THERE are certain reasons for making a central figure of this artist in a brief account of the zenith of Italian painting, aside from his undeniable distinction as a painter, and without prejudice to the distinction of his great contemporaries.
Raphael was much more prolific in the production of pictures than Da Vinci, more intellectual and more monumental in his art than Titian or Correggio, and in the duration of his life and in his style more strictly confined to the greatest period of Italian art than Michael Angelo. It was the fate of the latter to live into the time of the decadence, and in some ways to influence and deter-mine its character.
It will be worth while here, for a moment, to turn back to the illustration of the palace built for the dukes of Urbino, as reminder of the existence of the state which was Raphael’s home (Fig. 35).
Two facts in the history of the little state of Urbino are significant for the relation of Raphael to general Italian history. One is that its library, as subsequently united with the library of the Vatican, was the most important addition ever made to the latter, and the library of the Vatican is the most important historic library of the world. A state whose dukes were thus fond of books was naturally fitted to be an important center of Italian culture. What this importance was may now be argued from a curious fact in the history of the popes.
In the history of the Renaissance the court of Pope Leo X. (15131521) is generally held up to admiration as the center of art and learning, as the culmination of the glories of the Renaissance. It is not so generally understood that the artists and men of learning who surrounded Leo X. were mainly inherited by him from the preceding pope, Julius II., who was the first great patron of Bramante, of Michael Angelo, and of Raphael; the projector of the Sistine Chapel and Vatican frescoes, of the Raphael cartoons, and of St. Peter’s Church. Now Julius II. be-longed to the family of Rovere, which was connected by marriage with the family of the dukes of Urbino. It was from the connections and associates of the court of Urbino that he drew together the circle of great men, which ultimately made the reputation of the court of Leo X.
This fact has a double significance. It illustrates the intellectual atmosphere which influenced Raphael’s boyhood. His own father was court poet as well as court painter. It also explains how the transfer of Raphael’s activity to Rome, in 1508, made when he was only twenty-five years old, placed him among acquaintances to whom he was already favor-ably known.
In this center of intellectual and personal refinement Raphael’s engaging personality and kindly nature combined with his untiring industry, great talents, and rapidly acquired fame to make him a leading figure.
Both in the methods and subjects of his art he was des-tined to become the representative painter of the classic and literary enthusiasms of the Renaissance. These found their culmination in his great wall-paintings in the Vatican known as ” Philosophy,” or ” The School of Athens” ; ” Poetry,” or ” The Parnassus ” ; ” Jurisprudence ; and “Theology.” All the knowledge that the science of design in Italy had mastered in ten years following the completion of the “Last Supper ” was also at his command.
To this hard-earned knowledge, first won by other artists, was added his own distinguished talent as painter and draughts-man and a peculiar tact in the arrangement, balance, and spacing, of his compositions.
As a composer of designs in and for architectural surrounding and on architectural surfaces, Raphael stands without a rival in modern art. In Michael Angelo we admire the volcanic genius, the colossal power; in Raphael we find a calmer, better balanced, and, so to speak, more architectural spirit.
It is, then, in the relation of outlines to surrounding space and framing that his distinctive mastery lies. This most conspicuous quality of his oil paintings reflects his architectural training and architectural point of view. To this was added a perception for pure and spiritual beauty in women and in children, and for noble dignity in men. All these qualities are revealed in that room of the Vatican, the Camera della Segnatura (” Room of the Signature,” that is to say, the pope’s office) which he began to decorate in 1508 with the frescoes whose subjects have been named above.
At a later date Raphael executed the ten monumental designs for tapestry pictures of the Lives of the Apostles whose cartoons (as far as preserved) are now in the South Kensington Museum of London, while the tapestries them-selves are preserved in duplicate sets in Berlin and in the Vatican (the latter formerly in the Sistine Chapel).
Between the dates of these two monumental sets of works he executed the fresco decoration of several Vatican rooms adjoining the Camera della Segnatura, and a series of over fifty designs from Old Testament history known as ” Raphael’s Bible.” These last were executed by scholars on the ceiling of the Vatican corridor designed by Bramante, and known as the ” Loggie” (lodgeay) of Raphael (Fig. 58).
To this catalogue of untiring activity we must now add the frescoes from classic subjects (the story of Cupid and Psyche) executed by scholars on the ceiling of the Farnesina Villa and an enormous number of oil paintings; Madonnas, Biblical subjects, and portraits.
