One of the highlights of my recent trip to Italy was the so called, Raphael Room, in the Vatican. I will post about that in a longer piece, at another time. Ever since being there, however, I can’t stop thinking about Raphael’s portrait of his friend, Baldassare Castiglione, which hangs in the Louvre, in Paris.
It is one of my favorite paintings ever. It was probably painted in Rome between 1514-1515, to celebrate Castiglione’s appointment as Ambassador to the Pope by the Duke of Urbino. He had earlier been ambassador to England. Castiglione became widely famous for his book “The Courtier” which was published in 1528. The book summed up the taste and culture of the Renaissance, extolling the virtues of harmony, beauty, and elegance among others. It was a profound political as well as cultural document. Castiglione was also widely known for his poetry and essays. The two were close friends and shared a deep affection, as well as sensibility, which I think comes through clearly in the painting.
The whole tone of the painting is muted and harmonious, direct, but subtle. The painting has a very limited palette of mostly black, grey and white, and umber in the background. Castigione’s outfit looks incredibly luxurious, yet is treated overall in broad shapes that seem quite simplified. There is a wonderful movement of outline around the hat and down through the grey sleeves and white shirt. The subject is bathed in a soft, warm, indirect light, that helps make Baldassre’s gaze seem direct and unaffected, without the least bit of deception or hauteur. His openness of expression is utterly disarming. (The pose itself refers to the Mona Lisa, which Raphael had seen.)
Raphael’s brushwork is simply bravura. His mastery of draughtsmanship, color, and composition is superlative. What I so often find in Raphael’s work that knocks me out, is a profound and subtle harmony whose quality is totally unique. His draughtsmanship can be detailed, but is also made to fit into a broad, simplified abstraction of form that can feel very modern. There is always a sense of solid three dimensionality to his figures, landscapes and architecture. This solidity of volume beneath the form, reminds me of Cezanne and Picasso, but with an extraordinary lightness of touch. Only two other painters I can think of, Velasquez and Manet, used black as effectively.
Raphael’s greatness is sometimes overshadowed by Leonardo and Michelangelo in the popular mind. The very top of the peak of Mt. Olympus may have two towering figures, shoulder to shoulder, but I believe there is another figure there, one with his foot on the ledge, and his head above the clouds.