For the 500th anniversary of Raphael's death, a new book looks at the master's obsession with classical art

The world missed marking 500 years since Raphael's death. Picture: Shutterstock
The world missed marking 500 years since Raphael's death. Picture: Shutterstock
  • Raphael and the Antique, by Claudia La Malfa. University of Chicago Press, $39.99.

Raphael didn't get the party he should have last year. Five hundred years after the Renaissance master died, racked with fever, in Rome, the coronavirus swept across Italy in a deadly first wave that left more than 30,000 people dead. The anniversary of the great artist's death was just another casualty of the pandemic that has played havoc with so many things we used to take for granted.

Three days after Raphael 1520-1483 opened at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, museum officials were forced to shutter the blockbuster exhibition in response to the rapidly escalating health crisis. Meanwhile, celebrations in Florence and Urbino were either cancelled or delayed, and a major exhibition at London's National Gallery was pushed back to 2022. Fortunately, the publication of Claudia La Malfa's new book suffered no such setbacks.

In Raphael and the Antique, a handsome volume that forms part of the "Renaissance Lives" series from Reaktion Books, La Malfa avoids the traditional, cradle-to-grave approach to biography. Instead, the adjunct professor of art history at the American University of Rome focuses her scholarship on Raphael's obsessive engagement with classical art. It turns out to be a winning strategy. There's a welcome sense of energy to this "partial life" of the artist that's sure to please art lovers, history buffs and Italophiles alike. It's almost as if Raphael's enthusiasm for antiquity seeps through the luxuriously glossy pages.

From the late quattrocento, there was a growing fascination with classical art among the creative classes of the Italian city-states. Artists poured over Pliny the Elder's Natural History and Vitruvius' Ten Books of Architecture, absorbing everything they could about classical artmaking and architecture. The rediscovery of Nero's Golden House in Rome just before the turn of the century provided fresh impetus to this feverish pursuit of knowledge and the reverberations were felt as far away as Urbino, where Raphael was taking his first commissions.

In 1501, some eight years before he travelled to Rome, Raphael painted the Resurrection of Christ, a small devotional panel that betrays the master's familiarity with classical sculpture. The painting shows the risen Christ hovering above a sarcophagus surrounded by four guards whose poses, La Malfa explains, have been lifted almost directly from first and second century Roman sculptures. One soldier is clearly modelled on part of the Dioscuri, the colossal statue group that has been displayed near Rome's Quirinal Hill since the 1500s. Another is based on the Falling Gaul statue, a much-loved Roman copy of one of the Attalid Dedications, the Greek sculptures from around 200 BC that commemorated victory over the Gauls. Raphael's obsession with classical art only intensified during the next stop on his artistic pilgrimage.

In Florence, Raphael witnessed the extraordinary flowering of the arts under the patronage of the Medicis. He also had occasion to learn from two of the best in the business. Leonardo and Michelangelo were both working in the city when Raphael arrived, and La Malfa describes how the young artist studied the Florentine masters with characteristic zeal. Between 1504 and 1508, Raphael made countless studies of both masters' works and it wasn't long before he started incorporating what he'd learned in his own paintings. The heightened narrative quality of Raphael's paintings from the period reveal Leonardo's influence whereas the sheer monumentality of his subjects can be attributed to Michelangelo. But nothing Raphael saw in Florence would compare to what he encountered in Rome.

In the early 1500s, the eternal city was awash with antiquities and it wasn't just Raphael and his ilk who were taking notice. Romans from all walks of life were enchanted by the newly discovered artefacts and one of La Malfa's chief achievements here is the way she captures the mood in early Renaissance Rome. One discovery proved to be particularly exciting.

In January 1506, Felice de Fredis was working in his vineyard overlooking the Colosseum when he unearthed the Laocon statue group, the monumental sculpture that many art historians regard as the canon's foremost depiction of agony. Carved in Rhodes in the first century AD, the marble statue shows the Trojan priest Laocon, and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, under attack by sea serpents. The find sent the city into a spin, as evidence by a diary entry by a young Roman named Francesco da Sagnello that La Malfa digs up.

"Having arrived where the statues were found, my father said at once: 'This is the Laocon that Pliny mentions' and he made them enlarge the hole in order to disinter it. And having seen it, we went to eat and to converse incessantly about ancient things."

If eating well and talking about ancient things is your idea of a good time, chances are you'll enjoy Raphael and the Antique.

This story Renaissance master's love of art first appeared on The Canberra Times.