Poor Raphael! This year, the five-hundredth anniversary of his death, was to have been his year of glory. After major exhibitions of Michelangelo in 2018 and Leonardo da Vinci in 2019, the museum world was in the midst of celebrating the third member of the glorious trinity of High Renaissance art. Then fear of a new coronavirus forced museums everywhere to take down their banners, chase away visitors, and close their doors. Lectures and conferences, canceled! “Raphael and His Circle” at the National Gallery in Washington, closed! “Raphael: The Teacher and His Pupils” at the Musée Condé outside of Paris, closed! Will they reopen once the panic has passed? Nobody knows. At least the currently shuttered “Raffaello” at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome has now announced plans to reopen on June 2. The last has been billed as the largest show ever dedicated to Raphael, with over two hundred masterpieces, including one hundred paintings and drawings by Raphael himself, lent by the Uffizi, the Louvre, the Prado, and London’s National Gallery, among others. And there is hope that reason will return to its throne in time for London’s National Gallery to open its doors in October for what will be the second-largest exhibition of the year.

It’s a kind of tragic coincidence, or perhaps poetic injustice, that celebrations of Raphael’s achievement were interrupted by a deadly virus. It was a viral pneumonia ripping through the papal court that killed Raphael himself, aged thirty-seven, on April 6, 1520. The overworked and exhausted artist was carried off, biographers tell us, by a grandissima febbre. His greatest patron, the Medici pope Leo X, died suddenly of pneumonia a year and a half later, aged forty-six. The most fruitful partnership between artist and patron in High Renaissance Rome had lasted just over seven years. Among the casualties was Raphael’s career as an architect, cut off just as it was beginning to blossom.

Raphael, Plan for Villa Madama, ca. 1520. Photo: MIT Libraries.

Earlier in his artistic life, Raphael was chiefly known as a highly accomplished painter, a maker of tender religious scenes in oil as well as the breathtaking visions of ancient philosophy, theology, and the arts frescoed onto the walls of the Stanze, the pope’s apartments in the Vatican palace. In 1514, however, Pope Leo pushed the young artist’s career in a new direction when he chose him to be chief architect of New St. Peter’s Basilica, following the death of its first architect, Bramante. Raphael had long had an interest in architecture and had dabbled in a few projects before 1514, but the new appointment made him, in effect, the leading architect in Christendom.

There was no greater symbol of the cultural confidence of High Renaissance Rome than New St. Peter’s. Pope Julius II’s decision to build an enormous new church of classical design in the capital of Christianity had been nothing short of audacious. Its construction required the pontiff to tear down the most venerable church in Christendom, Old St. Peter’s Basilica, built by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century on the ruins of Nero’s circus. According to one tradition, the basilica commemorated not only St. Peter’s place of burial but also the place where he had been martyred. The old church was filled with relics of the saints, tombs of popes and martyrs, and famous works of art, including beautiful ancient mosaics and fourteenth-century frescoes by Giotto. All this had to be torn down for the new church, a monument (said many) to the vanity of Pope Julius. Certainly no one could accuse that pope of an excess of humility. Under the central crossing of the new basilica and over the tomb of St. Peter, where the baldacchino and high altar now stand, Julius’s chief architect, Bramante, planned to erect a three-story sculptural installation with over forty sculptures, all created by Michelangelo, as a tomb for—who else?—Pope Julius himself.

Although that part of the project, thankfully, was in the end set aside, Leo X and subsequent popes continued to pour vast resources into building the basilica. It remained the centerpiece of papal patronage of the arts for 150 years. So why did Pope Leo, the age’s most intelligent patron, appoint young Raphael as its architect, a man with little experience in building design? Readers of Giorgio Vasari, Raphael’s principal biographer, could be excused for asking that question. Vasari praises Raphael’s painting to the skies but barely mentions his involvement with architecture. Many modern scholars have dismissed Raphael the architect as a mere epigone of Bramante, a master builder manqué who completed no major monuments. Most connoisseurs of art, if they think of Raphael’s buildings at all, think of the architectural backgrounds in paintings like the School of Athens (1509–11), where ancient philosophers teach and debate on the steps outside a breathtakingly large, centrally planned church, strongly reminiscent of Bramante’s designs for New St. Peter’s.

Raphael’s contemporaries, though, did not think of him as a failed or derivative architect. For them he was a man just hitting his stride in a new art when death brought an end to his many projects. Only a few petty detractors thought Leo had made a mistake. A line in the inscription on Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon extols him for “enhancing the glory of Popes Julius and Leo with his works in painting and architecture” [italics mine]. The humanist literati who composed dozens of poetic epitaphs for him after his death mourned the interruption of his great project to reconstruct the built environment of ancient Rome. The humanist Celio Calcagnini, writing to a friend just before Raphael’s death, described him not only as the “prince of all painters” but also as “such an assiduous architect that he discovers and perfects those things that the cleverest talents considered impossible.” Raphael, he noted, even comments on the text of Vitruvius—the great Roman authority on architecture—with a charm that excuses his shrewd criticisms of that author’s limitations.

Inscription on Raphael's tomb in the Pantheon, Rome. Photo: David Lown, Pictures from Italy.

