If you wanted a great portrait in early 16th-century Italy, or a few rooms filling with frescoes, or even a bathroom doing, Raphael was your artist – ahead of his contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He could paint with as much authority as Leonardo, but without the long delays and distractions to which the older genius was prone as he paused commissions to build a flying machine or simply do maths for a few months. As for the other artistic titan of the time, Raphael cruelly satirised Michelangelo in his fresco The School of Athens, which is spectacularly recreated in this show as a wall-filling facsimile. Michelangelo is depicted in this great vision of classical Greece as the philosopher Heraclitus, sitting by himself, a grumpy loner with his face resting in his hand in the attribute of melancholy.

Raphael was well-dressed and charming. Of the big three of the High Renaissance, he was the most straightforward, the most productive, and for 300 years, the most influential. When he was in his early 20s he saw the Mona Lisa and other works by Leonardo and transfigured their style into his own, as you can see here in his 1507-8 painting La Muta of a woman with Mona Lisa-like mystery and reserve. The adaptation he made to Leonardo’s style was a sensational success – honing the classical noses and poses, but removing the bizarre chiaroscuro. This created a noble, balanced, clear figurative art that was taught for centuries as the correct, perfect style, until modernism knocked it off its pedestal.

Serenely composed … the Alba Madonna by Raphael.
Serenely composed … the Alba Madonna by Raphael. Photograph: Studio A/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

This exhibition makes you feel the original joy of that pure, almost mathematical method. Raphael’s Madonnas are so serenely composed, so light and gracious in their colours, they seem to float up in the air without needing to be fixed to the wall. The Alba Madonna is a circular painting (a “tondo”) in vibrant blue and pink, with the young Jesus and John the Baptist playing in Mary’s lap in a meadow. Beyond, the landscape is a misty blueish veil of mountains and water under a clear bright sky. But what’s uncanny is the sense of proportion: Mary and the boys are exactly where they need to be inside the circle to make this feel like a geometrical theorem. Raphael makes the music of the spheres visible.

To say the Renaissance was driven by admiration for ancient Greece and Rome is a cliche, but it was Raphael who took that ideal to the extreme. There’s a letter in this exhibition from the Vatican library in which Raphael tells Pope Leo X about his research into the ancient remains of Rome. He has studied the ruins alongside ancient texts, he says. One book was Vitruvius’s On Architecture, which explains the theory of perfect proportion – how a building or human body should be planned by musical intervals. Raphael even does this in The Massacre of the Innocents that he designed as a print with his collaborator, the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi. It is a scene of mass infanticide yet the nude soldiers move like ballet dancers, and the women pose like statues, in a stately parade of pain.

Cold? Not for one second. Raphael’s classical calm does not mute the horror so much as give it a tragic dignity. Instead of being numbed by the mayhem, we can take in details slowly, like bass notes in a miserere. A woman’s screaming features catch your eye – thud. A dead baby lies on the ground, its little snub-nosed face hanging upside down. Thud.

Raphael’s mastery of classical proportion and geometry goes with a disconcertingly natural, effortless, human touch. His sympathies are never hidden. He is full of love. This is what keeps bringing you back to those Madonnas. Has any artist ever portrayed the relationship of mother and child with such warmth? The mother in the Tempi Madonna hugs her baby’s face to her cheek, gazing at him with limitless love. For all Raphael’s precision, it’s the emotion he cares about, which always comes through in a simple, innocent way. In The Holy Family With a Palm Tree, Joseph too gets in on the domestic love-in, kneeling by a Jesus who looks at him intently.

La Fornarina (1518-1519) by Raphael.
Sharing his private life … La Fornarina (1518-1519) by Raphael. Photograph: Alamy

These happy families represent Raphael’s lost childhood. He was an orphan. Born in the famous court of Urbino in the Marche region in 1483, he lost his mother and his father, a minor artist and poet, by the time he was 11. His sweet depictions of the holy family are surely lyrical memories of his own mum and dad, utopian projections.

Raphael has an ease and sympathy with women that makes his saints and virgins glow. And that love is not just spiritual. Raphael was a good-looking youth, as he shows us himself in his lyrical, tender Self-Portrait lent from the Uffizi gallery. He knew he was handsome. In a later self-portrait he’s bearded but still suave as he poses next to his pupil Giulio Romano. By this time in the 1510s, Raphael was in so much demand to fresco Rome that he worked with a large team of assistants, led by Romano. But he also found time, says his 16th-century biographer Vasari, for fun. He was so engrossed in his love life that an employer had to let his girlfriend move into the villa he was painting, or he would not have got it done.

Here she is. This dazzling show keeps its biggest treat for the end. Suddenly Raphael the person comes out from behind his art, to share his private life. His painting La Fornarina portrays his lover sitting in a garden, showing her breasts. It really is about intimacy: Raphael focuses more sharply on her face than body. She is half-smiling coyly as her big eyes skim shyly sideways: she seems about to burst out laughing.

At least he died happy. Soon after painting this, his last work, Raphael died on the night of Good Friday, 1520, age 37. Vasari claims he was exhausted from too much sex, then killed by the doctors who bled him when what he needed was food and rest. He celebrated life with every painting he did. He showed us something we all need – a dream of beauty and harmony. Gentle Raphael. For more than a century he has been out of fashion, seen as just too perfect to move us turbulent moderns. This great show is like falling in love again.



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