Raphael Frescoes & Chigi Tomb Show Artist's Decorative Side

Giulio Romano (1499-1546), Giovanni da Udine (1487-1564), and Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520). Detail of Marriage of Cupid and Psyche, fresco, 1517-18, Loggia of Psyche and Cupid. (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia)

Frescoes in a love nest and the perfect tomb show another side of Raphael.


ost people probably know Raphael (1483–1520) for his Madonnas, his late Transfiguration, and The School of Athens. This year, the 500th anniversary of his death, lots of museums are doing exhibitions pulling from their paintings and drawings collections, but what about the immovable Raphael, his frescoes and architecture? While I was in Rome, I visited two chunks of Raphael that aren’t going anywhere. One is a group of frescoes, and walls neither talk nor travel. The other is a chapel. These works changed my view of Raphael, both through learning new things and through thinking about what I already knew.

I’ve written about Raphael’s work in Urbino and Florence and also about his work for Julius II and Leo X, and that’s where most scholars focus. I’m not naturally contrarian but like doing something different. I’ll look at his work for Agostino Chigi (1466–1520), going from Chigi’s love nest, where he cavorted with his beautiful mistress, to his tomb, where he cavorts with eternity.

The Villa Farnesina, on the Tiber in Trastevere and built around 1510, isn’t much visited. It’s not far from the Vatican but far enough. It’s not religious, either, but very pagan. It’s filled with love imagery that Raphael either painted or designed as well as extraordinary and early botanical imagery.

Chigi was Italy’s richest man. Raphael worked for him off and on from his early days in Rome until they both died, a week apart. At the Villa Farnesina, Raphael worked for Chigi in two spurts, one early in his time in Rome and the other in 1517 and 1518. By 1520, Raphael was doing lots of architecture. He was the official architect of the new St. Peter’s basilica and also designed Chigi’s burial chapel in the church Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Chigi’s chapel is a perfect gem and late Raphael.

Raphael (1483-1520), Galatea, c. 1510. Fresco, Garden Loggia, Villa Farnesina, Rome. (Public domain/Wikimedia)

His Galatea in the Farnesina is well known, so well known that no one thinks about it, or, when people do, they look at it as a bit of fluff. It’s from around 1512. Raphael’s various. He’d already done both The School of Athens and The Disputa, two big, didactic frescoes for Julius II’s Vatican library. Now, he’s trying something more intimate, something that’s not at all religious or scholarly. Something about love and pleasure.

Galatea is a sea nymph, though her name in Greek means “she who is milk white.” She’s in love with the handsome Acis, but the one-eyed ogre Polyphemus loves her too, or obsesses over her. Raphael depicts the moment when Polyphemus’s gang tries to kidnap her as she rides her dolphin-driven shell. He never gets her as she blithely gallops away. She’s slippery, wet or dry, beautiful, and hard to get.

Chigi was indispensable, a player and a fixer. He was a Sienese banker who developed the monopoly over salt in Italy. Salt’s not pasta, but it’s still ubiquitous. He also cornered the market in alum, used in textiles. He financed the elections of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, in 1492, and, in 1503, of Giuliano della Rovere, called Julius II, Alexander’s rival in the 1492 contest. Julius called Alexander “a sybarite and an uncircumcised Jew.” Leo X, the first Medici pope succeeding Julius and whose election Chigi also financed, hated Julius and called Alexander “a wolf.” Amid all these hard feelings, Chigi was a constant, and, by “financing the election,” I mean bribes. He was a bit of Boss Tweed, Jamie Diamond, Jeff Bezos, and Casanova, rolled into one.

The Farnesina’s neighborhood wasn’t exactly in the boonies in Chigi’s time, but in the days of ancient Rome, it was far enough from the Forum to serve Marcus Agrippa, Emperor Augustus’s fixer and the patron of the Pantheon, as his country escape. Chigi was well aware of this and relished putting up his feet where Agrippa donned his own slippers, both after a long day running the known world.

View of the Loggia of Psyche and Cupid, Villa Farnesina (Photo: Brian Allen)

Chigi did business entertaining there, too — the Farnesina isn’t big, and most of its rooms are formal. It’s here that he purportedly — I don’t believe — brashly and ostentatiously tossed his serving silver into the Tiber after parties to show his guests how outrageously, nonchalantly rich he was. Supposedly, there was a net in the river set to catch it. Nothing sank to the bottom. Even if this happened among the most nouveau of the nouveau riche, it seems far-fetched.

There, too, he parked his longtime mistress, Francesca Ordeaschi, a Venetian shopkeeper’s daughter, and their four children. Francesca was a dazzling beauty but far from a monied catch. There, at the Villa Farnesina, Pope Leo X boldly married the couple in 1519, legitimizing the family.

