Most people think learning history is boring, something required in school and then promptly forgotten, like algebra. But, those people never had a history teacher who knew the little stories, and the little stories that make history interesting. For me, art history is not just looking at pretty pictures with pretty colors; it is also a large body of knowledge about the culture and customs of real people. I was fortunate to learn from a number of gifted art historians, no, really storytellers, as teachers. This is one of those little stories.
Italian Renaissance giants Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael Sanzio had an unspoken competition. The irascible Michelangelo, forced by Pope Julius II into painting the ceiling of his own private chapel, the Sistine as we know it, complained that he was not a painter, but a sculptor. This complaint fell on deaf ears as the pope had a war to fight and neither time nor patience for soothing the artistic temperament. If the tale is true, the pope had even less patience for seeing that the artist was paid. Food being a necessity, this was a bone of contention between artist and patron. Raphael, on the other hand, blessed with a much more affable personality, never seemed to lack for funds, friends, or food. Both artists were occupied with the private artistic visions of the pope in the Vatican simultaneously.
The work of Raphael in the Vatican Stanze was open to the curious. Michelangelo left strict orders that no visitors were to be allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo, busy as a bee himself, consumed with a daunting task, apparently had little interest in the work of Raphael. But Raphael had an interest in his. He paid a secret visit aided by the pope to view the chapel ceiling in progress. So profoundly did it affect him that he returned to his work in the Stanza della Segnatura, the private library of the pope, where he proceeded to pay tribute to Michelangelo by incorporating a seated figure of Michelangelo in the foreground of his masterpiece fresco, The School of Athens.
That is only the background for this little story. Perhaps not so well known then as his Madonnas or his magnificent Vatican frescoes, Raphael Sanzio also executed a stunning fresco of The Prophet Isaiah in Sant Agostino in Rome in 1511-12. The donor patron of Isaiah was Head Chancellor of the Papal Court, Johannes Goritz of Luxemburg. Ruffled by what he considered to be an exorbitant price for the painting by Raphael, Goritz solicited Michelangelo for his opinion of its worth. Michelangelo looked at the painting of his chief rival with its powerfully rendered figure of the prophet. Rarely one to acknowledge the genius in others, Michelangelo simply replied, ‘For that knee alone, it is worth the price.’