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David Rijser, Raphael's Poetics: Art and Poetry in High Renaissance Rome
by Robert E. Wood

Rijser, David. Raphael’s Poetics: Art and Poetry in High Renaissance Rome. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012. xxvii + 475 pp. ISBN 978-9089643421. $47.50 paper.


Raphael’s Poetics is a sophisticated exercise in freewheeling typology that opens new interpretive possibilities for the High Renaissance in Rome. Particularly important is the insistence on the importance of the Renaissance Latinists and a loosening of the constrictions of both Florentine-dominated criticism and the cult of the individual artist in subsequent art history. The chains of conjecture are often long, but the evidence along the way is always of interest. Rijser approaches Raphael from a literary perspective, viewing images in the context of a culture conditioned by ancient and neo-Latin poetics. The ekphrastic tradition in poetry is used as a guide to an analysis in which the participation of the viewer is essential. Considering interactive typology and emphasis leads to an examination of spaces (thus decorative programs) and participants (or patrons).

Chapter 1, “Nature’s Anxiety: Epigram and Biography as a Guide to Raphael’s Achievement,” argues that in the 18th century, the concept of artistic autonomy replaced contextual viewing. Rijser undertakes to restore context first by consideration of the epigram, which he sees as having both literary and monumental functions. In particular, he argues that the Renaissance use of the Neo-Latin epigram participates in a restoration of the city of Rome and a synthesis of Roman and Christian culture. The death of Raphael on Good Friday in 1520 suggested to his contemporaries a typological reading of the artist himself that is reflected in their elegiac verse. Moreover, Raphael’s burial in the Parthenon, following his intentions, identified him as artist with a Rome which represented both the decay and revival of classical antiquity. Rijser offers a close reading of the gravesite. Over an altar stands a statue of Madonna and Child by Lorenzetti. An inscription on the gravesite praises Raphael for combining ars and natura in harmony, a quality Horace finds in the ideal poet, and also commends Raphael for emulating antiquity. Rijser also suggests that the inscription may be linked to the work of Pico and Ficino in which the artifex is seen as a deus in terris. Moreover, Lorenzetti’s statue, at Raphael’s request, was modeled on an ancient statue of Venus and Amor, further emphasizing the link with antiquity.

For his contemporaries, the typological significance of Raphael derived from his role as architect and restorer. Given the job of principal architect of the restoration of Saint Peter’s, Raphael also undertook an assessment of the fragments of Ancient Rome. Consequently, in a funerary epigram by Castiglione, Raphael’s restorative powers are compared to those of Aesculapius. But although this aspect of Raphael’s life has some influence on Vasari’s well-known biography, the lesser significance of Rome to the Florentine Vasari diminishes this aspect of his image. Rijser argues that this contextual reading of Raphael has been neglected by subsequent generations because such a reading depends upon the acceptance of a secular typology, which seems like blasphemy to Post-Reformation cultures, and also upon an interest in the prisca theologia, which assumes that traces may be found of a universal enlightenment.

Chapter 2, “Rule without End,” examines the stylistic, intellectual, and political significance of Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura. The papacy of Julius II sought legitimacy for its practical secular objectives, and a major source of legitimizing rhetoric was classical Rome and Cicero in particular. But arguing the harmony of history involved visual arts as well. In fact, Rijser argues that the art in the Julian program is the theology, the argument that all cultural traditions converged in Christian Rome. Any first analysis of the Renaissance emphasizes the revival of Greek. But Lorenzo Valla’s exposure of the forged Donation of Constantine, a document that seemed to cede secular power in the West to the papacy, depended upon both his historical knowledge of Latin and his own rhetorical skills. Such humanistic skills were subsequently enlisted in arguing the legitimacy of the Roman Church. If Rome was in ruin, Latin eloquence still survived. Further, Rijser argues a strong interaction of verbal and visual rhetoric.

The Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican displays poets, philosophers, dispensers of justice, and theologians. Philosophers stand opposite the theologians. The representations gesture toward the physical space of the room inviting a sense of continuity between past and present. Famously, the classic philosophers are represented by Renaissance figures: Bramante for Euclid, Michelangelo for Heraclitus. Rijser’s argument insists upon parallels between the verbal and visual aspects of the Julian project. The key element in the application of typology to the classical world is the appropriation of the Augustan cultural project, especially the work of Virgil. The Aeneid aspires to harmony after discord, a program as suited to the needs of Julian Rome as it was to that of Augustus. Part of the program of the appropriation of the past was the appropriation of style, the rhetorician’s art of making concepts visible, which naturally evoked the example of the visual arts. The persuasive power of Raphael’s frescoes, Rijser argues, lies in the virtual reality of the spaces, the logic and harmony of the groupings with the plausible connective gestures of the figures. The order serves not as an end in itself but as an expression of the Julian papacy’s claim to cultural and political centrality.

