Towards Beauty: Stephanie Storey’s Raphael, Painter in Rome

WRITTEN BY LUCINDA BYATT

Raffaello Santi of Urbino died in Rome, 500 years ago, aged just 37. His artistic genius is being celebrated there in a major exhibition that shut just three days after Italy’s lockdown and only reopened in June. Raphael’s brilliance was lauded in his lifetime, and contemporaries were immediately struck by the perfection of his works: the Stanze in the Vatican, the loggia at the Farnesina, and above all The Transfiguration. Stephanie Storey’s portrayal of him moves beyond the factual record, while being steeped in it. But she acknowledges, “Putting Raphael on the page has been a terrifying process.”

The novel is written in the first person, as he tells his life’s story in March 1520, just weeks before his death. Storey writes: “I had a hard time choosing to tell this story in first person because I know how difficult it is to write first person well. But the longer I spent with the story, the more convinced I was that the only way to see these Sistine Ceiling years differently was to hand the story to Raphael. We’ve heard the story from Michelangelo’s point of view over and over again; it was time for a new perspective. Plus, Raphael wouldn’t stop talking while I was writing, so I didn’t feel like I had a choice but to let him tell it in his own words. In general, first person scares me because it’s so easy to do poorly, but when it’s executed well, it’s my favourite point-of-view to read.

“The ‘talking to you, the reader, a friend’ took time to find. The conversational tone was always there, but I originally conceived the novel as if Raphael were talking to a very particular person from history. The decision to shift it was made with help from my agent. It was difficult to find the right balance for this, but once I did, I knew it was the right decision for this particular story. It just felt right.”

Many authors say that until they “find” a character’s voice, the story doesn’t start. Storey’s fictional reimagining of this brilliant artist whom she describes as “my constant companion and friend”, reveals more of the private man. Some of the conclusions she draws highlight the undoubted advantages of a novelist compared to an academic when it comes to psychological analysis. Storey explains: “His obsessive behaviours – what we today might diagnose as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – come from his paintings, which are obsessively refined: perfect perspective, perfect colour, perfect harmony, perfect brushstrokes… No one can be that perfect in their work without some of that desperate perfection bleeding over into their regular lives.

“Plus, since Raphael was orphaned so young – at age 11 – I imagined him like so many orphans: overcome with abandonment issues and desperate to control life so it didn’t happen to him again.

“In the Renaissance there is plenty of historical evidence that people suffered from obsessive behaviours – often called “melancholy” at the time. These behaviours were often religious rituals designed to assuage the sufferer’s guilt or fear of their own sin. So, I picked up some of those rituals and gave them to Raphael as a way for him to ease his own fears and feelings of powerlessness.”

Raphael’s portraits of women are the highlights of his work because he so openly adored the real women who became Psyche, Venus or the Madonna in paint. In Storey’s opinion, Felice della Rovere – Pope Julius II’s daughter and a political powerhouse in her own right – is “one of the most fascinating and dramatic people in the entire Italian Renaissance. I have no idea why there isn’t more historical fiction written about her.”

Raphael’s time in Rome coincided with some of the most famous courtesans of the Renaissance, in particular Imperia, whom Storey portrays with “pure, joyous imagination: I’ve always wondered about the kind of woman who would be a prostitute to the rich and famous – artists and cardinals and bankers– in Renaissance Rome, so I had the great pleasure of getting to create her!”

Lastly, there is Margherita Luti, whose anonymity is belied by the fame she acquired as the artist’s muse. As Storey writes, “we don’t have many written historical documents about Margherita, but we have more images of Margherita Luti than almost any historical figure from this time period. And Raphael’s portraits are so detailed and expressive, it always seems as if he has captured part of his sitter’s soul.” By studying Raphael’s portraits of Luti – La Fornarina, La Velata, the Sistine Madonna, and others –  Storey was able to absorb her expressions, her gestures, and her personality. In addition, Storey “incorporated some of the legends around some presumed portraits of her – like the woman in his Madonna della Seggiola who supposedly saved a monk from a pack of wolves – to find her. And I considered what kind of a woman might’ve attracted Raphael. It no doubt would’ve taken a strong woman to become his life-long muse.”

Many of Storey’s decisions are explained in her rich author’s notes. I asked whether the notes are a constraint or a positive addition to many historical novels. Her answer was categorically affirmative. “As a novelist, I feel it gives me the freedom to take even more artistic license because I know I can explain my decisions in the Author’s Note. Plus, I always try to base all of my decisions in some sort of historical research, so I appreciate the opportunity to explain that historical context for readers who care. As a reader, I love them because I’m a genuine history junkie so I get to learn more about what is ‘fact’ and what is imagined, and that helps me decide whether the historical subject is something about which I want to read more in non-fiction accounts.”

This is a joyous feast of a novel for those who enjoy Italian Renaissance art, but it reminds us to think of alternative versions: What if another artist had been ordered to cut down the Sistine ceiling?

About the contributor: Lucinda Byatt is HNR‘s Features Editor.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 93 (August 2020)


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