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When I was an undergraduate in college, I took what is, for many, considered to be that holy grail of introductory art history classes: one on the Renaissance. Oh, boy. This changed my life, really, as it was the final straw, the class that made me love art so much that I immediately dropped my then-major (which was geology, by the way), and I began the process of becoming a fully-fledged art history major. What wasn’t to love, I thought? I was learning all about all the artists whom I only previously knew as Ninja Turtles: Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo. But while I was reading one of the assigned texts for that course: historian Rona Goffen’s wonderful Renaissance Rivals, I learned that, unlike, those Ninja Turtles, there was very little camaraderie and cooperation between their real-life namesakes. And when it comes to one pair of these artists, the rivalry was especially epic. Both were vying for the same patrons, and their professional contempt very quickly got ultra-personal.
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, we are starting an all new season of episodes dealing with some of the wildest and most complicated rivalries in art history, beginning with the intense conflict between Renaissance greats Michelangelo and Raphael. This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
In our last episode we took a trip in our sturdy art-historical time machine and traveled back into the Dutch Golden Age. This time, we’re turning towards the opulent world of 16th century Rome, and specifically focusing on the Vatican during the reign of one very unique pope, Julius II. Julius, whose given name was Giuliano della Rovere, was a mighty force to be reckoned with, nicknamed the “Warrior Pope,” and in the span of a very brief reign, comparatively, of nearly ten years, he essentially transformed Rome from being stuck in the medieval dark ages to becoming the epicenter of architecture, grand Humanist thought, and--of course-- the best art that the world had ever seen.
What’s interesting to me in a season built around the concept of rivalries is that this story gives us the opportunity to look not only an an infamous rivalry between two artists, but it also affords us a brief glimpse of another important rivalry of the time: that between the incredible Italian cities of Florence and Rome. Beginning in the 15th century and continuing onward for one hundred years, these two cities dueled for the the top title of various categories: the epicenter of art; the best city for classical antiquities; the foundation of Christian thought; the most politically relevant. They parried back and forth, which each seemingly grabbing the bar at various times, and what’s amusing is that, essentially, both were seeking the title of the “New Rome” and all that Rome, in the ancient world, represented: victory, progress, the epitome of all great things, the height of Western Civilization. So, during the Renaissance, Rome was grappling to hold onto its title of... Rome. Fascinating.
One of the ways in which Pope Julius was most influential in the hope of attaining Roman victory in this rivalry was specifically though art. He followed in the footsteps of his uncle, who was himself a pope-- Pope Sixtus IV, whose name begat the Sistine Chapel-- and Julius opted to be as forward-thinking and grand as possible in renovating the Eternal City, especially the Vatican itself. During his years in power, Julius contracted with the best artists of the day to undergo major building and renovation projects, including the complete overhaul of St. Peter’s Basilica, and to create the most stunning works of art, especially painting, that the world had yet seen. This guy had vision. And it’s also fun to think that, at the time, some of that vision was probably rather shocking. I often like to point to the fact that, at one time, all works of art were considered contemporary, and that something that is now universally accepted and lauded was, in the time of its creation, deemed odd, or ugly, or just plain bad. So it’s a testament to Julius’s confidence, not only in his own ideas but in those of the newest and snazziest artists of his own time, to not follow, sheeplike, into rote copies of art that came before. He encouraged and inspired newness, innovation, and creation.
Which is why it may have been unnerving to Vatican officials and the pope’s coterie when a young, confident, and blustery new artist burst onto the scene in 1508. Always keen on exploring new talent, Julius II had heard rapturous accounts of the abilities of one
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, whom we today call Raphael. Raphael was born in Urbino to a family who was already established in the art world, with his father, Giovanni di Santi, acting as court painter to the Duke of Urbino. Growing up in the Umbrian court provided Raphael with the essential skills to learn all about art and to succeed at it at an early age. After working with his father as a child, Giovanni arranged for his son to study with Pietro Perugina, another famous Umbrian painter who quickly discovered Raphael’s genius. It appears to be another one of those stories that is so popular in art-historical accounts of the student-surpassing-the-master, wherein the teacher is humbled, if not a little disappointed, to find himself overshadowed by his talented apprentice. But at least Raphael didn’t seem to be a jerk about it. From most accounts, Raphael was outgoing, charismatic, and easy to get along with. That old granddaddy of art history and the first artist biographer, Giorgio Vasari, even gushed about Raphael in his famous compilation, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, also known today as The Lives. Vasari writes, quote:
“The liberality with which Heaven now and again unites in one person the inexhaustible riches of its treasures and all those graces and rare gifts which are usually shared among many over a long period is seen in Raphael Sanzio of Urbino, who was as excellent and gracious, and endowed with a natural modesty and goodness sometimes seen in those who possess to an unusual degree a humane and gentle nature adorned with affability and good-fellowship, and he always showed himself sweet and pleasant with persons of every degree and in all circumstances.”
