In 1510, 27-year-old Raphael Sanzio became the talk of Renaissance Rome. His commission to paint two frescoes on the walls of the private apartments of Pope Julius II—which were anything but private—had led to an exclusive engagement to decorate the whole suite. His most flamboyant competitor, the crusty Florentine Michelangelo Buonarroti, had been sequestered for two years inside the Sistine Chapel, a sculptor compelled to paint the chapel’s vast ceiling by a pope notoriously deaf to the word no. Julius, of course, was right. Rumors suggested that Michelangelo could handle a brush as brilliantly as a chisel, and in 1510, Raphael gained admittance to the sanctum to have a look for himself. What Raphael saw transformed his own work, to Michelangelo’s endless annoyance.
By that time, however, Raphael was well beyond copying anything he saw. Through some mysterious alliance of hand, eye, and brain, he smoothed the irregular edges of reality into a series of geometric shapes. For example, each of the figures in his drawing of two Hebrew prophets and an angel, from around 1510, becomes a symphony of ovals: faces, arms, shins, thighs, and torsos, with the prophets’ angular tablets and the oblong plinth beneath them included to emphasize, by contrast, the graceful curves that make up the living figures. The trio was designed to inhabit a difficult curved space high up on the wall of a Roman chapel, beneath the spring of an arch and a window. The chapel commission came from a close friend of Pope Julius, the banker Agostino Chigi, a financial genius whose exploitation of the papal alum mines had reportedly made him the richest man in Europe. Swift insight and boldness governed Chigi’s artistic taste. When Raphael took this commission, he must have known that he would be working with a man who, like Raphael himself, was beginning to define the avant-garde of contemporary art and architecture, not just in Rome but in Europe as a whole.
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