Galatea is on a wall of what was once the garden loggia of the Farnesina. The loggia, now enclosed, was once open to the sounds and fragrance of the garden. It was a space for small concerts and dinner parties. In Galatea, Raphael takes a component of his Madonnas — a beautiful, flawless, though generic woman — and translates it from religion to romance. After painting it, he wrote to his friend Balthasar Castiglione that he wasn’t seeing enough beautiful women, so had to “make do with a certain idea that comes into my head.”

It’s a serious and, at the same time, wry observation. Recall that Raphael shagged himself to death. He was a magnet for beautiful women. That he lacked them for models or an evening stroll along the Tiber is a joke. That “certain idea” isn’t, though. In his Madonnas, a niche he developed in Florence, Raphael conveyed what philosophers of aesthetics called the ideal of beauty, beauty you’d find not on the street but in your head, or in heaven. It’s ideal and perfect, not idiosyncratic. Not even the most sharp-eyed Hollywood talent scout would find it on the street.

Raphael’s Madonnas possess ideal beauty, but they’re a little of our world, projecting motherly tenderness and concern, the babies fat and wiggling. That’s what made his Madonnas different and new. They’re perfection that’s accessible, but only just. In Galatea, Raphael proposes that ideal beauty is the province of not the divine but the world of human romance à la Chigi.

Raphael painted Galatea, but the next room, the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche, shows Raphael as conceptualizer, designer, and capo di pittori, the master of the team that painted them. Giulio Romano, who is famous for the Palazzo del Te in Mantua, and Giovanni da Udine did the actual painting, but it’s a team effort, with Raphael the master. The painting there dates from 1518.

Giulio Romano (1499-1546), Giovanni da Udine (1487-1564), Raphael (1483-1520). Left: Mercury Escorting Psyche to the Council of the Gods. Right: Zeus and Ganymede, 1517-18. Fresco, Loggia of Psyche and Cupid, Villa Farnesina, Rome. (Public domain/Wikimedia)

The ceiling shows The Council of the Gods and The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The frescoes have just been cleaned, so they’re not only magnificent but iridescent. The Council of the Gods is the trial of all times, where randy, promiscuous love wrestles with marriage and monogamy, and The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche shows us which side wins. Psyche, the earth’s most beautiful mortal woman, arouses Venus’s resentment. Venus feared that people would think Psyche lovelier. Venus kidnaps and torments her, enlisting her mischievous son, Cupid, in her mean taunts. But Cupid falls in love with Psyche, and in The Council of the Gods, Cupid gets his marching orders. Venus, the gods say, knock it off. Cupid, time to settle down. Next is the festive wedding. Moral of the story: Love conquers all. It’s no surprise that the plot traces where Chigi was romantically. He knew he was about to take the leap. It seems it was Francesca who’d played hard to get to the altar.

It’s from 1518 so, for Raphael, it’s late work. There are fewer languid, sleek, effeminate bodies and more muscle. Raphael learned something from Michelangelo, who worked on the Sistine Chapel ceiling a few years before. The Council of the Gods is more decorous — it’s a tribunal — but the wedding’s a riot. The spandrels show individual or pairs of mythical figures. In one, Ganymede gets a sloppy kiss on the lips from Zeus.

The festoons are fantastic. They depict 170 vegetables, flowers, and fruits, many from the New World and just discovered. They’re also roots, bulbs, stems, leaves, and even mushrooms. There are eight types of corn, lots of different apples, eggplants, watermelons, cauliflowers, squashes, and pumpkins. It’s a bravura show of scientific interest, love of travel, and advancement of trade and discovery. During the restoration, scientists identified the edibles as well as the pigments. For artists, the expansion of knowledge of plants led to new pigments.

It’s not only botany that’s happening here. Gourds swell and look like phalluses, grapes ripen, flowers bloom like every day is May, and apples and oranges look awfully like bosoms to me. It’s very sexy. Chigi had love and sex on his mind but also marriage. After Cupid and Psyche marry, they had a nice, fat bambina called Pleasure, or Volupta. Agostino and Francesca did the kid thing backwards, times four.

That Raphael didn’t paint it makes not a whit of difference to me. Phidias wasn’t at the Parthenon with a hammer. Raphael designed it, planned every figure, was probably there every day, and might well have climbed the scaffold, brush in hand. The ceiling’s done on wet plaster, which means the paint and plaster mix, which, in turn, means changes are tough to make. There are almost no changes on the ceiling. It was exactingly planned.

Chigi paid for the project, and he approved the plans, but the guy was busy, what with his mistress, bribing whoever the popes needed to be bribed, running a bank with 100 branches, and protecting his salt monopoly. The vision was Raphael’s. Leonardo was by no means the only artist immersed in science.