The view of poetry as a divine madness with prophetic powers was supported by Cristophoro Landino, drawing perhaps on Ficino. That, as makers, Raphael and the other great artists of the Renaissance were poets is seen by the esteem in which they were held, their place in the cultural programs, and the theory of the time. Horace’s Ars Poetica with its famed precept ut pictura poesis suited the programs of the Renaissance. A treatise by Inghirami, the papal librarian, commenting on Horace, begins “Poetics and rhetoric are twin sisters and share their precepts.” He continues by attributing early civilization itself to the poetic mind used as an instrument by the immortal gods. But where Horace curbs poetic license, insisting that harmony remains essential, Inghirami insists that truth may be encoded or hidden from the uninitiated. Rijser traces several notes in Inghirami’s treatise directly to Rafael’s frescoes. A phrase on knots is reflected in the hidden name of Julius in the knot pattern on the altar in the Disputa, and perhaps Pythagoras in the fresco later called the School of Athens indites mysteries. Rijser also traces chains of association to the Marsyas figure in another fresco: flayed alive for daring to challenge Apollo, Marsyas was often seen as a figure of spiritual rapture or even as a Christ figure. In a more daring gesture, Rijser associates the Parnassus fresco with the Villa Belvedere, which was visible through the window it framed. In making such links Rijser extends to the limit, and perhaps beyond, the concept of context.

This connection opens the consideration of the sculpture collection at the villa, within which stands the Apollo Belvedere. And in one of the many ekphrastic poems inspired by the collection Apollo speaks: the poem by Capodifero deftly works its way through Virgilian prophesy to Augustus and beyond, ultimately to Julius. The typological association of Apollo with Christ, seemingly obvious in Rome, though never so in Northern Europe, associated Julius with the fulfilment of both the Roman and the Christian golden age. The Vatican hill formerly sacred to Apollo was seen as confirmation that time and place were propitious for renovation. The classical sculpture collection of the Villa Belvedere played a considerable role in itself as part of the Julian vision. As warrior pope he quoted from the Aeneid and saw parallels between his tribulations and those of Aeneas. His Roman statues signified to him the power of Rome and the divine protection the city had always enjoyed. The power of the artist and the poet to envision this new Rome on the site of Roman Ruins was essential to the propagation of Julian’s vision. If speculation is correct, Raphael placed his own image on Mount Parnassus next to that of Virgil in the Stanza della Segnatura. A depiction of the librarian Inghirami is close by, looking upward.

Chapter 3, “Let No One without Poem Enter: The Corciana, Raphael and the Roman Intellectual Context,” examines the circle of Johannes Goritz of Luxembourg, who rose to prominence in the curia of Leo X. At the peak of his career, his annual celebration of the feast of St. Anne at his chapel in Sant’Agostino, followed by a party in his garden, marked a gathering of curial humanists and artists. Although the official duty of the curial humanists was the production of documents in Latin, in leisure they gathered in circles that dined together and shared intellectual conversation on the model of pagan convivia. Such groups appeared in Florence and other Italian cities, but the Romans were Latinists and naturally focused on Ancient Rome rather than classical Greece. Among the most serious of the humanists in re-enacting ancient Roman models was Pomponio Leto, a teacher of Latin literature and history, eventually a professor at the University of Rome. Pomponio followed an austere regime and Roman agricultural precepts in addition to his studies. His Academy encountered some political difficulties during the papacy of Paul II, but was rehabilitated under Sixtus IV, himself a humanist. At stake was the blending of pagan and Christian elements through a typological parallel. As the Old Testament was fulfilled by the New, so the power of the Roman Empire was to be succeeded by and perfected by a golden age of papal theocracy.

Such an attempt to connect the Roman past to the Christian vision is undertaken in the poetic altarpieces attached to the Goritz chapel on the feast of St. Anne. These poems, later collected under the name Coriciana (Coricius being the Latin form of Goritz), constituted the “price of entry” to the feast that followed the saint’s day mass. In celebrating the anticipated feast, the poems make clear the connection between the Christian ritual and the pagan revival to follow. Passages of the poems link Goritz (as Coricius) with a cave on Mount Parnassus and with a gardener in Virgil’s Georgics. Within the chapel, Goritz’s “column” consists of an altar decorated with Sansorino’s sculpture of the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne and surmounted with Raphael’s fresco of the prophet Isaiah. The site suggests multiple intertextualities and interactions. Raphael’s Isaiah is linked to the statuary below by proffering a scroll of prophesy in Hebrew, and is also flanked by putti holding declarations dedicating the chapel to the subjects of the statuary, Anne, Mary, and the Redeemer Christ. Rijser finds in the context an implicit inclusion of the entire prophesy of Isaiah with its promise of destruction and renewal. Gestures of the statue of the Christ Child both echo Isaiah and point toward the altar.

