The Raphael Question

Lawrence Gowing

  • Raphael by Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny
    Yale, 256 pp, £15.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 300 03061 4
  • The Drawings of Raphael by Paul Joannides
    Phaidon, 271 pp, £65.00, July 1983, ISBN 0 7148 2282 5
  • Drawings by Raphael from English Collections by J.A. Gere and Nicholas Turner
    British Museum, 256 pp, £8.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 7141 0794 8

When I used to give a survey course for first-year students, I dreaded December. That was when I reached the High Renaissance and my audience fell away. It was not only the alternative seasonable employment that left the slopes of the theatre to echo vacantly my conventional claims for the ideal. Although I did not disbelieve the convention, it was hard to feel sure that the perfections of Leonardo and Michelangelo – the ideally empirical theory of knowledge and the ideal of human physique in the likeness of God – did not outclass the merely intelligent perfection of pictorial form, which was the apparent distinction of Raphael.

Critics betrayed misgivings about this from the start. While Michelangelo excelled in art, Vasari wrote without conviction, Raphael excelled in manners also. Raphael had not only the rarest gifts, but grace, diligence, beauty, modesty and good character as well. As usual, there was a suspicion that more was really less. If with such merits Raphael could have got away with murder, as Vasari said, are we really sure he didn’t? The stories of his grace and modesty were in fact far from reassuring. Sure enough, he concealed his excesses of venery, so that doctors treated him for a chill and bled him, with fatal results. His legacy to the legion of artists who followed him was said to be his proof of the perfectibility of art – proof so incontestable that Art should have thought itself lucky that it did not expire with him.

History shrinks from panegyric so ludicrous. The lastingly credible qualities are specific to individuality. It is the indubitable creativeness of Michelangelo that has claims to be akin to the divine – the genius to breed a race of divinities, which generated the most serious style in art (as Stendhal thought it). The enduring imaginative virility in the tradition, eventually to be identified as Romantic, laboured down the centuries under the burden of Raphaelite convention. Sincerity itself had to labour under it. Reynolds’s discovery that if he pretended to see the merits of the Stanze they would in time begin to dawn on him, shared by his like for a very long time, was the essence of the academic villainy that infuriated Blake.

Yet the Raphael question was and is not so easily answered. The academic assurance that qualities laboriously acquired will be perceived with labour has obscured the real naturalness of the qualities that were bred in Urbino. Down the centuries it has hidden the message of the milieu in which Raphael was brought up by seeing his achievement as a polished exercise of style instead of what it was – the confidence in an objective method akin to the certainties of philosophy and architecture. The Raphael controversy, which seems to historians so vulgar, has remained a lively issue to painters; it revolves round a basic antithesis in the artists’ frames of mind. Rubenism versus Poussinism, Romanticism versus Neoclassicism, Cézanne versus the painting from Ingres to Puvis that he held to be merely bien imité, were all really about the Raphael question. When Ernst Gombrich lectured on the Madonna della Sedia I was embarrassed to realise that none of the qualities in painting that were held to be cumulative and communal, in fact impersonal, had much meaning to me.

The issue between Raphael and the Romantics was distorted by this very difficulty. Critics who sought, as I sometimes have, what is private and compulsive in art have turned from the High Renaissance consensus to the personal inventions of Raphael’s last years. They were found to be no more than inventions, sometimes substantiated by drawings but realised by other artists. The Visitation in the Prado, the favourite of Herbert Read (who escaped few of the Romantic traps), is missing altogether from Jones and Penny, the new and dependable source for knowledge of the artist.

Deciding where the emphasis in Raphael’s achievement is to lie, historians must make choices which imply a view of history and a theory of genius. If they make no decision and offer an even-handed balance, they may only betray that Raphael bores them. People expect to be bored by Raphael. One of the first impressions of their excellent book is that Jones and Penny do not mean to give us time to be bored: they hurry on with a briskness that is often on the brink of impatience. There is enormous virtue in this. The uncommonly close reading of history pays continual dividends in vivid and sensible interpretation, and the wonder-boy’s reactions have never been better imagined: ‘Heroic violence as an ideal in art must have been one of the things that most struck Raphael in Florence.’ The bloody saga of the Baglioni family of Perugia, for example, is recounted with a restraint all the more admirable when the tale illuminates so well what we admire – and also what, on the whole, we don’t – in Raphael’s Entombment. The introduction to the frame of mind in which the so-called Stanza della Segnatura was conceived is just right: ‘a military image was more compatible with a liking for libraries than it has since become.’

