Raphael Steals a Look

“Hey, Raphael,” said the architect Bramante to his buddy and fellow townsman, “would you like to see what Michelangelo has been doing all these months in the Sistine Chapel? He’s gone now, he left for Florence. Nobody is there and I have the key.”

Raphael Sanzio, self-portrait, 47.5 × 33 cm (18.7 × 12.99 in)  Uffizi Gallery, Florence   c. 1506

Raphael was an honest, polite man and had his doubts. He was also a gifted artist and had his temptations. There was nothing he would like better. He had seen Michelangelo’s statues but never his painting. “I don’t know if we should,” he said.

“Oh, come on,” said Bramante. “No one will ever know. Michelangelo is a competent sculptor but I would be very surprised if he could paint. That’s your specialty. The Pope should have had you do that ceiling.”
He took the key down from the hook in the wall and started walking towards the chapel. Raphael followed. “Are you sure nobody will see us and tell Michelangelo?”
Bramante never even answered.

Michelangelo’s scaffolding crowded the chapel. “Watch your step,” Bramante told his friend, showing him the way through the forest of beams and the cross-ties on the floor. As soon as he could Raphael looked up. What he saw went right through him but there was no exclamation. Bramante said nothing either. He went for a ladder that was lying next to the wall, stood it up to reach the first crossbar of the scaffolding, and began the climb. Raphael followed as though in a dream. No more hesitation. He had to see those frescoes up close—had to. That had happened to him once before when he saw his first painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Right away he knew that the man was superior to him, had something he didn’t have and would never have. That had happened only once before to Raffaello Sanzio and now here it was happening again. He wasn’t jealous. He only wanted to see and to learn. If he could put some of that magic into his own paintings…..

When Michelangelo returned he noticed that someone had been inside the chapel. He saw that the ladder was not up against the wall as he had left it. And there were other signs. “Nobody but Bramante has the key,” he thought; and cursed him. He didn’t guess that Bramante and Raphael had been there several times and that Raphael had even made sketches of some of the painted figures: the prophets. And it wasn’t until years later, when a caretaker showed Michelangelo the Isaiah by Raphael in the San Agostino church and told him it was painted while he was working on the frescoes of the Sistine that he put two and two together. “This Isaiah looks a little like yours,” the caretaker told him.
“It does indeed,” said Michelangelo; and kept nodding.

Michelangelo’s Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling

Rafael Sanzio’s Isaiah in the church of San Agostino


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6 Responses to Raphael Steals a Look

  1. Great stuff, so is it Pre-Michelangeloite now rather than Pre-Raphaelite? (no need to answer!)

    Of the two paintings I prefer the second one especially the difficult part -the face. We were always told to look at ‘The Masters’ and our ‘Contemporaries’ for a whole host of reasons and I am sure Raphael did just that. Being an ignorant sort, may I ask where did your story come from and how reliable is the source? Could be spin? What ever it is no bad thing to be humbled even if you believe someone’s else’s work is better than yours even if it isn’t!

    Thanks for the post all good for the grey cells!

  2. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Robert. I was just about to put a comment over at your place–and still will.
    The Rafael story comes right from the horse’s mouth (and you love horses): Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (the actual title is longer). I did dramatize it but added nothing important. You got hold of the Lanteri:now go buy yourself a Vasari (Penguin classics, for instance)–and no longer be “an ignorant sort”. It is full of stories about all the Renaissance artists. You can decide for yourself how believable they are. See my page called Michelangelo Sources about him. (I think this story is in the Condivi biography too.)
    Even Vasari, who adored Michelangelo, admitted that Rafael beat him in certain qualities such as sweetness and color. The colors in this Isaiah by Mike are very pretty and original, though, don’t you think? And Rafael’s blue and yellow here are just a bit unrelieved. He has a tendency to do that, beautiful as his colors are. Of course to judge fairly one would have to see this in its context, which I haven’t.

  3. Peggi says:

    If Rafael created his painting after Michaelanglo’s, I think he took the idea and made much more of it. More depth, color, expression, movement. Michelangelo’s Isaiah looks like he’s having a little chat, Rafael’s looks like he’s ready to kick somebody’s butt.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Peggi: Vasari says Rafael re-painted his Isaiah, though it was already finished, after seeing Michelangelo’s. “What he had seen…gave his own style more majesty and grandeur, so that he improved the picture out of all recognition.” He surely meant the arm and the leg. The improvement was on his own former picture, not on Michelangelo’s. Vasari would never give the prize to Rafael.

    The two styles are so different it is simply not fair to judge one by the excellences or aims of the other. Besides, I see that the Rafael has been so often repaired and cleaned that what we see is not the way he left it. According to Pierluigi de Vecchi in my Noguer-Rizzoli Classics edition of Rafael’s works, a sacristan did damage to the fresco already in the sixteenth century by trying to clean it and it was “restored” by Daniel da Volterra. “Recently”(?) it has again been “restored “ by someone called Cellini, who “freed it of re-elaborations in tempera and watercolor made in 1800 and of older ones in oil paint.”
    Where did you pick up that military cant (“kickin’ butt”)? You sound like General Schwarzkopf.

  5. This was a very interesting post, as usual. If I saw Raphael’s painting by itself, I would say it was very good. but seeing it together with Michaelangelo’s, as you have put them here shows me that Michaelangelo was ten times the artist that Raphael was!

    By the way, my daughter has just moved to my American school, where she will have to take a class in art history. I think I will read some of your blog selections with her! I think your blog will be better than her class. I wish you could be her teacher!

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

  6. 100swallows says:

    Eileen: Judging by the comments on this one, most viewers give the prize not to Michelangelo but to Rafael.
    Your daughter is in for some sad and confusing times if her teacher uses any of the art history books that I’ve seen.

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