Raphael had accepted minor commissions from the jolly banker as early as 1510. In 1514 he painted a fresco for him in the church of Santa Maria della Pace. The space provided was narrow and irregular; Raphael made it seem adequate by distributing in it four sibyls—Cumaean, Persian, Phrygian, Tiburtine—pagan oracles here sterilized with attendant angels. They are graceful figures, since Raphael could hardly draw anything without grace; Vasari thought they were the young master’s finest work. They are a weak imitation of Angelo’s sibyls, except for the Tiburtine; here the priestess, haggard with age and frightened by the evil fortune she is foretelling, is a figure of original and dramatic power. According to a story not traceable beyond the seventeenth century, some misunderstanding arose between Raphael and Chigi’s treasurer about the fee for these sibyls. Raphael had received five hundred ducats, but, when finished, claimed an additional payment. The treasurer thought the five hundred already paid were all that were due. Raphael suggested that the treasurer should appoint a competent artist to evaluate the frescoes; the official chose Michelangelo; Raphael agreed. Michelangelo, despite his supposed jealousy of Raphael, judged that each head in the picture was worth one hundred ducats. When the astonished treasurer brought this judgment to Chigi the banker ordered him to pay Raphael at once four hundred additional ducats. “Be tender with him,” he cautioned, “so that he may be satisfied. If he makes me pay for the draperies I shall be ruined.”84
Chigi had to be careful, for in that same year Raphael was painting for him a delectable fresco in the Villa Chigi—The Triumph of Galatea. The story was taken from Politian’s Giostra: Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops, tries to seduce the nymph Galatea by his songs and flute; she turns from him in disdain—as if to say, Who would marry an artist?—and gives the reins to two dolphins who pull her shell-like vessel out to sea. At her left a robust nymph is gaily seized by a powerful Triton, while from the clouds cupids shoot superfluous arrows to encourage love. Here the pagan Renaissance is in full swing, and Raphael enjoys himself picturing women as his bright imagination thought they should be formed.
In 1516 he adorned the bathroom of Cardinal Bibbiena with frescoes glorifying Venus and the triumphs of love. In 1517 he disported himself still more voluptuously in designs for the ceiling and pendentives of the Villa Chigi’s central hall. Here he adapted his genial fancy to a tale from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. Psyche, daughter of a king, arouses by her beauty the envy of Venus; the spiteful goddess bids her son Cupid inspire Psyche with a passion for the most contemptible man to be found. Cupid descends to the earth to fulfill his mission, but falls in love with Psyche at first touch. He visits her in the dark, and bids her repress her curiosity as to who he is. Inevitably she rises from her bed one night, lights a lamp, and is delighted to see that she has been sleeping with the most handsome of the gods. In her excitement she lets a drop of hot oil fall upon his divine shoulder. He awakes, berates her for her curiosity, and leaves her in anger, not realizing that lack of curiosity by a woman in such cases would demoralize society. Psyche wanders over the earth disconsolate. Venus imprisons Cupid for disobeying his mother, and complains to Jupiter that celestial discipline is deteriorating. Jupiter sends Mercury to fetch Psyche, who then becomes the abused slave of Venus. Cupid escapes from his confinement, and begs Jove to grant him Psyche. The puzzled god, torn as usual between opposing prayers, summons the Olympian deities to debate the matter. He himself, susceptible to youthful male charms, sides with Cupid; the complaisant gods vote to free Psyche, to make her a goddess, and to give her to Cupid; and in the final scene they celebrate with an ambrosial banquet the nuptials of Cupid and Psyche. We are assured that the story is a pious allegory, in which Psyche represents the human soul, which, when purified by suffering, is admitted to paradise. But Raphael and Chigi saw in the myth no religious symbolism, but a chance to contemplate perfect male and female forms. Yet there is in Raphael’s sensualism a refinement and grace that disarms puritan criticism; apparently the genial Leo found in them nothing to reprove. Only the figures and composition here are Raphael’s; Giulio Romano and Francesco Penni painted the scenes from his designs, and Giovanni da Udine added enticing enclosing wreaths burgeoning with fruits and flowers. The school of Raphael had become a transmission belt whose end product was almost certain to be some form of loveliness.