Of his Madonnas the ” Sistine,” in Dresden, is the largest, most imposing, and most famous. Of his other oil paintings the “Transfiguration” of the Vatican Gallery is the most celebrated.
His portraits are marvels of character portrayal and a perpetual monument to the intellectual refinement and cultivation of his time. Here, as elsewhere, the quality of his painting has a peculiar solidity and strength combined with refinement of finish. When we consider the enormous amount and the even quality of his personal work (as distinct from that of some frescoes on which scholars were employed) he appears as a miracle of industry as well as of art.
We have already quoted Raphael’s activity as the architect of several palaces in Rome and Florence and as successor of Bramante in the construction of St. Peter’s. As a sculptor, we are able to mention at least two statues from his models, the “Jonah” in Rome and the ” Cupid with the Dolphin ” in St. Petersburg.
One of my illustrations has been chosen to show Raphael’s early relations to fifteenth century art (Fig. 81). The “Betrothal of Mary and Joseph” is closely copied from a Perugino now at Caen, in northern France. The faces of Perugino’s paintings (Fig. 68) are constantly repeated in Raphael’s early pictures. I do not bring this up as a fact remarkable in itself, but as illustrating what I have already said regarding cooperation, tradition, and the repetition of subjects in Italian art (p. 127). This picture is also interesting as illustrating (in a small oil painting) the style of composition and arrangement of figures common to most frescoes of the fifteenth century. It would serve, in fact, as an excellent type of illustration for that period of fresco.
I am inclined to add a word regarding the point in which Raphael must be considered as the superior of all later moderns who have so far attempted similar monumental deco-rations. The number of these is not large, and in all modern art Kaulbach’s frescoes on the walls of the great staircase of the Berlin Museum are probably the nearest approach to a similar scale and class of subjects.
Although Raphael’s period was one of great proficiency in drawing, of refinement in the harmonious use of colors, and of a quick and spontaneous interest in seizing the active motion of the body in moments and poses having both dignity and beauty when arrested perpetually by art we cannot say that science in design is alone the secret of its success. Were this the case, it would be hard to understand why a modern as conscientious and as proficient as Kaulbach should take a lower rank. We must realize, as one element of superiority, the habit of off-hand, bold, and rapid work cultivated by the art of painting on plaster. Our modern art is not offered sufficient practice in wall decoration, and in life-size figure composition, to cultivate in the artist the same security and self-confidence in his own resources. He may by a great exertion of care and personal effort reach a comparable stage of perfection in his science, but he will have sacrificed in the very laboriousness of his effort the dash and spirit, the off-hand freedom of the old design. The key to the effect of a large work of art lies in a relation of the parts to the whole, in which an over-careful finish of details has not destroyed the effect of concentration, the power of the leading thought. Elaboration of detail is suited to a small oil painting, but not to a large one certainly not to a wall-painting. Far apart as is the art of the modern Japanese and the Italian art, the former offers the best parallel when the suggestiveness of an effect as attained by a limitation of detail is in question. The photograph details of Raphael’s frescoes (shown in this chapter) will give valuable hints on this point.
We may again suggest that the dignity, reserve, and nobility of Raphael’s art are attainable only when the artist is working for a public which is certain to appreciate his effort, because its own best thoughts and noblest ideas have been translated for it into form. In this element of perfection we come back to the point of view that the greatest art does not represent simply the thought of the artist, but that it must also represent the overflow and the reflex of the best thought of the age to which he belongs. The nineteenth century more generally expects from the poet, the man of letters, and the musical composer, what the Italian Renaissance asked from the artist in design.
Raphael died in 1520, at the age of thirty-seven. He was born in 1483 the birth-year of Luther. The most recent and exhaustive history of the artist’s life is by Muntz. The work of Passavant, though written earlier in our century, is still valuable. The life by Vasari (“Lives of the Artists”) is short and readable, giving practically all that is known of the person and social life of the artist. Vasari’ s book was written about the middle of the sixteenth century, and is the main original authority for the lives of all the Italian painters who lived before that time. Although in matters of criticism, and in matters of detail, it is occasionally open to correction and revision, the fact that its writer lived in the same period with the subjects of his interesting sketches, gives his book unique worth. The English translation (Bohn Edition) successfully follows the quaint style of the original.
( Originally Published 1894 )
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