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.

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