The Renaissance in Private

John Haber
in New York City

Raphael: La Fornarina

This has become a great year to see Raphael, especially if you are pushing two hundred. The National Gallery in London has shown the painter in his formative years. As a young artist, Raphael already inspired legends. He became a Romantic ideal, the painter of sweetness and light. Charmingly, just a short walk from the National Gallery, Tate Britain presents the Pre-Raphaelites. Raphael's Fornaria (National Gallery of Art at the Palazzo Barberini, Rome, c. 1520)

Back here in New York, thanks to a loan from the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, the Frick presents Raphael the Post-Raphaelite. The portrait's piercing brown eyes may or may not represent the love of his life, the women known to legend as La Fornarina. Clad in little more than shadows, she suggests anything but sweetness and life. And, sure enough, she contributed to another Victorian romance, this time about a man whose boundless appetites delayed his art and who died at age thirty-seven from too much sex.

Had enough lessons in Victoriana? A visit to the Frick offers that, plus a fascinating painting. Yet it also puts the artist's evolution in the spotlight. Raphael's early years help in understanding the High Renaissance. His portrait, in contrast, helps piece out what one even means when one talks about the Renaissance—or about an artist becoming himself.

A study in contrasts

The portrait, recently restored, looks great. So does the Frick's presentation, including photos of the restoration in progress, radiography of underlying layers, and balanced commentary. It does not claim too much for a painting often dismissed as the work of a follower and omitted in survey courses. It accepts, based on the underpainting and changing design, that Raphael left it unfinished (a question for other works at the center of "Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible" at the Met Breuer), but without blaming mushy passages on his studio. It lets one see perhaps the artist's last easel painting, and it lets one decide for oneself.

The half-length portrait, in oil on wood, shows a seated woman against an almost uniform background. Open landscape, a layer visible only to modern tools of the art-historical trade, has vanished. Only patches of blue, anchoring the panel's corners to the sky and to a more perfect world, peek out from the dark-green vegetation. Strong light from the upper right, almost parallel to the picture plane, emphasizes the intimacy of a meeting at night. It also model's the woman's limbs and musculature while softening her flesh.

The contrast of light and dark carries the woman forward, establishing a connection to the viewer. It brightens the cloak, a suggestively spicy red, that covers her lower body and gives her pose, a pyramid shifted just to the left, its base. It penetrates the flimsy veil that she draws up to cover herself, while leaving her navel and breasts exposed. It also leaves a suggestive nexus of shadow and spots of brown and red. They include her eyes, lips, and nipples.

The hand that lifts her veil also cups her left breast, a motion, the Frick argues, derived from a classical Venus Pudica rather than porn flicks. Her other hand, two fingers spread wide, covers the space between her legs while giving the illusion that her cloak may not. That left hand bears a ring, a bracelet on her left arm carries the artist's signature, and a pearl hangs down from a fashionably exotic black and yellow turban. These props could symbolize sexuality, purity, or the rites of marriage. Restoration, the Frick argues, shows that the plants behind her, too, have associations both with Venus and with marriage.

The turban's stripes, the central part in her hair, her right thumb, and her left ring finger together set a clear diagonal. They underscore her partial turn to the right. Her dark eyes and lips, turned fully the other way, look forward, giving the painting a stable, symmetric vertical axis. They make contact with the viewer, but without coyness. Her long neck follows that axis while lifting her up and, with her eyes, asserting her independence.

The painting, in sum, presents a repeated interplay between ideality and sensuality. This woman has an inner life apart from anyone and a surface dedicated to the viewer. She has nothing to hide and the dignity to pretend to hide all. But which is it? And who is it, and what does it mean?

One artist, two romances

One has to peel back layers of myth even to see the portrait. The first ideal, of sweet perfection, made Raphael a favorite of the nineteenth century. J. A. D. Ingres turned to him for his willowy line. With an imagined double portrait that took him his first sketches in 1814 until 1840 to complete, he also made La Fornarina into an icon. About fifteen years later, Robert Browning asks in blank verse if any follower can again rise so high. Both Ingres and Browning, however, celebrate a second romantic ideal as well—the artist alone, fixated on his private world.

Ingres, with his twenty-six years of labor, could himself have been enacting the legend of an artist consumed by his inspiration. He shows Raphael and a lover in a suitably sumptuous, closeted interior. Raphael sits transfixed by his easel, which holds an early stage of the Barberini portrait. His body, meanwhile, twists the other way, to clasp with both arms the real woman. She comes as close to sitting on his lap as humanly possibly for someone apparently standing up to acknowledge the observer. If the viewer today doesn't share the ambivalence of at once Ingres, Raphael, his lover, and his art, remember that myths have changed.

