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Books: Raphael—all things to all ages

Three new monographs show the artist is still the equal of Leonardo and Michelangelo, if not so popular

When Raphael died at the age of 37 on 6 April 1520, he left behind a thriving painter’s practice, a burgeoning architectural portfolio, a prestigious client list and a talented inner circle of pupils and assistants. Three books—a biography, a catalogue of his late works, and a study of the physical fortunes of his paintings—explore Raphael’s continuing legacy for generations of artists, viewers, historians and conservators.

Raphael was raised in the workshop of his father Giovanni Santi, court painter to the Duke of Urbino. His professionalism was as prodigious as his talent. At the age of 17 he was already designated maestro in the contract for the St Nicholas of Tolentino altarpiece, around 1500. In Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari places him alongside Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci as one of the defining figures of the “third age”. If Michelangelo embodies the artist as divine artificer, then Raphael is a secular saint, leaving behind a beautiful corpse and a series of quasi-miraculous, “living” images.

What has Raphael to offer a modern biographer? In Raphael: a Passionate Life, Antonio Forcellino seeks to liberate his subject from later cultural and art-historical associations. Challenging post-Romantic conventions of the solitary genius, he presents Raphael as fully engaged with his society: a man whose eroticism and talent for friendship flowed naturally into his art. The author is a professional conservator, and the book contains descriptions evocative of Raphael’s working practice. Following recent scholarship, it also refocuses attention on the artist’s early years, reinstating Giovanni Santi as a formative influence. Less convincingly drawn are some of the links between biographical and visual interpretations. Raphael’s enthusiastic heterosexuality is unquestioningly assumed to be the source of his facility in representing the female form; while the information that he was breastfed by his mother—a defining aspect of Vasari’s mythmaking—is also viewed straightforwardly as enabling his later sympathetic portrayals of women.

Forcellino’s Raphael is a lover, not a fighter. However, it may be argued that the artist’s defining relationships were not romantic, but professional. This conclusion becomes apparent from the meticulous scholarship of Tom Henry and Paul Joannides in Late Raphael, the catalogue accompanying the exhibition hosted jointly by the Prado and the Louvre (11 October-14 January 2013). Concentrating on the artist’s mature years in Rome, when he delegated a major part of his output to assistants, the authors are faced with the inevitable question: who, or what, is “late” Raphael? Two very different artistic personalities emerge. Gianfranco Penni, a somewhat bland painter, excelled as a project manager, specialising in the finished compositional drawings known as modelli. The highly accomplished Giulio Romano was able to subsume his idiosyncratic manner into a seamless “house style”; yet he also pursued independent projects, and went on to forge a stellar career after the workshop disbanded. Technically not a pupil—he learned his craft elsewhere—Giulio’s role became that of a trusted collaborator. His closeness to Raphael may perhaps be discerned by his appearance in the double portrait traditionally called Raphael and his Fencing Master, around 1518, here identified as a touching tribute to their partnership.

More than just a collection of conservation histories, Cathleen Hoeniger’s study, The Afterlife of Raphael’s Paintings, provides a fascinating insight into the interrelationship of academic scholarship, international politics and the ethics of restoration. A chapter on the Vatican Stanze (rooms) reveals how the muted reactions recorded by some commentators on the Grand Tour may have been influenced by the poor state of cleaning of the frescos, subdued lighting conditions, and the damaging attentions of over-enthusiastic copyists. This leads into a discussion of the Sistine tapestry cartoons, purchased by Charles I and reassembled as gallery pictures at the end of the 18th century: a transformation that assured Raphael’s place at the heart of English establishment taste. The art crimes of the Napoleonic period are revealed to have had profound implications, both for restorers in Paris charged with pulling together looted altarpieces into a convincing display of imperialist cultural supremacy and, later, for the development of a heritage protection industry in a resurgent Italy determined not to lose its treasures again.

As Hoeniger demonstrates, the reception of Raphael’s painting has epitomised changing attitudes to the material legacy of the Renaissance. This seems an appropriate destiny for an artist who, perhaps more than any other, typifies his age. For Vasari, maniera—an artist’s personal style or creative signature—depended on the assimilation, manipulation and reinvention of “found” fragments. Visually hungry, Raphael continually processed and transformed what he saw. Leonardo and Michelangelo may have survived as the dominant personalities of the era, but in Raphael, we rediscover an artist whose most enduring affair was with painting itself.

Raphael: a Passionate Life, Antonio Forcellino, Polity, 260pp, £25 (hb)

Late Raphael, Tom Henry and Paul Joannides, Museo Nacional del Prado, 384pp, €37.45 (pb)

The Afterlife of Raphael’s Paintings, Cathleen Hoeniger, Cambridge University Press, 448pp, £50 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Raphael—all things to all ages'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 239 October 2012