In 1833, when Raphael’s mania was at its height, the Renaissance artist’s tomb was opened by order of the Pope, to establish whether his skull, long rumored to be elsewhere, was inside. (It was!) For some time afterwards, Raphael’s skeleton was displayed in the Pantheon in Rome for public devotion. But, according to Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, who witnessed his reburial, when the coffin was tilted so that it fit together, Raphael’s bones – until then treated with such reverence – slipped into the grave banging loudly. Whoops.

Something similar, I would say, happened to his reputation. It was obvious that Raphael was the gold standard of Western art. But now? For more than a century we have been educated in the subversive provocations of modernism, which upended the tradition of naturalistic painting which it pioneered. Today, in the wake of two world wars, and as a third threatens to break out, the polished perfection of Raphael’s paintings is almost strangely virtuosic: the great harmonizer of Western art, as Kenneth Clark called him , is too melodious for our rattling age. Certainly his graceful and tender representations of the Madonna and Child have none of the anguished terribilità that we associate and celebrate in the art of his rival Michelangelo.

Of course, Raphael still draws crowds, as the National Gallery’s new Covid-delayed blockbuster – designed to mark the 500th anniversary of his death in 1520 – which is now due to open next month, will no doubt demonstrate. Yet many of us, I suspect, admire Raphael’s art rather than adore him.

For anyone wishing to rekindle, or at least understand, the passionate reverence people once felt for Raphael, I have a suggestion: take a look at his portrait. In the National Gallery exhibition there will be around nine painted portraits, along with several drawings – and none of them feel aloof or aloof. On the contrary, they are charged with a remarkably modern sense of intimacy and immediacy – especially the later portraits of Raphael’s close friends, who, according to exhibition co-curator Tom Henry (who, on anniversary of Raphael’s death, likes to lay flowers on his grave), represent the artist “in his purest form”. Indeed, although he was busier than ever towards the end of his short life (he was only 37 when he died), Raphael did not delegate the portraits to assistants in his large studio. productive. Obviously, for him they had a great personal and artistic meaning until the end.

First, as an artist, Raphael – who was born in Urbino, where his father, Giovanni, was a prominent painter and poet – shuttled between various locations, undertaking commissions in Città di Castello, Perugia and Florence, where he went, a source tells us, per imparare (to learn). Almost “as soon as he put down his suitcase” in Florence, as Henry’s co-curator Matthias Wivel put it, in late 1504 or early 1505 Raphael, who kept absorbing and to transform the innovations of others (he had already, for example, mastered the soft and angelic style of the Italian painter Perugino), went to see Leonardo da Vinci. What he saw inside the older artist’s studio, where he studied the unfinished Mona Lisa, transformed his approach to portraiture, as it taught him that conveying someone’s inner life was as important as capturing her looks.