ART / Dreamer of dreams: Measured against Michelangelo's muscularity, Raphael can look cosy. Yet, argues Andrew Graham-Dixon, he achieved perfection

Of the three great Italian painters of the High Renaissance, Raphael now seems the most remote and the most thoroughly alien to modern sensibilities. The grace and sweetness and decorum of his work, which earned him universal adulation in his lifetime and made him, for centuries after his death, a paragon among painters, now works against him.

We still sympathise easily with Leonardo, whose constant spirit of dissatisfaction with the limitations of a single sphere of endeavour, whose breadth and impatience, may seem awesome but are also endearing. The Icarus-like futility of so many of his enterprises makes him seem fallibly human despite the superhuman nature of his ambition and his vast intellectual range. We like Leonardo for being, in Henry Fuseli's great early 19th-century (and extremely Romantic) description, 'A libertine of thought who wasted life, insatiate, in experiment.'

We are, too, still fascinated by Michelangelo: by the power and the terribilit of his imagination; by his sullen, lonely asceticism; by the deep and personal nature (or so it seems, to us) of his struggle as an artist; and above all by the profound tensions in his work. We are liable to see him, now, as a painter and a sculptor wrestling with his own dangerous sensuality and exorcising the demon of his love for a succession of young men by creating a world peopled by idealised supernatural beings: beings whose perfect, muscular male anatomies swoop and circle above us - a reproof and a reminder of our own, less perfect condition - on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

But Raphael? He seems insufficiently driven, insufficiently obsessed, incompletely possessed by his own, very different Muses. He seems, perhaps, too well-balanced to appeal to the 20th-century mind. In 1568, nearly 50 years after the end of Raphael's life, Vasari would write, in his Lives of the Painters, that, 'With the death of this admirable artist painting might well have died also, for when he closed his eyes she was left all but blind'. It would take more than 200 years for posterity to begin to question this view and it was, perhaps appropriately, the German Romantic poet Goethe who would sound one of the first notes of dissent: 'From the Sistine Chapel,' he recalled in his Italian Journey, 'we went to the loggias of Raphael, and, though I hardly dare admit it, I could not look at them any longer. After Michelangelo's great forms, my eye took no pleasure in the ingenious frivolities of Raphael's arabesques.'

These remarks contain, in essence, the modern objection to Raphael. But what, exactly, was Goethe objecting to? Partly, at least, the serenity of Raphael's art, the lack of struggle it evinced: the great sweeping drama of Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling made Raphael's more urbane and courtly frescoes, for Julius II's library, seem too easily won, too untroubled a demonstration of the values of the papal culture that commissioned them. Raphael's paintings for the Stanza della Segnatura - a fourfold celebration of theology, poetry, philosophy and jurisprudence - seemed too comfortable, and insufficiently sublime, to Goethe.

This modern tradition of distrust has tended to seize on the contrast between Michelangelo and Raphael, as they worked on their very different papal commissions in the Vatican in the early years of the 16th century, and to do so to Raphael's disadvantage: there was Michelangelo, engaged in the back-breaking work of frescoing acres of ceiling virtually singlehanded while Raphael, accompanied by teams of assistants, calmly and effortlessly went about the far less physically demanding task of painting the walls of a small library. Michelangelo would seem far closer, here, to the modern ideal of the artist - as someone who toils in difficult isolation - than the more sociable Raphael. Vasari described the difference between them when he wrote that 'Nature created Michelangelo to excel and conquer in art, but Raphael to excel in art and manners also.' He meant this as a compliment to Raphael, and Raphael, had he been alive, would have accepted it in that spirit - one of his most sympathetic male portraits, after all, is the Louvre's Baldassare Castiglione, the arch-courtier of the High Renaissance. But nowadays we are likely to impeach him for it, assuming courtliness and urbanity to be somehow incompatible with greatness.

