Raphael's Fire in the Borgo and the Italian Pictorial Vernacular

By Reilly, Patricia L. | The Art Bulletin, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Raphael's Fire in the Borgo and the Italian Pictorial Vernacular


Reilly, Patricia L., The Art Bulletin


Raphael is famous for his pleasing, harmonious, and elegant compositions. Yet his Fire in the Borgo has been criticized for its lack of proportion, of one-point perspective, and of narrative coherence, as well as for its awkward nudes (Fig. I).1 These nudes, painted in the style or maniera of Michelangelo, have been described as overarticulated, disproportionate, and gratuitous. In sum, this painting has often been considered a disappointing anomaly diat can only be explained by attributing its execution to lesser hands.2 The belief that Raphael's assistants must have produced this work is perhaps best expressed by Frederick Hartt, who declared that "the idea that Raphael himself could have been responsible for it is unthinkable."3 However, rather than seeing the Fire in the Borgo as a tired pastiche executed by assistants, with its unusual formal elements, it can be taken to represent Raphael's argument for a new theory of painting, one that he developed in concert with the literary theorists at die court of Pope Leo X.

Raphael manipulated stylistic idioms in the Fire in the Borgo to create another level of content, one that differs from the narrative and die symbolic themes traditionally seen in this work and diat can explain the otherwise perplexing aspects of this image. When viewed in relation to die theory of the vernacular developed by Leo's papal secretary, Pietro Bembo, die Fire in the Borgo call also be understood as a poetic performance that asks to be assessed according to Bembo's new criterion for evaluating a work of literature: style over content. Just as Bembo made a case for a modern literature that was based on thé pleasing style of Petrarch rather than the grave style of Dante, Raphael made a case for an art based on die pleasing style of a Petrarchan Raphael over die grave one of a Dantean Michelangelo.

Begun in 1514 and measuring some seventeen by twenty feet, the Fire in tlie Borgo was die first of several frescoes Raphael painted in the Stanza dell'Incendio, Lhe private dining chamber óf the newly elected Pope Leo X (r. 151S21). Based on the life of one of Leo's predecessors and namesakes, Lhe eighth-century Pope Leo PV, this fresco depicts the pontiff extinguishing with a simple sign of the cross a fire diat had broken out in die neighborhood near St. Peter's. As die earliest accounts of this painting reveal, what was perceived in the twentieth century as this painting's lack of success is not inherent in die work itself, but arises from our expectations of what a painting by Raphael should be. In the first edition of die Lives (1550), for instance, Giorgio Vasari has nothing but praise for this work, drawing our attention to: those passages that demonstrate Raphael's artistic virtuosity.

He begins by describing not the pope in the background, but the two groups of figures on either side of the foreground. Pointing to the group of women on the right who carry water to battle die flames, he focuses as much on the elegant details of their hair and drapery as on the narrative itself (Fig. 2): "on one side there are women who carry vases of water in their hands and on their heads to extinguish die fire, and their hair and draperies are being whipped about with a most terrible fury from the tempest of the wind."4 He likewise singles out die anatomical details of the muscular and struggling nudes in the group on the left (Fig. 3) :

on the other side is pictured, in the same way that Virgil describes how Anchises was carried by Aéneas, an old sick man, overcome with infirmity and with the flames of the fire; here one can see courage in the figure of die youth, and the force and endurance of all of his limbs under the weight of die old man draped across his back. Following him is an old woman, barefoot and disheveled, who is fleeing the fire, and in front of them a young, nude boy.5

In the revised Lives, published some fifteen years later, Vasari reframed this assessment of die. …

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