Like all self-respecting geniuses, Raphael (1483-1520) died young at the age of 37. For over a decade, he had been based in Rome, and had enjoyed fame, wealth and success beyond the dreams of almost any other artist of the day (Leonardo and Michelangelo were his only rivals). His standing in the highest circles — and above all in the eyes of the Pope — meant he was accorded the unprecedented honour, for one of his artistic calling, of being buried in the Pantheon.
Artistic celebrity of this order did not guarantee the preservation of biographical minutiae, however, and we know almost nothing about what Raphael was actually like. The first biography of him was published by Vasari, in the original 1550 edition of his Lives of the Artists, and on the personal front, it is clear that it trades in hearsay as opposed to established fact. The number of letters written by him to have survived is very few, and most of them are public as opposed to private. One or two Raphael drawings share the paper with scribbled drafts of bad love poems, but they too are singularly uninformative.
The consequence of this state of affairs is that it is not really possible to write a life — or even a life and works — of Raphael. Regardless of its subtitle, Antonio Forcellino’s book is much closer to a bonkbusterish novel than to a conventional biography, and betrays almost all the faults of that sinister genre.
Forcellino is fearlessly unabashed when it comes to making things up, and in particular tiresomely fixated on Raphael as the Latin lover par excellence, admittedly following Vasari’s account of his death as a consequence of amorous excesses. At times, when he discusses the works he becomes equally overheated. Raphael’s portrait of a lady in the Pitti, which has come to be known as the ‘Donna Velata’ (Veiled Woman) may conceivably represent a mistress, for all that there is no real evidence to this effect, but that is no reason for the lurid speculations the drapery folds of her sleeve inspire: ‘Its deeply sinuous folds are exaggerated through brilliantly gleaming highlights and cavernous depths, especially in the wide opening edged with gold, which clearly recalls the female sex.’ ‘Clearly’, as in ‘clear as mud’.
When it comes to the works, Forcellino has an equally tenuous grasp of the crucial difference between a fact and a hypothesis. It is claimed that Raphael’s ‘Vision of a Knight’ in the National Gallery was painted for the court of his native Urbino, but as a matter of fact the first record of its existence dates from 1650, when it belonged to the Borghese in Rome, which means it is absolutely impossible to know for whom it was made. When the author claims the ‘Mond Crucifixion’, again in the National Gallery, contains ‘no more than five figures, which included the flying angels’, those of us who can count up to seven will feel obliged to disagree.
The other oddity of the discussions of the art is that they are so uneven in their scope. At times they are respectably detailed, but at others they omit large numbers of works, which include not only almost all the smaller Madonnas, but also the vast majority of the frescoes in the last two Stanze in the Vatican. The all but total omission of Raphael’s extraordinary corpus of drawings, while extremely regrettable, is altogether more predictable.
After all this chaos and absurdity, it is a huge relief to turn to Tom Henry’s magnum opus on Signorelli (1445-1523). Here too the title implies an engagement with the artist’s biography, and the book’s first sentence charmingly explains that ‘Luca Signorelli liked good wine and kept bees’, but in the main this is a traditional art historical monograph. Like almost all advocates of nearly men — Signorelli was no Raphael, after all — Dr Henry is on occasion tempted to fight his hero’s corner beyond the call of duty, but forgivably so. At his best, which is to say in his extraordinary apocalyptic frescoes in Orvieto cathedral, and in his drawings, Signorelli was a true original, and his obsession with the muscular male body makes him a crucial precursor of Michelangelo’s as well. The young Raphael was a fan too.
One of the unexpected treats of this book is a colour reproduction of Signorelli’s one great foray into the world of classical mythology and allegory, the ‘Feast of Pan’. This remarkable painting was one of the major casualties of the worst wholesale destruction of paintings of the entire second world war in the Flakturm in Berlin, which also polished off the first version of Caravaggio’s ‘Saint Matthew’, and much else besides. There is something incredibly poignant about even a glimpse of what it really looked like.