Last week, unbelievably, was my first trip to Rome. As an art historian who has studied and taught about Ancient, Renaissance and Baroque art for 15 years it’s pretty terrible that I have not yet made it to the Eternal City.
Beyond the exciting jumble of beautiful food and people, beyond all of the stunning architecture, sculpture, history, art only one thing brought me to tears.
Raphael’s School of Athens is textbook Renaissance, embodying everything the time period represents. It was smaller than I imagined. Its colours more vibrant. Its precision more evident. Impressive.
In the mix of the greatest minds of ancient history (Plato, Euclid. . .) is Raphael himself. Also included is his contemporary, Michelangelo, who was, at the time (c.1509), just next door painting the ceiling of the Sistine ceiling while Raphael was creating his masterpiece.
Michelangelo sits brooding, melancholic, at the front of the composition – apart from everyone else – introspective in stone cutter’s clothes.
Raphael includes Michelangelo as a compliment: he is one of the greatest in history, out in front of them all.
Raphael includes Michelangelo with a hint of insult: he is alone with his thoughts, unable to interact, absorbed, a stone cutter, not a painter.
This work hit me hard. I have seen Michelangelo’s; I have worked with them in the archives of the museum I work for. But this, for some reason, was the closest I felt to him – the artist I admire the most, the artist I see has having the most passion, drive and vision in history. At that moment I understood how good Raphael was: the character was apparent, the attitude and absorption palpable. I was able to feel Michelangelo as a force of nature.