Remember the untemperamental geniuses

One victim of the Covid-19 pandemic had died 500 years earlier. Raphael (1483-1520) was due to get the quincentennial treatment from some august museums. Then the doors shut. When at last his moment came, the shows were drowned out in the hubbub of a reopening world. And so a big chance was lost to arrest two centuries of reputational drift for the artist. Raphael will continue to be seen as the bronze medallist of the High Renaissance, some distance beneath Michelangelo and Leonardo, whatever his technical perfection, whatever his former standing as their equal or better.

How did his star drop? For one thing, the modern mind finds it hard to believe that so uncomplicated a lad could be so total a genius. The Raphael who comes down to us in the records is cheerful and well-adjusted, an obliging courtier, a delegator, with manners as smooth as his face and, despite being orphaned at 11, few of those Florentine neuroses. “One couldn't write a bestseller about Rah-file,” drawled the art historian Kenneth Clark, in a dig not at the painter, but at our own demand for inner torment and outer conflict in our heroes.