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In the virtual (and actual) footsteps of Raphael
“The Loggia of Cupid and Psyche,” with frescoes by Raphael in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, Aug. 3, 2020. In Italy and beyond, the plan was to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance artist’s death with great fanfare. Then came the pandemic, and the virtual world stepped in. Susan Wright/The New York Times.

by David Laskin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- This was supposed to be the year of Raphael. Five hundred years after his death at 37, the Renaissance master was due to receive the exalted rollout reserved for artistic superstars: blockbuster museum shows in Rome and London; conferences and lectures at universities and cultural centers around the world; flag-waving and wreath-laying in his Italian hometown, Urbino.

There was even the tang of controversy when the advisory committee of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery resigned en masse to protest the inclusion of a precious papal portrait in the big exhibition at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale.

Then the coronavirus hit and Raphael’s annus mirabilis turned into the world’s annus horribilis.

When news of the handsome young artist’s death broke in Rome on April 6, 1520, Pope Leo X wept and church bells tolled all over the city. Half a millennium later, Rome was in lockdown along with the rest of Italy as deaths from the virus spiraled.

The Scuderie show, a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of more than 200 works (120 by Raphael) from all over the world, was forced to shut its doors after just three days, despite having presold a record 70,000 tickets. Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon was supposed to be adorned with a red rose every day of 2020 to commemorate his death — but the ancient temple was also shuttered because of the virus. Lectures and conferences were canceled, postponed or moved online.

Poor Raphael. Last year, the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death came off without a hitch. Raphael’s devotees hoped that this year’s celebrations would restore the artist’s luster, which has dimmed over the past centuries. When the world fell ill this past winter, Raphael was one of the casualties.

But all is not lost. The Scuderie show reopened on June 2 and will remain up until the end of August. The Scuderie’s president, Mario de Simoni, had expected as many as 500,000 people to see the show pre-virus, but now says the number probably won’t exceed 160,000.

For those unable to attend in person, the Scuderie has released an English-language version of its excellent video, recapping the highlights of the exhibition, room by room. You’ll want to hit the pause button in Room 2 to admire two masterpieces on loan from the Louvre: a self-portrait with a friend and the portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, one of the glories of Renaissance portraiture. The close-ups of his paintings of women in Room 6 testify to the artist’s passionate appreciation of feminine beauty. Other Scuderie videos (in Italian) delve into particular aspects of his genius — for instance, the jewelry worn by his female subjects, or the literary world he moved in.

Tour guides such as Clam Tours and Joy of Rome now offer virtual journeys in which small groups can zoom around Italy in the footsteps of the artist. On Sept. 13, for example, you can join the Renaissance specialist Antonio Forcellino and other Italian art experts on Clam Tour’s virtual exploration of Raphael’s incomparable frescoes of the four sibyls at Rome’s Santa Maria della Pace church ($25). Check out Joy of Rome’s free two-minute video about Raphael’s frescoes at the Villa Farnesina to see if you’d like to sign up for a 2 1/2-hour virtual tour (prices on request).

Even on a laptop screen, Raphael’s ever-evolving craftsmanship and quicksilver brilliance are apparent. “The year of Raphael has not been ruined, but simply modified,” said Marzia Faietti, a curator of the Scuderie show. “Since many conferences and lectures have been put off until next year, in a sense there will be two years of Raphael.”

For Italians, a silver lining of the pandemic has been the opportunity to relish their cultural treasures without the tourist hordes. “I cried,” said Francesca Pagliaro, founder of the Joy of Rome tour company, of the experience of standing alone in the Vatican’s recently reopened Sala di Costantino — one of four rooms in the museum frescoed by Raphael and his students, and which you can view here. “It’s the first time in five years that I’ve seen the Stanze without scaffolding — and I had it to myself,” Pagliaro said. “It was magical.”

Americans, barred from European travel for the foreseeable future, will have to make do with all this virtual magic. Not ideal — but Raphael’s magic is powerful, subtle and enduring enough to withstand the challenge.

The Spirit of Urbino
I can attest to this because back in November 2019, I had the opportunity to follow in Raphael’s actual, not virtual, footsteps in Italy. I stood shivering in the room where he was born in Urbino in 1483. I knelt at the austere tomb in a niche inside the Pantheon where he was interred 37 years later. I feasted my eyes not only on paintings and frescoes, but on the humble church and glorious Roman chapel that attest to his emerging genius for architecture. My pilgrimage would be impossible today — but thanks to the wonders of the internet and the resourcefulness of Italy’s leading cultural institutions, I can remotely retrace my steps, refresh my memories and relive the revelations.