Never were pagan and Christian so agreeably merged as in Raphael. This same worldly youth who lived like a prince and loved many women transiently, and (if one may venture such an anomaly) frolicked on ceilings with male and female nudes, painted in these same years (1513–20) some of the most appealing pictures in the gamut of history. With all his guileless sensualism he always returned to the Madonna as his favorite theme; fifty times he pictured her. Sometimes a pupil helped him, as in the Madonna dell’ Impannata; but for the most part he worked on this type of painting with his own hand, and with a touch of the old Umbrian piety. Now (1515) he painted the Sistine Madonna for the convent of San Sisto at Piacenza:* a perfect pyramidal composition; the convincing realism of the old martyr St. Sixtus; the demure St. Barbara, a bit too beautiful and too splendidly gowned; the Virgin’s green robe, over a touch of red, blown by heaven’s winds; the Child quite human in His disheveled innocence; the simple rosy face of the Madonna, a little sad and wondering (as if La Fornarina, who may have posed for this picture, realized her disqualifications); the curtains drawn aside by angels behind the Virgin, admitting her to paradise: this is the favorite picture of all Christendom, the most widely loved product of Raphael’s hand. Almost as fine, and perhaps more moving despite its traditional form, is The Holy Family under the Oak Tree (Prado), also called La Perla, “The Pearl Madonna.” In the Madonna della Sedia orSeggiola (Pitti) the mood is less evangelical, more human; the Madonna is a young Italian mother, buxom and quietly passionate; clasping her fat babe with possessive and protective love, while he nestles timidly against her, as if he had heard some myth of massacred innocents. One suchMadonna could atone for many Fornarinas.
Raphael painted relatively few pictures of Christ. His buoyant spirit shrank from the contemplation or portrayal of suffering; or perhaps, like Leonardo, he realized the impossibility of representing the divine. In 1517, probably with the collaboration of Penni, he painted Christ Bearing the Cross for the convent of Santa Maria dello Spasimo in Palermo, whence the picture came to be called Lo Spasimo di Sicilia. According to Vasari it had an adventurous career: the ship that carried it to Sicily was lost in a storm; the crated painting floated safely over the waters, and landed at Genoa; “even the fury of the winds and waves,” said Vasari, “respected such painting.” It was shipped again, and was set up in Palermo, where “it became more famous than the mountain of Vulcan.”86In the seventeenth century Philip IV of Spain had it secretly transferred to Madrid. Christ in this picture is merely an exhausted and defeated man, conveying no sense of a mission accepted and fulfilled. Raphael succeeded better in suggesting divinity in The Vision of Ezekiel, though here again he borrows his majestic God from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.
To this crowded period belongs the St. Cecilia, almost as popular as the Sistine Madonna. A Bolognese lady, in the fall of 1513, announced that she had heard heavenly voices bidding her dedicate a chapel to St. Cecilia in the church of San Giovanni del Monte. A relative undertook to build the chapel, and asked his uncle Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci to order from Raphael, for a thousand gold scudi, an appropriate picture for the altar. Delegating to Giovanni da Udine the representation of the musical instruments, Raphael finished the painting in 1516, and sent it to Bologna, as we have seen, with a kindly letter to Francia. We need not believe that Francia was mortally stricken by its beauty to feel the splendor of the work, its sense of music as something almost celestial, its St. Paul in a “brown study,” its St. John in almost girlish ecstasy, its lovely Cecilia, its still lovelier Magdalen—here transformed into charming innocence—and the living lights and shadows on the drapery and on Magdalen’s feet.
