquiry which has already engaged our attention. This is perhaps the time to note more exactly the few facts with which even the popular student of art must be equipped regarding the great subject of composition. Of its subtleties and intricacies we will take no account. Of its fundamental character and needs it is impossible that we should remain unconscious.
We walk out of a summer afternoon to some beautiful spot where a garden party is being held. Ladies in charming dresses are wandering about, it may be a class of “sweet girl graduates,” or other. As we gaze upon them, with the setting of shrubbery and natural beauty, nothing seems wanting to the perfection of the scene. But let the photographer appear and prepare to take a picture of the scene, and instantly all is changed. These people know by instinct that the photograph must be differently planned. They gather into formal groups, arranged with reference to height, some standing, some sitting, with affectation of carelessness here and there, but with regularity and order dominating the whole. They feel at once that without this the photograph would be a failure. Yet at first thought the photograph would seem to be only a transcript of life, and the charm that was in the scene before ought in some way to be transferable to the reproduction. Not so. All human experience justifies this judgment which is little less than an instinct in the promptness and universality of its adoption. Why this need of regularity where the irregular was more beautiful before? The answer is simple. The photograph will be mounted upon a symmetrical card. It will have outline, and we cannot look upon it and ignore that outline. A photograph, as we say, must be composed, but the composition must not be noticed or thought of. The one who admires the figures may have no knowledge of this art. The photographer himself may have no theories about it, may not even know the word, but if he takes acceptable photographs, he is guided constantly by the instinct in question.
With the painter, this demand is even more pronounced. All good paintings are most carefully composed. The earlier paintings are very simply and overtly arranged ; the later ones are arranged with even greater care, but with a distinct effort to make the arrangement unobtrusive, to make it felt rather than thought about. The reason is fundamentally the same. The painting, no matter what it be, will ultimately occupy a symmetrical space, it may be square or oblong or any other possible shape, but whatever it be, it is almost certain to be symmetrical. If it be square or oblong, the exaction of symmetry is but a moderate one. If, on the other hand, its outline be something more studied and presumably more esthetic in itself, then the necessity of respecting that outline is increased. A round picture must be much more emphatically composed than a square one ; a picture in a Gothic arch most exactingly so. Now the mediaeval artists met this need of composition in a very naïve and child-like fashion. Having no perspective in their pictures, the figures are all arranged in a single row and there was little hesitation on the part of these men to whom the idea of naturalness was of such minor concern, in arranging them in quite unplausible symmetry. The Madonna was in the center and held the child before her, sometimes facing exactly outward, and with perfect balance of right and left. And if on one side stood a saint, a saint must stand on the other, or two it may be, a greater and a less, and in each case right and left must be duplicates in number and even in size and attitude, that the perfect symmetry which their highly decorative frames or altar niches required, might be attained. That is the glory of the great mosaics, at the same time that it is their weakness, their glory as decorations, as symmetrical masses of color and line, illuminating the great church, whose character they so unhesitatingly accepted, with their blaze of splendor.
But at the dawn of the Renaissance, we have seen, a new respect is felt for life, and it is impossible to give life its rights by any such simple scheme. In the first place, living beings are not wont to be entirely regular in their groupings. More-over, it is impossible to arrange them all in a straight line and make a decorative pattern like a screen or grill. That is not the way living creatures do, and that life might have its rights, the more ambitious picture took the place of the flat outline decoration. Picture means depth, perspective, figures near and figures far, more or less over-lapping and other complication. It is obvious that the problem of composition was greatly complicated thereby, for it must be remembered, the need of composition did not in the least disappear. The earlier painters like Giotto, or still more, some of his feebler associates, were wont still to arrange their figures on the front of a shallow stage, and even to have them look round at the audience that each might be plainly seen. But increasingly the artists carved out a vast depth in their picture and struggled with the problem of regularity and design. Simple bilateral symmetry, that is, the duplication of left and right, of course has to go. A balance more subtle, but still potent and carefully studied, now takes its place. On the whole, the tendency is toward the concealment of composition ; freedom has its way at the seeming expense of regularity and design, a certain compromise being inevitable. It is the era of picture, and its controlling law is life. Composition is still there, but obvious symmetry is avoided.