But briskness can pay a penalty. Sometimes the review of historical probabilities seems not so much critical as ironic or almost facetiously inconclusive. Was the fact that Chigi’s name was Agostino more or less likely to have influenced his choice of Augustinian churches for Raphael to decorate than the fact that both S M della Pace and S M del Popolo had been rebuilt by Julius II’s uncle? (Sorry we asked.) There is ‘no particular reason to look for further hidden meanings’ in the Farnesina. The political purpose of the Stanze was ‘essentially simple and transparent’. Speculation can be too curtly halted. The seated melancholic who was inserted as an afterthought in the School of Athens, for example: is he identifiable or not? Is it so implausible that the figure should have resembled Michelangelo if it was to ‘appropriate some of his heavyweight power’?

One has the illusion of overhearing the dialogue of these collaborators, and detects a tone of impatience with proto-Mannerist fantastication or the correspondingly playful fancy of iconology. Is the conversation tolerant enough to bear with the caprices of the 16th century? The question has a dimension of anachronous illusion in one’s mind. Jones and Penny have already a slight proneness to jokes about the imperial overtones in the authority of Pope Julius; they must often have wondered if they were intellectually (or genetically) attuned to the transactions of Giulio and Penni.

It is hard to be sure that their discussion, elaborate as it must, or should, have been, had the full measure of Raphaelite conceits. The paddlewheel, for example, that was made as if to propel Galatea’s shell in the Farnesina is stigmatised as ‘rather silly’. The question of what constitutes silliness in 16th-century discourse has indeed quite tiresome ramifications. Galatea’s reins are described, with the constitutional impatience, as being ‘obviously designed’ for pattern rather than use. But these flimsy reins are one of our better clues to Raphael’s boredom, which is not less obvious, with how things work, or worked in antiquity. Just this point was ventilated in a study by the late Millard Meiss, which was a good deal more attentive to the tone of 16th-century discourse, and deserved a reference among these notes. Is there a suggestion that such mandarin echoes merely irritate the authors, rather as madrigals maddened Lucky Jim?

These collaborators are alert, however, to the signs of what Raphael was far from bored by. On their title page an enormous detail testifies to his thoroughly human interest in what dolphins eat. Or ate. It was ever thus (it seems) in antiquity, and in Agostino Chigi’s den of iniquity. The answer, there among the buoyant putti, is a wriggling phallic octopus. Raphael had a cheerfully biomorphic repertory of reference – more like musical comedy than the iconography we know – to the ever-interesting topic.

Jones and Penny are normally good about this kind of thing. The fact that their possibly peppery, certainly spicy temper responds to the sexuality of the painter is one of the things that makes their view so human, so dismissive of the endless arguments between one ism and the other and of the pedantry between. The pages that are written with feeling are those which dwell, not on the classic precocity or the grandiloquent rhetoric admired before, but on the sensual humanity – and show it to us as the peak of Raphael’s art. The focus of the book (and its dust-jacket) is the Magdalen from among the Saints round St Cecilia in Bologna, a realisation (apparently on behalf of chastity) of the solid naturalness of the sexual object, essentially unparalleled in naturalism before or in the elegantly sensual charm that was imitated from it. ‘Her figure is twisted, but not because she is moving. Instead of looking up to the heavens ... she turns her small head to us. She has the slightest smile, controlled rather than passively responsive, and wide immobile eyes, more penetrating than inviting.’ With the women carrying water to the Fire in the Borgo the same response is carried to the extreme. The firestorm whips their draperies revealingly about them. Violence precipitates sensuality and sensuality galvanises violence, always in the same livid colour. Raphael’s first biographer wrote that the Fire in the Borgo was ‘painted with a wanton brush’: I do not think anyone since has written as well as Penny and Jones on the dimension of sexual awareness. Raphael’s emotionalism culminated in the hysterical hypertension of the Transfiguration. At first sight it is not easy to recognise such qualities in the painter who as a youth had brought such an untroubled clarity from Urbino. Was this emotional extremity perhaps cooked up by the studio helpers from his drawings? The portraits, which take a more meaningful place in this view of Raphael than in any before it, provide the crucial evidence. Their intensity, which is so personal to the painter, could not possibly have been transmitted in any other medium but paint.

