Thursday, July 29, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Raphael: Painter in Rome by Stephanie Storey

Earlier this year I read and loved Stephanie Storey’s Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo. I’ve been waiting to dive into her newest book, Raphael: Painter in Rome. Again, Storey brings Renaissance Italy alive through its art and artists. 

Raphael is a handsome, exceedingly charming young man from Urbino, whose life’s ambition is to be known as the world’s greatest painter. He wants to achieve nothing less than perfection. (These ambitions were instilled in him by his father, also a painter.) To achieve these ends, Raphael knows he must make his way to Rome and paint for the pope.

The Vatican in particular and Rome in general are hotbeds of political intrigue. Raphael is told time and again that he’s too nice for Rome. The lovely thing about this novel is that Raphael actually is nice. He succeeds because of it, not in spite of it, sometimes accidentally, sometimes from sheer dumb luck, and mostly because of his talent.

The book is told in Raphael’s voice and he is the only narrator. Although his rivalry with Michelangelo is every bit as tense and competitive as was Leonardo’s, in this novel we don’t get to see the world from both points of view. Raphael’s is the one that matters. He’s tired of being a peripheral figure in Michelangelo’s world and this is his chance to tell his side of things.

Raphael’s voice is witty, youthful, clever, a little bit smarmy—he comes across as every bit the courtier he’s known to be. He is inherently honest, a rare trait for a man in Rome, but learns to lie when necessary. He’s ambitious, but doesn’t let ambition ruin him, choosing to do the right thing even when it means thwarting his own aims.

The novel deals with the politics of the times only through the lens of how it affects the art, in particular the competition between Raphael and Michelangelo. The pope, a true patron of the arts for all his other, numerous flaws, decides that by making them competitors, he can wring the best work out of both. The competition makes for an exciting narrative. But it’s Rafael’s personal journey, independent of Michelangelo, that makes this a beautiful novel.

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