19 JANUARY 2002, Page 23

What is a sad and angry Raphael stopping his friend doing?


In Paris last weekend I visited a small exhibition, at the Luxembourg Palace, devoted to what it called the 'grace and beauty of Raphael'. It was very dark and crowded, but my eye was caught by a famous double portrait of two youngish men. I had seen it in the Louvre several times before, but only now did I begin to explore its curious grandeur and suggestiveness. Both men are bearded, both wear dark garments over white shirts. One, in the rear, looks at the beholder, but he has his left hand on the shoulder of the man in front. He, too, points at the beholder, but his gaze is directed at something or someone else, a third man who is out of the picture. His left hand grasps what appears to be a sword.

The picture has been dated 1518, when Raphael was the most famous artist on earth, apart from Michelangelo and Leonardo, so it is surprising that there is no apparent mention of it in the literary sources. Somehow or other, perhaps through the sharp eye of that great collector Francois I, it got into the French royal collection, but it was not classified as a work by Raphael until the inventory of Louis XIV's pictures, compiled in 1683. Over the centuries, the impression grew that this strange painting was not only by Raphael but a self-portrait — the man in the rear who gazes at us with no obvious emotion expressed in his face but a suggestion of pent-up demons (or angels) within. It seems to fit, though not very well, with other supposed representations of Raphael, in engravings, medallions and a famous picture in the Uffizi. On the other hand, the work has also been attributed to Raphael's rival Sebastian+) del Piombo, to Pordenone and Polidoro da Caravaggio, and others. Some thought the second man was Raphael's fencing master, but he is now usually described as just 'a friend'. The attribution to Raphael is today generally accepted, but the mystery surrounding the painting is impenetrable, and new solutions will undoubtedly be put forward by scholars in the future. It is an indication of how little we often know for sure about illustrious works of art which are nearly half a millennium old.

What particularly interests me is what, if anything, it reveals about Raphael, assuming it is indeed by him and of him. We seem to know a lot about Raphael, thanks chiefly to Vasari, and yet in a way we know nothing. Painters are not always agreeable men, and when they become famous, as we see in the case of the jealous, secretive and difficult Michelangelo, their flaws appear. But there are exceptions. Rubens was a warm, decent and honourable man, loving and much loved, almost a model human being. Raphael was another such. It is true that Sebastiano del Piombo wrote nasty things about him in a letter to Michelangelo. But these can be discounted: the writer was hoping to ingratiate himself with Michelangelo by discrediting the young prodigy. Everyone else appeared to like Raphael and no charge of character or behaviour was brought against him, a remarkable fact considering his youth and prodigious success in a highly competitive world riven by factions and aesthetic gang warfare. He is described in 1504, when he was 21, as a discreto e gentile giovane, and this impression of a well-conducted and sensible person seems to have endured until his early death, from fever, at the age of 37.

The sources, especially Vasari, repeatedly stress his generosity. For such a great artist, he was remarkably unself-centred. He never pushed himself. He was always glad to accept commissions, and sometimes put himself out to fit them in and complete them — unlike Leonardo and Michelangelo, who often disappointed their patrons. But he would happily allow others to grab coveted jobs. His modesty was unusual, It was as though he felt that Almighty God, in endowing him with such wonderful, varied and precocious talent, had also imposed certain moral obligations on him to behave nobly and graciously. He submitted to criticism, weighed it and, if constructive, took it into account and altered his designs. A word used about him is 'obliging'. He was also 'sweet-mannered'. He ran his studio in an efficient and productive manner — his work was always smooth and functional on its practical side — but he was a kind and gentle master. His assistants worshipped him because he showed himself anxious to bring them on, to develop their own artistic character and to launch out on their own (as Rubens was to do with Van Dyck).

Raphael's weakness, if it is one, was women. Vasari says he was 'molt° amoroso e affezionato alle donne'. It was even rumoured that overenthusiastic sexual congress brought on the fever that killed him — an unlikely tale. Certainly, only a woman could keep him from work, about which he was dangerously obsessive, so it is far more likely that sex prolonged his life. There survives from 1514 an uncharacteristically sharp letter from Raphael to his uncle in Urbino, his birth place. The uncle had apparently found what he considered a suitable bride for the young painter and had written to tell him so, adding that it was high time he married (Raphael was 31, old for a bachelor in those days). Raphael pointed out, in his letter, that he could do rather better: his Roman property was now worth 5,000 gold ducats and he had an annual salary of 600 gold ducats for his work in St Peter's alone. He could therefore expect to marry a cardinal's niece or a girl of similar rank, and certainly one with a dowry of not less than 3,000 in gold. The letter was a hard-headed brush-off. Generous and gentile Raphael might have been, but he was not going to have his life run by his interfering provincial family. In the meantime, while awaiting a well-endowed and likeable woman, or even a principessa — and why not? Raphael was said to live 'like a prince' — he intended to carry on with his mistresses.

How does all this fit in with the supposed 'Raphael and a Friend'? The Raphael we know from the sources, such as they are, ran not only a well-regulated and highly successful career and life, but one, to all outward appearances, which was also happy. The Raphael of the double portrait does not quite fit into this image. His face is superficially calm. But the eyes are sad. The mouth droops; could almost be described as sulky. There is suppressed hostility, certainly strong emotion, in his look. His hand on his friend's shoulder may be restraining. It is possible that the friend is not looking at a third man, out of the picture, but is in the act of turning round to implore Raphael not to prevent him doing something to the invisible person at whom he is pointing — hence the significance of the left hand which is bringing forward the sword, so that the pointing hand can draw it. Is there not an undercurrent of violence here? On this interpretation, the look in Raphael's eyes is not sad but angry. He hates the thing or the person as much as his friend; their only disagreement is on how to react. Raphael thinks the sword is not the way.

But all this is mere surmise. We do not know for sure what the painting is, when it was done, for whom or by whom. It remains and will remain a riddle, hence its fascination. Pointless to say, 'Why not just treat it as a good painting?' If it is not by Raphael, nobody would be much interested in it, regardless of its merits, and I would certainly not be writing an essay on the subject. In art we are all willing slaves of famous names.