"And I tell you that to paint one beautiful woman, I should need to see several beautiful women, and to have you with me to choose the best," wrote Raphael, then at the zenith of his fame and good fortune, to his life-long friend Count Baldassare Castiglione, who—the10 ideal courtier himself—has given the world that immortal monument of Renaissance culture, the Book of the Courtier. In penning these lines the prince of painters intended, perhaps, no more than a pretty compliment to one who was himself a model of courtesy and graceful speech, but the words would gain deep significance if picture were substituted for woman, and if Castiglione were taken to signify the personification of intellect and learning. For the beauty of Raphael's art, which in the course of four centuries has lost none of its hold upon the admiration of mankind, is distilled from the various elements of beauty contained in the art that had gone before him and was being created around him; and in choosing the best, at least as far as idea and conception are concerned, he was guided by the deepest thinkers and keenest intellects of what were then the world's greatest centres of culture.
11Raphael was, indeed, born under a happy constellation. He was not a giant of intellect, nor an epoch-making genius; as Michelangelo said of him, he owed his art less to nature than to study; but he was born at a time when two centuries of gradual artistic development had led up to a point where an artist was needed to gather up the diverging threads and bring the movement to a culmination, which will stand for all times as a standard of perfection. Advantages of birth and early surroundings, charm of appearance and disposition which made him a favourite wherever he went, receptivity, adaptability, and application, and above all an early and easy mastery of technique, were combined in Raphael to lead him to this achievement. The smooth unclouded progress of his life from recognition to fame, from prosperity to affluence, is not the turbulent way of genius. Genius walks a sad and lonely12 path. Michelangelo, the turbulent spirit, morose and dissatisfied, Lionardo da Vinci, pursuing his high ideals without a thought of worldly success until his lonely old age sees him expatriated and contemplating the fruitlessness of all his labours—these men of purest genius have little in common with the pliant courtier Raphael, the head himself of a little court of faithful followers. The story goes that Michelangelo, in the bitterness of his spirit, when meeting his happy rival at the head of his usual army of some fifty dependants on his way to the Papal court, addressed him with the words "You walk like the sheriff with his posse comitatus." And Raphael, quick at repartee, retorted "And you, like an executioner going to the scaffold." Whether the anecdote be true or not, it marks the difference between the course of talent—albeit the rarest talent—and that of genius.
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What are the qualities of Raphael's art that have carried his fame unsullied through the ages and made him the most popular, the most admired, of all painters? The greatest of the primitives, and of the later masters Velazquez, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Watteau, to mention only a few of the brightest beacons in the realm of art, have at some time or other been eclipsed and held in slight esteem. Raphael alone escaped the inconstancy of popular favour; he was set up as an idol before he left the world to mourn his untimely death, and in the course of the years the world's idolatrous worship was extended even to the feeble handiwork of his assistants, which often passed under his name. Only within the memory of living men did this blind and indiscriminating worship lead to a reaction as indiscriminating. But this reaction was confined to a comparatively small circle of æsthetically inclined art enthusiasts; and to-day, when the more16 scientific methods of criticism have succeeded in sifting the wheat from the chaff—the master's own work from the factory-like production of his bottega—he has been reinstated in all his former glory. Contemptuous hostility to Raphael's art has ceased to be a fashionable pose. The frank acknowledgment of the perfection of this art is no longer stayed by the consciousness of the harm done by that imperfect imitation of the Raphaelic code of beauty, which has been the result of all academic teaching in Europe since the founding of the Prix de Rome.
Beauty, formal beauty, pure and faultless, must appeal to everybody; and Raphael means to us the perfection of beauty—such beauty as lies in rhythm, balance, colour, form, and execution. It is a calculated beauty, the lucid, unambiguous expression of an absolutely normal, well-balanced mind assisted by an unerring hand; hence it is17 intelligible to everybody without that unconscious mental effort which is needed for the understanding of an art of greater emotional intensity. It is of the very essence of art that it should express an emotion; a picture which is merely imitative without holding a hint of what the artist felt at the time of creating it, ceases to be a work of art, even if it represents a subject beautiful in itself. On the other hand, an ugly subject may be raised to sublime art by emotional statement; but this emotion is of necessity more complex and more difficult to understand than that simplest of all emotions, the pleasure caused by the contemplation of beauty. This accounts for the common fallacy that art and beauty are indissolubly connected, and for the favouritism shown by all the successive generations to Raphael whose brush was wedded to beauty in the classic sense, and whose art knew nothing of the beauty of character.
