b i o g r a p h y pau l j ohn s on
Worshipper of Women aphael: A Passionate Life By Antonio Forcellino (Translated by Lucinda Byatt)
(Polity Press 285pp £20)
It is a matter of fine judgement which was the greater loss to European culture: the early death of Mozart or that of Raphael. Mozart was thirty-five and in the midst of composing his Requiem, Raphael two years older and embarking on his new career as an architect. Both were already enormously productive, but there is no calculating what we have lost by their abrupt disappearances – not least since both were gentle, obliging, sweet-natured, strangers to jealousy and professional rivalry, and generous to pupils and followers.
The Italian restorer Antonio Forcellino has now celebrated Raphael’s life and career by writing this ebullient book, elegantly translated by Lucinda Byatt. Much of it is an exercise in imagination, for there is no hard evidence for many of his statements. On the other hand the author is ingenious and fastidious in describing Raphael’s works, and his book will give pleasure to those coming to them for the first time; it even highlights a few things connoisseurs may have missed.
Raphael was closely associated with women all his life. His father died when he was eleven, and he was patronised by Elisabetta Gonzaga, the Duchess of Urbino (his home town) and still more by the Duke’s sister, Giovanna della Rovere, known as the Prefetessa. She got him in with the right circles in Florence, when he went there in 1504 at the age of twenty-one, and later with the della Rovere pope, Julius II, when he moved on to Rome at twenty-five. His rise was rapid and smooth, since he never caused trouble, made scenes or idled. Any difficulties arose only because he was so much in demand and found it hard to say no.
His master was Perugino, but Raphael soon emancipated himself. He had an instinctive skill at taking exactly what he wanted from an artist he admired and then moving on. This applied both to the great, such as Leonardo and Michelangelo, and to minor figures whose few flowers he plucked relentlessly. He had an astonishing capacity to educate himself throughout his life, absorbing all the techniques of painting (especially oil on canvas – he was the first Italian to exploit its possibilities to the full), but also classical lore and mythology and architecture, winning the admiration of Bramante. The garden loggia he built for the banker Augustino Chigi, and still more the loggia of the Villa Madama he was creating for the Medici on the outskirts of Rome at his death, are works of
Cartoon for ‘Saint Catherine’
considerable learning as well as beauty.
Raphael obviously got the greatest pleasure in painting women, and this is manifest not only in the matchless succession of Virgins with the Infant Jesus for which he is best known, but also in the individual portraits of ladies, both noble and courtesanal. He was fortunate in that he lived in the last age of an unbridled and uncensored papacy, serving two popes – Julius II and Leo X – who took no notice of puritan critics, though voices were rising towards the end of his life. Shortly before Raphael’s death, Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the cathedral door, but Raphael never had to argue with important men in the artistic world who found his approach to female beauty unedifying or even pagan. He loved beautiful women, and thought that to convey their magnificence in paint was a way of worshipping God.
There is no means of knowing what form his actual relationship with women took. The Prefetessa found his manners delightful, and Vasari asserts that he always knew how to make himself agreeable to the female sex. He was in no hurry to get married. In fact it was the one subject on which he was touchy. A letter from him survives, addressed to an uncle, who had dared to propose a bride. In a sharp rebuke – the only one we know him to have administered – Raphael points out that he was now a wealthy man, able to pick and choose. We know he was offered a cardinal’s niece, an unusual honour at the time for a mere artist. But then by the age of thirty Raphael was not a mere artist. He was a prince of culture, and lived in a princely fashion.
Forcellino describes all this very well. But he goes on to claim that Raphael had a hyperactive sex life, and that it was this that caused his death from a fever in 1520. This is far fetched. No one ever died from a hyperactive sex life, at any rate directly. Surely an Italian, from a nation that produced Mussolini and his 360 mistresses, and in our own time Berlusconi, should know this. Raphael is far more likely to have died of malaria, inflicted by a mosquito on a trip to the nearby Pontine Marshes.
I suspect we shall never know much about Raphael’s sex life, or whether it even existed. I detect a certain reticence in his approach to women, which is a sure test in distinguishing between work entirely by his own hand and by his assistants. They were very good on the whole, as they would be, having such a master to train and restrain them. But he could never quite eradicate elements of coarseness in them, particularly in painting women. Raphael always knew when to draw back. I suspect he was rather like John Singer Sargent, the painter who comes closest to him in the evocation of female beauty and dignity, and of whose appetite for women we know nothing.That is as it should be, in both cases. We need a few mysteries in art. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 38
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