Walking into the first room of a big art show, the gallery-goer naturally looks around for the block of text on the wall that introduces the artist or group of artists, and sets the stage for their moment in art history. But that’s not how the National Gallery of Canada’s big summer draw, From Raphael to Carracci: The Art of Papal Rome, is organized. Each room is devoted, not to an artist, but to a different 16th-century pope. The first belongs to Julius II, who commissioned Saint Peter’s Basilica and whose patronage began the work of making Rome glorious in the Renaissance and beyond. At least, the text stencilled neatly on the wall says it’s his room. Anyone who looks at the art, though, will come away divided as to whether it’s really ruled by Michelangelo or Raphael. These rivals are gloriously represented in Julius II’s room, and experiencing the competitive tension between them at close quarters is one of the great pleasures of this engrossingly varied exhibition, which runs in Ottawa until Sept. 7.
In a recent stroll through his show, David Franklin, the gallery’s chief curator, declared Raphael the hands-down winner. Franklin lingered over a Michelangelo drawing in red chalk—a famous study for the Sistine Chapel of an improbably brawny female—and declared it a singularly beautiful dead end. “The flex and torsion are just extraordinary; I’m not sure they had the bodybuilding apparatus in 1510 to get that musculature,” he says, then adds: “This is sort of a cul-de-sac in art history, because nobody can really learn from this, in the sense that nobody can match it.” Where Michelangelo’s drawing is impossible, Raphael’s portrait of Bindo Altoviti, casting a melting gaze from across the room, is imploring. “The elegance of it,” Franklin says, “is a stylistic moment that Raphael is bringing to Rome.”
That moment was hardly brief. The show traces Raphael’s influence roughly from Julius II’s election as pope in 1503 until Clement VII dies in 1605. But this is not the story of the steady ascent of what Franklin calls Raphael’s “graceful style.” The century was too bloody, too full of intrigue to allow art to progress along some smooth path. So the exhibition’s mood shifts dramatically. The Julius II room conveys grand ambition and confidence. Several popes later, Rome has endured invasion, Protestantism is rising, and Bartolomeo Passarotti paints an almost withered Pius V in 1566. The papacy has retrenched behind austerity and discipline.
By his look, it’s no surprise to learn that Pius V was devoted to stamping out heresy. But Franklin sets up an amusing contrast by hanging him beside Titian’s luminous St. Mary Magdalene in Penitence, supposedly depicting the New Testament prostitute living as a hermit in the wilderness. Penance has never looked so voluptuous. “Depending on how you interpret it,” Franklin said, “it’s kind of a pin-up, really.” Putting her beside Pius V is a reminder that a lively, humanist light in 16th-century painting couldn’t be extinguished even in the era’s dark days.
The source of much of that glow was in fact Raphael, even though he died at just 37 in 1520. Michelangelo, who lived to be 89 and died in 1564, never lost his unique intensity. It’s there in the way the black chalk of an angel appearing to the Virgin Mary, drawn around 1550, is ground into the surface. Raphael’s touch was much lighter, literally and figuratively. “Raphael was a more amiable character,” Franklin says. “Michelangelo was so famously cantankerous.”
By the final room, and the final pope, Clement VIII, Raphael’s spirit has triumphed. The walls are a warm yellow and the key paintings are by Annibale Carracci. Franklin keeps referring to him by his first name. It’s not surprising that the curator feels a certain familiarity: this is his second big Italian show in short order, a sequel to 2005’s ambitious Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and the Renaissance in Florence. The current exhibition is even more noteworthy, if only because Rome has received far less attention than Florence from major museums.
After all his work pulling the show together, Franklin was in no hurry to leave those last Carracci paintings. “Annibale distills Raphael into this humane and elegant style,” he says, pointing out little touches, like the eyeglasses Joseph wears in a homey depiction of the Holy Family. All those domineering popes, all the brilliant artists they hired—and what stands out in the end is so lovely and unintimidating.