I must admit to knowing shamefully little about Raphael before going to the current exhibition at the National Gallery. He was obviously important enough to have a whole artistic movement, the Pre-Raphaelites, devoted to undoing his influence, and he is generally considered one of the top three artists of the High Renaissance, alongside Leonardo and Michaelangelo (who hated him), but somehow he never made an impression on me. The only picture I could really name was the School of Athens, appearing here as a wall-sized reproduction. The exhibition has a lot of Madonnas (with babies who look like babies for once): perhaps a theme of special resonance to the orphan Raphael? Son of the court painter of Urbino, he had all of that city’s famous courtly charm, never falling out with his rich patrons or failing to befriend people. He ran one of the largest artist’s studios ever, and died young: according to Vasari, from too much sex. Perhaps charm was his weakness, and perhaps that’s why Michaelangelo took against him: beautiful, brilliant paintings – but just too damned polite?

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