Daisy Dunn

Raphael’s paintbrush

Raphael’s paintbrush
Text settings

One of the puns that circulated the cultured elite of Italy during the Renaissance compared the potency of an artist’s paintbrush, his pennello, with his penis, il pene. Raphael, who by all accounts liked his women, perhaps embodied that duality best of all. The artist’s fascination with female kind, Antonio Forcellino suggests in his brilliant and lyrical biography of the artist, helped shape his genius.

Not long before Raphael died, aged just 37, of a malady popularly believed to have stemmed from excessive sexual activity, he painted La Fornarina — a young, brown-eyed beauty (perhaps his last lover), semi-nude but for a diaphanous veil draped beneath her décolletage. Around this date he also painted a heavily veiled woman, La Velata. Like a silver-tongued sleuth Forcellino picks apart these contrasting images to show how evenly — but deceptively — matched they are in the degree to which they are sexualized. Raphael worked his female sitters in this way, Forcellino suggests, as a remedy to his own feelings:

‘Through the silken touch of the brushes, which left no trace on the canvas, Raphael stole his lovers’ beauty and transferred it into paint, possessing it for ever: it was a privilege that not even a prince could boast, even if he were Pope…’

Raphael’s pennello was timelessly penetrating.

But could the sort of fascination and intimacy with women that Forcellino describes really make a man paint them better? One of the figures Raphael met when he came to work in Florence was Leonardo da Vinci, who was homosexual, and now in his early fifties. Raphael, Forcellino says, ‘absorbed the mystery of Leonardo’. Quite what that meant, in practice, isn’t entirely clear. Certainly Raphael absorbed (or perhaps rather reflected) Leonardo’s light. Whether he also had an advantage over Leonardo through his ability to read the female mind, as Forcellino suggests, is perhaps a little less tenable a view. Last year, when a number of Leonardo’s portraits came to London, no one had the gall to suggest that his lack of physical involvement with his sitters hindered his ability to bring them to life. Forcellino doesn’t suggest that it did, but one becomes very aware of how difficult it is to entwine art and reality in this way in piecing together an artist’s history.

That said, one of the big problems with writing a biography of someone as prodigious (a word the author is fond of) as Raphael is that it is almost impossible to make him familiar; he was, and will remain, in some sense untouchable. Forcellino’s exploration of both the personal and the professional relationships Raphael developed does seep across that barrier remarkably well.

Trained, at first, in his father’s modest workshop, Raphael of Urbino was still very young when he came into contact with the major players in North Italian politics. Forcellino focuses particularly on his work for Pope Julius II, the war-mongering ruler who vowed (illegally) to wear a beard until such time as he should capture Ferrara, an increasingly distant pipedream. While, traditionally, many have shuddered at the sight of Raphael’s portrait of the bearded Julius II (today in London’s National Gallery), Forcellino encourages a more sympathetic view of the subject, a weathered man, who has lost his grip upon the throne he grasps so tightly in his portrait.  

One gains the impression, in general, that Raphael was no pawn to Popes or Dukes. If anything, the letters which survive and are analysed in this book reveal him to be just as self-assured as Vasari portrayed him in his Vite — essentially Raphael’s earliest biography. The masterful quality of Forcellino’s account lies not only in the beauty of its language, translated impeccably from Italian into English, but in the seamlessness and self-assurance with which he himself works across northern Italy, its paintings, its politics.

Raphael A Passionate Life by Antonio Forcellino (translated by Lucinda Byatt) is published by Polity Books