Sunlit Uplands

Raphael’s School of Athens, Vatican

Ever since I was a student, I have had recourse to the same image of hope. Everyone now must be dreaming of somewhere beyond the horizon where life as we once knew it can return – with some gentle tinkering carried out by our imagination in the meanwhile. Mine is in the Vatican museum. As a student, I queued early one morning to be almost the first person to enter the museum and hared along the corridors past tapestries and statues to the Sistine Chapel to lie down on the floor and look up at Michelangelo Buonarotti’s depiction of the creation of our world. But the unique work that consoles me in these times stands in the Stanze or reception rooms created near the more famous chapel in the Vatican by Pope Julius II and completed by the Medici Pope Leo X. He looks out at you from one of the greatest papal portraits ever painted, flanked by two rather shifty cardinals. Raphael must have been told to paint Lorenzo de’ Medici’s son grasping a precious volume from the Vatican library, rather than a rosary or crucifix that one might expect a cardinal to hold. He was created cardinal aged thirteen, as part of his father Lorenzo de’ Medici’s ambitious scheme for his children. The cardinal with a rather furtive look standing on his right became the second Medici pope, Clement VII. During his reign Rome was sacked in 1527 by the mercenaries of Henry VIII’s Hapsburg rival, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

In fifteenth-century Europe, Florence set the pattern for rulers to enhance their standing by becoming patrons of the visual arts. Since ancient times, artists were classed as artisans, unlike writers, historians or philosophers who were the companions of rulers, the ‘influencers’ in the past. However meticulously Leonardo dressed while painting, it was still a messy occupation, like that of sculptors who were covered in dust like plebian stone masons hacking at blocks in quarries. Blocks of marble in the quarries near Carrara or in dealers’ stone yards had to be perused carefully to see if there were any traces of earth or other stains that might appear, in the worst scenario, on the face of a saint or of Christ himself, the ultimate nightmare. In a side chapel of the Florentine church of San Lorenzo, to the left as one faces the altar, there is a marble statue of Saint John the Baptist, abandoned. Imagine Donatello, having already worked on the body of the three-quarter life-size statue, chipping away to create hollows under the eyes to see an earth-coloured grain emerging, then a deeper stain that, as he tapped the scalpel with the hammer, widened across the face… Despair. Abandonment, and a furious patron or priest to deal with. No wonder Michelangelo and Donatello were, by all accounts, cantankerous. Does the rugged edge of their personalities show in their paintings and sculpture?

By the same token, is Raphael’s sweet nature revealed in his painting? His greatest murals are in the small ‘stanze’ or papal reception rooms in the Vatican, not far from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Both artists were working in the Vatican at the same time during the second decade of the 16th century. Raphael certainly climbed up the scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel to see what Michelangelo was painting, often lying on his back. Raphael had the easier task of frescoing walls while standing upright, and in the painting on one side of the Stanze, he depicts himself on the right with a group of fellow artists as well as Ptolemy the mathematician. I always send Raphael a kiss, for he is my historical boyfriend, and wave at him as I pause in the chamber before entering the painting, my eyes running over the seer Tiresias, thought to resemble Michelangelo, who is straddling the first range of steps. Then I look up into the audience chamber at the centre of the scene where Plato and Aristotle, the idealist and the pragmatist, are debating while students around them listen – one leans against a wall, knee cocked up like a bracket to support the sheaf of papers where he is rapidly recording what is being said. In the intrinsic stillness of a painting there is a flurry of activity, more mental than physical. It is a consummate depiction of the thrill of human minds philosophising.. Casting glances left and right towards Plato and Aristotle and their followers I glide up into the area under some arches, said to depict the new Saint Peter’s which was being built at the same time under the auspices initially of Raphael’s kinsman from Urbino, Bramante. Pausing to wave at Aristotle and Plato before plunging over the top under the arches and the blue sky into the unknown future – hopefully those sunlit uplands of my dreams.

Photo credit: Maksim Sokolov (, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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