Thursday, October 30, 2008

Kids in the Hall

I recall my tour of the Vatican Palace and its museums as a human version of a cattle drive. Swept up in the relentless current rushing to the Sistine Chapel, I craned my neck around trying to take in the wonders flying past. Fortunately, a logjam ahead allowed us to pause in the Stanze di Raffaello, the papal apartments in which Raphael painted his masterpieces as Michelangelo worked on the chapel ceiling. Drinking in The School of Athens, one of my all-time favorite paintings, for five minutes was pure, easeful joy followed by another race to the finish. One of the many wonders of the palace I didn't get to race through was Raphael’s Loggia, which is not open to the public. Fortunately, Nicole Dacos’ The Loggia of Raphael: A Vatican Art Treasure, published by Abbeville Press, allows me to return to visit that hall (shown above) and linger like the popes and kings of old. “Raphael’s Loggia is among the Roman monuments that have been the most appreciated, copied, and visited by artists, connoisseurs, and travelers,” Dacos writes. “It is the ornamental ensemble that has left the deepest impression on Western art.” And, yet, the Loggia of Raphael remains overshadowed by Michelangelo’s more famous achievements in the popular consciousness. The Loggia, however, influenced the style of power for generations and continues to do so even today, lingering in our subconscious without our even knowing it. Thanks to Dacos’ text and a systematic photographic analysis done with Vatican approval, modern viewers can rediscover this lost treasure “hidden” before our very eyes all along.

When Donato Bramante, designer of the triple portico of the Vatican Palace, lay on his deathbed in 1514, he advised Pope Leo X to hire Raphael to finish the job. Raphael jumped at the chance, seizing the opportunity to express the contemporary power of the papacy along the lines of the homes of the ancient rulers of Rome, specifically the Domus Aurea of Nero. “To create this program,” Dacos writes, “Raphael drew on the immense antique repertoire that he had collected, a repertoire of unparalleled extent, which he enriched with modern compositions and scenes taken from life, the whole being combined in an effort to recreate the sumptuousness of the Roman empire.” Raphael descended into the grotto-like ruins of the Domus Aurea and marveled at the amusing and fanciful little paintings all over the walls, which soon gained the name “grotesques” for their “grotto-esque” location. Raphael entrusted the painting and sculpting of these grotesques to his assistant Giovanni da Udine, who created an entire world of trompe-l’oeil animals, flowers, and vegetables (such as the festoons and blackbird above). Strolling the hall, Leo X and his visitors would conduct business and comment on these little visual treats that lightened the heavy duties of diplomacy in a way that a heavily thought out program could not.

Nothing in Raphael Loggia is painted or sculpted by the master himself. Everything that appears came from the hand of an assistant following Raphael’s master plan. The unifying spirit of the Loggia belongs to Raphael himself, who was channeling the desires of Leo X, who hoped “to emphasize his role not as a warrior, which would have evoked Julius II, but as the champion of the faith.” Reaching back into the pagan past of Rome, Raphael yoked it to the modern world of Christianity to create a hybrid that achieved a whole new dimension in humanism. Dacos sees Raphael’s Loggia as perhaps one of the first steps in the Counter-Reformation. While Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation raged across Europe, Raphael almost simultaneously struck an artistic blow for humanism in the Catholic mode. Trompe-l’oeil architecture (above) called the mind to believe in higher things while the stories of the life of David (above) and other Biblical figures, refashioned in Raphael’s design, appealed to the tradition of the church on earth.

Through his assistants, Raphael envisioned a kindler, gentler Bible “carefully expurgated” of the wrathful God that depicts instead a “beneficent and reassuring” God lovingly caring for his people. Skipping over the tragedies, Raphael went straight to the happy endings (or, failing that, the solemn ones). Stand at one end of the Loggia and you can look back and see just these reassuring images lined up one after the other, a final, parting shot of reassurance for the doubting. Taking visual cues from ancient Christian mosaics, illustrated early Bibles, classical sources mined by the best of the Renaissance, and classical sources never used before, Raphael brewed together a wholly new type of Bible and then left it to his two most trusted assistants, Giulio Romano and Perin del Vaga to execute it. (One of Romano’s Loggia frescoes, The Finding of Moses, appears above.) Although the sea of unfamiliar Italian names sometimes becomes hard to navigate, Dacos wonderfully guides the reader through the often uncharted territory of the Renaissance workshop in action, tying specific works to specific assistants and showing how their unique talents were combined in the overall plan as the master stood on the sidelines and allowed his students to put his lessons into action. Additional artists came from great distances to work and learn. “A host of artists were thus eager to participate in Raphael’s Bible,” Dacos writes, “if only to execute a single fresco, sometimes returning farther on in the gallery, sometimes sharing the same story, at a work site whose organization, under the direction first of Giulio [Romano] and then of Perino [del Vaga], seems to have been very flexible.” The consummate teacher, Raphael trusted himself enough to trust that his students would deliver, as they did.

Artists such as Spain’s Alonso Berruguete worked on the Loggia while studying in Rome. (Berruguete’s Loggia fresco Jacob’s Dream appears above.) Receiving word that Charles V had set up court in Spain, Berruguete returned home and brought the lessons of the Loggia to the Spanish court. Luca Penni, another Loggia part-timer, spread the Loggia style to France and the court of Francis I at Fontainebleau. Even Henry VIII of England found time between wives to mimic the Loggia in his Nonsuch Palace. Russia’s Catherine II fell so in love with Raphael’s Loggia that she had a duplicate made that now rests in the Hermitage Museum. “Even during Raphael’s lifetime,” Dacos writes, “artists who traveled to Rome would admire the Loggia in the same way that they studied the antiquities or visited the Sistine Chapel,” usually with an eye towards bringing Raphael’s ideas home to powerful patrons. J.M.W. Turner visited the Loggia in 1819 and painted how he imagined Raphael at work in his masterpiece. But, within a few decades of Turner’s visit, the Romantics and John Ruskin orchestrated the shift in taste from pomp to the common people that led to the decline in the Loggia’s prominence in popular culture.

Once you’ve opened yourself up to the world of Raphael’s Logia via Dacos’ examination, you’ll find traces of Raphael in all the halls of influence and power. Constantino Brumidi’s decorations of a corridor in the U.S. Capitol Building (above), done from 1857 through 1859, show how later artists translated Raphael’s ideas into different contexts of government. What sets Raphael’s Loggia apart from other displays is the infusion of classical humanism, the reaching across eras and cultures to mix together the best of all possible worlds. Full of humor as much as grandeur, Raphael’s plan speaks to every aspect of the human individual. Nicole Dacos’ The Loggia of Raphael, which speaks to the ears, eyes, and soul of the art history lover, is as much a treasure as the Vatican masterpiece it celebrates.

[Many thanks to Abbeville Press for providing a review copy of Nicole Dacos’ The Loggia of Raphael: A Vatican Art Treasure and the images from the book above.]

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