This theme of a Golden Age, sponsored by the High Renaissance papacy, was actively celebrated in a widely circulated sermon by Egideo da Viterbo, the Augustinian who eventually became Cardinal Protector. Egideo argued that the Golden Age promised by the coming of Christ was in the process of being realized. And Rijser suggests that Egideo may have participated in designing the program of the Goritz column. The poems of the Coriciana further support the theme of the Golden Age, the idea of the artist inspired by piety, and the coming together of Virgil’s and Isaiah’s prophesies. A large section of the Coriciana is devoted to ekphrastic commentary putting the viewer in touch with the unspoken words and thoughts of the images, the lapis loquens or pictura loquens. The bulk of such commentary refers to the statuary, a tradition reinforced by the Pygmalion legend and the contemporary Pasquino’s utterances, but Raphael’s Isaiah is also seen as entering the ekphrastic discourse. In the mingling of Classical and Christian traditions, the ancient artists become the types of those of the Renaissance. And the predominance of female images in Sant’Agostino may even have lent an erotic dimension to the prisca theologia. In the end, the sack of Rome in 1527 shattered the convivial assemblies of the curial humanists. The notion that all traditions had revelatory power was replaced by the stricter paradigm of Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

“Interlude: Silenus’s Song” prepares a transition to the analysis of the art of the Villa Farnesina by examining some of the ambiguities of interpretive criteria. Rijser’s treatment of visual images as a kind of poetry suggests analogies with literary theory. He suggests that the classical levels of interpretation, those that Dante specified for his Commedia, remained in effect for visual images, in the Renaissance, but that the application of those levels was vague. The relation of text and context, particularly in the case of pictor creator, is consequently problematized. Rijser here anticipates reading Raphael’s Galatea as reflecting a tension between the role of hired craftsman and that of autonomous creator. Considering the diversity of the contemporary interpretive community, a unified program may not be expected. The Farnesina will be considered by Rijser under the less binding expectations of pastoral diversity. A typological model which shifts registers without being bothered by inconsistencies is taken as the High Renaissance norm. Again Latin poetry is seen as a model: as an inflected language Latin offers a free word order opening possibilities of juxtapositions of words and inversions that multiply meaning. Latin rhetorical conventions also allow various substitutions of abstract for concrete, and metonymic associations, “the art of using the wrong word.” Rijser argues that realistic representational techniques may be coupled with medieval narrative conventions, citing Spenser’s use of both The Faerie Queene and Belphoebe to represent different aspects of Queen Elizabeth. Renaissance book illustration furnishes a further example of tapestry-like continuity in which a single image may occupy different places and times in the narrative. Virgil’s Eclogues serve as further illustrative examples: in the Eclogues are found “prophesy, paradise, and politics” and, in the Renaissance, a Christian element as well. In the sixth eclogue, the drunken Silenus is persuaded to song, and utters a series of lyrics that mingle the beautiful and the horrible. This combination of tragedy and comedy, the beast and song may be seen as suggesting the double nature of the Christian God. Reference to such freewheeling narratives, together with a strong insistence on Horace’s likening of poetry to pictorial art, introduces the examination of Agostino Chigi’s Villa Farnesina. In anticipation, Rijser examines the myth of Polyphemus courting the sea nymph Galatea in an elegy by Sannazaro, a business associate of Chiga. Sannazaro’s Galatea becomes a variant of Virgil’s Galatea. Variations in themselves become the norm. “Pastoral is a game of hide and seek” in art as in poetry.

Chapter 4 “Airy Nothing Gets a Local Habitation and a Name” turns to the Villa Farnesina, a leisure palace and thus a site at which the classic tradition in art took precedence over the Christian element. Agostino Chigi, one of the richest men of his time, had gained much of his wealth from tax-farming commodities such as salt and alum and operated a merchant fleet of 1000 ships. Though wealthy, Chigi was not an aristocrat, and it was some time after the death of his first wife and while he was engaged in marriage negotiations for a second that he had the Villa Farnesina constructed as an antidote to status-incongruence for a merchant intimate to Julius II. The villa is seen to function as a place of business and of civilized otium. Within the villa, the Sala del Fregio is decorated with exempla—images of Hercules, the loves of Jupiter—