Now, too, came some masterly portraits. The Baldassare Castiglione (Louvre) is one of Raphael’s most conscientious efforts, endlessly enticing, among his portraits second only to the Julius II. One sees first the strange fluffy headdress, then the furry robe and profuse beard, and imagines the man to be some Moslem poet or philosopher, or a rabbi seen by Rembrandt; then the soft eyes and mouth and clasped hands reveal the tender-minded, sentimental, bereaved minister of Isabella at Leo’s court; one should linger over this portrait before reading The Courtier. The Bibbiena shows the Cardinal in his later years, tired of his Venuses and reconciled to Christianity.
La donna velata is not incontestably Raphael’s, yet it is almost certainly the picture that Vasari describes as a portrait of Raphael’s mistress. Her features are those that he used for the Magdalen, even the Cecilia, of St. Cecilia, perhaps for the Sistine Madonna—here dark and demure, a long veil falling from her head, a circlet of gems around her neck, and lucious robes wrapped loosely about her form. Probably by Raphael, but not so clearly representing his mistress as older views claimed, is La Fornarina in the Borghese Gallery. The word means a woman baker, or a baker’s wife or daughter; but such names, like Smith or Carpenter, prove nothing of the bearer’s occupation. This lady is not especially attractive; one misses in her the modest look that makes more charming such immodest revelations.* It seems incredible that the modest Veiled Lady should be the same person as this bold dispenser of hurried joys; but, after all, Raphael had more mistresses than one.
Yet he was more faithful to his mistress than artists—who are more sensitive to beauty than to reason—can be expected to be. When Cardinal Bibbiena urged him to marry Maria Bibbiena, the Cardinal’s niece, Raphael, indebted to him for rich commissions, gave unwilling consent (1514); but he delayed from month to month and from year to year the keeping of this troth; and tradition relates that Maria, so repeatedly put off, died of a broken heart.87 Vasari suggests that Raphael delayed in hope of being made a cardinal; to such an elevation marriage was a major—a mistress a negligible —impediment. Meanwhile the artist seems to have kept his mistress within close reach of wherever he was working. When the distance between the Villa Chigi, where Raphael was designing theHistory of Psyche, and his mistress’ dwelling led to much loss of time, the banker had the lady installed in an apartment of the villa; “that,” says Vasari, “is why the work was finished.”88 We do not know if it was with this mistress that Raphael indulged in the “unusually wild debauch” to which Vasari ascribes his death.89
His last picture was one of his supreme interpretations of the Gospel story. In 1517 Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici commissioned both Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo to paint altarpieces for the cathedral of Narbonne, of which Francis I had made him bishop. Sebastiano had long felt that his talent was at least equal to Raphael’s though so much less recognized; here was his chance to prove himself. He chose as subject the raising of Lazarus, and secured the help of Michelangelo in making his design. Spurred by the competition, Raphael rose to his final triumph. He took for his theme Matthew’s account of the episode on Mt. Tabor:
And after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them up into a high mountain apart, and was transfigured before them; and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him…. And when they returned to the multitude there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is a lunatic, and sore vexed; for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.90
Raphael took both of these scenes and united them, with excessive strain on the unities of time and place. Above the mountain top the figure of Christ appears soaring in the air, His face transfigured with ecstasy, His garments made shining white by light from heaven; on one side of Him Moses, on the other Elias; and beneath them, lying on a plateau, the three favored Apostles. At the foot of the mountain a desperate father pushes forward his insane boy; the mother and another woman, both of them classic in their beauty, kneel beside the boy and beg a cure from the nine Apostles who are gathered at the left. One of these is startled out of his concentration on a book; another points to the transfigured Christ, and suggests that only He can cure the boy. It is usual to praise the splendor of the upper part of the picture, presumably finished by Raphael, and to deprecate a certain coarseness and violence in the lower group, which was painted by Giulio Romano; but two of the finest figures are in the lower foreground—the disturbed reader, and a kneeling woman with bare shoulder and gleaming drapery.
