PARIS—Last year the world celebrated the 500th anniversary of the “Sistine Madonna,” the work of Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. The celebration of Raphael’s late works continues this year with exhibitions in Madrid, Paris, Tokyo, and Frankfurt.
Of all the exhibits honoring the apogee of this genius’s works, perhaps the largest and most important was at the Louvre.
“The unprecedented exhibition, organized by the Louvre in partnership with the Prado Museum, brought together Raphael’s works produced in Rome during the last years of his short life,” according to the exhibition’s website.
Raphael was a master artist, who at 27 years of age, became as famous as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and left his mark on classical painting.
Delacroix said that just the mention of the name of Raphael “brings to mind all that is highest in painting.” Indeed, Raphael’s name evokes grace, harmony, and beauty, manifested in the accuracy of line as well as in the distribution of color. These traits allow us, centuries later, to recognize Raphael’s contribution to paintings realized by his assistants.
The Louvre exhibition aimed to resolve doubts and questions raised by his collaboration with assistants as well as to present the accomplished painter in the period in which he directed his huge studio.
In the studio, he orchestrated and completed frescoes for St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican, as well as altarpieces, paintings of the Holy Family, and portraits.
The Louvre also examined the social side of the painter—a friend to popes, bankers, and lords.
A Meteoric Career
Raphael was born in Urbino, Italy, in 1483. His father Giovanni Santi, a painter himself, had the largest workshop in the city and was his son’s first teacher. Above all, Giovanni inculcated in Raphael a love of humanism.
The rise of Raphael’s career was meteoric. At 11 years old, his drawings showed a surprising maturity, and his genius was already undeniable. At 17, he was designated as “Magister,” and three years later, he conquered Italy’s cultural capital of Florence. Soon he enjoyed a great reputation. But there remained one more city for Raphael to conquer in order to become Raphael—Rome.
Frescoes and Devotional Paintings
Raphael got to Rome just when Pope Julius II decided to unify ancient and modern Rome. The ancient principles of eternal beauty resurfaced after decades of neglect and repression by Christianity.
Julius II had started a new project on the upper-floor apartments in the Vatican, and he wanted a modern, more Greek-influenced realization. He chose to entrust Raphael with the mission.
Raphael prepared sketches, and his assistants executed them. In his frescoes, he developed a dramatic language full of expression, and his huge works are the most innovative, such as “Bourg Fire,” “The School of Athens,” and “Transfiguration.” The last was completed by his assistants after his death.
Although Raphael was especially dedicated to large frescoes with humanistic themes intended for more public viewing, he didn’t abandon painting private, devotional pieces.
His “Perla” and his “Madonna of the Rose” exemplify devotional paintings, the latter considered to have been created entirely by the master’s hand. The harmony, the combination of colors, the psychology of expression of the characters, make it a remarkable painting.
The Madonna’s tragedy is foretold on the face of the Virgin, illuminated by a delicate and warm light contrasted with the cold color of the veil. Saint Joseph, serious and thoughtful here, rarely occurs close up in paintings. Together, the father’s concern and the mother’s compassion seen over the smiles of the children, give the scene a nuanced, yet dramatic depth.
Raphael’s Art of Portraiture
No less amazing in their innovation are the portraits of friends from which emerge both a psychological depth and unique tenderness—intimate looks and interrupted actions frozen for eternity.
One of the most extraordinary portraits in the exhibit is the “Velata.” It is certainly the most beautiful and the most harmonious of all the portraits of women. In front of this masterpiece, a dazzled spectator stands stunned at its splendor.
The woman’s soft look, her hand on the heart, evokes an intimacy as much as purity. The portrait is painted with love and respect. Raphael focuses on her facial expression and clothing texture. The colors are in clear tones, beige, white, and gold that give the subject a noble and modest bearing at the same time.
The subject is Marguerita Luti, daughter of a baker and the beloved of Raphael. According to legend, after Raphael’s death, she retired to a convent and found her own death shortly after.
Among other portraits, we could find the amazing portrait of his friends, the banker Bindo Altoviti and the humanist Baldassare Castiglione. The latter is considered one of the most remarkable paintings of the Renaissance.
Raphael is the first and one of few artists who knew fame during his lifetime. The masterpieces gathered at the Louvre exhibition marked the Renaissance at its height. As the master of measurement, perfect balance and harmony, a sense of narrative and drama, Raphael has left to posterity examples of undeniable beauty.
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