Wednesday, December 14, 2016
The second best painting at the Barberini
Let's talk about a painting.
It's by Raphael. You've heard of him. Big Renaissance painter. He never meant much to me. This painting is called La Fornarina. It's of a mostly naked woman. You could look it up on the Internet, but you won't see it. Oh, you'll see a picture of it, but it's not all that good.
I can barely begin tell you how satisfying that is to me.
Once I was in my family's living room with one of my older brothers. My parents had a picture of a Matisse in a frame on the wall. Because I was in art school at the time my brother asked me what was the point of a painting, what was the virtue of a painting if we can just make reproductions of it and hang it on our walls. Why even have museums?
And because all my brothers were assholes and most things they said were tests they hoped I would fail, it was a pleasure to pass that one. I told him there is no reproduction in the world that can get the colors right, the feel, the physicality, there is no picture that can fully reproduce a painting.
I have never really taken to Raphael. Many years ago my wife and I went to see Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. On the way we had to traipse through the bulk of Raphael's greatest work. It was not a great art viewing day. It was crowded. The Vatican is criminally mismanaged. None of it made me very happy.
A couple months ago we were in Rome. I was unusually excited to go to the Palazzo Barberini on this trip. But I kind of saved it up. Many times we went by the Barberini without going in. Their signs featured a picture of a woman oddly holding her breast. La Fornarina. It didn't look like much. We had bigger fish to fry at the Barberini. They have two of the best staircases in the world. They have these ceilings... They might have the greatest painting in the world.
But when we finally went it was a small enough museum, barely, to go see every painting in it. And even if it weren't we would have gone to see the Raphael. Why not? Sometimes, usually even, there's something to all that fuss. So we went to a room I can still picture. There on the wall was La Fornarina. Black hair, black eyes, a funny head scarf. I don't care who she was or what she looks like. It was.....
It was so clear. So perfect. So radiant as a painting, like the face of the painting was to another world. It's almost cartoon like in its perfection. Aye, what a thing. You don't need art history, not a bit of it. You don't need to know who it's of. You don't need to know who painted it or when. You just have to open your eyes. No, open them again.
But that's all you need.
Oh, except you have to see it. The actual painting. Nothing else will do. It is magic. The light comes from the inside out and goes dark in any picture ever taken of it. La Fornarina, like most great paintings, disappears in reproductions. La Fornarina is an unreproducible miracle. It is an incandescent wonder.
And it is at absolute most the far distant second best painting in the Barberini, which is its own kind of fun.