During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy there was very little interest in the urban fabric of Rome. Most maps were little more than ‘compendiums’ of monuments and the city was dirty, depopulated and in ruins. One contemporary description compared it to an old women dressed in rags.
Christopher Columbus may have been busy exploring the New World far from the maddening crowds and while he was, back in Italy artists, scholars, princes, adventurers and Popes were all feverishly searching through the soil for remains of Rome’ former splendour.
The Church and the Papacy laid claim to supreme rule and when Pope Julius II ascended St Peter’s chair in 1503, he called upon three men to give presence and validity to the art of space and form in the city of their ancestors.
Architect Donato Bramante (1444-1514), Polymath Michelangelo (1475-1564) and his former pupil known to history as Raphael or Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483 – 1520) all presented the Church militant and triumphant through their great works of art and architecture. Many of their works still remain today as a legacy to their greatness.
The idealized images of antiquity were a far cry from contemporary descriptions by Horace of a ‘smoky, rich, noisy Rome” but as it was the only building intact since its period of greatness under Roman rule, the Pantheon with its mighty dome and occuli in the roof, which became a subject of intense scrutiny.
This is very much evident in the documentary film Raphael: The Lord of the Arts a recent limited release at the movies, featuring the story of artist who like his contemporaries, studied the Pantheon’s great sacred space well.
I saw it at Palace Cinemas and was entirely entranced.
Although only aged 37 when he died, Raphael seemed to live an intense but rewarding life, leaving ‘an indelible mark on the artistic world. Part historical reconstruction with a look alike actor and with rolling commentary by leading figures of the arts in Italy today, the film retraces the most significant moments of Raphael’s life.
The film explores more than thirty of his most appealing works of art, starting with the fresco Madonna and Child with a Book painted by his father Giovanni Santi (1435-1494), which had such an influence on his life.
Judging by this wondrous work, the beauty that came to life through Raphael’s brushwork was through his father’s influence, profound.
Kenneth Clark in his Civilisation: 1987 Chapter 4, Page 87 affectionately said “The court painter was a silly old creature named Giovanni Santi, the sort of obliging mediocrity who is always welcome in courts, even in the court of Urbino. No doubt the ladies, when they were in need of a design for embroidery, used to say “Let’s send for dear old Mr Santi” – and when he came he brought with him his beautiful little son, Raffaello. And so Raphael … found his earliest impressions of harmony and proportion and good manners in the court of Urbino.”
Raphael became a friend of intellectuals at the court of Urbino in his day, which was to stand him in good stead when he came of age. This included the great Baldassare Castiglione whose portrait he painted and whose book The Courtier became the bible for those striving to be known as ‘gentlemen for centuries’.
Set in twenty locations and two particularly that are rarely seen, the famous Loggia in the Vatican where his pupils completed the stunning decoration after his death, and Cardinal Bibbiena’s apartment in the Apostolic Palace, where the famous fresco the School of Athens enlivens the walls, you cannot help to admire what Raphael physically achieved in such a short life.
The rebirth of the individual during the period known as the Italian Renaissance awakened the desire for beauty and Raphael and his famous contemporaries led the way. The many images of the Madonna and child he painted are indeed luminous, revealing the sadness he felt at the loss of his own mother at a young age. His cherubs painted at the base of his work commissioned by Pope Julius II, Madonna di San Sisto, are today the most famous in the history of art.
He lived at a time when the renewal of the pagan pursuit of happiness and the strong social contact people had with one another helped the transmission of so- called ‘humanist ideas’. There was a simultaneous dawning of consciousness and an exploration of the relationship of the individual to the natural world.
The ideal of a Christian Empire combining with a Pagan Empire appealed strongly to craftsmen and men of learning and the depiction of the Synthesis of Frescoes in the Stanza Della Segnature in the Vatican known as the School of Athens depicts the two worlds facing each other as equals.
They were painted directly onto the wall in one of the four rooms by master artist Raphael and the young artists of his school.
The works were completed between 1508 and 1524 and formed an integral aspect of the apartment, which was situated on the second floor of the Pontifical Palace chosen by Julius II della Rovere (pontiff from 1503 to 1513) as his own residence.
Used also by his successors, the ‘pagan world’ is presented as a gathering of the greatest minds of antiquity including those engaged in philosophy, Poetry (including Music), Theology, and Law
Raphael made many of the protagonists in the image of contemporary giants of his day through portraiture. In the centre Greek philosopher Plato (Leonardo da Vinci) points upward while his pupil, Philosopher, Scientist and Tutor of Alexander the Great Aristotle (Pope Julius II) points to the earth.
The patronage for Raphael of famous men like the Duke of Urbino and the Pope himself, meant that Raphael also completed the greatest of the works of his lifetime for them. His lifesize cartoons for tapestries are among the greatest artistic treasures in Britain owned by the British Royal Family since 1623, on loan to the V & A since 1865.
Commissioned in 1515 from Raphael especially for the Sistine Chapel there are ten in existence, but scholars speculate sixteen were planned. The tapestries made from the cartoons had a historic state visit to London in September 2010 sent by the present Pope to be exhibited at the V & A Museum. This event was the first time in 500 years the tapestries had hung alongside the original cartoons Raphael had painted for the weavers.
If you ask people today what is the Sistine Chapel many would know it is a place of worship within Vatican city at Rome – they would have seen it in the movie the Da Vinci Code. A great percentage would know something about the work of 15th century artist Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) a series of sensational painted scenes about the creation story.
The images rise up from the top section of the walls of the chapel and cover the ceiling with scenes of stories from the Bible. The central figure the renowned image of God reaching out his hand to the first human Adam represents the whole of humankind.
Then there is the splendid tapestries, often found hanging on the lower walls of the chapel during great pontifical, or liturgical services? Raphael’s tapestries, preserved for all mankind to admire and learn from. Now at least many more people know about them as well.
I left the cinema desperately wanting more.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017