Both myths, the artist as saint and as sinner, go into Browning's dramatic monologue—on the subject of Andrea del Sarto. Andrea outlasted Raphael by ten years, enough time to become an innovative and often emotionally charged painter himself. The poet, however, deems Andrea a failure, "the faultless painter" who cannot get around two serious obstacles. One is Raphael, whose example "is waiting." The other is the small difficulty of sending away a woman, to whom the artist speaks. He could do more, and he must do more, but "what wife had Raphael?"

No one can prove that the Barberini panel portrays a lover. To me, for one, the woman does not resemble the subject of a much finer, clothed portrait in the Pitti Palace, La Velata, generally considered the woman in question. First mention of the panel at the Frick dates to decades after Raphael's death. So does the name Fornarina, meaning baker or baker's daughter—and, no, no shared roots with fornication.

However, the myths have their roots well before Romanticism, in Vasari's late Renaissance life of the artist. Vasari affirms that Raphael did not always get the job done, had his mistress installed on the premises while he worked on decorating a palazzo, and indeed died from all that sex.

One could laugh it off as ignorance of modern medicine, before Freud made repression the real root of illness. One can blame it on hearsay or on Vasari's biases, as a champion of Raphael's rival, Michelangelo. However, it also tells of something real. It describes the coming into being of a legend—and of a novel conception of art and artists as well. It describes Raphael as a paradigm for the future, the artist as not a painter of myths, but himself the myth. Consider the arc of the painter's brilliant career.

Learning curves

One thinks of Raphael as becoming himself at last, on his arrival in Florence. In practice, artist are always becoming themselves, up to the very moment they become figures in a museum's forgotten corners. Moreover, Raphael staked a career on growing as an artist. He learned quickly, faster, in fact, than any artist I can name.

I cannot review the show in London, at least until this webzine's travel budget expands. I gather, however, that its focus on a young man highlights the legend rather than the learner. It looks very much to a sweeter past.

It counts his father, who died when Raphael was maybe ten, as an influence, a curiously oedipal subtext for a show with so much sweetness and light. Along with a minority of scholars, it questions whether Raphael really studied with Perugino, the most progressive artist of the time near home. It carries Raphael to 1513 but has to skip around the ambitious Vatican fresco commission that may have brought him to Rome. Mostly, however, it downplays Raphael's quick wit. He could see something once, get the point instantly, and push it to the next level. The fabulous loops in his drawings, which help him to generate new designs, are like learning curves.

He sees Perugino's painted city plaza and learns its perspective, but he sees, too, that it disperses attention in every direction and makes the background figures look like ice skaters who have lost their way. So he centralizes his version under a dome—and all but stumbles on the High Renaissance. In Florence, he sees the Madonnas of Leonardo da Vinci and others, but his own twists on the theme give the next generation a model for the infant Jesus's human needs, freedom of motion, spatial gravity, and integration with the landscape. He need but slip into the Sistine Chapel once, against Michelangelo's anxious wishes, before starting his own, newly massive figures and grand architecture.

The detachment of an apt student allows him to deal with the burden of humanity. An early portrait makes an ugly woman worthy of respect not by eliding her features but by using them, linking them to the trees behind and to the higher purposes of his art. His portraits of the pope make the man older, more determined to hold on to power and to life, than even Michelangelo, a papal intimate, would have permitted.

Paradoxically, insight requires detachment. Raphael's grasp of the confusion of public and private roles that define a sitter depends on surfaces. He does not easily get behind those surfaces, but this businesslike approach make him progressive in another way. It anticipates the next generation.

Neither virgin nor whore

Any narrative says a great deal by what it leaves out. The warring Romantic myths cry out for a missing link, the fallen saint or the sinner's salvation. And indeed the gaps in London underscore Raphael's ambition. Conversely, the painting at the Frick suggests Raphael as far from Browning's inescapable ideal. It presents a painter working in the same uneasy time as the real Andrea del Sarto, the period often known as Mannerism.

Mannerism can mean a continuation of the Renaissance, a stylization of it, a psychologically aware distortion of its ideals, or a self-conscious reflection on those ideals. In examining such figures as Parmigianino (who himself left a portrait, Parmigianino's Antea, sometimes identified with his mistress, and Schiava Turca, sometimes identified as a woman poet) and El Greco, I like to cal it a Post-Renaissance, by analogy to Postmodernism. Raphael, picking and choosing from the immediate past, acts almost as a Mannerist from day one. He storms into Florence and then Rome like an East Village artist into Soho of the 1980s. He does so in earnest, however, pretty much the moment the London show of his early years gives out.