18But beauty alone does not constitute Raphael's greatness, or Bouguereau and many other modern academic painters would have to be accounted great instead of being merely dull and insipid. Raphael developed to its utmost power of expressiveness the art of space-composition, the secret of which was the heritage of the Umbrian painters. What space-composition means cannot be better defined than it has been by Mr. Berenson: "Space-composition differs from ordinary composition in the first place most obviously in that it is not an arrangement to be judged as extending only laterally, or up and down on a flat surface, but as extending inwards in depth as well. It is composition in three dimensions, and not in two, in the cube, not merely on the surface…. Painted space-composition opens out the space it frames in, puts boundaries only ideal to the roof of heaven. All that it uses, whether the forms of the natural19 landscape, or of grand architecture, or even of the human figure, it reduces to be its ministrants in conveying a sense of untrammelled, but not chaotic spaciousness. In such pictures, how freely one breathes—as if a load had just been lifted from one's breast; how refreshed, how noble, how potent one feels; again, how soothed; and still again, how wafted forth to abodes of far-away bliss!"
This sense of space and depth is achieved by methods which have nothing in common with our modern art of creating the illusion of what is called "atmosphere"—not by the "losing and finding" of contours, not by the application of optical theories, such as the zone of interchanging rays which dissolves all hard outlines, nor by the blurring and fogging of the distance. Space-composition in the sense in which it was practised by Raphael is closely akin to the art of architecture in its appeal to our emotions.
20As an illustrator, again, Raphael was unequalled as regards clear, direct, measured statement of all that is essential to the immediate grasping of the idea or incident depicted. The first glance at one of Raphael's works, whether it be a small panel picture or a monumental fresco, reveals its whole purport, and that in a manner so complete and lucid and convincing as could not be achieved by any other method of expression. With infallible sureness he invariably found the shortest way for the harmonious statement of idea, form, and emotion, which in his work are always found in perfect balance and so completely permeated by each other as to constitute an indissoluble trinity.
Another reason for Raphael's powerful appeal—and in this he is perhaps the most typical child of his period—is that his art unites in one majestic current the two greatest movements of thought which have21 ever fired the imagination of civilised Europe; classic antiquity and Christian faith, when treated by Raphael's brush, cease to be incompatible and live side by side in that measured harmony which is the hall-mark of his art. Christianity is presented to us in the glorious classic garb of the old world, and the myth and philosophy of the ancients are brought into intimate relationship with Christian teaching. He infuses new blood and life into the stones of ancient Greece and Rome—unlike Mantegna who had remained cold and classic in his relief-like reconstructions of antiquity; just as he accentuates the human emotional side of the Madonna and Child motif by discarding all hieroglyphic symbolism and setting before our eyes the intimate link of love that connects mother and babe. Almost imperceptibly his cupids are transformed into child angels, and the Jehovah of his "Vision of Ezekiel" has22 more in common with Olympian Jove than with the mediæval conception of the Lord of Heaven.
Just as Timoteo Viti, Perugino, Fra Bartolommeo, Lionardo da Vinci, Masaccio, Michelangelo, and Sebastiano del Piombo (who imparted to him something of the glow of Venetian colouring), had been the sources from which Raphael drew his knowledge of technique, colour, composition, and all the elements of pictorial style, so the humanists had paved his way as regards the intellectual aspect of his art. His marvellous faculty of rapid assimilation enabled him, on the one hand, to appropriate whatever he found worthy of imitation in his precursors and contemporaries, and thus to complete his technical equipment at an age at which it was given to few to have achieved mastery; whilst, on the other hand, his clear intellect, aided by the not entirely unmercenary desire to please his patrons, helped him to carry out with triumphant success the ideas evolved by the keenest thinkers of his time. To doubt that the general idea, and perhaps a good many of the details, of such a stupendous work as the fresco decoration of the Stanze at the Vatican, had originated in Raphael's head, is not to detract from his greatness. He was a boy in his early teens when he entered his first master's bottega. He was a youth of twenty-five when he started on his great task; and the intervening years had been so completely filled with the study of his craft and with the execution of important commissions, that it is impossible to believe he could have found much leisure for book-learning. And such learning was indispensable for the conception of that elaborate scheme with all its historical allusions and allegorical imagery. The wonder is that Raphael could so completely enter26 into the suggestions made to him from various sources, and to weave them into a tissue of immortal beauty.