Raphael's Scuola di Atene
Raphael, "The School of Athens" (1509–1511), fresco at the Raphael Rooms, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.

Raphael’s World
by Michael Collins, Messenger Publications, Dublin, 2020, 128 pp

One can learn a lot about a civilisation by observing its art. The purpose of art is the pursuit of beauty. The purpose of the artist, therefore, is to edify his fellow man by providing him with this life-giving beauty. In this way, the artist converts his own personal artistic creative energy into a collective civilisational energy.

Michael Collins’ new book, Raphael’s World, transports the reader to the Italian peninsula at around the turn of the sixteenth century and tells the story of a time when this civilisational energy reached an unprecedented apex.

Taking the opportunity of the 500th year anniversary of Raphael’s death, Collins tells the story of not only an artist, but the world in which he inhabited and would later go on to shape.

Most of us might not be capable of articulating Thomistic or Platonist theories of beauty, but we sure know it when we see it. Not only do we see it with our own eyes, but we see it in the eyes of others as they stop to ponder an artistic masterpiece from a seemingly long-lost era.

Beauty may be an abstract concept, but it certainly does have real physical manifestations in our world. Nor is beauty totally subjective: we all instinctively understand its objective criteria and can naturally distinguish between that which is sacred and beautiful and that which is the profane and repulsive.

There is an important relationship between a society and its art. I would argue that this relationship is not just causal but cyclical in nature. As a general rule, a healthy society produces good art and good art can improve the health of a society.

Likewise, a civilisation in crisis can also undertake a societal re-evaluation, and this can give rise to artistic innovation. By studying the society in which Raphael worked, we can understand what inspired the man who inspired us.

One such manifestation of beauty, universally recognised around the world, is that of Raphael’s The School of Athens. Such works as this iconic fresco in the Vatican papal apartments, are only mentioned in passing by Collins. As the title suggests, he chooses to rather focus his efforts on providing the reader with the historical context of Raphael’s world, concentrating on the cities of Urbino, Florence and Rome, and the “Renaissance Popes” Julius II and Leo X.

Collins first draws the picture of an ever shrinking and ever faster world, shaped by the recent discovery of the New World and the invention of the printing press. He then goes on to give an account of the historic rise of the Santi family leading up to Raphael’s birth, going from humble land-owning farmers to urban merchants and then under Raphael to celebrity and fortune.

Collins’s study of Raphael and his work is much more a biographical and iconological than iconographical in nature. For a detailed analysis and exhaustive list of each of Raphael’s many artworks, one would be better served by a museum guidebook. However, for a well-written book that penetrates the mind and world of an artistic genius, Michael Collins does not disappoint.

Art, while conveying eternal truths, is produced in a certain era. Understanding this context helps us to understand the art. There is much value in learning about the social structure and geopolitical environment in which the Italian peninsula found itself in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century.

While Christendom provided an underlying stability to European civilisation, there was no shortage of intrigue, betrayal and sudden death. Factionalism permeated society, cities were split into competing gangs, nobles were split between papal and imperial loyalties and even cardinals plotted to assassinate their brother clergy in an effort to climb the ecclesial ladder. Collins’s writing style succeeds in capturing the harsh Machiavellian spirit, often with “mafioso” undertones, that dominated life in an Italian Renaissance city state.

Raphael like his ancestors before him was a cunning diplomat, more than capable of navigating ever-changing political currents, and always managing to find himself with a chair when the music stopped playing. His artistic skill not only brought with it patronage but protection. Rising in fame, he would go from his hometown of Urbino to Perugia, then to Florence and finally to Rome.

This fame, which Raphael achieved in his own lifetime, is demonstrative of how around the turn of the sixteenth century there was a changing understanding of the role of the artist in society. Less and less was he viewed as a humble anonymous craftsman, and increasingly the artist was seen as an intellectual and public celebrity.

The support of Pope Julius II and various de Medici bankers, politicians and Popes was instrumental in the rise of Raphael, and others like Michelangelo, to the status of household names. Unfortunately, the intense competition and new hero status which the artist acquired led to a kind of arrogance and ornate decadence being injected into the renaissance around the year 1500.

Collins’s appreciation for the role of Julius II in shaping turn-of-the-century art is commendable. He outlines how, in response to the recent loss of papal prestige during the Avignon crisis, Julius II wanted to restore Rome to its former ancient imperial glory. In a move of astounding self-confidence, he ordered the old St. Peter’s Basilica to be torn down and a new one built in its place. It was ultimately to be Raphael’s design for this new building, which would serve as the heart of Christendom, that was accepted and constructed largely as we see it today.

I would argue that it is Julius II, who took his papal name not in honour of the previous pope Julius I, but rather after his personal hero Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, to whom we can trace the transition from Gothic Renaissance to emerging Baroque. While the new basilica which we see today would not be completed for another century, his insistence on wide Roman arches, perfect shapes (squares and circles) and Greek columns would shape the artistic direction of the Catholic Church for centuries, all the way to the neo-Gothic revival of the nineteenth century.

In his praise of the High-Renaissance, Collins unfortunately falls for commonly held misconceptions about the Middle Ages, thus indirectly propagating the myth that the period before the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries constituted a kind of monolithic “Dark Age”. Not only does the author assume, in error, that medieval fifteenth century man believed the world to be a flat disk (p. 35), but he also mischaracterises the sophistication of art prior to da Montefeltro’s reign in Urbino. He comments that only in the late fifteenth century had artists “rediscovered the laws of perspective that had been lost for several centuries” (p. 32). Such a description does not give due credit to the work of fourteenth and early fifteenth century artists like Giotto, van Eyck, Campin, van der Weyden and Fra Angelico, men who had died generations before Raphael was even born.