But when the picture was used to decorate an apartment like this, whose symmetry was impressive, whose bounding spaces were curves of beauty and of meaning, the old need of symmetry again was felt. Some felt it more, some less ; none more than Raphael. His picture must be a decoration, yet just because he was a man of the Renaissance, it must also be a picture. The little one with which we began, Prudence, Force, and Moderation, is little more than a decoration, sacrificing depth and complexity, but this was simpler. On the greater walls depth and space relations fore and aft are indispensable. How then shall we still secure the regularity, the sense of symmetry that is indispensable to a good decoration ?
Two things are essential. We are looking into the picture supposedly from such a point that it stretches out not only before us, but somewhat beneath us. As an architect would say, we see not only its elevation, but its ground plan. Wherever the mind grasps a situation, the decorative feeling demands that it shall find order and symmetry. If therefore we look down upon a group of men or other objects, we look for a symmetrical arrangement among them. It is not that we want to see their heads arranged in a symmetrical manner, the middle one, the highest, and so on. It is not merely a perpendicular symmetry that we are interested in, but where we can plainly see or feel a ground plan, we want to find symmetry there. At the same time, as we stand off and look at the picture as a whole, seeing the upper part above us and the lower part below us, we cannot wholly ignore the fact of its perpendicular arrangement. The grouping of the whole upon the wall must again have its symmetry of the old-time mediæval art. Freedom there may be, fore and aft, but in the upright plan of vision these things must still make something of a pattern. We must therefore have two kinds of composition. Perhaps we shall understand them best if we say “perpendicular composition” and “horizontal composition.” Our people or other objects must be so arranged that as they loom up before us they will be symmetrical or orderly as an upright mass or design, and yet must likewise be so arranged that as we conceive of them scattered over a horizontal surface they will there too be symmetrical and orderly. Perhaps we may best get the idea from a great cathedral. We stand at the central entrance and look down the pillared aisle. The arches in diminishing lines stretch far down toward the altar which catches our eye and holds it as the center of vision. Take what we see as an upright mass before us, and it is perfectly symmetrical. There are the tall pillars on either side, crowned with the great arch above, and so on down. But, in turn, we are also perfectly conscious that the pillars are arranged symmetrically upon the floor that spreads out before us in a great horizontal. Here, too, there is symmetry which we feel perhaps quite as much as we do the upright symmetry of the pillars and arches that loom before us. It would be a sorry cathedral that should have a confused ground plan, even though the masses arranged themselves in the upright plane of vision in a symmetrical manner. We should feel the ground plan irregular just the same.
Here then lies Raphael’s crowning triumph. He has, to be sure, given us certain things that lend themselves but feebly to a scheme of decorative arrangement, the distant landscape on either side, even the group of people in the foreground, but while there is some compromise with the inevitable freedom of nature, the compromise is not a contradiction. These people, if not absolutely regularly arranged, are sufficiently so, as nearly so as they could be without seeming to lose their freedom and their character. The landscape, too, is as regular as it is in the nature of landscapes to be. But now as we look upward into the heavens, Raphael has freely broken with all natural tradition, and the clouds build themselves into curving platforms and shadowy domes, assuming cherubic forms with-out change of their shadowy substance.
The great picture upon the other side, the so-called School of Athens (C 167), is another example of the same sort. Here we have an architectural background, giving us a symmetry very much of the cathedral sort before mentioned, and again groups of figures that without any mathematical precision group themselves in that freer symmetry that life as we know it permits. This wall may be taken as the ideal example of the pictorial decoration of the Renaissance. Unlike the flat decorations of the Middle Ages, this decoration does not leave the wall in thought in its true place, but compels us to think it quite away. In this respect it is pictorial. But unlike most pictures, it does not give us a vague and uncertain depth beyond, but a definite and symmetrical one. In this sense it is akin to architecture and so to decoration. Into this space is projected the principle of symmetry in two dimensions, a complicated application of a familiar decorative principle. This composition in two dimensions bears the same relation to composition in one dimension that solid geometry bears to plane geometry. We have only to add that as the principle of symmetry may be applied to two dimensions instead of one, so the more subtle principle of balance may be applied to relations of two dimensions. By the time we get this far, we get beyond all ordinary power of analysis. It is doubtful whether the painter himself ever fully calculates the result of so complex a problem. He rather feels his way, guided, none the less, by an instinctive feeling for the relations mentioned.
