Raphael: Painter in Rome – Novel review and Q&A with author

REVIEW: I eagerly cracked upon my new copy of Raphael: Painter in Rome by Stephanie Storey, its gorgeous cover displaying my favorite Raphael painting, The Triumph of Galatea. (Full disclosure: I received a copy of the novel from the author but pledge to write an honest review.)

New Raphael novel published on the 500th anniversary of the artist’s deah

The novel begins and ends in March 1520 in Rome, just a few weeks before Raphael’s untimely death at age 37, but primarily explores the decade of 1505-1515, when Raphael painted in the Vatican and battled Michelangelo for artistic primacy. Told in Raphael’s own voice, Storey gives us her version of what this highly accomplished, affably charming, and universally liked artist may have really thought about his situation in life.

Clearly Raphael was born with an easy temperament, contrasting with Michelangelo’s renowned grumpiness. But Storey also gives us a sense of how much his decisions were chosen (I hesitate to say calculated, which implies a more Machiavellian demeanor) diplomatic ones, even political, to further his own career but more critically his own artistry, as he attempted to, in her lovely turn of phrase, “bend the world toward beauty.”

Storey also busts the myth that everything came easily to Raphael, that he had inherent sprezzatura. She posits that he was as frustrated as the next person, practiced his craft incessantly, sketching even at parties (he certainly put in his 10,000 hours and then some). But he knew how to play the game, to grease the wheels, to attract flies with honey, to (in modern parlance) network. He was the ultimate courtier, likely inspiring Baldassare Castiglione to write a treatise of the same name.

Il Cortigiano (The Courtier), published by Venice’s Aldine Press in 1528

Storey’s Raphael has some insecurities but also a deep sense of right and wrong, imbued from an early age with the values of his parents, an appreciation of beauty and mastery, and the artistic teachings of his father, court painter Giovanni Santi, from the small city-state of Urbino. On his deathbed, Giovanni commands 11-year-old Raphael to be the greatest painter in the world, in history, reminding his son that artists are part of a competition to reach perfection. Storey captures well both how being thus orphaned at an early age impacted Raphael irrevocably as well as his expected (even required) loyalty toward his Urbinite compatriots. 

The only part of Raphael’s personality in this novel that did not resonate for me was what can only be described as his obsessive-compulsive behavior. In my own research I have never come across any references to such a psychological assessment of the man, and perhaps Storey included it to make him feel more modern and accessible. Alternatively, maybe she deduced it from his clear need to be perfect in his paintings. To me, however, it seemed like a stretch, but overall this is a minor quibble. (And since I will be doing a Q&A with Storey, I shall ask her! See the second question below.)

Margherita Luti – La Fornarina, the baker’s daughter, Raphael’s great one true love – is interestingly portrayed as a prostitute in the brothel of the famous Roman courtesan Imperia. There is very little evidence as to who Luti really was – was she the child of a baker, is that moniker a more metaphorical reference to her “oven,” was she actually even Raphael’s lover? – which allows Storey to imagine whatever she wants, certainly one of the greatest joys of writing a historical novel. That could in fact be one of the best parts about writing about Raphael’s life in particular – very little is concretely known, allowing for a blossoming of creative conjecture, and Storey’s reasoning for why Raphael could never marry the cardinal’s niece who was known as his fiancee resonated well with me. Overall, I have no problems with what she came up with, except perhaps for making Luti a touch too contemporary in attitude and behavior. However, Luti was definitely not a high-born woman but more assuredly of the lower class, which means she had fewer rules and customs to observe and thus could bend the world to better suit herself, just as Raphael tried to bend the world towards beauty.

La Fornarina: Prostitute, baker’s daughter, Raphael’s lover?

And then of course there is Raphael’s rivalry with Michelangelo, which very much defined this period of both their lives (the same era I wrote about with Janice in The Wolves of St. Peter’s). Raphael took his father’s deathbed words to heart and practiced, copied, improved upon copies, and competed with Michelangelo to spur them both closer to perfection. Raphael’s desire to paint the Sistine Ceiling was well known, but he had to content himself with the Vatican apartments, which may have ironically forced him to further creative heights. He reached a pinnacle with his final painting, The Transfiguration; who knows where his trajectory would have taken him had he not died so young, before he could evolve to an even more mature stage (consider the fact that Leonardo did not paint the Mona Lisa until he was well into his 50s)? I love how Storey portrays Raphael as showing kindness, compassion, respect, and something akin to friendship with Michelangelo during the course of a relationship that today we might describe as frenemies.

In Raphael: Painter in Rome, Storey has written a well-researched book that zips along at a satisfying pace. Her details are impeccable, from small ones like chickens wandering through an artist’s studio due to the need for eggs to mix tempera to big ones such as making recorded interactions between two Renaissance giants come to colorful life. Storey’s novel is Raphael coming of age, of learning about himself, of overcoming orphanhood and adversity. He grows, he changes, he evolves to become one of the best in the world. This is a first-rate novel that will interest any aficionados of Raphael, the Renaissance, art history, and Italy, as well as those who prefer to see the world not as it should be but how it was.