Wow. High praise indeed.
After finding success in Urbino both in Perugina’s studio and elsewhere, Raphael moved onto that other great city, Florence, to study the latest innovations and techniques in painting, gaining not only excellent experience, but befriending other influential artists and really upping his game. Under the guidance of artists like Fra Bartommeo, Raphael’s constructions became more assured, greater, and grander, and when he learned new perspective techniques from studying masterworks by Leonardo da Vinci, it culminated in Raphael reaching new artistic heights. There seemed to be no stopping him. And that’s when Julius II came calling.
In 1508, Julius-- about halfway through his run as Pope-- needed a little sprucing up done in his papal apartments, especially the public reception areas. It turns out that this might have been inspired by a rivalry of the pope’s very own-- because his predecessor and adversary, Pope Alexander VI, had commissioned an incredible fresco series in his own papal apartments, known today as the Borgia Apartment, by the Perugian painter Pinturicchio. It just happened to be that Julius’s papal apartments were positioned directly above the Borgia Apartment, so… why not try to overshadow them a little?
In total, Raphael was assigned to paint four separate rooms in the papal apartments, each having their own grand fresco design and theme. Raphael got right to work, and literally spent the rest of his life completing them. He died tragically early, in 1520, at the age of 37, and in that decade had finished three out of the four rooms completely, leaving three assistants behind to finish the final frescoes in his absence and memory. These rooms, typically referred as to as the “Raphael Rooms” are now among the highlights of all High Renaissance art. His frescoes for the Stanza della Segnatura, for example, is considered a true work of genius and one that is included in every single art history survey course, ever, particularly in reference to its most iconic element, the painting known as The School of Athens, which we’ll be talking about momentarily. Oh, and Raphael was only twenty-six years old when he began this ambitious and history-making project. No big deal.
The appointment of young Raphael to this project didn’t commence without grumbles and detractors. And one of those detractors was one of the well-established heavyweights in all of Italy, creating masterpieces not only in Florence, but already in process of doing so again in Rome at that very moment. This was Michelangelo Buonarroti, whose manly women were the subject, by the by, of our fourth episode of this podcast. Michelangelo was born in the Tuscan town of Caprese in 1475, but grew up in Florence-- and that’s where he made his huge splash as a classically-inspired sculptor. He trained with the great Florentine Master Domenico Ghirlandaio, from whom he learned the basic technique of fresco painting before he gravitated towards three-dimensional works of art and whose teacher-surpassed-by-the-student story is equally as illuminating.
When Raphael arrived in 1508 to begin painting the papal apartments, Michelangelo had already been working there for nearly three years under the patronage of Pope Julius II, too. The pope had invited the great sculptor, already famed for his monumental sculptures of David and his tragically gorgeous Pieta (today in Florence and the Vatican, respectively) to complete his largest and most ambitious project yet: a grand tomb for Pope Julius himself, meant to be placed in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (or St. Peter in Chains) in Rome. The story behind this tomb, its complications, its timeline, and all the related details are so dramatic that they deserve an episode in and of itself, but suffice to say that the Tomb was never completed as Michelangelo had originally intended, and he considered it to be one of the biggest failures of his life. He would later refer to it as, quote, “the tragedy of the tomb,” unquote, and bemoaned the time and energy he wasted on its imposing and magnificent design.
One of the reasons that there was trouble for Michelangelo’s tomb project from the outset was that the Pope himself quickly lost interest in it-- strange considering that it was basically going to be an everlasting glorification of the pope himself in his final resting place. Of course Michelangelo was furious. He was the best sculptor in the game, and here he was, willing and ready to work. Why wasn’t the Pope more into it?
