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.