It’s best not to think about Raphael’s youth. He’d become one of the biggest artists of the Italian Renaissance by his twenties, the golden boy of the most important patron in Rome by his thirties, and had changed the shape of art for ever by the time he died just before reaching his forties. When I was in my twenties I got rejected from a job in a meat-packing factory.
From the start, in this big, bold show of his art, design and architectural prowess, you can see that the Renaissance master knew who he was. His 1502 image of Saint Sebastian, made in central Italy when he was bloody 19, is terrifyingly self-assured. It’s beautifully composed and gorgeously painted, the fabrics are precise, the skin is luminescent. He was already so good.
That didn’t go unnoticed. The commissions started coming thick and fast for young Raph: churchmen, bankers and merchants all wanted a slice. There are huge gleaming altarpieces on display, ultra-detailed biblical miniatures, intense portraits, a whole room of Madonnas and some of the ugliest babies in all of art. Raphael was everywhere.
A whole room of madonnas and some of the ugliest babies in all of art.
It wasn’t all pure God-given natural talent, he worked at it, studying his elders. There’s a little rough ink copy of Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’, and next to it hangs Raphael’s ‘La Muta’, his breathtaking portrait of an incredibly fed-up brown-eyed woman. It’s an unfussy but hugely detailed painting, intimate but aloof, properly jawdropping. It’s Raphael taking from the best and pushing the ideas even further.
After a few years working in Florence, Raphael found favour in Rome, and life truly exploded. He decorated the papal apartments (the Raphael Rooms) – there are rough, dizzying little sketches for them here – and became Pope Leo X’s favourite creative, designing early bits of St Peter’s Basilica and enormous movable tapestries for the Vatican corridors, and creating an architectural survey of Roman antiquities. His studio grew, his reputation flourished.
The exhibition’s architectural models and 3D recreations of works too fragile and valuable to transport here are a bit of a letdown, but the big paintings and tapestries are impressive. The thing is, the art of this era wasn’t necessarily about beauty or the sublime, it was about finance and avarice. It was about how many florins’ worth of lapis blue or gold leaf your patrons could afford, how educated and tasteful and rich they wanted to prove they were. The big commissions here are a portrait of mercantile success, of the terrifying financial and political power of the Catholic church.
Which is why the final room is so special. It’s just a collection of portraits. Not done for fame or riches, but for the sake of love, friendship and art. There’s a staggeringly handsome man against a green wall, a woman in reams of undulating white fabric, and an erotic nude of the artist’s lover that was clearly never meant for public consumption.
Raphael died aged just 37 from a ‘fever’, though his biographer says he died of ‘too much love’, which is a Renaissance euphemism for an STD. In his short life, he changed everything. Written on these walls is one of the most important stories in art history. It’s just a shame all the babies look like Ross Kemp.