The Chigi chapel is in the same small church as Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul and Crucifixion of St. Peter. This only means that the gem, Raphael’s salute to the Pantheon, is for the discerning few. It’s a little slice of perfection. The thing that struck me the most is its lavish layering of decoration. It feels Victorian, which is probably a crime to say but it shows that a Renaissance aesthetic can be over the top. It’s got mosaics, pilasters, scrolls, ornate friezes, rare, expensive stone, pyramidal tombs, and an extravagant cupola. In the 1650s, Bernini handled a renovation of the chapel, designing a new marble floor and adding some sculpture.

I was keen to spend lots of time looking at the chapel because it was late Raphael, the end of his career, but also because one of his pending projects when he died was the big survey of ancient Rome that Leo X hired him to do. In interpreting the Pantheon as Chigi’s chapel, he was imagining old Rome and importing the past into the present, proposing in his work in the 1510s that Chigi, Leo X, and Julius II were the latest greatest Romans.

Raphael (1483-1520), arch, 1516-1520. Detail, soffit, pilaster, pilaster capitals. Chapel of Our Lady of Loreto, Santa Maria del Popolo. (Photo: Brian Allen)

The entrance to the chapel feels grand, and it’s not a big space. The pilasters, capitals, and soffit are a medley of whites, the pilasters white Carrara marble with gray flecks, the capitals elaborately carved in white marble so pure it sparkles. Between the pilasters is a frieze of a thick garland and a man’s head, suggesting Chigi, The Man. The soffit is a dense string of meanders and squares of flowers and masks.

The step leading to the chapel is a big block of red Egyptian porphyry with white spots carved from an ancient monolith that Chigi bought for a small fortune. The honey-colored balustrade and blood-red chapel walls also made a sumptuous place for Chigi’s eternal rest. Raphael knew that colored marble was a feature in luxury ancient Roman architecture, and he also knew that Roman sculpture was painted. Raphael’s Renaissance Rome was a feast of color from the pastel to neon to saturated.

Raphael (1483-1520), arch, 1516-1520. Detail, dome. Chapel of Our Lady of Loreto, Santa Maria del Popolo. (Photo: Brian Allen)

The dome is a succession of murals of the four seasons, then a cycle based on the Book of Genesis topped by mosaics depicting the sun, the moon, and the planets. There are two pyramidal Chigi tombs, one on each side. One is for Agostino. The Chigi tomb, the Farnesina, and the Vatican murals together say something about Raphael’s aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic of effusion, of abbonanza and very decorative as opposed to Michelangelo’s. When I was in the Vatican Museum, I walked from Raphael’s rooms into the Sistine Chapel. Raphael’s work, even the big frescoes, is packed and miniaturist. In The Disputa, from 1509–10, his figures are balletic, refined, even arch. The School of Athens is grander because of the huge, domed space, but it still looks mannered and emotionally confined. Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, from 1508–12, was done at the same time. The two, Raphael and Michelangelo, were working not side-by-side, but more or less in the same house and for the same boss.

Raphael’s figures are balletic, small, and packed while Michelangelo’s are bruisers. Left: Raphael (1483-1520), detail of Pythagoras, School of Athens, 1512, fresco, Vatican Museum. Right: Michelangelo Buonorotti (1475-1564), detail of Jonah and the Whale, 1505-12, fresco, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican Museum. (Public Domain/Wikimedia)

Looking at the Sistine Ceiling after Raphael’s work for the popes is like moving from Leslie Howard and Ronald Colman in the 1930s and ’40s to Marlon Brando, from The Scarlett Pimpernel to Stanley Kowalski, from a scented handkerchief to a bucket of testosterone. Michelangelo and Raphael were contemporaries, from the same school, with many of the same clients, yet their different takes — ballet versus football — helped me get to the questions I asked in my first story on Raphael. How do we look at Raphael today? Why is he universally known, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but not at the center of aesthetic conversation? Why do so many people think of him, as one of my most distinguished art-historian friends said, as “beige,” serene, salubrious, but not “telenovela,” not sex and blood?

Michelangelo painted The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in the late 1530s. He’s a different personality, and Raphael’s been dead for 20 years, but the thing’s volatility, commotion, fire, and brimstone are a million miles from anything Raphael had done. Raphael was graceful and decorous in style, Michelangelo forever in his Terrible Twos.

In the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche at the Villa Farnesina, Raphael’s figures aren’t exactly bodybuilders, but they’re toned and tanned. Still, the profusion of garlands, festoons, patterns, squiggles, and glyphs, and the absence, mostly, of darkness or moodiness or violence sets him apart from Michelangelo. No one would call Michelangelo a decorator. Raphael? In a show of hands, some will rise.

Raphael died in 1520. In 1527, Rome was sacked. The Reformation, a cataclysmic event, was happening. The Vatican was near bankruptcy. Italy was invaded by the French and the Spanish. Indeed, Italy was the battlefield in one war after another from the 1520s into the 1550s, among them my favorite, the War of the League of Cognac. You need a double to soothe the unease from so much violence and disputation. Raphael — too beautiful, too refined, too decorative, too suave, too sexy — seems too apart from times of anger and discord.

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