“”And I tell you that to paint one beautiful woman, I should need to see several beautiful women, and to have you with me to choose the best,”” wrote Raphael, then at the zenith of his fame and good fortune, to his life-long friend Count Baldassare Castiglione, who–the ideal courtier himself–has given the world that immortal monument of Renaissance culture, the Book of the Courtier. In penning these lines the prince of painters intended, perhaps, no more than a pretty compliment to one who was himself a model of courtesy and graceful speech, but the words would gain deep significance if “”picture”” were substituted for “”woman””, and if Castiglione were taken to signify the personification of intellect and learning. For the beauty of Raphael’s art, which in the course of four centuries has lost none of its hold upon the admiration of mankind, is distilled from the various elements of beauty contained in the art that had gone before him and was being created around him; and in choosing the best, at least as far as idea and conception are concerned, he was guided by the deepest thinkers and keenest intellects of what were then the world’s greatest centres of culture.
Raphael was, indeed, born under a happy constellation. He was not a giant of intellect, nor an epoch-making genius; as Michelangelo said of him, he owed his art less to nature than to study; but he was born at a time when two centuries of gradual artistic development had led up to a point where an artist was needed to gather up the diverging threads and bring the movement to a culmination, which will stand for all times as a standard of perfection. Advantages of birth and early surroundings, charm of appearance and disposition which made him a favourite wherever he went, receptivity, adaptability, and application, and above all an early and easy mastery of technique, were combined in Raphael to lead him to this achievement. The smooth unclouded progress of his life from recognition to fame, from prosperity to affluence, is not the turbulent way of genius. Genius walks a sad and lonely path. Michelangelo, the turbulent spirit, morose and dissatisfied, Lionardo da Vinci, pursuing his high ideals without a thought of worldly success until his lonely old age sees him expatriated and contemplating the fruitlessness of all his labours–these men of purest genius have little in common with the pliant courtier Raphael, the head himself of a little court of faithful followers. The story goes that Michelangelo, in the bitterness of his spirit, when meeting his happy rival at the head of his usual army of some fifty dependants on his way to the Papal court, addressed him with the words “”You walk like the sheriff with his ‘posse comitatus’.”” And Raphael, quick at repartee, retorted “”And you, like an executioner going to the scaffold.”” Whether the anecdote be true or not, it marks the difference between the course of talent–albeit the rarest talent–and that of genius.
Adapted from Rafael by Paul Konody, 2013
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