It is hardly necessary to add that this complex system of symmetry is really less decorative than the simpler composition in a single plane in use in the Mediæval art. It does not emphasize and beautify the building, or wall, as the architect gives it to us, but rather obliterates it from our consciousness, substituting for it a space of different shape and character. It does this because it needs the room for its figures and its incidents to arrange themselves in a natural way. As a sort of concession to the architect whose work it has enfeebled or destroyed, it arranges its own creations in a symmetrical manner, though somewhat against their nature. The whole system, therefore, is one of intrinsic compromise. The mosaicist made no concession to life. Decoration was supreme. The extreme modern realist makes no concession to decoration, rejects all symmetries, and gives full sway to life. Raphael is the best example of a middle ground, each interest making the necessary concessions, but so cleverly calculated that neither architecture nor life seems aggrieved.
All the great painters or frescoers of the Renaissance struggled with this same problem. There was never a fresco-painter who did not realize that he must fill his space and that there were good ways and bad ways of filling it. Yet, on the whole, throughout the entire Renaissance, they cared more for the character they were portraying, for story telling, than they did for the symmetry of the building they were ostensibly trying to express and emphasize. On the whole, the Renaissance is pictorial rather than decorative, the Medieval art decorative rather than pictorial. Only in the work of Raphael in a very high sense can we say that the more complex and ambitious scheme of pictorial decoration was fully achieved. There are and always will be those who doubt the wisdom of such an attempt. Certainly the small percentage of success gives some justification to the doubt. The picture as such is designed to make the necessary concessions and to leave the wall one hundred per cent wall. It weakens and enfeebles what it is set to beautify by somewhat immodestly offering its own beauty by way of compensation. This is the history of the Renaissance and of much of our modern art as well. The experiment, whether wise or not, was one of colossal difficulty, and in Raphael’s work at last it was markedly successful.
It is with less enthusiasm that we turn to another phase of Raphael’s work. What has Raphael told us in these pictures ? What is his message ? There are many who would resent such a question. It is but fair not to press it too far. Yet it is certain that Raphael did not deprecate comparison between Michelangelo and himself on this ground as well as other. We have noticed the arbitrary character of the figures denominated Prudence, Force, and Moderation. There is nothing about them to suggest these names. They are merely charming figures, charmingly arranged, decoration pure and simple. As we turn now to the Discussion of the Sacrament, the theme becomes weightier, the message much more imperatively demanded. We have the Christ and God the Father. But compare it with Michelangelo’s Creator, who hurls the sun from his finger or touches the new-formed man to life. Compare it well. Comment is unnecessary; benignant old age, but not divinity. Still less the Christ; almost feminine in delicacy but inconceivable as the symbol of divine intervention in humanity’s behalf. Or turn to the School of Athens, splendid group as it is, and recall names that the world delights to honor, Socrates and Plato, Archimedes and Zeno. The list is the most glorious that any time or place can offer. But is it Philosophy that is represented here? There are some worthy figures bearing philosophers’ names ; there is symbolism in figure and grouping. There is Mathematics, we are told ; certainly that was Raphael’s intention. We have actually a likeness of Raphael’s friend, Bramante, writing upon a slate around which are gathered a group of lovely boys. It is conceivable that all of these girlish figures might master something of that complex art, but if so, the contradiction between face and achievement would enhance the wonder of the result. It is impossible to conceive figures less suggestive of an abstruse science like mathematics. Nor is the painting of Parnassus (C 164) upon the opposite wall, with its glorious company of poets, from Homer down to Dante and his famous peers, more adequate. There is an impressive loveliness about the gentle god and the Muses grouped about him. The Muse who sits near by, white-robed and exquisite, is a creation worthy of Raphael’s refinement and taste, but is only a feeble reminiscence of the mighty strain of poetry that has come down to us through all the ages. A figure for Watteau to paint upon a fan for a Marie Antoinette, this exquisite creature, but not one to symbolize the mighty music of Dante, the wrath of Achilles, or the Pean to which the hoplites charged at Marathon. There is sterner stuff in the world’s music, in the world’s art, than anything these creatures can represent. It is art in lighter vein that these Muses suggest. It is, let us concede without harshness, art in lighter vein of which our artist is the exponent.
