As an undergraduate art history student I wrote an essay on Raphaël’s School of Athens because I was so captivated by the movement and energy of Plato and Aristotle as they bring the spatial recession towards us while simultaneously filling the picture plane with their verticality. It’s an extraordinary painting for its dimensions, but also its philosophical and aesthetic reach. Indeed, it’s the painting that I have, ever since, associated with Raphaël, one of the three high Renaissance masters of Papal Italy (Michelangelo and Leonardo being the other two). This autumn’s exhibition at the Louvre, Raphaël, Les dernières années, opens up to a quieter, more reflective Raphaël. This is probably because the exhibition features the works that can be moved: the smaller, more intimate, though nevertheless breathtaking paintings and drawings that he made in the final ten years of his short life.
|Raphaël, The School of Athens, 1510-|
That said, in the second room of the exhibition is the dynamic, complex narrative of Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary, c. 1514-16. The agitation, or the “spasm” of the painting’s Italian title, creates anger, surprise and a depth of other complex emotions that emerges as Mary reaches out to help Christ having stumbled from bearing the weight of the cross. Simultaneously, we see here, the precision of Raphaël’s technique in the perfectly crafted, if disproportionate muscles of Simon of Cyrene, the man compelled by the Romans to carry the cross. His arms are as exquisite as the cloth of Mary’s red robe in the bottom right corner. The rich, vibrant reds and blues, the sculpting of the human body, and the realism of the highly charged scene brings alive the rarely painted narrative, making it hard to believe that it was painted 500 years ago. This is a painting that does so much more than tell the biblical story.
|Raphaël, Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary, c. 1514-1516|
The portraits, however, were for me, the most sublime of the images on display at the Louvre. They are sublime because of the luminescence of the skin, the perfection of the face, the grace and serenity of the look as it the sitter greets the eye of the spectator in quiet reflection. Because Raphael is best known for his frescos in the Vatican living quarters, the portraits are surprising, though frank. In the examples in the Louvre exhibition, the background is often a single color, placing all emphasis and our complete attention on the exquisitely perfect faces of the sitter. Everything that needs to be said about the sitter is in the face, the hands softly resting, and in contemplative eyes.
|Raphael, Portrait of Bindo Altiviti, 1515|
The Portrait of Bindo Altiviti (1515), the rich banker who was also a highly cultured man, is once again, striking for its realism. And also, as the first of the portraits to be exhibited, the viewer is struck by the contemporaneity of his soft, graceful face caught in the shadows. And I am surely not the only one to be seduced by the eroticism of his full red lips, his golden hair falling on his bare skin.
|Raphaël, Portrait of Cardinal Bernardo Douizi da Bibbiena, 1516-1517|
It’s difficult not to be wooed by the sumptuous red ecclesiastical dress against a luminescent green background in the portrait of the Cardinal of Santa Maria in Portico, Rome: Portrait of Cardinal Bernardo Douizi da Bibbiena, c. 1516-1517. Even if he is not someone we would want to spend time with, his dress, his delicate hands holding what is presumably a message for the Pope, and his intense eyes that follow us as we walk around the room, make him irresistible.
|Raphaël, Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, 1519|
My favorite was the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1519) because it is grey. His hat and his beard frame his face which, other than his folded hands at the bottom of the painting, are the focus of an otherwise “fully lit” monochromatic palette. Apparently, it is not just for compositional purposes that the hat, as if an extension of the coat, covers his head: it also covered his baldness. But the most sumptuous and most sensuous aspect of the painting is Baldassare’s grey fur: it is so finely painted, so soft and subtle that it made me want to reach out and stroke it. I am no Cinquecento scholar, but I can’t think of another painting from this time that ventured into an entirely grey palette to create such a compelling, richly textured, yet entirely somber canvas.
|Giulio Romano, Portrait of a Woman at a Mirror, 1523-1524|
There are so many delights in the exhibition, but the execution and articulation of fabrics must have been among the most exciting. In an unsettling image by Giulio Romano, one of Raphaël’s assistant, Portrait of a Woman at a Mirror, 1523-1524, the woman covers herself with a piece of entirely transparent fabric. Or in Portrait of a Woman, 1512-1518, the trimmings of the woman’s dress are so opulent and finely rendered that they appear to be three dimensional, protruding into the spectator’s space. Next to the theatricality and energy of the better known frescos, the economy of line and form to create an equally dense, yet thoroughly individual story in the portraits cannot help but mesmerize any viewer.