When you read Vasari’s Lives today, it’s easy to see that though he profiled dozens of artists, he had one clear favorite. And that favorite was Michelangelo. For Vasari, he was the clear genius of the Renaissance who he excelled in all three areas of the arts - sculpture, architecture, and painting. So, of course, when it came to writing about both Michelangelo and Raphael in the Lives, he was quick to take sides, and he put the blame for the failure of the Tomb project squarely on a certain someone’s shoulders, writing, quote: “Bramante, the friend and relation of Raphael and therefore ill-disposed to Michelangelo, seeing the Pope's preference for sculpture, schemed to divert his attention, and told the Pope that it would be a bad omen to get Michelangelo to go on with his tomb, as it would seem to be an invitation to death.” Unquote.
Bramante-- Donato Bramante, that is, a famed architect, also originally from Urbino, was looking out for his homeboy, Raphael. Understandably, this put Bramante in Michelangelo’s bad graces as well, but surely it would have been embarrassing for Michelangelo just in light of the conjunction with Raphael. Here was this huge opportunity for his greatest sculpture ever, being practically taken away from him and with funding and energy being funnelled instead to this hot shot artist nearly a decade his junior. Furious and not a little bit ashamed, Michelangelo fled Rome and found solace back in Florence. And that could have been the end of the story, with Michelangelo staying there, licking his wounds, and passing the baton of great Renaissance painting to the new generation. But that’s not what happened next.
Not terribly long after Michelangelo left Rome, he was summoned back by Julius. Though the pope had not canceled the commission for the tomb, his passion for it wasn’t what it once was. But he did have a new project he was excited about: he wanted to repaint the entire ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Originally, the chapel’s ceiling was embellished with a rather simple design--painted blue and emblazoned with golden stars, possibly representing constellations of the zodiac. But Julius subscribed to the “go big or go home” method of thinking, so why not switch it up? (Also, the ever-competitive pope would thus be outdoing his own uncle, Pope Sixtus, by improving on his uncle’s own project. That’s pretty cold, but you gotta hand it to him: this one was bold dude.)
The funny thing is that, according to Vasari, the twin minds of none other than Bramante and Raphael conspired to get Michelangelo the job of painting the Sistine Ceiling. And they weren’t recommending him for the position out of guilt, or pity, or anything like that. Most probably, they were hoping that he would fail drastically. And to be fair, they had at least a little reason to be confident that Michelangelo would screw it all up. As Vasari notes, quote, “His rivals hoped to confound him, for by taking him from sculpture, in which he was perfect, and putting him to colouring in fresco, in which he had had no experience, they thought he would produce less admirable work than Raphael, and even if he succeeded he would become embroiled with the Pope, from whom they wished to separate him. Thus, when Michelangelo returned to Rome, the Pope was disposed not to have the tomb finished for the time being, and asked him to paint the vaulting of the chapel. Michelangelo tried every means to avoid it, and recommended Raphael, for he saw the difficulty of the work, knew his lack of skill in coloring, and wanted to finish the tomb.”
Not that Michelangelo had no painting experience, of course. He learned much of it under Ghirlandaio, and even completed a truly stunning painting of the Holy Family on a circular panel, now called the Doni Tondo and found today in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. We talked about this work in more depth in our episode on Michelangelo’s women, if you’d like a refresher. And Vasari’s line about Michelangelo’s quote “lack of skill in coloring” makes me laugh out loud, not only because of the glistening jewel tones in the Doni Tondo, but also considering what we have seen in the Sistine Chapel post-restoration (itself another past episode of this podcast). Regardless, Raphael and Bramante were right. Michelangelo had never really frescoed before. And fresco is notoriously tricky to do, and even geniuses like Leonardo had some difficulty with it-- see his Last Supper for evidence. It involves painting a mural into fresh, wet plaster, and requires fast and precise work because the action must be completed before the plaster dries. And then once it does, the painting becomes basically embedded into the wall itself. Also, keep in mind that we’re not just talking one small wall being requested of Michelangelo, but a vaulted ceiling 68 feet off the ground and covering a length of about 131 ft long by 43 ft wide. This means that Michelangelo was being asked to complete more than 5,000 square feet of frescoes with hardly any fresco experience. I can see why Michelangelo balked. It was an insane plan, and Raphael and Bramante knew it.
