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Arabesques by Raphael

During the stay of Raphael in Rome, under the pontificate of Leo X, he was commissioned by that pontiff to decorate an arcade, which had been constructed during the reign of his predecessor, Julius II., by Bramante, whose daughter Raphael married.

It was determined, that while the theme of the necessary decorations should be sacred, their style and manner of execution should rival the finest remains of ancient painting which had been discovered at Rome up to that period. The general designs appear to have been made by Raphael himself, and the details to have been carried out by a chosen band of assistants, who unquestionably entered with wonderful zeal into the realisation of the great work. It was by their hands, controlled by the exquisite taste of the great Urbinese, that those celebrated "loggie", which have ever since their execution been a theme of admiration for all artists, were created. We have given a careful selection, showing the principal ornamental motives comprised in them in Plate LXXXVI.

Pilasters and Ornaments from the Loggie of the Vatican
Pilasters and Ornaments from the Loggie of the Vatican, Plate LXXXVI.

These arabesques cannot fairly be compared with the ancient, as the former were executed by the greatest masters of the age, and are applied to the decoration of an edifice of the highest magnificence and importance, whilst the latter were the productions of a less distinguished period of Art, and those now in existence ornament buildings of a class relatively far less important to Imperial magnificence than the Vatican was to Papal. The comparison might be fairer if we could but recall the faded glories of the Palace of the Casars, or the "Golden House" of Nero.

The ancient arabesques have, in almost every instance, all their parts kept upon a reduced scale, in order to favour the apparent extent of the locality they decorate; in addition to which they generally manifest a predominating general proportion between their several parts. They never present such striking differences in scale between the principal subjects as we find in the arabesques of Raphael, the component parts of which are sometimes as unreasonably large as they sometimes are unreasonably small. The greater is often placed beside and above the less, thereby emphaticising the dissonances, and being the more offensive by a deficiency in symmetry, as well as in the very ehoice of the motives for decoration. Thus, close to the richest arabesques, presenting, on a very small scale, elegant and minute combinations of flowers, fruit, animals, human figures, and views of temples, landscapes, etc, we find calices of flowers putting forth twisted stalks, leaves, and blossoms, all which, with reference to the adjoining and first-described arabesques, are of colossal proportion; thereby not only injuring the accompanying decorations, but also destroying the grandeur of the whole architectural design.

Lastly, on examining the choice of subjects with respect to the association of ideas indicated thereby, and the decorations in the symbols and allegories employed to convey them, we find that the works of the ancients, who reverted to no other source than their mythology, appear to great advantage, in point of unity of idea, when compared with the prevailing intermixture in the Loggie of that imaginary world with the symbols of Christianity". Such are among the general conclusions to which that profound student of ancient polychromy, M. Hittorff, has arrived, and it is impossible not to concur in their propriety; while condemning, however, such faults of ensemble, we must not lose sight of the exquisite graces of detail wrought out in their execution by Raphael and his scholars.

Proceeding from the Vatican to the Villa Madama, we find, immediately on entering its halls, that divisions create a less confusing general effect. In all the principal decorations there is a better regulated proportion, and greater symmetry; and in the magnificent roofs, notwithstanding the multiplicity of their ornaments, a more gratifying and calming influence is exerted upon us. Here, where all the principal subjects represent scenes from the mythology of the ancients, we find a pervading unity conceived more in the spirit of the ancients. If we adopt the general opinion and look upon this beautiful work as a second undertaking conceived by Raphael in the spirit of the Loggie, and executed entirely by Giulio Romano and Giovanni da Udine, we see how the favourite pupils of the incomparable master succeeded in avoiding faults against good taste, which he and his contemporaries cannot fail to have recognised in his former work, favourably as it was received by the popular voice, not only of courtiers, but of artists. Unlike the arabesques of the Vatican, which are executed, for the most part, upon white ground, those of this delicious suburban retreat are, for the most part, worked out upon variously colored grounds - a habit to which Giulio Romano appears to have been more partial than either Raphael or Giovanni da Udine.

The villa itself was built by Romano and his fellow-labourer for Pope Clement VII, when Cardinal, Giulio de Medici, the first designs having been given by Raphael. The work was still incomplete when it was partially destroyed by Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, to revenge himself upon Clement VII, who had burnt fourteen of his castles in the Campagna of Rome. The villa is now rapidly going to decay; but the grandeur of the three arches still remaining is sufficient to show that the design was worthy of Raphael; and that it was his is proved beyond a doubt, by a letter to Francesco Maria, Duke of Urbino, written by Castiglione, as well as by some drawings, which, together with the letter, are still in existence.

Stucco ceiling in the Palsazo Mattei di Giove, Rome, by Carlo Maderno
Detail of a Portion of a Stucco ceiling in the Palsazo Mattei di Giove, Rome, by Carlo Maderno.

The Villa Madama was purchased after the confiscation of the Medicis property, in 1537, by Margaret, daughter of Charles V, and widow of Duke Alexander de Medici, and from her title of Madama the villa takes its name. The building was partially restored, though never eqmpleted, and Margaret resided there on her marriage with Ottavio Farnese. The crown of Naples afterwards became possessed of it, with the rest of the Farnese property, through a marriage with that family.

So large a number of arabesque decorations were executed by the pupils and followers of Raphael, and so great was the skill acquired by them in this art, that it is now difficult to ascertain to whom we owe the beautiful arabesques which still decorate many of the palaces and country-houses in the neighbourhood of Rome.

After the premature death of Raphael, the bond that had united the brotherhood which had gathered around his person was snapped, and those who had so ably worked with him spread themselves in various directions throughout Italy, carrying with them the experience and knowledge they had acquired in the conduct of the great undertakings placed under his charge. Thus sown broadcast over the land were the elements of painted arabesque decoration. In proportion, however, as the artists, by whom subsequent works were undertaken, removed from the classic influences of Rome, their styles became more pictorial, and less purely decorative; and in the seventeenth century the arabesque manner became almost entirely merged in such florid decorations as suited the extravagant ideas of architectural magnificence nourished by the Jesuits.

In the days of Lorenzo Bernini, and at a later period in those of Francesco Borromini, the Stuccatore triumphed in every species of flourish, while in the scanty openings left between the fluttering wings and draperies of angels and saints suspended in vaults and cupolas in mid air, the decorative painter was allowed to place little else than the perspective tricks of the Padre Pozzo and his school.

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