The greatest modern authority on Raphael, John Shearman, believed that the eclipse of Raphael’s fame as an architect was more than undeserved: it was a tragic injustice that architectural historians should do their best to rectify. The task is by no means easy, since so many of Raphael’s architectural projects were destroyed or left unfinished, to be completed by other hands. Reconstructing his ideas from drawings, early engravings, documents, literary testimony, and the surviving physical evidence is a delicate and daunting scholarly task which few today are qualified to undertake.

Nevertheless, when one considers that Raphael only began to erect buildings to his own designs in 1512, aged twenty-seven, it is remarkable how many projects he did undertake, all the while maintaining his extraordinary productivity as a painter. He built two large palaces in the Borgo, both of which were torn down, one to make room for Bernini’s colonnade in the seventeenth century, the other when the Via della Conciliazione was laid out in 1937. He left plans for at least two more palaces that were modified and built by other architects. He began construction on two villas, the grand Villa Madama in a park north of the Vatican, now the resort of Italian diplomats, and an exquisite gioello, the Villa Lante, on the Gianicolo. The Villa Madama project was carried forward after Raphael’s death by his most accomplished disciple, Giulio Romano, who also finished the Villa Lante in 1523–24. In both cases he made major alterations to Raphael’s original design. The huge, elegant stables Raphael built for the banker Agostino Chigi at his villa suburbana were torn down in 1808. The small church of San Eligio degli Orefici, his earliest church design, was radically altered and finished by his collaborators Baldassare Peruzzi and Bastiano da San Gallo. He left competition designs for San Giovanni de’Fiorentini in Rome and for the façade of San Lorenzo, the Medici church in Florence; neither were built.

Of all his work, only the chapel he built for the Chigi family in Santa Maria del Popolo gives us a real sense of what might have been. Inspired in its main lines by the Pantheon, the space was designed as a harmonious classical armature on which to display the arts of painting, sculpture, pietra dura, and (originally) mosaic. It would thus commemorate Agostino Chigi’s unmatched career as a patron of the arts. It makes brilliant use of colored marbles and elegant ornamentation creatively adapted from the antique. Its craftsmanship is exquisite. But even this chapel had to be completed by other hands. It was not finished before the middle of the seventeenth century.

What of New St. Peter’s, Raphael’s chief responsibility as an architect? Raphael had nowhere near the impact on the final state of the building that Michelangelo was to have in his eighteen years as chief architect. Raphael left just a few drawings, tomb designs, and a new floor plan. But that floor plan turned out to be of immense significance for the building’s future. Bramante had conceived of a centrally planned church inspired ultimately by the Pantheon—the most fully preserved classical temple in Renaissance Rome. Circular or centrally planned churches, reflecting Platonic principles, had been the ideal for Christian classical architecture from the time of Brunelleschi and Alberti in the quattrocento down to Leonardo da Vinci and Bramante in the High Renaissance. Raphael’s design, by contrast, called for extending one of the four wings of the church into a nave, thus forming a Roman cross, to be entered through a monumental colonnaded porch. In other words, he took the key step that began the church’s evolution into the basilican form we see today.

Raphael, The Marriage of the Virgin, 1504, Oil on panel, Pinacoteca di BreraMilan.

Raphael’s boldness in modifying Bramante’s designs was not some dilettantish flight of fancy but, like all his mature work, the result of careful, disciplined study of the antique. Humanists since Petrarch had mourned the destruction of Rome’s ancient fabric and dreamt of restoring the city’s physical grandeur. Earlier pontiffs such as the humanist pope Nicholas V had begun to rebuild Rome in a more classical style. But it was Raphael, supported by Pope Leo and his humanist advisers, especially Baldesar Castiglione and Angelo Colocci, who undertook the serious work of surveying the ruins of Rome and attempting to reconstruct the appearance of the ancient city district by district, building by building. It was this quasi-philological project that fired the imaginations of Renaissance literati and led them to praise Raphael as the greatest architect of the age.

Yet Raphael’s Plan of Rome, with its reconstructions of major monuments—temples, baths, theaters, palaces, fora, and public buildings—was not simply a learned contribution to antiquarian studies. It was a practical project, designed to serve architects and patrons interested in building in the modern classical style, the Renaissance style. In his work as a painter Raphael was famous for collecting the designs of other artists throughout Italy and making their inventions and techniques his own. Michelangelo and his coterie sneered at him, with appalling injustice, as a mere magpie, stealing his best ideas from other artists. As an architect Raphael practiced the same kind of recombinant classicism, choosing elements from innumerable antique structures but reassembling them in harmonious, creative ways. He understood, as modern educational theory does not, that creativity is the child of knowledge.

In his Plan of Rome, Raphael’s goal was to go beyond the basic grammar of the classical orders he had reconstructed from Vitruvius, and to populate a vast memory palace with classical forms and ornaments. In this way, like Socrates, he would stand as midwife to the genius of architects and disegnatori of every kind. Had it been completed, it would have become the greatest treasure-trove of classical style ever assembled. But this visionary project, too, was still in its early stages when Raphael’s life was cut short. It, too, would be carried out later by less skilled hands—by scholar-architects like Pirro Ligorio and antiquarians like Jean-Jacques Boissard. Raphael was, as John Shearman concluded in a classic study, “the unluckiest of all the great Renaissance architects.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 10, on page 43
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