Text Cristian Spadoni

It was a privileged relationship with the beauty and the splendour, the pleasures and the intrigues of the Renaissance courts. It began in the metaphysical ducal fortress in Urbino, suspended between the hills and the rounded landscapes of Montefeltro. Raphael was fed at the breast of his natural mother as a baby and not by a wet nurse of plebeian extraction with rough manners. Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, saw the fortune and elixir of Raphael’s genius in the quality of his mother’s milk. Raphael’s art reveals the amorous tangles of which Vasari speaks, his unbridled passion for the pleasures of the flesh. His existence, consumed in a matter of a few score years, is comparable with the brief life span of Mozart. But unlike Mozart, Raphael, did not have to contend with frustration and defeat, and he also escaped the inevitable decline of old age. Those whom the gods love die young. His legendary lover, La Fornarina, is portrayed seated, against a background of a myrtle bush, a shrub sacred to Venus with an intense fragrance, in the filtered light of dusk. Semi-nude, covered only with a veil. With a red mantle over her hips and a turban wrapped Roman-style around her head, with an oriental air – how much Ingres owes to this headdress, like Alcina or Armida in the enchanted garden – clasped by a golden ring. The right corner of the mouth has the hint of a smile, almost an invitation to a complicit sensuality. Her fingers point to the small tempting nipples, with their purplish areolae, shaded with a disturbing naturalism: that sensual breast, possessed, consumed, maternal. At just fifteen years old, the young artist was entrusted to the care of the artist Perugino, with whom he completed his apprenticeship.

After the first commissions of the Umbrian Madonnas in 1504, at the age of twenty, that “tender age when people learn everything best,” as Giorgio Vasari says, Raphael moved to Florence, where, by some lucky alignment of the stars, the Urbino artist found himself under the same sky as Leonardo and Michelangelo. Leonardo had come back there in 1500, after an absence of seventeen years, while Michelangelo lived in Florence from 1501 to 1506. Raphael was able to watch the artistic contest between these two great artists live: Leonardo at work on the fresco of the Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo on the Battle of Cascina in Palazzo Vecchio, disastrously experimental in its technique. Raphael’s personality benefited from a close interweave of contacts, relationships and exchanges.

Rome, far more than the brusque, rational Florence, was the archetypal treasure chest and bower of pleasures and delight, consumed in a dizzying whirl of sumptuous feasts, gluttony, religious ceremonies and excess, with masquerades, floodings of the Tiber and over-the-top banquets. Nuites fauves, fescennine verses and theatrical stagings full of scandal and overwhelmed with eroticism to the extent of hallucination, often even ending up with deaths. The corpses were fished out of the murky waters of the Tiber at dawn, like some macabre harvest. It was in this city that Raphael was assigned the decoration of the private apartments of Julius II della Rovere, the Warrior Pope.

Immediately after being elected Pope, della Rovere had the statue of the Apollo Belvedere moved into the Vatican from the garden of San Pietro in Vincoli, the basilica that had been linked to his position as cardinal. It seemed that behind his adoration of this marble statue, his real passions were concealed: wine, which he over-indulged in, and the male member – not that this had any negative impact on his virile status, like a latter-day Julius Caesar restored to life. Raphael, had a long neck and feverish dark, eyes, that were eager to learn. He liked to dress well. He expressed that Renaissance propaganda through his images in the papal palaces. After the death of Julius II della Rovere, Raphael’s Rome adventure continued with Pope Leo X, the first Medici pope who legitimized his family name on the international scene.

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