Raphael’s self-portrait in The School of Athens

Q&A WITH STEPHANIE STOREY (answers have been edited for length):

1 – Why did you choose to focus on the period of Raphael’s life competing with Michelangelo?

This book was always intended to be my “Michelangelo Sistine Ceiling” book, but when I dug into telling my version of those events, I realized how impossible it is to see Michelangelo’s Sistine years in a fresh light; they’ve been written about too many times. So, I started looking around for a new way to see this moment, and this voice from down the hall kept calling to me. It was Raphael’s voice, of course, and he kept nagging me, insisting that he had a story to tell about those years that was equally as exciting, equally as important as Michelangelo’s version. I’ve always loved Raphael and have long felt that modern audiences dismiss him unfairly; we tend to think of him as pretty and perfect as his paintings, and no one wants read about a “perfect” painter (wouldn’t we all rather read about the agony of Michelangelo or the eccentricities of Leonardo rather than the “perfection” of Raphael?), so I was excited to uncover the real human being beneath all of that perfection, because no one can possibly be as perfect as a Raphael painting. 

So, in short, I never thought about telling the entire life story of Raphael. I only wanted to focus on his rivalry with Michelangelo during the Sistine years. I’m actually not a fan of full-biographical stories; I am drawn to stories that focus on very specific years of a person’s life — as a way to dig deep into those defining moments.

2 – Why did you make Raphael OCD?

The book has only been out for two months and this question — or something similar to it — is what I am asked most often! First, obviously, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was not a “thing” during the Renaissance, so I don’t think of Raphael as “being OCD.” I do recognize that he exhibits behaviors that are consistent with what we would diagnose as OCD today. I took those behaviors from records of real obsessive behavior recorded in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (those real-life behaviors tended to be associated with religious fanaticism, and obviously I divorced Raphael’s obsessive behaviors from religious extremism).

I arrived at this character trait from two primary places: first and mainly, his art. His paintings and drawings are ridiculously obsessive in their details. He takes extraordinary time and effort to create perfect paintings with perfect details, perfect figures, perfect brushstrokes… Look at his drawings; he drew the same thing over and over and over again, trying to arrive at the “perfect” line… You can’t have such obsessive devotion to perfection in your craft without some of that bleeding over into your regular life. The second reason for arriving at these behaviors came from him being orphaned at a young age. Many orphans live with a profound sense of abandonment and guilt and a desire to control their world so they aren’t abandoned again. I saw those obsessive behaviors as his expression of his guilt, fear, and desperation to control the world around him.

(Go here for an even more fulsome response by the author herself to this question.)

3 – You also write about another artistic rivalry in Oil and Marble, between Michelangelo and Leonardo. Which is your favorite of the three Renaissance masters (Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo) and why?

Oh, I’ve been obsessed with Michelangelo for 25 years, ever since I studied abroad for a semester of college in Italy at the University of Pisa, which is only a short train-ride away from Florence. From the moment I first saw the David in person (and his unfinished slaves lining the hall leading up to that statue), I was transfixed. After that, I ended up going on a pilgrimage to see every Michelangelo on public display (I have seen all of them, except for Crouching Boy in the Hermitage at St. Petersburg; its attribution is debated, but I will still see it one day!) What he created in marble is truly miraculous; and I love his passion for sculpting, his profound focus, and his determination to stand up for his beliefs. He’s a stunning figure in human history, and I am endlessly fascinated. That being said, when I wrote Oil and Marble, I ended up falling in love with Leonardo’s brain, and Raphael has been a personal favorite of mine since I was a kid (when I used to look at his famous putti and wonder what the story was behind them; Raphael’s voice has been the voice in my head since I was a child). I have a giant crush on Raphael, but my obsession will always be with Michelangelo.

4 – I absolutely love The Galatea, perhaps because it is reminiscent of another gorgeous painting, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, though one could argue that the Raphael is more sculptural, a la Michelangelo. Which is your favorite Raphael artwork and why?

It’s very difficult for me to choose just one. The Transfiguration is the painting that made me fall reverentially in love with Raphael; I don’t think there’s a better painting in all of history and when you see it hanging in the Vatican it just glows. However, on a more personal note, I adore his portrait of the wealthy banker Bindo Altoviti, which is in the collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It is a beautiful portrait that captures Bindo’s soul. Plus, I feel like Raphael has put himself into that painting. When I look at Bindo, I see Raphael looking back at me — his refinement, his intensity, his beauty, his sexuality… it’s all there. 

Bindo Altoviti by Raphael, circa 1515

5 – What are you working on for your next novel? What can you tell us about it?

I’m not saying much about it yet (I don’t usually divulge until quite late in the publishing process), but here is what I will share: it’s still art historical fiction, as I hope to be writing that until the day I die. However, I am leaving the Italian Renaissance behind for now — not that I won’t be back. I will as I’m obsessed with the era and the art, but there’s another era that is calling to me, and I feel compelled to write about it. So, I’m moving to a new time period and country, but it’s an art historical moment that I’m still extraordinarily passionate about, so that hasn’t changed!

Thank you, Stephanie, for taking the time to answer my questions and for writing a beautiful novel about Raphael!

For more information about the author and her books, please visit her website.

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