How much, if anything, Pope Julius knew about the possible backstabbing and motivations between the rivals is unknown, but one thing is for certain: Julius was shrewd, a risk-taker, and like the greatest art patrons, he was very savvy when it came to choosing the right artist for the right project. And he certainly didn’t have to go along with Bramante and Raphael’s recommendation a second time, after already agreeing to ditch Michelangelo’s Tomb for the time being. The fact of the matter is that Michelangelo was a perfectionist and he would not only rise to the challenge of painting the ceiling, but he would transform a middling Vatican building into the premier showstopper of any Roman tour. Not that they knew that at the time, of course, and not that Michelangelo’s perfectionism made the job an easy one. During the course of the four years he spent working on the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo went on to fire all his assistants, one after the other, and essentially opted to complete the vast majority of it single-handedly. This slowed down the timeline to completion and made the pope grumpy, and he constantly stopped by to see Michelangelo at work and grumble at him to just hurry up and finish the damn job already-- something that was dramatized to great effect by Charleton Heston and Rex Harrison in the 1965 film, The Agony and the Ecstacy.
The great irony of all of this is that though all the artists involved basically thought the project was doomed from the get-go, the joke was actually on Bramante and Raphael. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has solidified Michelangelo’s place as one of the greatest painters, and a supreme colorist at that. And this reputation has only skyrocketed with the passage of time. According to the most recent numbers I could find, which are from 2015, approximately six million people enter the Chapel every year to feast their eyes upon the ceiling alone, with up to two thousand entering at a time during peak summer season. And if you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit the Chapel, you understand just how crowded it can be. It’s the top draw of the sprawing and treasure-filled Vatican collections, and visitors today have to take a circuitous, serpentine route through those collections, through gallery to gallery, before ending up in the Sistine as a kind of climax to the whole experience. What some tourists don’t realize as they are running through to see the Chapel is that they also pass through the Raphael Rooms on that same route. It’s almost like, through sheer modern-day popularity, that the rivalry has already been put to an end here: Michelangelo’s ceiling wins. Raphael, in the Vatican at least, takes second place.
I’ve visited the Vatican collection a couple of times thus far in my life, and every time, I am awed and stunned by the Sistine Ceiling, naturally. But I almost feel a stronger love for Raphael’s stanze. It’s not like they are ever deserted by any means, and thankfully there are plenty of art lovers and knowledgeable tourists who stop and appreciate Raphael’s own works. But to deny that fewer tourist spend time gaping at them-- and certainly not in as much audible awe and appreciation-- would be a lie. They are just as important in the span of art history, just as technically proficient, just as beautiful. But they are less flashy, I’ll give them that. Regardless, when the Sistine ceiling was completed in 1512 and revealed to the public for the first time, Raphael, who was still smack-dab in the midst of painting the stanze, must have felt intense pressure.
Giorgio Vasari uses the dramatic moment of the completion of the Sistine Ceiling as another way to present us with a portrait of Raphael’s chicanery and untrustworthiness. With the assistance of his old pal Bramante, Raphael stole in to the Sistine Chapel in Michelangelo’s absence to get a sneak peek of his work before it was revealed to the public. When Michelangelo heard of this, all hell broke loose. He was furious, and flat-out accused Raphael of plagiarism, writing in a letter, quote, “Everything he knew about art he got from me.” Technically, of course, this was not true, since Raphael had studied with other great artists before even coming to Rome, and his talent stood on its own. But Michelangelo has a point, because in that same year, 1512, Raphael completed work on a commission of his own, a fresco of the Prophet Isaiah for the Basilica di Sant'Agostino, an early Renaissance church just a shot across the Tiber River from the Vatican. Oh, guess who also portrayed that very same prophet in the Sistine Chapel? Yep. And the similarities are striking: both prophets are monumental in scale and imbued with movement and bright colors, and both are attended by two putti, those little naked cherubs you see all around Renaissance paintings. I can see why Michelangelo would call it plagiarism. But I can also call upon the old saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And Raphael, certainly, like Michelangelo, was truly dedicated to his art, and would have been constantly seeking to improve-- so it’s totally possible that any likeness to Michelangelo’s works may have just been Raphael’s way of acknowledging a new, and possibly better, way to depict the human figure. There’s flattery in that. And it is also in line with the way that artists usually work, especially when they are first starting out, whereupon they copy masterworks over and over and over again in hopes of developing and honing technique. Sketches remain from Raphael’s early days in Florence when he was copying pieces by Leonardo, Donatello, and even that of his future rival, Michelangelo. But good luck getting Michelangelo to see it as anything but a big, fat, kick in the pants.
