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Raphael: The Lord of Art

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 By Joseph R. Phelan*

Along with Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520) is one of the “big three” artists of the Italian High Renaissance, that fascinating period from 1500 to 1525 when artistic giants walked the earth.

Though present day audiences may prefer the multitudinous genius of Leonardo or the heroic anguish of the late Michelangelo, a handsome new film simply titled Raphael — recently shown at the Landmark Theatre’s E Street Cinema in downtown DC and also at its Bethesda Row location in suburban Maryland — reveals how much boundless ambition and dynamic energy lies behind this artist’s achievement.

By the time he died at 37, Raphael had achieved so many miracles in oil painting and fresco, architecture and tapestry, plates and prints, that for three centuries afterwards his work was the standard by which ambitious and talented artists were measured.

When Picasso said that “Leonardo promises us heaven, Raphael gives it to us” he was referring to the graceful perfection, or what the Italians call sprezzatura that observers see in the younger artist’s many images of the Virgin and Child such as the Alba Madonna from the National Gallery’s permanent collection.

The documentary takes us on a fascinating journey from the duchy of Urbino where Raphael was born and trained, to the republic of Florence where he absorbed the transformational art of Leonardo and Michelangelo and culminates in Rome, the monumental capital of the Christian world. His brilliant career reached its apogee in the Vatican where Raphael became the favorite painter of two of the most powerful 16th century popes, Julius II and Leo X.

The haunting image of a mother and child on the walls of the Casa Raphael in Urbino fills the screen as the young painter (played sensitively by the actor Flavio Parenti) looks back on his early years in the bosom of a loving family.

The film effectively suggests that Raphael’s famous Madonnas were rooted in his sweet memories of his own mother. Giovanni Santi, his father was a minor painter, a poet and an intellectual at the court of the Dukes of Urbino, and the man who initially trained his son in the rudiments of art.

Orphaned at the age of 11, the boy was well served by his father’s network of connections at court. With the Ducal Palace as his “art school,” the young man finds his way into the Duke’s study where he can gaze for hours at the masterpieces celebrating great men on the walls. These Italian and Flemish art trophies inspired the apprentice. “Every master has something to teach,” he reflects, “and every one of them can be improved upon.”

Beginning with Perugino, the leading Italian oil painter of the 1490s, the film follows Raphael as he aspires to “learn, interpret, and surpass” each of the artists he comes in contact with.

One of the delights of the film is to see, side-by-side, the “dueling” altarpieces depicting the Marriage of the Virgin by the two painters. While strikingly similar in their composition, Raphael gives the setting a broader sweep and a more coherent perspective. With this contrast we understand that the older artist’s time has come and gone; and the young Raphael has become a “magister” or master.

Moving to Florence during the miraculous years when the rivalry between Leonardo and Michelangelo was spurring them on to create their innovative masterpieces, the young man is stunned by the way the older painter seemed to capture life itself in the portrait of Mona Lisa. Raphael’s study of the complex figural compositions of the two giants leads him to rethink a commission on the subject of the Entombment. While previous painters had shown the supine body of Christ on the ground surrounded by his disciples, friends and family, our painter depicts four male figures struggling to lift and carry the weighty corpse while three women support his fainting mother. The physical and psychological gravity of the event is richly conveyed yet it is painted with that superb finesse for which Raphael is famous.

It was inevitable for a rising talent like Raphael to move on to Rome, the city where the most ambitious and talented artists gravitated. Julius II, the warrior Pope, was also a great connoisseur of art and was determined to transform the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. Raphael offered to paint the room housing the Vatican library. In the fresco that has come to be known as The School of Athens, the artist boldly envisioned philosophy as a way of life through an interactive group portrait of the greatest thinkers of antiquity set in a spectacular Renaissance building.

Framed by an arch, Plato and Aristotle in the center, advance towards us, as supremely self-confident larger than life heroes. Plato holding a copy of the Timaeus points up to the heavens and the realm of the ideas, while Aristotle with his Ethics in one hand gestures outwards to the world in front of him with the other. Has there ever been a better representation of the profound differences between these two thinkers?

One look at this fresco was all it took for Julius to dismiss the other painters and turn the whole project over to Raphael. He was to be occupied with Vatican projects for the rest of his life, frescoing more rooms in the new style of the School of Athens, working as the architect for St. Peter’s and designing the decorations for the Farnese palace. We see Raphael designing tapestries for the Sistine Chapel in direct competition with his rival Michelangelo.

Raphael was also, notoriously, a lover of female beauty. He was the first painter to use nude female models. Vasari tells us he regularly indulged “beyond measure” in the pleasures of lovemaking and on one occasion went so far beyond his usual excess that he fell ill and died. The most ravishing moments in the film come when the artist paints his true loves. We see the renowned portraits of La Fornarina (The Baker’s Daughter) and La Velata (The Veiled Lady) up close, with astonishing detail. Yet the most stunning moment comes when we zoom in on the sleeve of the later portrait in ultra-high definition. Oil painting this gorgeous rivals anything later achieved by the miracles of Titian or Rubens, Renoir or De Kooning. Picasso was right, Raphael does show us heaven.

The director Luca Viotto, who has made several well regarded documentaries about Renaissance Florence and the Vatican, along with his colleagues at the Uffizi and the Vatican are leading the way in bringing the treasures of their country to movie audiences using the latest tools of digital cinematography.

Raphael’s biography lacks the dramatic confrontation between the two gigantic egomaniacs, Michelangelo and Pope Julius, that made The Agony and the Ecstasy so enjoyable. Yet the 20 locations and 70 artworks — more than 30 by Raphael –- make this an invigorating experience. Moreover, the commentary offered by art historians — Antonio Paolucci, the curator of the Vatican art collections and Antonio Natali, the curator of the Uffizi — is frequently compelling. Like Plato and Aristotle, they make a nice contrast: florid Paolucci gestures like an old fashioned orchestra maestro; while phlegmatic Natali holds his arm folded for most of his time on camera. Yet just as with Raphael’s great portraits of Julius II and Leo X, these scholars’ faces command our attention.

*Joseph R. Phelan is a Washington based author and teacher. He is the founding editor of, the fine art search engine. He has taught at the Catholic University of America and the University of Maryland University College.

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Joseph R. Phelan. All rights reserved.