Sadly Collins, like many historians, assumes a dichotomy between the Gothic and the Renaissance, what German and Austrian historians term the “Aufbruch thesis”, and also fails to place the High-Renaissance in relation to the emergence of the Baroque. Beyond this lack of acknowledgment of continuity between the Gothic and the Renaissance, he also at times fails to address Italian Renaissance painting in a wider European context in the same way that he rightly does for tapestry art. For Collins, “Raphael’s world” seems too often to stop at the Alps. However, we know that the Middle Ages and early modernity, facilitated by the Catholic Church and the university system, was a time of intense academic pan-European cross pollination in the areas of art, literature, philosophy and science. It was after all the Flemish who brought three-dimensional oil painting to the Italian Peninsula.

I would argue that real break in continuity (Aufbruch) is not between the Gothic and the Renaissance, but rather between pre- and post-Raphael (and to a lesser extent Michelangelo). This break from the Gothic can be seen in Raphael’s work during his lifetime, most notably in the contrast between the Marian art of his early Urbino and Florentine days and the proto-Baroque art of his late Roman days in the years leading up to his death. This contrast is most evident in a comparison between Raphael’s 1505 painting Terranuova Madonna and his last artwork, a 1520 depiction of the Transfiguration of Christ. Raphael and Michelangelo, gradually abandoning the Gothic, would transition to a new developing style shaped by dramatic imagery and mannerist postures.

These developments were not universally celebrated and notable contemporary artists, such as Sandro Botticelli, saw how the “High-Renaissance” was losing its way and was beginning to serve as a gateway to something new, what we would come to know as the Baroque. This Baroque would culminate in the ornate decadence of the Rococo style and was characterised by an appeal to the earthly absolutist authority of secular leaders and the Church. While not horizontal in nature, like modernist ecclesiastical art and architecture, the new style was not truly vertical, directed towards the divine, in the same way as the previous Gothic “pointed” style.

While Collins does not engage in depth with the philosophy behind emerging artistic styles, he does provide an accurate and detailed account of the dual role of Popes as secular and religious leaders. The many various military coalitions and campaigns, led by Rome, to rid the peninsula of invading French kings and Venetian dominance makes for interesting reading.

Addressing the debate on who the greatest artist of the Italian Renaissance was, well known art historian of the twentieth century Kenneth Clarke described Raphael as “one of the civilising forces of the Western imagination”, but favouring Michelangelo he came to the conclusion that “one could not write a best seller about Raphael”. Michael Collins’ book might or might not find itself on the best seller list, but it is a noble contribution to the study of one man and his world.

The question it asks, even if not explicitly formulated in the book, is that of “why Italy and why the turn of the sixteenth century”? The short answer is that such epicentres of immense artistic creativity were not limited to the world of the Italian city-states but can also be found in Jan van Eyck’s Bruges and Albrecht Dürer’s Nuremberg. It is no coincidence that the best art emerges from clusters of competing city states. The beauty of Ghent, Antwerp, Leuven, Bruges and Nuremberg, if not always receiving the same attention, rivals that of Florence, Milan, Venice and Rome.

What makes Florence different from Nuremberg, however, is that the Italian world escaped the catastrophic iconoclasm of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Before Luther’s rebellion to the North, the pre-iconoclast Germanic world did produce many works of art on a par with if not surpassing that of the Italian renaissance. It was in Italy, and that segment of the Germanic world which under Habsburg leadership remained loyal to the Church, that it was possible to achieve a perfect balance between the artistically static traditionalism of the eastern Orthodox world, the abstract geometric creativity of Islamic art and the “Bildersturm” mentality of the nascent Protestant world. From its inception, the Church, particularly in the Latin West, has encouraged artistic creativity as a way to encounter the transcendent divine. This creativity, until recently, has always been rooted in tradition, gradual artistic innovation always building on what came before.

Pope Benedict on many occasions has reaffirmed that the example of the saints and the artistic beauty that the Church has produced are her greatest witnesses to the faith. The Church today needs to once more rediscover this creative energy. A prerequisite to this rediscovery will be the rejection of the instrumentalist and relativist logic that has taken root in post-Enlightenment and post-modern Europe.

Christ calls us to feed the poor and hungry. Pope Francis’s 2018 visit to Ireland has taught us a lot about how our secularist political leaders perceive the Church. While they acknowledge the historical and present-day good that the Church does around the world in feeding man’s stomach, they fail to recognise that man has not only a material but also a spiritual appetite. Only the good, the true and the beautiful will appease this appetite. The Church at the Second Council of Nicaea in the eighth century understood this, Raphael understood this, and Augustus Pugin understood this, but do we understand it today?

Like Collins, we too can be inspired by the 500th year anniversary of the master painter Raphael’s death and use this occasion as an opportunity to reflect on the state of beauty today in our own modern world. Reading Collins’s book, it is plain to see that — despite their many flaws, the leaders of the past, both secular and religious, pursued beauty with a relentless passion. We are the heirs to their great legacy. What we do with this legacy is up to us.

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Niall Buckley

Niall Buckley is an fourth year undergraduate student in European Studies (History, German and Italian) at Trinity College Dublin with the intention of pursuing postgraduate research on the twentieth century...