The first revelation came, aptly, in Urbino’s Palazzo Ducale, the magnificent Renaissance palace constructed in the late 15th century by the humanist and warlord Federico da Montefeltro that now houses the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche. Judge the magnificence for yourself by clicking through Google Images’ impressive photo archive. Another click puts you face to face with the museum’s sole work by Raphael — the haunting portrait known as “La Muta” (“The Mute Woman”).

As in so many of his portraits, Raphael posed this stern beauty against a solid dark background, eschewing any visual cues that would evoke a sense of place.

How, I wondered, did Urbino influence the art of its most famous son?

I posed this question to Peter Aufreiter, then director of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, when I sat down with him in his office in the Palazzo Ducale. Aufreiter’s response was to click on an image of Raphael’s 1507 portrait of Federico’s son, Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro (now in the Uffizi), and then summon me to the window. “Look at the hillside across the valley and that house at the base of the hill — it’s the same background Raphael put in his painting of Guidobaldo.”

Urbino’s steep green landscape, limpid light and crystalline architecture imprinted themselves on the artist’s young mind and surface repeatedly in his work.

Even though Raphael spent most of his career in Florence and Rome, Aufreiter insists that Urbino, whose cityscape has changed little since the Renaissance, is where you can feel his spirit most intensely.

The spirit is palpable in the artisans’ quarter surrounding the house where Raphael was born, the son of the local court painter Giovanni Santi. Near the summit of the ski-slope-pitched Via Raffaello, just a stone’s throw from the rather pompous bronze monument of the artist erected in 1897, the Casa Natale di Raffaello has been preserved as a museum. There’s a rather rudimentary virtual tour on its website, but you’ll get a better feel for the interior and exterior spaces in a YouTube video. In the bare simple rooms and the deep brick courtyard they enclose, little imagination is required to dial the scene back to Raphael’s apprenticeship in the last years of the 15th century. Giovanni Santi’s bottega (workshop) occupied the ground floor, and the future master grew up amid the bustle of painters grinding pigments, dabbing madonnas and trading in art supplies.

Father and son conducted a more exalted commerce at Urbino’s Palazzo Ducale. Fabricated of brick, stone and flawless geometry, the palace was one of the glories of the Italian Renaissance — not only for its divine architecture, but for the refined elegance of the nobles who gathered there.

Baldassare Castiglione set his 1528 masterpiece, “The Book of the Courtier,” in the storied palace — and it was here that the young Raphael polished his manners, sharpened his wit, cultivated invaluable connections and acquired a lifelong passion for classical antiquity.

Raised at court, Raphael was pursued by the powerful (Popes Julius II and Leo X), esteemed by the brilliant (Castiglione and the Urbino-born architect Donato Bramante were close friends) and adored by the beautiful.

“Raphael was a very amorous person,” wrote Giorgio Vasari, his first biographer. It was Vasari who originated the claim that Raphael died after an overindulgence in sex with his Roman mistress, Margherita Luti. Whatever really killed him on April 6, 1520, Raphael accomplished much and rose high in his brief life — but he never ceased to be “il maestro Urbinate,” the master from Urbino.

A Couch-Surfing Brush-for-Hire
Orphaned when his father died in 1494 (his mother had died three years earlier), Raphael spent his teenage years as an apprentice before undertaking commissions in Umbria and Tuscany. It’s likely that he was in Florence by 1504 — not as a permanent resident but rather a couch-surfing brush-for-hire.

Though Raphael’s footsteps in Florence are faint, there is no question that he encountered the works of both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo here — including, very likely, the Mona Lisa and the marble statue of David.

Critics and connoisseurs have been measuring this Renaissance trio against each other for 500 years now. Florence’s Uffizi Gallery is the ideal place to revisit this rivalry, both in person and virtually. After a recent renovation, paintings by the big three have been put on display in two beautifully lit adjoining rooms, and you can find them on the Uffizi website.

To my eyes, neither Michelangelo nor Leonardo ever matched the sheer painterly virtuosity of the fringed white collar that Raphael stitched around the neck of the cloth merchant Agnolo Doni, or the faint dent he incised between the young businessman’s anxious brows. Agnolo’s 15-year-old bride, Maddalena Strozzi, hangs beside him, posed like the Mona Lisa with bejeweled hands clasped on her lap, but clad in a kaleidoscope of watered red silk, embroidered blue damask and shimmering gauze.

