A first: “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn” by Renaissance great Raphael is heading to the U.S. from the Galleria Borghese in Rome, where it’s been hanging for the last 434 years. Two American museums claim the get: the Cincinnati Art Museum Oct. 3, 2015 – Jan. 3, 2016 and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Jan. 19 – April 10, 2016.
But when the exhibit literature talks up “stylistic relationships” between Raphael’s portrait and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” when it suggest that the former is but a “sophisticated adaptation” of the latter simply because both women are posed at half-length against a landscaped background with their hands folded in their laps, it seems a sad day for connoisseurship.
Inflating Da Vinci’s influence on Raphael probably does wonders to hype this show, though.
Does anyone at the Cincinnati or San Francisco museum notice that there are significant differences between these portraits? Don’t you see that while one woman looms large and unadorned in dark brown like the rocks that roar up from the faraway river, the other woman is colorfully bejeweled in red and green to match her gown? “Lady with a Unicorn” differs further from “Mona Lisa” for her lack of eye contact and inscrutable smile. Similar poses don’t add up to “stylistic relationships.”
Was Raphael inspired by Da Vinci’s work? Of course he was. But style clearly separated them. Da Vinci is known for grandeur, Raphael for grace. Da Vinci focused on Mother Nature. Raphael paid attention to Mothers.
You can see this in his Madonna paintings rendered on round canvases. He got that idea from the ancient Greek, and it made all the difference in his ability to convey feeling, as in his circular-shaped “Madonna of the Chair.” The round picture plane stresses the quality of softness, unanimity, and repose. It also lends the figures the look of a portrait, as if they were real people.
Several Raphael’s preliminary sketches of the figures show how he tried varying poses: the infant sitting up and the mother leaning back. Neither of these worked well in the circular format. The poses of choice in Raphael’s final version allowed the figures’ curves – the embracing arc of the mother’s arm and the leaning in of young Saint John toward the Christ child – to match the circular picture plane. No figure steps outside the circle, which allows the overall effect one of tranquil and loving maternity.
Maybe the exhibit literature overstates Da Vinci’s influence because Raphael was so self-effacing. It’s well known that he agonized over a Vatican commission, writing to his friend, Count Baldassare Castiglione of the Italian court this way:
“I should think myself a great master if it (the painting he was working on) had half the merits you mention in your letter…I am making use of a certain idea which comes into my mind. Whether this is possessed of any artistic excellence, I do not know. But I strive to attain it.”
From the sound of it, you’d think Raphael suffered low self-esteem. But his humility aside, he wasn’t at all shy about defending his work. When two cardinals faulted his renditions of St. Peter and St. Paul saying that their faces were too red, historical record shows him telling them that the saints must be red in heaven “out of shame that their church is being ruled by such men as you.”
You rock, Rafe.