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The reputation of Raphael now began to spread in Italy. Some family affairs recalled him to Urbino, which city he enriched with several of his works; he then returned to Florence, where he remained four years. He was in his twenty-fifth year, when Bramante, his uncle, who was architect to Julius II. persuaded that pontiff to make choice of Raphael for the embellishment of the Vatican. Such a choice must at the time have been considered as an act of great injustice to the many eminent painters who had been already employed by the pope.Bramante, who had probably discovered the great genius which his nephew possessed, conciliated in his favour the suffrages of the nobles; and Raphael was received in the capital of the christian world, as one destined to restore the arts to their former splendour. When we consider this young painter, commencing this most formidable undertaking, surrounded by so many men, whose interest it was that he should fail, and at a time when the art itself had not attained the perfection which it has since acquired, we may form some idea of that wonderful talent which made him surmount every obstacle, surpass the opinion which had been formed of him, and leave every rival far behind him. "It is probable," as Sir Joshua Reynolds justly observes, "that we are indebted to the remarkable and critical situation in which he was placed, for the magnificent chef d'oeuvres which he has left us." His first capital work in the Vatican was the Alfresco, known by the name of the Dispute of the Holy Sacrament. Although in the upper part of this picture, we may still recognize the pupil of Perugino; he displayed all the talent which afterwards distinguished him. His second piece, the School of Athens, acquired him all his glory; it is the master-piece of design among the moderns.From that time, he continued to produce those incomparable pieces, which prove that poetry, history, and
the sciences, were as familiar to him as painting. The success he experienced could not induce him to neglect his studies; he incessantly meditated the antique, and the beauties of the Sixtine Chapel, into which he was introduced by Bramante, in defiance of the prohibition of M. Angelo, inspired him with the ambition of attempting even beyond his former efforts. Of this we may be convinced, on visiting another chamber. of the Vatican. But the prodigious variety of his occupations, and the time which he devoted to architecture at the request of the pope, did not permit him to execute any part of the different compositions in which he was engaged. He contented himself with the design, and intrusted their execution to his pupils, of whom Julio Romano, Francesco Penni, Polidoro da Caravaggio, and Perini del Vaga, are the most celebrated.
It is remarkable, that the most capital fresco paintings of Raphael, in the Vatican, do not strike one immediately with that surprise, which, undoubtedly, is expected from the fame of that illustrious master; and a story is related by De Piles, that a person of acknowledged taste and judgment, who was also an idolizer of Raphael, visiting the Vatican with an eager desire to study his works, passed by those very compositions with indifference, which were the objects of his inquiry and curiosity, till he was recalled by his conductor, who told him, that he had overlooked what he sought for.
That effect is supposed by De Piles, to be occasioned by the want of strength of colouring proper for each object; that colouring not being sufficiently supported by a powerful chiaro-scuro. But Montesquieu accounts for it
in a different manner: he observes, that the works of Raphael strike little at first sight, because he imitates nature so well, that the spectator is no more surprised than where he sees the object itself, which would excite no de'gree of surprise at all; but that an uncommon expression, strong colouring, or odd and singular attitudes of an inferior artist, strike us at first sight, because we have not been accustomed to see them elsewhere. And to illustrate this point, he compares Raphael to Virgil; sublime, easy, natural, and majestic: and the Venetian painters, with their constrained attitudes, he compares to Lucan. Virgil, more natural, strikes us at first less, and strikes us afterwards more sensibly; Lucan strikes immediately, but strikes us abundantly less after. And certainly there cannot be a stronger test of the excellence of any performance, either in poetry or painting, than to find the surprise we at first feel to be not very powerful; and yet to find, by more frequently conversing with it, that it not only supports itself, but increases continually in our esteem, and at last leads to admiration.
An immense fortune was the consequence and reward of his inultifarious labours; his house displayed all the magnificence of a prince; under the superintendence of Penni, it was always open to those who loved and cultivated painting. He was, besides, connected with the first literati of his age; Ariosto, Bembo, and Castiglione, gloried in his friendship, and with them he amused his leisure hours. He was munificent to his cotemporary artists, whose necessities he saw and relieved; and far from making a secret of his talents, he was prodigal of advice to his pupils, whose studies he incessantly directed; he would frequently interrupt his own work to attend to their progress; and when he walked in the streets of Rome, he was always surrounded by his favourite scholars.
The accession of Leo X. was still more favourable to the happy destiny of Raphael; but he in secret cherished a desire of quitting Rome. Francis I. had then auspiciously commenced a reign, which, notwithstanding many subsequent calamities, will always be marked as the æra when literature and the arts first began to be encouraged in France. He invited Raphael to his court, and the illustrious painter would have acceded to his request, but was deterred by the intreaties of Bramante and the increasing liberality of Leo X. He then sent to the French monarch his picture of St. Michael, which was entirely executed by his own hand. For this he was so magnificently paid, that he considered himself obliged to send another to the king, which was his celebrated Holy Family. For this sublime production the king insisted on a still more liberal remuneration. It was in allusion to this generous struggle, that Francis I. in a letter which he wrote to Raphael, asserted, that all men of superior talents were upon an equal rank with sovereigns. Raphael, affected by so much condescension, then conceived his first idea of the Transfiguration, which he intended to present to Francis, as an act of becoming homage to his munificent and discerning patron. He had beside, another motive: he had, by this time, painted the rooms of the Vatican, the Farnesine Psyche, and he had sketched his famous cartoons; he had completed innumerable other master-pieces; but at length his genius appeared to slumber awhile, and criticism had already began to exercise itself upon some later compositions, which had been entirely executed by his pupils. He determined to silence the malignant attacks of his adversaries, and began that matchless performance, which was to be the perfection of the art. At the very same time, Michael Angelo had presented Sebastian del Piombo with a design of the resurrection of Lazarus, with a view of opposing this picture
to that of Raphael. This was another stimulus for the latter to exert all the powers of his mighty genius; and it occasioned him to say, "That it would have been dishonourable to struggle with Sebastian, but that it was glorious to contend with M. Angelo!" The world was about to be presented with the most finished production ever executed by the hand of man, but the premature death of Raphael prevented its completion. He had always indulged a violent passion for the sex, and in a city where his merit procured him the most unbounded licence, he had too many opportunities of gratifying his propensity. Some of his friends were not ashamed of assisting at his indiscretion; and a cardinal, who had invited him to his palace, in order to finish some paintings, was compelled also to admit his mistress.
The Cardinal Bibiena, desirous of withdrawing him from so much dissipation, had offered him his own niece in marriage; but Raphael, who had consented to this union only in deference to the cardinal, and who had besides received from Leo X. the promise of being created a cardinal himself, was in no haste to marry the niece of his friend, and continued to lead the most voluptuous life.At length, his imprudence injured his health, and the fatal excess produced a fever in his blood. A sense of shame prevented him from disclosing the cause to his physicians, and he fell a victim to their ignorance of his malady. He beheld the approach of death with pious resignation. He dismissed the woman who had shared his guilt, but settled upon her a sufficient sum to prevent her from again falling into similar errors. The names of all his pupils are to be found in his will. Francesco Penni, Julio Romano, and a priest of Urbino, his relation, were his principal legatees. At length, on Good Friday, 1519, the anniversary of his birth, he expired at the age of