“Truly, while most artists hitherto have taken from nature something wild and strange which, besides making them abstract and fanciful, often brought out in their work the shadow and darkness of vice rather than the clarity and splendor of those virtues which make men immoral, in Raphael on the contrary there shone forth all the rarest virtues of the soul accompanied by such grace, proficiency, beauty, modesty and fine manners as would have amply concealed any vice, however gross, and any blemish, however enormous.”
- Giorgio Vasari, from Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1568)
I. When the Shaffer Art Galleries reopened at the beginning of this year after eight months of renovation, it came as a revelation and not only because the gallery had more than doubled in size. Founded in 1870 as a Methodist college, Syracuse University began collecting art four years later, and today the collection numbers more than 45,000 objects, most of which have not been on public view in decades, if ever.
Dominating the European gallery is a large tondo, a round painting, in a carved, gilded frame that weighs 250 pounds. In back of the frame, the painting itself is a 47 inch square wooden panel. That this painting compels your attention even in the company of Durer, Rembrandt, and Lucas Cranach the Elder, suggests an artist of the highest order. The gallery card identifies it as a Madonna attributed to ‘Raphael, school of, c1500.” Research on the painting is ongoing but what is clear to the appreciative eye is its supremely gentle beauty.
Within the circle a young woman holds a little boy with her left hand while with her right hand she gently draws back a blanket from the face of an infant. An image of sweetness and light that is universally understood. In this instance she is the Virgin Mary and the children are the infant Jesus and a pudgy future St. John the Baptist, Christian imagery re-imagined for a 15th century Renaissance audience. The characters are set against a landscape that historians have dubbed the 'sacro-idyllic', a style dating back to the early years of the Roman Empire. This was the stuff of countless murals that decorated the walls of upper class Roman villas, the cultivated agricultural landscape that Virgil envisioned in The Georgics (c.37 BCE), a vision of symmetry and artifice where trees stand alone like antique columns.
II. How important was the artist known as Raphael? Until modern artists elbowed their way onto the stage, no art was held in higher esteem than that of the Italian Renaissance and no artist was more revered than Raphael. To own a Raphael was to reach the pinnacle of collecting for a Gilded Age titan, just as owning a Van Gogh would be for a collector today.
“(T)he only artist whose prestige had endured all changes of taste and fashion up to the end of the nineteenth century.” - David Alan Brown, curator of the exhibition Raphael and America. Art historian Bernard Berenson called Raphael the “most famous and most beloved name in modern art” and this about an artist who had been dead for more than three hundred years!
Creators sometimes view things differently than collectors do. Renoir enigmatically described the Raphael's influence as something he had to get out of his system. Baudelaire, the splenetic, predictably did no think much of the sunny Italian. In spite of their name, the group known as the Pre-Raphaelites, although fascinated, complained that Raphael's work had squashed their spontaneity.
That there was no Raphael in any 19th century American art collection was a source of national embarrassment. The expatriate Bernard Berenson was inventing a new profession – art attribution - and thereby creating a market for ‘Old Master’ art. Thanks to Berenson, prices were rising as the race to acquire a Raphael was in progress. In his role as adviser to wealthy collectors, Berenson recommended to Isabella Stewart Gardner that she pass on Raphael’s Colonna Madonna in 1897. But Berenson's opinion was not disinterested; in his world a painting he did not get the chance to authenticate barely existed. For him, the Colonna madonna was not merely relegated to the category of 'school of' pictures created in Raphael's workshop but “pictures Raphael barely looked at.” Now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Colonna Madonna, more primitive and less elegant than the Shafer Madonna is credited to Raphael himself.
Her contemporaries often compared Mrs. Gardner to the great Renaissance art patron Isabella d’Este, was planning to turn her Boston home into a museum and she badly wanted a Raphael. She would better have purchased a Raphael Madonna than the portrait that she did buy of a fat, ugly Roman churchman. Not satisfied, Gardner wrote to Berenson, “My remaining pennies must go to the greatest Raphael…” and not the “tiresome dreary Colonna Madonna.”
But that is exactly the picture that New York financier J.P.Morgan decided to buy on a whim when saw it in a Parisian gallery in 1901. Whether Morgan knew that Vasari had described it as “truly marvelous and devout” or that both the Louvre and the British National Gallery had passed on it, he wasted no timei n snapping it up at first sight. Morgan was not a man to haggle when he wanted something, a habit that caused concern to his business colleagues. Clinton Dawkins, for one, worried that Morgan might just buy the entire National Gallery. And in June 1902 Dawkins wrote “We never see him and it is difficult to get hold of him. He spends his time lunching with Kings or Kaisers or buying Raphaels.”
III. Raffaello Sanzio or Raphael was born at Urbino in 1483. It has been claimed that he was born on April 6, the same day that he died in 1520 at the age of thirty-seven; whether that is correct or he was born on the alternative date of March 28 depends, in part, on your taste for artifice. A small town, Urbino was no rural backwater, advantageously located halfway between Florence and Rome. Thanks to the enlightened patronage of the duke, Federico di Montefeltro who employed the boy's father as a court painter, Urbino during Raphael's time was a center of culture where all the splendid painters of the day were known. Piera della Francesca worked there for precisely that reason. One of the Venetian artist Titian’s best known paintings is his Venus of Urbino (1538), commissioned by the Duke.
It is from Vasari, his contemporary, that we learn about the artist’s early years. Left fatherless at the age of eleven, Raphael took over his father’s workshop and soon surpassed his father’s achievements. Word spread of his precociousness and Raphael was invited to apprentice at Perugia in the workshop of Pietro Vannunci, affectionately known as Perugino. In him, Raphael found a master whose graceful style harmonized with his own inclinations. If the young Raphael did not have his hand in this painting, it certainly inspired his Madonna of the Meadow (1505). Vasari also took the measure of Raphael s' achievement accurately and generously, seeing in him an artist less intellectual than Leonardo da Vinci and less revolutionary than Michelangelo, yet an artist without peer in the handling of paint.
Was this painting from the workshop of Raphael or was it painted by him? Art attribution is now a profession on which millions of dollars hang in the balance, a situation that can bring out the worst in some people, as anyone who has watched the arrogant performance of Thomas Hoving in the documentary film Who the *$&% is Jackson Pollock? knows. The Shaffer Madonna, regardless of who painted it, transcends such worldly concerns.
For further reading: Raphael and America by David Alan Brown, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art: 1983
1.Raphael, school of - Madonna and child with the young St. John the Baptist, c.1500, Shaffer Art Gallery, Syracuse University.
2. Shaffer Art Gallery # 21 - photograph courtesy of Syracuse University.