Review Raphael – the Renaissance master who made saints and virgins shine | Art

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If you wanted a large portrait in early 16th century Italy, or a few rooms filled with frescoes, or even a bathroom, Raphael was your artist – ahead of his contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He could paint with as much authority as Leonardo, but without the long delays and distractions the former genius was subject to when he interrupted commands to build a flying machine or simply do math for a few months. As for the other artistic titan of the time, Raphael cruelly satirized Michelangelo in his fresco The School of Athens, which is spectacularly recreated in this show as a mural facsimile. Michelangelo is depicted in this grand vision of classical Greece as the philosopher Heraclitus, seated alone, a grumpy loner with his face resting in his hand in the attribute of melancholy.

Raphaël was well dressed and charming. Of the three greats of the High Renaissance, he was the simplest, the most productive and, for 300 years, the most influential. In his early twenties he saw the Mona Lisa and other works by Leonardo and transfigured their style into his own, as you can see here in his 1507-8 painting La Muta d’une femme au mystery et à the Mona Lisa reserve. The adaptation he made to Leonardo’s style was a sensational success – refining the classic noses and poses, but removing the bizarre chiaroscuro. This created a noble, balanced, and clear figurative art that was taught for centuries as the correct and perfect style, until modernism knocked it off its pedestal.

Composed serenely… Raphaël’s Madonna d’Alba. Photography: Studio A/Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

This exhibition makes you feel the original joy of this pure, almost mathematical method. Raphael’s Madonnas are so serenely composed, so light and graceful in their colors, that they seem to float in the air without needing to be attached to the wall. The Madonna of Alba is a circular painting (a “tondo”) in bright blue and pink, with the young Jesus and John the Baptist playing on Mary’s lap in a meadow. Beyond, the landscape is a hazy blue veil of mountains and water under a clear, bright sky. But what’s odd is the sense of proportion: Mary and the boys are exactly where they need to be inside the circle for it to look like a geometric theorem. Raphaël makes the music of the spheres visible.

To say that the Renaissance was driven by admiration for ancient Greece and Rome is a cliché, but it was Raphael who took this ideal to the extreme. There is a letter in this exhibit from the Vatican Library in which Raphael tells Pope Leo X about his research into the ancient remains of Rome. He studied the ruins alongside ancient texts, he says. One of the books was On Architecture by Vitruvius, which explains the theory of perfect proportion – how a building or a human body should be planned in musical intervals. Raphael even does this in Le Massacre des Innocents, which he designed as a print with his collaborator, the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi. It is a scene of mass infanticide, but the naked soldiers move like ballet dancers and the women pose like statues, in a majestic parade of pain.

Cold? Not for a second. Raphael’s classic calm doesn’t so much quell the horror as it gives it tragic dignity. Instead of being numbed by chaos, we can take in details slowly, like bass notes in a miserere. A woman’s screaming features grab your attention – thud. A dead baby lies on the ground, its little snub-nosed face hanging upside down. Thud.

Raphael’s mastery of classical proportions and geometry is accompanied by an effortlessly natural, unnerving human touch. His sympathies are never hidden. He is full of love. That’s what keeps bringing you back to those Madonnas. Has an artist ever depicted the mother-child relationship with such warmth? Tempi Madonna’s mother hugs her baby’s face to her cheek, gazing at him with boundless love. For all Raphaël’s precision, it is emotion that is close to his heart, which always manifests itself in a simple and innocent way. In The Holy Family at the Palm Tree, Joseph also participates in domestic love, kneeling beside a Jesus who watches him attentively.

La Fornarina (1518-1519) by Raphael.
Sharing his private life… La Fornarina (1518-1519) by Raphaël. Photography: Aliyah

These happy families represent Raphael’s lost childhood. He was an orphan. Born in the famous court of Urbino in the Marche region in 1483, he lost his mother and father, a small artist and poet, when he was 11 years old. Her sweet portrayals of the holy family are surely lyrical reminiscences of her own mother. and dad, utopian projections.

Raphael has an ease and a sympathy for the women who make his saints and his virgins shine. And this love is not only spiritual. Raphaël was a handsome boy, as he shows us himself in his lyrical and tender Self-Portrait on loan from the Uffizi Gallery. He knew he was handsome. In a later self-portrait, he is bearded but still suave as he poses next to his student Giulio Romano. At this time, in the 1510s, Raphael was in such demand for the Rome fresco that he worked with a large team of assistants, led by Romano. But he also found time, says his 16th-century biographer Vasari, to have fun. He was so absorbed in his love life that an employer had to let his girlfriend move into the villa he was painting or he wouldn’t have made it.

She’s there. This dazzling spectacle saves its biggest treat for last. Suddenly Raphaël the man comes out from behind his art, to share his private life. Her painting La Fornarina depicts her lover sitting in a garden, showing her breasts. It’s really a question of intimacy: Raphaël concentrates more on his face than on his body. She smiles half shyly while her big eyes slide shyly aside: she looks like she’s about to burst out laughing.

At least he died happy. Shortly after painting this, his last work, Raphael died on Good Friday night 1520, aged 37. Vasari claims he was exhausted from too much sex, then killed by doctors who bled him when he needed food and rest. He celebrated life with every painting he made. He showed us something we all need: a dream of beauty and harmony. Kind Raphael. For more than a century, it has gone out of fashion, considered too perfect to move us modern turbulent people. This great show is like falling in love again.

At the National Gallery, London, from April 9 to July 31.

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