Books: Unusual angles and changing perspectives of Renaissance Masters

Raphael gets assessed according to the theories of Rudolph Steiner and Vasari’s judgement of Andrea del Sarto is reversed


These two books share in common beautiful colour reproductions and a large format which allows those illustrations generous space, important especially for reproducing large sale frescoes, such as those by Raphael in the Vatican Stanze. They consider two of the major painters of the High Renaissance, who were much of an age (Sarto was born three years later than Raphael and lived ten years longer), and who worked concurrently in the second decade of the sixteenth century, Raphael in Rome and Sarto principally in Florence. In some respects the authors’ approaches to their subjects are similar: both, for example, adopt a traditional chronological framework for their accounts of the painters’ careers.

In other respects, however, the texts are very different in character. Professor Natali’s book is essentially, as he writes, “a compilation of my thoughts—old, recent, and new—on the art of Andrea del Sarto and the spirit underlying it”.

As such, it has a somewhat loose, heterogeneous quality, appearing to be a series of studies of major works or of different stages of Sarto’s career, each approached from a different perspective.

Dr Oberhuber’s account of Raphael’s career, on the other hand, is rigidly constructed within a theoretical framework based on “the rhythmic structures of [Raphael’s] inner development that modified his innate vision and formed the foundation of what he could learn from the opportunities he encountered.”

It should be said the Oberhuber book is a revision of a monograph first published to coincide with the quincentenary in 1983 of Raphael’s birth. Various modifications to the text take into consideration recent scholarly research, and the results of the extensive recent conservation and scientific analysis of Raphael’s paintings. But these additions to the original text do not allow his account to break free from the constraints imposed by Dr Oberhuber’s conceptual framework. This is based on the theory of human development found in the teachings of Dr Oberhuber’s guru, Rudolph Steiner, who is cited at several points in the book. Steiner’s system, which has its roots in classical Greek thought, “has the advantage that it places man’s individual development in the larger context of the development of humanity”.

Human development is charted in seven-year phases, so that, for example, the period from the age of twenty-one to twenty-eight is characterised as that of the “rational soul”, from twenty-eight to thirty-five that of the “sentient soul” and from thirty-five to forty-two that of the “consciousness soul”. It is difficult to imagine how this developmental structure could be exploited in analysing Rembrandt’s career, for example, or Picasso’s, but, as it happens, it does not work too badly in Raphael’s case.

Dr Oberhuber therefore seeks to read each painting in terms of the point in this cyclical pattern of development that Raphael had reached at the time it was produced. For the most part, this structural rigidity does not adversely affect analysis and interpretation, but occasionally the explanation for a stylistic change and development overemphasises the importance of what Dr Oberhuber sees as critical changes in Raphael’s life pattern. For example, the “School of Athens” (for Dr Oberhuber, the second of the Stanza della Segnatura frescoes, executed in 1510) and the “Expulsion of Heliodorus” (completed by March 1512) in the Stanza di Eliodoro in the Vatican were painted either side of Raphael’s twenty-eighth birthday in late March 1511. According to Steiner’s theory, this birthday sees the change from man’s “rational soul” period to his “sentient soul” period. Dr Oberhuber rightly stresses the “absolutely essential difference” between the two frescoes, and their entirely different meanings for different audiences in two rooms of very different functions, but principally to Raphael’s “decisive inner change from the time of the Segnatura to that of the Heliodorus”. However, the reader who can gloss over remarks such as that maintaining the Isaiah fresco in Sant’ Agostino, Rome, is “a clear expression of the emotional third phase of Raphael’s rational soul development” will gain a good deal from the many perceptive insights in Dr Oberhuber’s book.

Professor Natali’s reading of Andrea del Sarto is posited around his probably correct view that Vasari’s general interpretation of the artist is characteristically prejudiced and flawed. Vasari clearly greatly admired Sarto, in whose workshop he served his first apprenticeship, and the Life of Sarto is factually among his most reliable. But, unable to understand why Sarto should have abandoned a highly promising career as court painter for François I, King of France, to return home to work on the much smaller, more limited stage of Florence in the 1520s, Vasari concluded that he was essentially timid and unadventurous, “cowardly and irresolute to the point of having wasted his God-given talents”.

Where Vasari explained that Sarto “left France and the glory that could have been more fully his because of the desperate pleading of his wife, who wanted him back in Florence”, Professor Natali proposes that “the reasons for Andrea’s return were conditioned by his ideological disposition, by conscious choices informed by his cultural background”. This contrast with, for example, Raphael’s thrusting, ambitious personality has coloured the critical tradition, and has (in Professor Natali’s well argued view), led to Sarto being relatively underrated and not given the position he deserves among the great masters of the High Renaissance.

In the central chapter of his book, Professor Natali reconstructs Sarto’s position as “an active participant in Florence’s liveliest intellectual circles”, showing that he had developed knowledge of current theological debate. One of his principal examples is the great “Madonna of Harpies” in the Uffizi, visually ravishing after its recent restoration. But the aesthetic qualities of this altarpiece scarcely surface here, crushed as they are under the weight of an elaborate iconographical interpretation in light of Franciscan eschatology. It is as though a detailed study of the painting’s programme has been paraphrased here, without being balanced by discussion of, for example, Sarto’s compelling colourism or his subtle adaptation of Leonardesque sfumato modelling. An earlier chapter highlights the complex organisation of Sarto’s workshop at the time of the fresco decoration of the Chiostro dei Voti in Ss Annunziata, so that again the qualities of his handling of tone and colour are submerged beneath detailed discussion of workshop collaboration and of the rhetorical strategy underlying Vasari’s criticisms.

Despite the unevenness of this treatment, Sarto’s artistic qualities shine through, summed up in a masterly characterisation of Sarto’s pictorial values: “varietas of cultural references, gravitas in the dignified representation of the figures...subtended by a compelling chromatic suavitas and an ineffable elegantia of atmosphere and gesture”.

In Dr Oberhuber’s book on Raphael the reproductions, especially of the recently restored Vatican frescoes, make a valuable contribution, but the excellent quality of the colour plates in Professor Natali’s book is even more important, making clear the extent to which Sarto threaten Raphael’s position as the most versatile and imaginative painter of the High Renaissance.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Unusual angles and changing perspectives'