The Try-Out Audition for Raphael's Disputa
In 1505 Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) (1483-1520) was still only 22 years old and working as an apprentice for his teacher in Perugia, Perugino. By 1509, four years later, he is a major player in the most important decorative program in Italy after the Sistine Ceiling, the frescoes of the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican apartments in Rome. How does he appear as if from nowhere to become one of the three greatest artists of the Late Renaissance? Up to now, scholars have speculated that he joined Pinturicchio in his decoration of the Chapel of the Piccolomini in Siena, and learned a great deal from helping to paint the cycle of the Life of Aeneas Sylvias Piccolomini (1502-3) there. But the
Pope for whom that was painted, Pope Pius III, died in 1503 after one of the shortest papacies in history, 26 days, so the work begun there is terminated with Pius' death and Raphael has to find other
employment. It is certainly true that the Sienese program prepared him for wall frescoes and he is
depicted in those frescoes himself, arm akimbo, as though Pinturicchio were aware of Raphael's incipient talent.
Scholars have talked about Raphael's going to Florence in the year 1504-5 and being influenced by Leonardo and the Mona Lisa. How does he jump from being just a helper, albeit such a crucial one that Pinturicchio paints him twice, to becoming a full-fledged painter in the Vatican?
If you look at two of his works in 1504-05, they still seem to be painted in the mode of Perugino, his teacher: the Mond Crucifixion and the Marriage of the Virgin
In these panels, the faces are sweet and pink-cheeked like Perugino's faces, the figures are slender
and seem to bear very little weight, the hair, banners, and staffs are ribbon-like. The figures stand in a landscape that appears infinite and all action is concentrated in the foreground.
But by 1505 he is back in Perugia and the painting we see there in the Cappella di San Severo
shows an artist who has broken from the style of his teachers, Perugino and Pinturicchio, and
is emerging as his own man.
What is this work in Perugia that is relatively unknown?
It is in the chapter house of the Chapel of San Severo, Cappella di San Severo, a room used for prayer by the monks of the establishment. The fresco takes up one wall of the room and a bench on the wall opposite allows the contemplation of the work or the reading of Scriptures.
RAPHAEL DE VRBINO D. OCTAVI/ANO STEPHANI VOLTERRANO PRIO/RE SANCTAM TRINITATEM ANGE/LOS ASTANTES SANCTOSQVE / PINXIT / A.D. MDV. But the lower right inscription suggests that the work is finished by another artist by 1521. Since fresco painters begin work at the top of the wall and work down, we would assume the upper half of the fresco to be by Raphael, even if the style evidence didn't already indicate that. The subject is the Trinity up in heaven with angels and saints, and other saints appear in an enclosure down on earth that includes a niche containing a terracotta Madonna and Child.
hands in prayer next to Christ, the saints seated on the clouds in a half-circle who converse with
one another are most definitely painted by the new-style Raphael. These saints, Maurus, Placidus, Benedict on the left and Romuald, Benedict Martyr, and John(damaged) on the right all seem to bear weight and have volume and body under their drapery. They turn in natural 3/4 views to converse with one another and seem to be actual live figures with foreshortened limbs, as opposed to the stiff scarecrow saints down below them. While those stiff standing saints and the Christ figure may be by another artist, the small angel above the head of St. Benedict on the left has musculature that reminds us of later Raphael children, such as the two boys (Christ and John the Baptist) in the Uffizi Madonna of the Goldfinch (1505-06.)
paintings and they hold attributes in both that identify them. The two-tier system for heaven and earth
is repeated in the Disputa in roughly the same manner as it is composed in the San Severo scene a semi-circle of seated sacred figures who converse.
Raphael begins work in Rome at the Vatican Stanza della Segnatura (the Official Signing Room) for Pope Julius II in 1509 and works on it until 1511. On the ceiling of that room were painted four women who represented four IDEAS -THEOLOGY, PHILOSOPHY, POETRY, and LAW. The four wall frescoes in that room are displays of people from history and myth concerned with each of those areas of human knowledge.
the Disputa. Instead of just Christian saints, Raphael includes figures from the Old Testament
in the upper realms:
On the left Adam and David converse with St. Peter and St. John the Evangelist:
heavenly figures in a semi-circle holding their attributes is very much like the setup in the San Severo
Even Christ raises his arms in exactly the same gesture in San Severo and the Disputa.
In the lower half of the Vatican fresco, Raphael has expanded the world of his saints out to an infinite
landscape. He has extended it to men who have thought about theological questions or who have been involved in religious constructions. Thus he places on the right in the earthly realm Dante who died in 1321, Savonarola (d. 1498), very near Sixtus IV, who died in 1484, along with St. Thomas Aquinas(labelled by Raphael,d.1274) and Bonaventure(labelled by Raphael, d.1274), as well as two FATHERS OF THE CHURCH, Augustine (d.430A.D.)and Ambrose (labelled by Raphael, d. 397).
On the left he includes himself, his friend Bramante who was the first architect of the new
St. Peter's, St. Francis (who died in 1226), and the two other FATHERS OF THE CHURCH,
GREGORY the GREAT (labelled by Raphael, d.604) perhaps a portrait of Julius II, and JEROME, translator of the Bible (labelled by Raphael, died 420.)
the bread on the altar can become the body of Christ in Heaven, answers to the question of how God can manifest in three forms. Their gestures suggest they are all involved in a conversation about these important Catholic beliefs. Some of them look at or gesture towards the altar and the wafer held in the monstrance on the altar and some point to or look up at the vision of the Trinity:
The contemplation of the images of the Trinity and the saints who believed
in the Trinity are represented in both San Severo and the Disputa. In the Disputa Raphael has enlarged the scene from a gathering of local saints to a gathering of writers and thinkers from theological history up to his lifetime, a display of men concerned about FAITH. The San Severo image is meant to be used as a stimulus for Perugian monks whose faith is chosen. This is the only image they would have confronted in the room. The Disputa, on the other hand, is placed in a room
opposite the SCHOOL OF ATHENS, a painting where the great minds of PHILOSOPHY are displayed in an architectural setting.
Raphael's San Severo piece is his preparatory fresco for the arrangement in the Disputa, but the artist
who painted the SCHOOL of ATHENS was prepared for more than religious conversation.
Gone are the pink-cheeked Perugino faces, gone the ribbon-like bands of scrolls, all replaced with serious, weighty figures whose life-like stances and gestures set in realistic landscape and light
provide a full picture of Western thought in ideal human forms.