Raphael began work on the Transfiguration in 1517, but had not finished it when he died. We cannot say how much truth there is in Vasari’s account, written some thirty years after the event:
Raphael continued his secret pleasures beyond all measure. After an unusually wild debauch he returned home with a severe fever, and the doctors believed him to have caught a chill. As he did not confess the cause of his disorder, the doctors imprudently let blood, thus enfeebling him when he needed restoratives. Accordingly he made his will, first sending his mistress out of the house like a Christian, leaving her the means to live honestly. He then divided his things among his pupils, Giulio Romano, of whom he was always very fond, Giovanni Francesco Penni of Florence, and some priest of Urbino, a relation…. Having confessed and shown penitence, he finished the course of his life on the day of his birth, Good Friday, at the age of thirty-seven (April 6, 1520).91
The priest who had come to shrive him refused to enter the sick room until Raphael’s mistress had left the house; perhaps the priest felt that her continued presence would suggest on Raphael’s part a lack of the contrition required before absolution. Driven away even from the funeral cortege, she fell into a melancholy that threatened insanity; and Cardinal Bibbiena persuaded her to become a nun. All the artists of Rome followed the dead youth to his grave. Leo mourned the loss of his beloved painter; and a papal secretary and poet, the Bembo who could be so eloquent in both Latin and Italian, put aside all rhetoric in writing an epitaph for Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon:
ILLE HIC EST RAPHAEL
—”He who is here is Raphael.” It was enough.
In the opinion of his contemporaries he was the greatest painter of his age. He produced nothing equal in sublimity to the Sistine ceiling, but Michelangelo produced nothing equal in total beauty to the fifty Madonnas of Raphael. Michelangelo was the greater artist, because great in three fields, and deeper in-thought and art. When he said of Raphael, “He is an example of what profound study can bring forth,”92 he probably meant that Raphael had acquired by imitation the excellences of many other painters, and had combined them with assiduous talent into a perfected style; he did not feel, in Raphael, the creative fury that soon throws off guidance and cuts a path almost violently for its own way. Raphael appeared too happy to be a genius in the traditional frenzied sense; he had so solved his inner conflicts that he showed few signs of the demonic spirit or force that moves the greatest souls to creation and tragedy. Raphael’s work was the product of finished skill, not of profound feeling or conviction. He adjusted himself to the needs and moods of Julius, then of Leo, then of Chigi, but remained always the guileless youth cheerfully oscillating between Madonnas and mistresses; this was his blithe way of reconciling paganism and Christianity.
As artist in the sense of technician, no one surpassed him; in the arrangement of elements in a picture, the rhythm of masses, the smooth flow of line, no one has equaled him. His life was a devotion to form. Consequently he tended to remain on the surface of things. Except in his portrait of Julius II, he did not probe into the mysteries or contradictions of life or creed; Leonardo’s subtlety and Michelangelo’s sense of tragedy were alike meaningless to him; the lust and joy of life, the creation and possession of beauty, the loyalty of friend and lover, were enough. Ruskin was right: there was now and then in Gothic sculpture and the “Pre-Raphaelite” painting of Italy and Flanders a simplicity, sincerity, and sublimity of faith and hope that sink deeper into the soul than the pretty Madonnas and voluptuous Venuses of Raphael. And yet the Julius II and the Pearl Madonna are anything but superficial; they reach to the heart of male ambition and female tenderness; the Julius is greater and profounder than the Mona Lisa.
Leonardo puzzles us, Michelangelo frightens us, Raphael gives us peace. He asks no questions, raises no doubts, evokes no terrors, but offers us the loveliness of life like an ambrosial drink. He admits no conflict between intellect and feeling, nor between body and soul; everything in him is a harmony of opposites, making a Pythagorean music. His art idealizes all that it touches: religion, woman, music, philosophy, history, even war. Himself fortunate and happy, he radiated serenity and grace. In the arbitrary analogies of genius he finds his place just below the greatest, but with them: Dante, Goethe, Keats; Beethoven, Bach, Mozart; Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael.