Laura Gascoigne

Raphael – saint or hustler?

You can't argue with his genius but the verdict on the Renaissance master's character remains open – Laura Gascoigne dishes the dirt

Raphael – saint or hustler?
‘Study for the Head of an Apostle in the Transfiguration’ by Raphael. Credit: © Private Collection
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For tourists to Rome, the must-see event of 1833 was the exhumation of Raphael from his tomb in the Pantheon. For years the city’s Accademia di San Luca had been claiming possession of the artist’s skull and running a profitable line in souvenirs. That September, the question would be settled. Was the ‘most eminent painter’, lauded in his friend Pietro Bembo’s fulsome epitaph as having ‘lived virtuously 37 virtuous years’, really buried there? And did his skeleton have a head?

Hans Christian Andersen was one of 3,000 ticket holders for the six-day lying-in-state. The skeleton was there all right, complete with head, but its dignity, reported Andersen, was somewhat dented by the rattle of bones when it was returned to the tomb.

The ‘divine Raphael’ was mortal after all. He had not ascended to heaven like his assumed Virgin or his resurrected Christ, though to believe Bembo’s epitaph and Vasari’s hagiography one could almost imagine it. Vasari’s carefully constructed myth of the beatific Raphael – blessed with the Christian name of an archangel and the surname ‘Santi’ – as the morally worthy beneficiary of ‘the liberality with which Heaven now and again unites in one person the inexhaustible riches of its treasures’ would live on for centuries after the artist’s tragically early death in 1520. It was a myth for which the image-conscious artist laid the foundation when, at the age of 30, he purchased a burial plot in the Pantheon and funded a chaplaincy to go with it.

An eager student of classical architecture, Raphael had made two drawings of the Pantheon on his first visit to Rome in around 1506. They are included in the National Gallery’s delayed exhibition marking the quincentenary of his death, which covers the entire span of his multidisciplinary career as a painter, frescoist, architect and designer of tapestries, silverware and stage sets, not to mention superlative draughtsman and brilliant portraitist.

The son of a court painter from Urbino, Raphael Santi had it all: he was talented, charming, smart and exceptionally well educated for an artist. A master at 17, in his early twenties he was already picking up commissions for altarpieces in his native Umbria and for sweet, naturalistic Madonnas in Florence. But it was in Rome that he would hit the big time. The new della Rovere pope, Julius II, elected in 1503, had decided to expunge the memory of his hated Borgia predecessor Alexander VI by moving the papal apartments upstairs. He hired a team of senior artists, including Pietro Perugino, to fresco a suite of four new reception rooms on the third floor, and in 1508 Perugino’s former student Raphael joined them.

Raphael turned out to have a genius for animating a theological idea; however dry the concept, his designs breathed narrative life into it. His work on the ‘Disputà’ and the ‘School of Athens’ in the Stanza della Segnatura, Julius’s library, convinced the pope that he was capable of anything. He put him in charge of the entire suite of stanze and, on the death of Bramante in 1514, the artist was appointed architect of St Peter’s. The death of Julius in 1513 did nothing to slow Raphael’s ascent; he forged ahead with the stanze under Leo X and was rewarded in 1515 with a commission to design a suite of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel as a counterpoint to Michelangelo’s ceiling. That same year, knowing his interest in archaeology, Leo made him supervisor of all excavations of antiquities in Rome.

On top of his work for banker Agostino Chigi on the Villa Farnesina and for future pope Giulio de’ Medici on the Villa Madama – plus assorted altarpieces for other patrons – it was all too much. On 6 April 1520, after a two-week fever, Raphael died. By a piece of providential timing, it was Good Friday. His bier was tactically placed under his last altarpiece, ‘The Transfiguration’, and in case anyone missed the parallels with Christ it was immediately reported that ‘the rocks were rent’ – though the crack that appeared in Bramante’s staircase to the papal apartments was more likely the fault of the architect.

It’s hard to get a handle on Raphael. We get a strong sense of the personalities of Leonardo and Michelangelo through their writings and letters, but Raphael’s two surviving letters to his uncle are principally concerned with money and status. One reports his engagement in 1514 to Cardinal Bibbiena’s niece Maria, whom he put off marrying for six years, some said because he wanted a cardinal’s hat. (She caught up with her dilatory fiancé in death, predeceasing him and being buried alongside his tomb in the Pantheon.)

Could anyone so skilled at self-advancement be the paragon Vasari portrays? When Vasari attributes the cause of Raphael’s death to misprescribed bloodletting for a fever brought on by ‘more than his usual [sexual]excess’, it is not exactly a stain on his reputation. Along with the story that Chigi had the artist’s mistress, La Fornarina, installed in the Villa Farnesina to keep his mind on the job, it merely adds ‘lover’ to his other claims to greatness.

By their works, however, shall ye know them. What we know from Raphael’s works is that he was a great thief. He stole licks from Perugino, Leonardo and especially Michelangelo, his arch-rival in Rome. Vasari called it ‘studying the efforts of the old and modern masters’; Michelangelo saw it as plagiarism. He suspected Raphael of having persuaded Bramante to let him into the Sistine Chapel when the ceiling was half-finished. How else to explain the outrageously Michelangelesque Prophet Isaiah in Raphael’s fresco in the church of Sant’ Agostino or the knock-off Sybils in the Capella Chigi in Santa Maria della Pace, started in 1511 before the Sistine ceiling’s official unveiling? So notorious was Raphael for stealing marches on his competitors that when Sebastiano del Piombo was commissioned by Giulio de’ Medici to paint a ‘Raising of Lazarus’ for Narbonne Cathedral – for which Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’ had also been commissioned – Sebastiano tried to keep the composition secret. It was no use. Raphael got wind of its complexity and redesigned his altarpiece to upstage it.

There were accounts of young artists arriving in Rome being unable to find work because of Raphael’s dominance; it was even reported that his critics were beaten up and murdered. Vasari insists that he was adored by his assistants – and three of them did call their sons Raphael – but the escort of 50 artists said to have ‘kept him company to honour him’ on his way to work may have been less a guard of honour than a security detail. Rumours circulated after his death that he had been poisoned; moves are even now afoot to re-exhume his bones to test them for traces of arsenic.

Is it too late to dish the dirt on Raphael? His goody-two-shoes image is hard to swallow. ‘Saint or hustler?’ I ask Tom Henry, Raphael scholar and co-curator of the exhibition, who lays flowers on the artist’s tomb every 6 April. ‘As well as charming and extraordinarily gifted he was extremely well organised and focused,’ he replies circumspectly. ‘He had the ability to get people to follow him. Does that make him a hustler? Probably not.’ The verdict on Raphael’s character remains open, but you can’t argue with his genius.

Raphael is at the National Gallery from 9 April until 31 July.