The following Stanze show Raphael’s rapid degeneration, yet the degeneration is not wholly his. His own handiwork is increasingly difficult to trace, the work of helpers increasingly evident. A fresco consists essentially of three processes. The first is a sketch. The space to be filled is indicated in smaller scale in exact proportions and the sketch drawn in to enable the artist to decide what is best adapted to the space in question. This sketch, so to speak, merely determines the theme, the number and character of the figures, the composition in its broader outlines. It is purely a preparatory study on the artist’s part. The sketch once complete, the cartoon comes next. This is the picture complete as regards outline and detail. It is made full size on large pieces of paper, and then the outline is punctured much as for an embroidery pattern which is to be stamped with blueing upon the fabric. For when it comes to the painting itself, it must be executed with lightning rapidity. There is no possibility of experiment. You cannot draw lines and then change and erase. The line must be perfectly determined beforehand. This is done by means of the cartoon. The cartoon once ready, a small portion of the space, such portion as the artist thinks it possible to cover in a limited time, is covered with fresh plaster, and the cartoon, or the appropriate section of it is fastened up. With a bag of blueing or other pigment, it is pounced on, that is, the bag is passed over the punctured outlines and dots of color are left upon the wet plaster which guides the painter in his work. The cartoon now removed, the painting is done with the utmost possible despatch. Essentially all the color must be laid on while the plaster is still moist. It thus penetrates the plaster, and as the latter hardens by crystallizing, the color is incorporated in the substance of the plaster itself. Only slight finishing touches may be put on after the plaster is dry. The next day another section is covered in the same way, and so on until the work is finished.
There is every temptation in a work of this kind to the employment of helpers, a temptation to which even Michelangelo was disposed to yield, but which he ultimately resisted. The character of Raphael’s art and of Raphael himself insures a different result. With different purpose, infinite suavity, the affection of all who worked with him, and it must be confessed, a far simpler task before him, it was easy for a helper to cooperate successfully in the hurried process of transfer to the wet plaster. Not that such help would be used indiscriminately. The faces, the more important figures or parts, would naturally be the work of the artist himself, but indifferent detail, of which the great pictures of the Renaissance contained abundance, especially architectural, all this could be put in by a trained helper with reasonable satisfaction.
As we study Raphael’s farther work, the use of the helper becomes apparent. Thus the Delivery of Peter from Prison, one of the loveliest of Raphael’s conceptions, will strike any-one familiar with Raphael’s painting as not being quite the usual color. In conception and drawing it is perfect ; it is very like Raphael ; but the color is redder, perhaps we may say, a little more rank, less subtle, than the artist is wont to use. This conclusion is not difficult, and is indeed justified by indubitable evidence, that Raphael did not put this painting upon the wall at all. He prepared the sketch, and then the cartoon, but having long depended upon helpers for parts, he came at last to turn over to them the last processes complete. We can readily understand the inevitable deterioration which would thus result. The helper, working no longer beside the master, only under his occasional super-vision, was freer to choose his color, freer indeed in all respects than before. One so exacting as Michelangelo would never have tolerated such cooperation, would have repudiated it even after it began, but Raphael was of a different mould.
This same double character is visible in the Fire in the Borgo (M 2), the Vision of Attila, the Expulsion of Heliodorus, and the later Stanze generally. They do not compare with the Disputà in refinement and delicacy.
