Raphael – Rome’s adopted rock star

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino is sometimes best known for being interred in the Pantheon, where his ornate tomb sits beneath the gaping oculus – the hole in the Pantheon dome – just managing to avoid any rainfall.

Many visitors may just give Raphael’s tomb a cursory nod as they shuffle past with their cameras, unaware that Raphael was not just an artist – he was accorded rock star status when the world did not even know what a rock star was. Furthermore, Raphael was not only thought of as an icon, a sex-charged Casanova and a romantic hero who painted women as more beautiful than any known to mankind – he also came to be thought of as the possible reincarnation of Jesus Christ himself.

This glowing report of the artist is perhaps hard to take in all at once – although today we are more accustomed to the idea of icons who bestow mystery and magic upon the world dying prematurely, leaving us with a body of work that we will listen to again and again and which becomes the soundtrack to our lives (tinged with sadness at their passing).

Raphael was no different – to ascend to the position of being thought by some as the reincarnation of the son of God takes some doing. John Lennon might have quipped (allegedly) that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus – but to be thought of as Jesus Christ himself is quite an achievement.

Raphael – as we know him – was born in Urbino in Italy in 1483. His father died when he was young and he was apprenticed to the master painter Perugino. Something of a rivalry may have sprung up between them – the young Raphael was a contemporary of both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and he made good use of the influence of other painters, even, perhaps, trying to outdo them. His father, Giovanni Santi, had been a court painter, so he was exposed to the great art of the Renaissance from an early age – and not only emulated the greats but in many ways surpassed them.

He became a master painter himself in 1500 and spent eight years working throughout Italy – he spent much of his time in Florence, where he became known for painting exquisitely beautiful Madonnas. His treatment of the female form and its beauty became legendary – his love life perhaps formed the perfect basis for studying the female form and the rumours of his affairs even inspired Michelangelo to produce a series of erotic sketches based on Raphael and his mistress – and some say, wife -La Fornarina.

Sex in the Eternal City – Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Woman – modelled by
his lover La Fornarina (Image: CCL Wikipedia)

La Fornarina was his muse, also – it is thought she might have been a courtesan and her name came from an erotic connection between baking and the sexual act. Others think that she was the daughter of a baker and this explains her name, which means “the baker’s daughter”. Prosaic, but perhaps more likely – she would not be the only nice girl to have her head turned by a rock star. His most famous painting of his lover – Portrait of a Young Woman – is in Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at Palazzo Barberini in Rome. It features a bare-breasted young woman, one hand resting beneath her left breast, her finger almost touching her nipple, her other hand with fingers splayed over her crotch as she gazes askance, and presumably at Raphael as he painted her – thus suggesting her playful pose is intended just for him. And could that be a hint of pregnancy in the full belly? The position of the arms seems to suggest the classic pose adopted by women in pregnancy as they cradle their growing infant. Or maybe Raphael was trying to depict a woman at her most beautiful – when she is expecting a child. The perfect Madonna, fecund and glowing.

In capturing such a private and erotic moment, Raphael threw open the floodgates of human nature – here was high art more often reserved for formal portraits or religious art, but now revealing the sexual connection between man and woman publicly in his work.

In 1508 at the age of 25, Pope Julius II had become Raphael’s main patron, resulting in a move to Rome. His initial commission had been to redecorate the papal apartments, but he eventually developed his portraiture, as well as architecture.

Raphael and his master Perugino had both painted versions of the popular religious theme The Marriage of the Virgin. Both paintings are quite similar in structure – however, Raphael has refined the scene, elevating the figures in the foreground by making them taller, slimmer, more god-like. In effect, he “photoshops” Perugino’s attempt, air-brushing the figures, heightening the colours, repositioning the male and female figures – and turning his master’s background temple from a simple classical building into elegant, highly-detailed other-worldly architecture, as if the marriage of Mary and Joseph is actually taking place in heaven and not on earth. Every Raphael figure has a perfectly shaped almond face, soulful eyes, a tender mouth and a complexion that glows. Architecture was also one of his passions – as much as women, perhaps; and frequently – as sometimes we ourselves find – passion makes perfect. But how annoying for Perugino.

So we can assume Raphael was not only highly confident of his own abilities, but also highly competitive. Perhaps the lack of a father-figure in his life from an early age led to him locking horns with other men. However, Raphael was also what we would call “a socialite”. His abilities and youth made him highly popular – he attended parties and networked, as all artists must – and, as we now know from today’s young icons, being young, brilliant, male and successful led to him being very much in demand.

Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Julius II (Image CCL Wikipedia)

His success continued and in 1514 he became the architect in charge of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which Pope Julius II has begin in 1506. In the same year as his appointment to St Peter’s, Raphael also became engaged to Maria Bibbiena, who was the niece of his friend, Cardinal Medici Bibbiena. It is said, however, Raphael kept procrastinating over the actual marriage ceremony.

Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow, in which he uses Leonardo da Vinci’s
signature pyramid position for the figures (Image CCL Wikipedia)

Raphael in death

Because of his brilliance, youth and popularity, his early death at the age of 37 came as a terrible shock – and especially in his adopted home, Rome.

Just like any rock star who dies young, his death is shrouded in mystery – some say he had a short illness such as malaria. Others claim the lead contained in the paints he used caused poisoned him. But his death was sudden and unexpected – and the rumour began to circulate that Raphael had indulged in a mammoth and prolonged sex session from which he had not recovered. Perhaps he suffered a cardiac arrest or heart failure as a result – or drank too much before, during and after. We shall never know. It is thought he survived whatever he died from long enough to sort out his affairs and receive the Last Rites. But what a rock star death he died.

Raphael’s sarcophagus in the Pantheon, with floral tribute (Image CCL Wikipedia)

He was interred in the Pantheon with full honours – his body carried and escorted by 100 of Rome’s painters. His legacy was his unashamed revelation of a side of nature that may cause a public blush, but which he acknowledged boldly and sensuously and with great beauty in his painting. Above his sepulchre is a statue of the Virgin and Child sculpted, it is thought, by one of Raphael’s apprentices. The inscription on his tomb would make any of today’s dearly departed young icons proud:

Here lies that famous Raphael, by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived; and, when he died, feared herself to die.

By the time of his death in 1520, Raphael was, quite simply, Rome’s prettiest star. Whether Perugino sent his condolences is not known. Raphael’s former master did not die until 1523, so had a further three years to gnash his teeth over The Marriage of the Virgin.

But Raphael’s iconic status and legend does not end there – like any rock star, the mysteries continued. In the 19th century, his rock star status took off again, and on 14 September 1833, his tomb in the Pantheon was opened before an invited audience of 75 people to see if the young artist really was interred there. A skeleton was found and it was assumed that the Pantheon was, indeed, Raphael’s final resting place.

His Portrait of a Young Man is one of the most wanted and most valuable paintings that disappeared during WWII – thought to have been stolen by the Nazis. After allegedly hanging on the office wall of a senior Nazi, It was last seen on its way to Linz by train in 1944 and has not been seen since.

Raphael’s missing Portrait of a Young Man, believed to be a self-
portrait the Nazis stole and possibly destroyed
(Image Wikipedia)

The film The Monuments Men speculates it was one of the works the Nazis destroyed when it became clear they would lose the war, but the hunt for it goes on, with speculation as to whether somewhere in a dark corner of a private gallery, it might still hang on a wall.

The portrait is also thought to be of Raphael himself – a self-portrait by one of the greatest painters and architects we have ever known.

Like every icon we lose, one day we hope we shall discover it was all just a disappearing act – that we will discover they faked their own demise and have been hiding in privacy and comfort, away from the world and prying eyes and will return to us. If Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man ever comes to light again, it will almost be as if Raphael himself has risen from the dead.

Transfigurazione by Raphael (image CCL Wikipedia)

Raphael rising from the dead is not such a wild fantasy as it might sound – the final mystery in the myth of Raphael is his death: not the cause of it, but the fact that his final painting is The Transfiguration – the ascension of Christ into heaven. By coincidence, Raphael died on 6 April, which in 1520 just happened to be on Good Friday. It is also thought by some that 6 April was his birthday, which might explain the tantric sex he supposedly died from.

However, the rumour mill that 37-year-old Raphael and 33-year-old Jesus Christ might actually be one and the same spread round Rome quicker than a conspiracy theory on Twitter. Some even suggested that the ascending figure in Raphael’s final painting was the artist himself, revealing himself to be Jesus Christ. You can imagine the almost near-hysteria that gripped Rome after the artist died – and the wish people always feel for the news to be untrue when they lose one of their heroes.

As for La Fornarina, nothing was ever heard of her again – some say Raphael provided for her and she lived out her days in peace in a convent; others think that, as his muse and perhaps wife, she simply disappeared – maybe found a nice steady man and led a peaceful life away from the clamour and glamour of Rome’s art world. I would like to think so. But undoubtedly, just as people today debate whether Mary Magdalene was Christ’s wife, there must have been talk about La Fornarina following his death – perhaps she was spirited away quietly to a new life. It is something we may never know. But like Christ, Raphael died apparently unmarried and childless, but with lingering questions on the matter unanswered.

If you visit the Pantheon, Raphael’s tomb is easy to find – follow the queue. Don’t just walk past thinking about your aching feet or whether you can have a gelato afterwards. Don’t moan if it is raining and you get dripped on through the dome’s oculus. The bones of a real-life Renaissance rock star lie just feet away from where you are busy snapping away with your camera. Look up and you will see a shaft of light pouring in through the dome, glittering dust appearing to fall all around the church as tourists jostle for position. If that isn’t iconic – if that isn’t a postcard from heaven – I don’t know what is.

Buon viaggio!

Inside the Pantheon – the image of sunshine pouring into the dark
space always stays with me (as well as the human masque it forms)
(Image copyright A. Meredith 2005)

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