that Rijser reads as emblems of civilizers. Poems by Blosio and Gallo in praise of the villa picture Chigi as patron of the arts and in particular of the villa as a representation of Chigi presiding over “an eternal spring.” The virtues of the suburban villa, tranquility and an Epicurian ease, celebrated by Martial and other Roman poets, are echoed in the work of Blosio and Gallo in praise of the Villa Farnesina. In Roman antiquity, the desire for space led to illusionistic wall painting representing pastoral vistas inhabited by rural deities. For the Romans, the permissive aspects of erotic myth as art could, Rijser suggests, coexist with the concept of Roman virtue. For the rhetorical agenda of Blosio and Gallo, the ekphrastic poetry of Statius became of particular interest for its depiction of a Roman world in which the aristocracy had withdrawn from politics. The poems, as thanks for hospitality, associate the description of the house with the virtues of the patron. Allusion invokes both culture and nature, in particular Venus genetrix as a force of nature. Description in mythic terms encourages timeless fantasy. In an epigram by Blosio, Jupiter envies the gardens of Chigi where Leo dines. Rijser views ekphrasis as fundamentally atemporal, allowing the viewer “to communicate with the object.” As important to the estate as the palace is the garden, the site of the pastoral and metaphorically of the Christian paradise as well. The walled garden as literary topos accompanies a developing garden culture influenced by both monastic and secular gardens. To the Renaissance garden are added the stones and statues drawn from the Roman ruins. The Villa Farnesina itself is characterized by openness and elegance. For the poets, however, the frescoes served only an auxiliary purpose, to be considered after moving inward from the garden. In the process of renovatio the Latin texts had led the way and poetry served as a guide to activating the imagination. But subsequent history cedes preeminence in this task to painting.

At the Villa Farnesina, the openness of the architectural design suggests a continuity of art and nature. The artistic program reflects this continuity. In an astrological pantheon, the vault of the Sala di Galatea displays Chigi’s horoscope dominated by Mercury and Venus, again seen as a Venus Genetrix. The reading of the lunettes painted by Sebastiano del Piombo is more complex. Rijser argues, partly on the basis of the ekphrastic poetry of Blosio, for an open reading of the Ovidian lunettes, meaning that one may find correspondences without a strict mapping of narratives to a consistent program. As the vault clearly relates to Chigi’s life, it is plausible that the lunettes do as well. At the same time too much precision could be awkward if not dangerous. Chigi, while engaged in marriage negotiations with one woman had returned from Venice with another, a young woman who was to be his concubine (later his wife). Shortly thereafter, the courtesan Olympia, whose patron he was, committed suicide. Rijser finds in the Ovidian images of the lunettes echoes of Chigi’s physiognomy and his red hair (repeated below in the Polyphemus) and Chigi’s romantic imbroglio provides ample opportunity for shadowy cross references with Ovidian myths. Rijser looks particularly at Tereus, Procne and Philomena in which turmoil is resolved by a metamorphosis that evokes birds and nature. Below the lunettes are the frescoes of Polyphemus (Sebastiano) and Galatea (Raphael). The Polyphemus of the fresco is that of the fable in which Polyphemus as shepherd longs in vain for the sea nymph Galatea. But the Galatea famously became “a Raphael” and subsequently was considered in the context of Raphael’s body of work leaving context (and Polyphemus) behind. In the absence of a specific iconic precedent, the Galatea can be seen as a composite of traditional images of sea nymphs. References to both pictorial and sculptural precedents can be found (Botticelli in the putti, the Torso Belvedere in a Triton). Yet the whole with its allusions and intertexts is held together by a strong disegno. As icon of the illusive mistress, Galatea nonetheless dominates the room from only one perspective. Tracing Polyphemus from his Homeric image to that of a shepherd brings us to Theraclitus in whose work Polyphemus is an unsophisticated peasant in search of an illusive mirage-like Galatea. To the extent that the painted Polyphemus suggests Chigi himself we must make allowances for Chigi’s sense of humor and the ambiguous nature of the allusions. To further the ambiguity of the narrative, Virgil’s Eclogues can be seen to establish pastoral situations in which Polyphemus and Galatea become roles. Raphael’s Galatea is also read as paragone when its comparative isolation is seen as a deliberate reference to a picture gallery. Rijser further argues that it is the Philostratus (that is the Roman) account of Galatea that is the painter’s source rather than that of the contemporary Poliziano. Finally Rijser examines parallels between the Sala di Galatea and Alphonso d’Este’s Camerino to argue the logic of viewing Raphael’s fresco in the context of a picture gallery rivaling those of the ancients. Rijser closes by somewhat whimsically viewing the Villa Farenesa as a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream, ended by the deaths of Chigi and Raphael followed by the sack of Rome in 1527.


Robert E. Wood
Georgia Institute of Technology


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Cite as:

Robert E. Wood, "David Rijser, Raphael's Poetics: Art and Poetry in High Renaissance Rome," Spenser Review 43.3.59 (Winter 2014). Accessed September 20th, 2018.
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