But the end was not yet. Raphael was unfortunately too popular, too busy. He was sought by art lovers everywhere. He was sought for other things than art. He was popular socially. He was a scholar, and was deeply interested in preserving the ancient monuments of Rome, then far more numerous than now. He soon became the official archæologist of Rome. He was enmeshed to some degree in the interests of the church. There was a rumor of a possible Cardinal’s hat, had not death come too promptly. All in all, the commissions offered, and perhaps imprudently accepted, were far beyond the limits of his individual resources. Hence this using of helpers for the last stage altogether, and then, unfortunately, the using of helpers for the intermediate stage as well. The Stanze themselves perhaps give us no example of this further debauching of Raphael’s art. We must go to the Villa Farnesina, which we may without too much regret omit if time be pressing, to find this further dilution of Raphael’s art. Here in the spandrils of the arches above, Raphael has arranged with his usual cleverness figures admirably adapted for the purpose, arranging them himself, but the work is not his own. We have a sketch, declared by experts to be by Raphael’s hand, but comparing it with the fresco itself we find it is but remotely similar. He made the sketch, and then, as the fresco plainly bears witness, left to someone else the entire responsibility of its further execution. That someone is now not doubtful, one Giulio by name, the only artist that Rome ever produced, and hence called Giulio Romano, Julius the Roman. To Giulio was left the work of executing both cartoon and fresco. He could have chosen no more unworthy hand grossly facile, but indelicate and uninventive, Julius represented the artisanship of painting in its least inspired form. It was the fault, no doubt, of over-zealous patrons that Raphael’s art was thus debauched, but we cannot wholly exonerate the artist who willingly lent his name to work for which he furnished but the preliminary sketch and for which he drew the pay. There has been much mourning over the untimely death of Raphael, but had he died five years sooner his name would have been held in higher honor.
There is little to be said in praise of the later walls of the Stanze. The Miracle of Bolsena is by far the best, but aside from an excellent portrait of Julius II and certain clear indications that Raphael was now attempting to assimilate the Venetian manner, it has no great interest. The Expulsion of Heliodorus and the Story of Attila are mediocre works, Raphael’s part in which we should be glad to minimize. As we pass round to the great Hall of Constantine, the last vestige of Raphael’s influence disappears. Bigger walls and more numerous figures, but now in vulgar and meaningless confusion, are the sorry outcome of this work begun so auspiciously, a work scoring such striking triumphs and ending in such humiliating demoralization.
It is impossible to read the story of Raphael in Rome, with any justice, without keeping constantly in mind the great background of his thought, indeed of the thought of all men at this time, the mighty Michelangelo. Who could have lived in Rome in the days when the Prophets and the Sibyls burst upon men’s vision, and be uninfluenced by this man, supreme in his art ? It was the very greatness of Michelangelo that he dwelt among the conflicting influences of his time, himself little modified. He had a minimum of ability to assimilate the thoughts, the suggestions, the spirit of other men. That which would have been to another man a misfortune was for him a salvation. Raphael was his exact opposite. There is scarce a picture in the long series that he has given us in which we cannot trace the influence of some contemporary artist. His genius was distinctly a genius for assimilation. But unlike the usual imitator and assimilator, when he repeated the work of another man he ordinarily improved upon it. Nothing at first sight would seem more original than the strange combination of dome and platform clouds, di-,tint landscape and cathedral floor, in the Disputà. It is unique whatever may be said about it, is our first reflection. But we are astonished to find that even this is not Raphael’s invention, but taken from a similar work by Fra Bartolommeo, of all his contemporaries the one whom Raphael seems to have loved. Other works show his influence, still others that of Leonardo, as we have seen, many, of course, the influence of Perugino. In addition to the Miracle of Bolsena, a number of his later works are deeply stamped with the character of the Venetian art which only in this later day came to the fuller consciousness of Rome.