When it comes to most of the primary evidence for this greatest of Renaissance feuds, we have to notice that most of our evidence for this rivalry comes from Giorgio Vasari-- himself not only a strong supporter of Michelangelo, but also a known gossip who favored salacious fables over fact. So it is entirely possible that he made up a lot of the melodrama here as a way to side with his own camp and that he’s a bit of an unreliable narrator. But there’s still at least one little art-historical in-joke that survives on Raphael’s side to confirm the competition between the two. And here’s where we cycle back to his greatest fresco, The School of Athens, completed between 1509 and 1511-- that is, concurrent with the painting of the Sistine Chapel. The School of Athens is one large painting presenting viewers with all the greatest mathematicians, philosophers and scientists from classical antiquity-- truly, considered the greatest minds of all time up to that point-- all gathered together in the same space and time. At the center of the composition are two figures: Plato, who points at the sky and holds his celebrated text, the Timaeus, in which he explored the universe; and Aristotle, who gestures to the ground and holds his Ethics, a work in which he examines how we should best live our lives here and now. Various and sundry toga-wearing figures fill an imaginary architectural space that resembles the courtyard of an ancient philosophical school or palace. What’s really interesting is how Raphael chose to depict his figures, because instead of creating a cast of characters based on the artist’s own imagination, he instead opted to insert portraits of many of the greatest minds of his own day. For example, it’s been noted that Plato looks like an awful lot like Leonardo da Vinci, and that Bramante is included in the painting as Euclid, the brilliant mathematician, which makes sense considering the necessity of supreme math knowledge for architects, especially back in the Renaissance. Raphael even supposedly included himself in the form of Apelles, known as the greatest painter of antiquity. But there’s one figure who seems to be a little different. Just left of the center of the painting, seated on some steps, is the figure of Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher from the 6th century B.C.E. This figure is a curious one because it appears not to have been part of Raphael’s original design and is absent from a cartoon-- or initial drawing-- that Raphael made. Moreover, he chose someone very specific to be the body and uncanny face of his Heraclitus. And that person was Michelangelo. It has been suggested that Raphael added the figure of Michelangelo-slash-Heraclitus after he got that sneak peek of the Sistine Chapel, and some have originally read it as a compliment-- Michelangelo’s ceiling was such a monumental achievement that Raphael felt it necessary to add him in amongst the other contemporary bigwigs. However, according to Ross King in his popular book, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, if it was indeed a compliment, there was a dark side to it. King writes, quote, “Heraclitus of Ephesus, known as both Heraclitus the Obscure and “the Weeping Philosopher,” believed the world to be in a state of constant flux, a proposition summed up by his two most famous sayings: “You cannot step into the same river twice” and “The sun is new every day.” But it is not this philosophy of universal change that seems to have inclined Raphael to lend him the features of Michelangelo; more like it was Heraclitus’s legendary sour temper and bitter scorn for all rivals. He heaped derision on predecessors such as Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus. He even abused Homer, claiming the blind poet should have been horse-whipped. The citizens of Ephesus were no more popular with the cantankerous philosopher. Every last one of them, he wrote, ought to be hanged.” unquote. So, Michelangelo in the School of Athens-- is it a compliment? Or is it just another way for one artist to needle another? Who knows? It might even be both.
Next time on the ArtCurious Podcast, we jump ahead a few centuries and examine the fierce competition between two biggies of Post-War America, fighting it out for top dog status of Abstract Expressionism. That’s coming up in two weeks-- don’t miss it.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research assistance by Stephanie Pryor. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com.
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