Jones and Penny will have nothing of any understanding of the portraits that does not read them – or recognise that if we knew more they could be read – as incidents in Raphael’s own life: very private and emotive episodes which are realised in paint with an alertly painterly perceptiveness that was wholly new in art. Here is some of their brilliant reading of the so-called Fencing Master:

Raphael has here extended the attention paid to the beholder ... into something quite extraordinary. To the casual observer, the address might appear arrogant, with the companion looking away from us, but at the same time pointing us out to his superior friend, who regards us with some reserve. But it would surely be a mistake to see the picture addressed to the world at large. It would make more sense ... if it had been addressed to a particular audience ... consisting of friends and relatives of his companion, who was perhaps about to leave Rome to join them ... showing the friendship between the two men and Raphael’s resigned acquiescence to his friend’s departure. In any case the inventive drama of the portrait, which arrests our attention but excludes our participation, derives from the private circumstances ...

Only the best criticism can speculate with such fruitful and complete conviction. We are in fact required to recognise in Raphael more different kinds of artistic faculty than we have experience of in any other painter. The virtue of the book is to assemble so well the evidence that these were not merely the miscellaneous talents of a generation, gravitating en masse to the circle of this phenomenal man.

It has always been difficult to see anything potentially hysterical in the qualities of the wonder-boy. Yet the ‘auxiliary cartoons’, from which many people like me have averted their eyes until the recent British Museum exhibition, do give signs of assembling the information for a polyvalent particularisation that could not possibly be due to anyone else. These authors admittedly detect a lesser calibre of effort and a more trademark-like connotation in the signatures of pictures that were destined for the provinces. It is possible that something of Raphael has escaped them in one of these, the so-called Madonna with the Fish, which seems (to me) to possess a new dimension of unaccountability in its premonition of the baroque that was so far in the future.

Looking, through this remarkable book, at the cluster of faculties in which we must identify Raphael, almost the most significant is the fullness with which he embraced an empirical directness rather far from his earlier method. We need to know much more about the developing procedure of portraiture straight from life. Leonardo recommended and practised it – and his example must often have been in Raphael’s mind in the last years. Apart from him, how securely was the procedure established? The painterly harmony, the fugal rhythms and the sparing colour of portraits like his Castiglione were the most original and far-seeing things in the late work, the most worthy of the Umbrian clarity he began with, yet the most surprising. Surprising, except that he produced a similar premonition of attitudes that were still a hundred years away when he drew (just once) from nature in the ruins of Rome.

What was he thinking of, that unparalleled man, on the day he took pen and paper and walked out to return with the drawing engraved as Il Morbetto? Perhaps he had a private yet not inarticulate idea – an idea, I think, rather than Idea; I am not persuaded by the Platonic interpretation of his famous and no doubt characteristic letter about ‘a certain idea that I have in my mind’. Being writers, Jones and Penny possibly discount the non-verbal impulse. I guess that Raphael had an idea of showing Fra Bartolommeo, that pioneer sketcher from nature, how it could be done.

Coming to Raphael afresh in this company, we discover, not so much the vacuous grace of earlier stereotypes, as multiple dimensions of reaction to the whole range of public and private reasons for art, dimensions that have in common a superior and athletic ease and exactness, an uncovenanted consistency in the springing of figurative shape from the complex of visual, philosophic and emotional data, an uncanny alertness to the relevance of part to part, which makes the wholeness of visual art. Coming to terms with all this in the historic Raphael is as rewarding a discovery as any in the visual arts. Thanks to Jones and Penny and to Joannides we are better-equipped for it than ever before.

In addition, the Yale Press has accomplished a quite outstanding publishing achievement. All the pictures that are in any reliable condition are splendidly reproduced, often with well-chosen details and most of them in superlative colour. The splendour and abundance may be gathered from the fact that no less than seventy of the drawings, too, are reproduced, and far better, with more colour, even than in the catalogue devoted to them, where, good as it is, the beauties evaporate unless one has a magnifying-glass to hand. Some of the drawings are better illustrated in the British Museum catalogue than anywhere, and discussed with an Olympian openness to every possibility in a commentary that usefully contributes to the debate. It emerges that invention for Raphael was frequently a process of revising previous inventions. The child, quoted from a lost Leonardo, who developed through successive Madonnas – ‘swimming across the Virgin’s lap’, as Joannides describes him – became prototypically Raphael’s own, and ended, indeed, swimming, the marine Galatea’s leading putto. In the later collaborative works he sometimes gave his attention to comparatively subsidiary figures, while the chief might be left to his assistants. A current within the work drifted him involuntarily along. Joannides has one of those fascinating bibliographic concordances that tabulate the whole range of conflicting views. The margin of doubt in the definition of Raphael has narrowed considerably, while for Michelangelo it remains disturbingly wide. None of these books shows the subtle colour of the little silver-point drawings on pink paper, the most mysteriously living graphic objects that exist.