But among all those whom Raphael thus felt impelled to assimilate and to vie with, none exercised an influence so great and none an influence so baneful as Michelangelo. We have noticed Raphael’s attempt to rival the Titanic nude of the great artist in his Fire in the Borgo, where the Titanic nude became preposterous for lack of reason or spiritual content. This, however, gave rise to other attempts at rivalry if not of deliberate imitation. The little picture in the Pitti Gallery at Florence, known as the Vision of Ezekiel, is a startling reminder of Michelangelo’s Creation of the Sun and the Moon ; a startling reminder, yet a pitiful contrast. There is the same erect figure, the same streaming hair and flowing beard, the same knit eyebrows. But the arms are stretched out, not with the energy of creative omnipotence, but in the helplessness of old age. They are supported on either side by charming cherubic creatures who, shorn of all the dignity that characterizes Michelangelo’s accompanying figures, play hide and go seek round the Creator, whose senile impotence they are seemingly set to supplement. At first glance, Michelangelo’s ; at second glance a sorry misapplication of Raphael’s own cherubic charm.
But the end was not yet. One can imagine with what intensity of interest the youthful painter followed the great Julius and his coterie of friends into the Sistine Chapel that day when Michelangelo’s story of Creation was first uncovered before their astonished gaze, and again that later day, when the Sibyls and Prophets were at last revealed to view. These Sibyls were indeed the triumph of the age, so Raphael must have thought. The desire to emulate this great work deeply possessed Raphael, and he availed himself of the first opportunity to paint the Sibyls. In the little church of Santa Maria della Pace near by, the opportunity was found. The fresco occupies an irregular space, one least suited to pictorial composition, but one where Raphael’s facility in that respect was sure to score an easy triumph ; indeed, his art has known no better. There is the inevitable Raphael quality in these cupid-like figures, the one holding the torch above, the one whose roguish face rests upon his hand; these are perfectly charming. Not without the usual charm, too, are the Sibyls themselves, the younger of them at least, where Raphael’s feeling for serene beauty found its better opportunity. Nor can anything surpass the ease and unexpected plausibility with which they group themselves in this untoward space. Charm, grace, beauty, all this, yes ; but Sibyls, never. Look at this oval-faced blonde who occupies the space at the left, a charming ball-room figure, but is there a hint here of the responsibility of prophecy, the pathos of the message, the inexorable will of the Most High ? Or look at the Cumaean Sibyl, alas for such a contrast, who occupies the space at the right. Sharp-featured, glittering eyed, sunken cheeked, she is the quintessence of insignificance and of gossiping garrulity. Nothing could better disclose Raphael’s total incapacity to deal with those mighty thoughts that were Michelangelo’s daily companions.
Unsatisfactory as are many of the works of this later period, it must not be forgotten that Raphael’s genius is also manifest, and that it gave in this period some of the most valuable of his creations. Indeed, the only works in which we detect a true creative originality worthy of comparison with that of Leonardo and Michelangelo, date from this time. Such are the Madonna of the Chair, with its happiest of compositions motived by the most beautiful of sentiments, the Saint Cecilia of Bologna, in which the commonplace conception of a woman who displays her musical skill to a wondering audience, is reversed, and the saint alone among the assembled company, listens to the music of the heavenly choir, or finally, the incomparable Sistine, unique among Madonnas both in the manner and the spiritual significance of the theme. Pure and limpid as was the inspiration of Raphael in the earlier Leonardo days, his achievements were marked by no such creative imagination as characterizes these works. That the passion for assimilation which worked out so happily in contact with the gentle Perugino and the inspired Leonardo, should have wrought less happily in contact with Michelangelo, whose genius was most at home beyond the limits of normal art and in a field where any but he would be a trespasser, should not blind us to the fact that this power of assimilation was unique, amounting in the case of Raphael to positive genius. If it deluded Raphael into painting the Fire in the Borgo, it inspired him to paint the Madonna of the Goldfinch. The assimilative genius of Raphael, after all, has nothing worse to its count than the creative genius of Michelangelo. The one gift was as exceptional, and like all exceptional gifts, as dangerous as the other. In his effort to assimilate and fuse into a perfect whole all the varying individual styles of this creative age, Raphael attempted the impossible, but not more than did Leonardo in the field of science. The striving for universality was the weakness, as it was also the greatness of the age. Such an age produces great personalities and little in the way of finished personal achievement. Raphael attempted the impossible in his own particular way, and failed in his own particular way, as the others did in theirs; but like the others, he made himself a part of that great spiritual achievement which means so much more to us than all the Stanze and the Madonnas, more even than the Prophets and the Sibyls, the far reach of the soul in the Renaissance.
