The American Scholar

Two Prophets and an Angel

IN 1510, 27-YEAR-OLD Raphael Sanzio became the talk of Renaissance Rome. His commission to paint two frescoes on the walls of the private apartments of Pope Julius II—which were anything but private—had led to an exclusive engagement to decorate the whole suite. His most flamboyant competitor, the crusty Florentine Michelangelo Buonarroti, had been sequestered for two years inside the Sistine Chapel, a sculptor compelled to paint the chapel’s vast ceiling by a pope notoriously deaf to the word no. Julius, of course, was right. Rumors suggested that Michelangelo could handle a brush as brilliantly as a chisel, and in 1510, Raphael gained admittance to the sanctum to have a look for himself. What Raphael saw transformed his own work, to Michelangelo’s endless annoyance.

By that time, however, Raphael was well beyond copying anything he saw. Through some mysterious alliance of hand, eye, and brain, he smoothed the irregular edges of reality into a

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