2.6 ‘Raphael’ in death
You will now consider the ways in which fact and fiction blend together in primary sources about Raphael, asking how the artist is made into a mythical, super-human and even divine figure at the moment of his dramatic, premature death.
Thinking again about the extract from Vasari’s Life of Raphael, now read four descriptions of Raphael’s death and consider the common themes found in them.
While reading, ask yourself: how do they create an ideal artist out of Raphael? How is Raphael made Christ-like?
The letters are ambassadorial dispatches from Rome, reporting on a piece of news that had gripped the city and would be of great interest to art patrons throughout Italy (Raphael was also engaged in projects outside Rome at the time of his death). The facts of these reports are stretched – either because they are received second-hand, or to add drama to the events.
All stress the artist’s youth at the time of his death, though they differ in their understanding of his age. Marcantonio Michiel gives it as 34, Pandolfo Pico and Girolamo Lippomano 33. Actually the artist died at age 37 but the shift to 33 made Raphael more Christlike, since Christ was also thought to have been 33 years old when he was crucified. Other inconsistencies point to an interest in finding the most meaningful dates for Raphael’s entry and exit into the world. Raphael, Lippomano points out, died on Good Friday, the day Christ died on the cross (‘Letter by Girolamo Lippomano’), while Michiel also relates that Raphael died on his own birthday (‘Diary of Marcantonio Michiel’). The actual date of Raphael’s birthday is not known, but what is clear is the invention of a perfect ‘Raphael’ through the pairing of his birth and his death, giving the artist’s life an aura of ideal harmony that matches the style of his paintings and architectural projects.
Prodigies were not an uncommon feature in Renaissance biographies of ‘great men’, but those described by Pico (‘Letter from Pandolfo Pico’) and Michiel (‘Letter from Marcantonio Michiel’) directly reference Christ. A section of the roof of the papal palace had collapsed shortly before the artist’s death, echoing a passage in the Book of Matthew that describes the earth shaking, rocks splitting and tombs opening up at the moment of Christ’s crucifixion.
Several of the sources mention Raphael’s wealth, which was clearly an important factor in his reputation, and the cost of his palace (which served as studio, showroom and residence) is of particular interest.
It is interesting that Lippomano’s account of Raphael’s death (‘Letter by Girolamo Lippomano’) draws a clear parallel between the artist and his patron Agostino Chigi. Raphael, the best painter of his age, died on Friday and then Chigi, the greatest banker of his age, died on Tuesday, as if God had planned it that way. The coincidence seems all the more providential considering that at the time of his death Raphael was in the process of designing Chigi’s tomb at Santa Maria del Popolo. The equal weight implicitly accorded to their talents in Lippomano’s letter is notable, since it is suggestive of artists’ rapid social and economic self-elevation during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. So too is the mention made of humanists (‘men of letters’ devoted in particular to the study of ancient texts) who grieve Raphael’s death, especially given their interest in Raphael’s survey of ancient Rome. The loss of Raphael’s Rome project adds a transcendental significance to Raphael’s death, as if the loss of the artist re-enacts the loss of all the ancient buildings then lying in ruins in Rome. The ruins, some of the surviving poems imply, would have been brought back to life if Raphael had lived, given his Christ-like ability to ‘resurrect’ Rome.
You might now be asking yourself why these writers elevated Raphael to such heights, and why in particular he would have been compared to Christ. The model of the Christ-like or divine artist was one that had grown in currency since the late fifteenth century, when it took hold as a metaphor for the artist’s powers of creation. It was part of a wider campaign on the part of artists to assert their standing in society, join the ranks of intellectuals and shake off their identity as ‘mere’ craftsmen. It was one way in which Renaissance artists and their social circles, in a process we might refer to as self-fashioning, successfully laid the foundations for their reception by future generations of art historians.
We will now turn from texts to images to consider further the deliberate parallels drawn between Raphael and Christ – in his appearance, his social behaviour, his self-portraits, and in the artistic ideals he has seemed to represent.