Sisley lived in Marly-le-Roi, west of Paris, from 1875-77. There he painted numerous pictures of the elegant watering-place, one of the few remains of Louis XIV's summer palace, which was destroyed in 1793.
Half-way between a work of private devotion and a collector's piece, this picture was probably painted just before Raphael's move to Rome. Rather more evident than the influence of Perugino is that of Leonardo, who perfected the `serpentine' pose in which the body twists about its axis, lending movement, grace and three-dimensional presence even to static figures. Characteristically, Raphael justifies this unnatural position through a narrative device: Catherine turns her head upwards and to her right in ecstatic communion with the divine light descending in thin gold rays from the sky.
St Catherine of Alexandria is portrayed in a marvellous, twisted pose. Her left arm is leaning on her attribute, the wheel, and her right hand is pressed to her breast while she gazes up at a sky flooded with light. The composition is as rich in harmonious movement as the coloration is full and varied.
The landscape is painted with particular care. Its light shading indicates a residual influence of Leonardo, although the jagged mountains which often characterize Leonardo's landscapes are absent. The delicate modelling of the saint, the slight torsion of her body as she leans on the wheel of her martyrdom (whose spikes have been reduced to rounded knobs in order to tone down the element of cruelty) fully express the balanced character of Raphael's art. The panel clearly shows the intense formal research which underlies Raphael's figurative creations. He is always careful not to excite emotions which he considers too intense and to mitigate tones and thematic elements in search of a perfect balance between design, colour, pose and expression, and between the figurative and ornamental elements.
Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican
The third composition for the Stanza della Segnatura represents Parnassus, the dwelling place of Apollo and the Muses and the home of poetry, according to classical myth.
Mount Parnassus, the home of Apollo, is, like the hill of the Vatican, a place where in ancient times there was a shrine to Apollo dedicated to the arts. This has a direct bearing on the picture because through the window on the wall where the fresco is painted there is a view of the Cortile del Belvedere and the hill of the Vatican. There were newly discovered classical sculptures in the Cortile, such as the Ariadne that Raphael used as a model for the muse to the left of Apollo.
Apollo plays a lira da braccio (an anachronism which, according to some, was meant to symbolize the perpetual value of the poetic message). He sits under a laurel grove with the nine Muses (who personify the nine types of art). The most eminent classical and contemporary poets are depicted together in a harmonic ascending and descending movement from left to right. Homer is flanked by Virgil and Dante, Ovid and Horace are next to Sappho, while from the "ranks" of moderns we can identify Petrarch, Boccaccio and Ariosto. Petrarch is recognizable in the group in the left foreground; so is Sappho, who holds a scroll bearing her name; Ennius is seated above them, listening to the song of the blind Homer (who appears as a protagonist, like Apollo), behind him stands Dante, who had also appeared in the Disputa as a theologist, evidently because of the doctrinal content of the Divine Comedy. Some see the portrait of Michelangelo in the bearded figure immediately to the right of the central group, although it is more readily identified with Tebaldeo or Castiglione, for the scene is, after all, a celebration of poetry.
Raphael in several sketches significantly changed some of the details, including the musical instruments used. In the early versions Apollo played on a traditional stylized classical lyre, but this fresco shows him playing a Renaissance lira da braccio with a bow. The bow was unknown in Antiquity, although later they attributed its invention to Sappho. It has nine, instead of seven, strings to match the number of Muses; this, in Raphael's conception, signifies timelessness, just as the fact that the classical and contemporary poets are depicted together.
While working on this fresco, the artist may have become acquainted with that ancient sarcophagus from Asia Minor which is adorned with the relief sculpture of the nine Muses. This was his source for the three additional instruments shown in this fresco: Erato's kithara, to the right of Apollo, the Lydian aulos of Eutherpe, on the other side, and below, the strange, tortoise-shell lyre of Sappho - all of which he rendered striving for archeological accuracy.
In this fresco, music fills the role of moving force behind the Apollonian universe, at the same time being the symbol of poetry.
Compositional harmony and visual counterpoint characterize the fresco: the groups of figures are bound together by continuous lines and the single characters are represented in opposed but corresponding poses. Although the Parnassus lacks the high originality of the School of Athens, it demonstrates Raphael's illustrative ability. It is enriched by classical elements which must have held great appeal for a cultural class excited by the recent archaeological discoveries. Thus we must add Raphael's capacity to interpret contemporary taste to his genuine artistic skills.
Though the historical significance of Caravaggio and his enormous influence on Baroque painting cannot be overlooked, we should not ignore the fact that there was considerable resistance against the more extreme tendencies in his art, such as the loss of the heroic sphere, or the presentation of the everyday and the ordinary. His greatest rival, whose influence was to extend far beyond that of Caravaggio well into the 18th and 19th centuries, was undoubtedly the Bolognese artist Guido Reni. An early work such as The Massacre of the Innocents bears clear traces of his initial links with Caravaggio and, at the same time, already reveals the most important arguments against him.
Before a landscape bathed in light, but set with dark and heavy architecture, a group of eight adults and eight children (including the putti distributing the palm fronds of victory) has been skilfully arranged. The unusual vertical format, rarely used for this theme, and above all the symmetrical structure of figural counterparts indicate that Reni was particularly interested in a specific problem of composition: that of achieving a balance between centripetal and centrifugal movement while combining them in a static pictorial structure. Reni also seeks to achieve this equilibrium in his expression of effects and in the distribution of colour accents.