Reconsidering Raphael’s “embarrassing failure”

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Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Assistant Professor of Art History Patricia Reilly delivered the provocatively-titled lecture “When Imitation is not the Sincerest Form of Flattery: Raphael’s Michelangelesque nudes in the Vatican Fire in the Borgo” to a packed crowd on Monday in the Scheuer Room. The lecture came out of her current work on a book about the development of the Florentine pictorial vernacular.

Reconsidering Raphael’s “embarrassing failure”

While Raphael the painter is most familiar to us from images such as “The School of Athens,” Reilly’s lecture focused on “Fire in the Borgo,” a fresco Raphael painted in Pope Leo X’s dining room. The subject matter is ostensibly the Pope making the sign of the cross and thus extinguishing a fire, but his figure is buried in the background. The first thing that the viewer notices is simply that this what Reilly calls “an odd painting.” Other modern scholars have been more blunt; the painting lacks proportion, perspective, and a sense of decorum; it has been called “an embarrassing failure”; one scholar went so far as to say that “the idea that Raphael himself could be responsible for the painting is unthinkable.”

Reilly argued for a different view. “Would Raphael really have botched his first commission for the new pope?” she asked the audience. Before “The Fire in the Borgo,” Raphael’s nudes were renowned for being proportionate, decorous, and pleasing, and yet “these nudes do not break with his previous style by accident or by benign neglect, but by choice.” According to Reilly, Raphael was creating a visual argument in favor of his style over that of Michelangelo.

Pope Leo X promoted the arts and letters during his time in the papacy, and one of his most influential scholars was Pietro Bembo, who argued for the use of the Tuscan vernacular language in literature. In so doing, Bembo made the shocking decision to designate Petrarch, not Dante, as the greatest Tuscan poet. He reasoned that in writing, “what is valuable is not what they say, but how they say it.” For Bembo, even if Petrarch’s works had less content than Dante’s, Petrarch’s superior style made him the greatest Tuscan poet.

“Fire in the Borgo” asks to be judged by this same criterion of style over substance. In the leftmost third of the painting, Raphael borrows many figures from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in order to cruelly parody Michelangelo’s style. The parody was a common literary trick, but Raphael extended this practice to painting. For example, the nude man hanging from the wall is what Reilly called “an example of cartographic anatomy… a bloated sack of intestines… Michelangelo gone bad.” The figure plays perfectly into the sterotype that Michelangelo’s nudes were more anatomically correct than Raphael’s, but also less graceful.

Once he is done with insulting Michelangelo, Raphael turns to the task of “demonstrating his position as the Petrarch of the pictorial vernacular.” The rest of the painting serves as a foil for the “dreadful nudes” to the left; while the left is shallow, sculptural, and virtually monochromatic, the right is perspectival, painterly, and chromatically pleasing. Raphael shows that he is capable of producing “style for style’s sake” with such objects as the garments of the water carriers.

Reilly concluded that rather than seeing this painting as an “embarrassing failure,” we should see it as a successful visual argument. Through juxtaposing a dreadful parody of Michelangelo’s style with his own virtuoso technique, Raphael successfully argues that his style is the perfect model upon which to base an Italian pictorial vernacular.

The Phoenix