If we turn from Raphael’s temperament to the circumstances which so largely conditioned his action, our feeling is at first one of extreme regret. It is difficult to reconcile ourselves to the hot-house pressure put upon Raphael’s development by the cabals and feuds of the time, to the depraved taste which demanded strident and sensational effects from this painter of the exquisite, to the superficiality which accepted the coarse work of Giulio Romano if signed by the more popular name ; above all we regret that the collaboration thus unwisely forced upon Raphael should have been of the vulgar type which the pervading atmosphere of Roman life could breed, and that this association should ultimately have coarsened the fiber of the painter himself. But again, we are dealing with a fact nowise exceptional. Michelangelo was hardly more favored in Rome. Fortunately, his one great work was rushed headlong through to completion, before his inspiration, born of the purer air of Florence, was sullied or spent. Fortunately, again, he was not popular, and the long half century following the completion of the Sistine Ceiling brought him few opportunities for the inevitable descent to Avernus. But the few works which record to us the progress of his thought and of his ideals are painful reminders that even his taciturn and isolated spirit was not exempt from the influence of this debauching environment. Unquestionably art flowed far more limpid and pure at its fountain head in Florence or in gentle Umbria, than in the turbid stream of cosmopolitan Rome.
Yes, but is it in some favored Florence or Umbria that art accomplishes its mission? Life is more undefiled in the monastery than in the market place, but should it therefore remain in the monastery? It is folly to seek for art or for righteousness conditions of development which rob it of its value and its use. The ripened art of Florence lost nothing by being plucked for the use of a sodden world. Unplucked, it would have rotted upon the parent stem. Rome offered to art no subtle inspiration or discriminating guidance ; she offered rather a world to be refined and saved. Chaotic in her impulses, limitless in her resources, and tyrannical in her power, Rome epitomized the humanity to which art must always make its appeal. That in this Babel of conflicting impulses and undefined ideals, the message of art was often confused or heard awry is not strange. It is, after all, this same Babel which must be won from confusion to order by unconscious adjustment to the rhythmic accents of art. Not once, but a thousand times, the ideals of art shall be defiled and perish by this same contaminating contact, but not a thousand times, no, nor once, shall they perish in vain.
It is a pleasant task to turn from the demoralization which Raphael suffered, to the elevating influence which he exercised upon this new world art of the Roman Renaissance. We have seen his contribution to such difficult problems as pictorial decoration, contributions not merely technical, by any means, but it is impossible not to expect from the painter of the Madonna of the Goldfinch or the Sistine, something more definitely expressive of the spiritual serenity which it was his to interpret. We do not find it in his ill-advised adventures into Michelangelo’s field; we look for it often in vain under the obscuring veil of Giulio Romano’s handicraft. Let us not look so narrowly to details of figure or face. Rather let us look back in long perspective at the great walls of the Segnatura, at the Deliverance of Peter, yes, even at the Sibyls and at many another which, taken by itself, seems but the travesty of an incongruous theme. Let us forget the idiosyncrasies of the theme and note only the spirit which, appropriately or not, is common to them all. It is the same spirit that we knew and loved in the earlier day, a spirit which, hitherto expressed in the face of the Madonna, was now called upon to harmonize the vast compositions which were the product of the age. Into the turmoil of Roman life Raphael brings a spirit of imperturbable serenity and calm. The philosophers of Athens, the worshipers of the host, the Muses upon Parnassus, the liberated Peter, all have the serenity of God’s own angels and bear with them the charmed spirit of peace. If this spirit is strangely dissonant in a Vision of Ezekiel or a Sibyl burdened with the message of God’s displeasure, the dissonance is not Raphael’s. It is but the discord which the surrounding din makes against the music of his art. That his message was heard and welcomed even by those least in harmony with it, there is abundant proof. That he was largely sacrificed to the conditions of Roman patronage and life, is indubitable, but the sacrifice was neither gratuitous nor vain. It was but a part of that universal sacrifice which is incidental to utilization. “Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth alone, but if it die, it beareth much fruit.”