If we think of Raphael today—and that is a big “if”—our mental picture is probably of a painter of Madonnas or, perhaps, of the Raphael of his first Roman frescoes, which long epitomized academic art at its best. But these are works associated with the early to middle periods of the painter’s brief life (1483-1520) and do not tell the whole story of his evolution, one of the most remarkable in the history of western art. The splendid exhibition now on show at the Prado gives us a glimpse of the greatness Raphael achieved in his last decade even though it does not fully answer the question of who Raphael really was.
Filippino Lippi was able to paint his way out of a disreputable birth (his father was a Carmelite monk and his mother an Augustinian nun), but he wasn’t able to paint his way into history books as well as his mentor and studio-mate Sandro Botticelli. This is all the more striking since Sandro’s popularity was in decline after his spiritual crisis at the turn of the century, whereas Filippino, endowed with tanto ingenio and a vaghissima e copiosa invenzione, as Vasari tells us, was hardly able to keep up with commissions.
It’s not a matter of deciding whether to celebrate Giorgio Vasari’s 500th birthday, but where to start. The author of the Vite de’ più eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori traversed the entire Italian peninsula researching his literary masterpiece, so there are many possibilities. Perhaps the most appropriate site is the Florentine Palazzo Vecchio, for it was there that Vasari made a triumphal return after two of his staunchest supporters in the city were murdered in 1530. Not until Duke Cosimo I invited him back in 1554 to decorate apartments begun by Battista del Tasso was Vasari vindicated. In typical fashion, he immediately altered Tasso’s plans, raising the ceilings to make room for imaginative frescoes based on the plan of humanist scholar Cosimo Bartoli. With the help of an eager crew of collaborators, Vasari completed the project in less than three years.
Tarquinia's situation, on a high hill back from the Tyrrhenian sea, is splendid. It is a luminous place, the stone walls and buildings are limestone, locally called "macco," a creamy colored stone. Light bounces off the sea and the surrounding grain fields make it all the more light. If you walk to the top of the town, away from the water sea, looking over those walls, you are struck by the immense sea of grain.