Modern viewers are liable to indict Raphael for the very beauties and symmetries which his contemporaries valued in his art. The balletic cup-bearing angels catching the blood of the crucified Christ in the National Gallery's 1503 Crucifixion, poised on either side of the saviour, each balanced on a tiny flat wisp of a cloud and trailing ingenious arabesques (as Goethe might have put it) of ribbon silhouetted against an unreal blue sky - these figures, like so many of the figures in Raphael's art, are likely to seem elegant but somehow unfeeling, too distanced by the painter's mannerism to participate emotionally in the tragic scene to which they are witnesses. Raphael's art may be admired, but it may never again be loved quite as Vasari loved it.

'Raphael: The Pursuit of Perfection', at the National Gallery of Scotland, is a small exhibition which concentrates on that aspect of Raphael's art which may, perhaps, be most responsible for his diminished modern reputation: the Madonna and Child which, repeated in numerous compositional variations by Raphael and his workshop, would in many cases result in paintings that look suspiciously formulaic. But by focusing on just three examples of the genre, the exhibition does, in its inevitably small way, go to the heart of his genius.

It may in one sense have been Raphael's misfortune to live at the same time as Michelangelo, the inventor of a new grandeur and a new sweeping but troubled amplitude in painting, which he spent much of his life attempting to rival: the violence and affray that we find in later Raphael never seem quite convincing, because it was his nature as a painter constantly to resolve, to harmonise, to make beautiful if not perfect. But the three paintings around which the current exhibition revolves date from before his first encounter with Michelangelo's art, and in them we see him doing what he perhaps always did best. Raphael's greatest gift was his ability to create worlds of serene and imperturbable order, immured in their own sweet perfection.

The Holy Family with a Palm Tree, which is the earliest of these three paintings, is a learned picture. The frieze-like disposition of its three figures - Joseph, seen presenting a handful of wild flowers to the Christ child, who sits, balanced somewhat precariously, on Mary's lap - was probably intended to evoke comparison with Hellenistic cameos and with antique statuary. The Christ child gazes back at his father with precocious solemnity, seeing his own fate in the plucked flowers given to him, while the loose swaddling bands that bind him to his mother are also a visual premonition of death, recalling the winding cloth in which he will be lowered into the tomb. The round shape of the picture is, too, fraught with symbolism: Alberti had described the circle as the most perfect form and as the visual symbol of divine perfection. But none of this accounts for the true power of this small and rather badly damaged painting, which stems rather from Raphael's ability to create a painted paradise, an unreal and other world in which, physically palpable but forever withdrawn from the harsh and fallen reality of mere mortals, holiness unselfconsciously reveals itself. The Madonna and Child are just slightly blurred, slightly more softly focused and more spectral than Joseph: figures that have the texture of people in a beautiful dream, rather than reality.

The Bridgewater Madonna, which has recently been cleaned, emerges from the process as a stunning ruin. Raphael's mother and child, isolated on a dark ground, seem even more like supernatural figures suspended in a void - made miraculously visible by the painter and, again, given that soft and blurred texture of a dream.

The child's strange and elegantly awkward pose, twisting on his mother's lap and looking up, worried, into her face, combines beautiful unreality with intense feeling: he looks as if he has woken up from a nightmare, a premonition perhaps of his Passion.

Raphael painted these pictures in Florence, and may have been influenced by the stern and ascetic preaching of Savonarola, who had reproved painters for painting the Madonna and Child to look too much like real women and children. Certainly Raphael painted them, instead, as ideas, almost abstract creatures: momentary notions, formed in this world, of an otherworldly perfection. One of his great achievements, the originality of which has been dimmed by four centuries of imitation, was the creation of an entirely new idea of female beauty, embodied above all in his Madonnas, those strange, withdrawn, soft-eyed figments of his imagination which would obsess Ingres among other great subsequent painters. They amounted to more than a dream of the perfect woman, being a dream, rather, of perfection itself - and always, necessarily, a dream, there but somehow also not there, visible but unattainable. To his contemporaries such pictures may have seemed a beautiful release, from the violence and poverty of 16th-century Italy. Perhaps it is true that Raphael's art always tended in this direction and that he was, above all, a great dreamer of the perfect, a fantasist of incorruptibility. And perhaps what we in modern times cannot forgive him for is the consistency of his idealism.

(Photograph omitted)

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