Across the Arno are the glories of the Pitti Palace’s Galleria Palatina — the largest collection of Raphael’s works outside the Vatican. Unlike the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace retains the ambience and layout of an aristocratic residence: Paintings are stacked three deep in gilded high-ceilinged chambers; works are arranged idiosyncratically rather than chronologically; and the lighting can be maddeningly inadequate. Luckily for remote visitors, the lighting is much better on the palace’s website, as well as in the Italian and Spanish language videos about the museum’s treasures.

To the Eternal City
Raphael was summoned to Rome in 1508 by Pope Julius II, and he remained there until his death in 1520. Those 12 final years in the Eternal City marked the apogee of his career. Painter, architect, entrepreneur, archaeologist, pioneer printmaker, Raphael became the prototype of the artist as celebrity — the Andy Warhol of the Renaissance.

In pre-pandemic Rome, visitors had to endure the lines and tour groups that plagued the Vatican Museums in order to spend a few crowded moments with one of Raphael’s supreme accomplishments: the four papal chambers, known as the Stanze di Raffaello, that the artist and his workshop frescoed between 1508 and 1520.

These days, in-person visitors to the reopened Vatican Museums enjoy the Stanze along with the nearby Sistine Chapel in ideal conditions. But remote visits can also be rewarding, thanks to the beautifully produced videos and virtual tours now available on the Vatican’s website. With the click of a mouse, you can hop back and forth between the virtual Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Raphael Stanze and decide for yourself which is the greater masterpiece.

“Everything he had in art, he had from me,” the curmudgeonly Michelangelo once grumbled of his younger rival. When you view their roughly contemporaneous fresco cycles one after the other (or side by side on your computer), it’s clear that Raphael did much more than borrow. “The School of Athens,” the most celebrated work in the Stanze, has the propulsive tension of a film paused at its climactic scene. Cast members — a mix of classical philosophers and Renaissance savants — converse, argue, scribble, read and declaim on a sprawling, but unified, “set” framed by classical architecture. By contrast, Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, for all its bravura, reads like a series of static cels.

After the Vatican’s Raphael Stanze, a logical next stop, whether actually or virtually, is the Villa Farnesina, with its two beguiling frescoed loggias — “The Triumph of Galatea” in one of the loggias and “Cupid and Psyche” in the other.

Despite the name, this riverside Trastevere landmark is neither a villa nor originally a Farnese property, but rather a suburban pleasure pavilion that Agostino Chigi built for himself in the early 16th century. Chigi brought in the finest artists of the day to fresco the loggias; the result is a delightful crazy quilt of mythological scenes and astrological symbols. Raphael’s “Galatea,” with her wind-whipped tresses, elegantly torqued bare torso and dolphin-powered, scallop-shell raft, has become an icon of High Renaissance grace and wit, and you can see it and other highlights in the villa’s video archive. Even if you don’t speak Italian, the short films are worth delving into for the imagery alone.

From Painting to Architecture
In the last phase of his career, Raphael increasingly turned from painting to architecture. Sadly, his major architectural achievements — the grand unfinished Villa Madama perched on a wooded hill two miles north of the Vatican, and the classically inspired Raphael loggias inside the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace — were inaccessible to the public even before the pandemic, and remain so.

To get a sense of Raphael’s architectural genius, make your way to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in the piazza of the same name at the northwest edge of the historic center. Like so many transplants, Raphael fell under the spell of the Eternal City’s classical substructure: Rome itself, its layers, its ruins and relics, its ceaseless commerce with the past, became a source of inspiration. The chapel he designed for Chigi inside the Popolo church evinces just how deeply and fruitfully Raphael internalized this inspiration. At first glance, it’s just another church chapel — tight, high, adorned with art and inlaid with precious stone. But you can glimpse the almost miraculous geometry of this space — the interplay of disc and dome, the rhythm set up between the vertical pleats of the Corinthian pilasters and the elongated triangles of the twin red marble pyramids that mark the Chigis' graves.

Fittingly, the artist who devoted the final years of his career to measuring, cataloging, preserving and mapping Roman antiquities was laid to rest in the greatest classical structure to survive the ages: the Pantheon. If a trip to the physical Pantheon is not in the cards, you can drop in with Tom Hanks as your guide in a clip from the film “Angels and Demons.” As for his tomb — an easy-to-miss niche with a statue of the Virgin, modest and vague, presiding over the glassed-in coffin — you can view it here.

Marzia Faietti, curator of Rome’s Scuderie show, has been struck by how the virus has enhanced Raphael’s reputation and heightened awareness of the twin beauties of his art and character. “Young people in particular have reacted with an outpouring of enthusiasm and benevolence which I really didn’t expect,” she said. “The pandemic has brought suffering to so many, but the year of Raphael will be remembered more vividly, not despite the virus, but because of it.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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