By the second room of his Vatican frescos, painted in 1512, figures charge on and off the stage in staggering diagonals. The High Renaissance pyramid collapses, anticipating by half a decade the first textbook Mannerist works, by Pontormo. Later works move toward more outrageous gestures, more metallic colors, and eerier, less logical contrasts of light and dark. Subjects grow harder to identify, foreshortening exaggerates already long limbs, anatomical detail gives way to flesh, and death becomes a fact of life. The art starts to look, in short, like La Fornarina.

La Fornarina represents change in the artist's working methods as well, and I do not just mean that the surface is oil while the backing is an already old-fashioned wooden panel. In the previous century, a workshop served as an efficient means of apprenticeship and by the master. Assistants ground pigments, transferred drawings, and filled in the background. No longer. Michelangelo now works alone. Conversely, with Raphael, others begin to do more of the execution, as in La Fornarina, while the artist deals with architecture, plans, and inventions.

The artist also finds new audiences, the private sphere of wealth and privilege. One sees it in the closed garden of La Fornarina, an imagined place that only the work's owner can enter. One sees it in the subject fit solely for private consumption, a halfway nude portrait rather than a clothed woman or naked goddess. Maybe Raphael did commemorate his lover, which would explain his signature on her bracelet and his ability to paint the nude from life. Then again, maybe he honored a patron's marriage, which would explain the work's obscurity in his lifetime, the lack of resemblance to La Velata, or the use of assistants. Either way, however, the portrait signals an artist free to treat his sitters as intimate relations.

La Fornarina brings together both sides of the Raphael legend—the sweetness of a virgin and the sensuality of a whore. With A Knight's Dream, the early Raphael had contrasted those hoary feminine roles, presenting the viewer with an ethical dilemma. Raphael no longer has to choose, because this woman, whether lover or bride, is neither. That may help to explain the chill of her sensuality and the warmth of her independent smile.

New math

More suggests enrichment, but it also defers fulfillment. Addition to something already complete, like the career of a great artist, suggests surfeit—an overflowing, a spilling into the world beyond. What was, before, is still there, but it can no longer sit patiently, like the woman as model. It preoccupies the artist and viewer, but it may get up at the end and leave, like the love object in Browning's poem. Uncovering a new work can mean an actual finding or a literal un-covering, in the act of cleaning and restoration. Either way, it is like receiving a present, but like a gift it sets off unfinished acts of exchange.

When a retrospective of Jan Vermeer claimed a new attribution, a saint, it called attention to a gap—a gap in one's understanding of Vermeer's religious beliefs. It also pointed to a gap within the discovery itself, seemingly comparable to the artist's late Allegory of Faith but without the allegory, the puzzle, that makes the work his. Another recently proposed Vermeer, a woman at the virginals, describes an artist of greater spontaneity, himself more virginal. It, too, then testifies to a loss, by offering a painting completed at another's hand.

I accept this attribution to Raphael. The trees in La Fornarina owe more to Venice and the Northern Renaissance than to Rome, but he was always a synthesizer. The shadows look slicker than I might wish, but not like those of Giulio Romano, his dreary follower. The portrait comes off as gloomy and superficial, but Raphael loved the dark surfaces of things. It fits with the psychology of his time. Leonardo, too, described character through types, and modern viewers often compare those drawings to caricature.

However, Raphael's surfaces take a further step. The artist becomes a star, the viewer a connoisseur, and the sitter a love object forced to deal with the gaze of two newly powerful actors. Everyone wins, and everyone loses something. The artist gains in stature, but the work finishes at the hands of another. He controls the pose, but never really the sitter. The woman he possesses, the one with a wedding ring and naked flesh, turns away, while the one that engages his glance asserts her intelligence and her reserve.

The sitter's forceful gaze, the turn of her body, and the way her arms hide her anatomy give her the instability of Raphael's late frescos. She makes me think, too, of a still-more intimate image, a standing portrait by Peter Paul Rubens of his lover. In both, one senses that the woman's torso may not quite fit onto her lower body, and the illogic makes her clothing appear ready to fall away.

Unlike many Mannerists, Raphael shows little trace of alienation or depression. Perhaps, had he lived a little longer, Mannerism would have had a different history, without romance or scorn. Perhaps a continuity with Rubens and the Baroque would have become the history of art.

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Raphael's "Fornarina" runs at The Frick Collection through January 30, 2005, in collaboration with the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture, before traveling to Houston and Indianapolis.


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