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Tropes of revelation in Raphael's Transfiguration *.

"for it often happens that painters, like poets, stray from their subject in order to make their work more ornate." -- Giorgio Vasari, Life of Raphael (1)

In 1516 or early 1517 Raphael received the commission from Cardinal Giulio de'Medici for the Transfiguration (Fig. 1), which, when completed, was to be sent with its companion piece, the Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo, to the cathedral of Narbonne, France. (2) Raphael's altarpiece never left Rome, however. It was nearly finished at his death in 1520, when it was placed above the tomb of the artist in the Pantheon (then called Santa Maria Rotunda) until the cardinal himself donated the picture to San Pietro in Montorio in the same city. (3)

Not surprisingly, the poignant association of the picture with the death of the nearly deified artist endowed the altarpiece with something of the miraculous, particularly for those who wrote about the painting. (4) For Giorgio Vasari, who repeatedly inscribed biographical events within typological frameworks in his Lives of the Artists (1550; 2nd edition, 1568), Raphael's Transfiguration stands as a double synecdoche for the marvels of the painter and the art of painting. The painting exemplifies the full development and culmination of the artist's brilliant career and the subject of the painting stands as an allegory on the transformative nature of representation in general. (5) Vasari offers this description:

In this scene he represented Christ Transfigured on Mount Tabor, at the foot of which are the eleven [sic] Disciples awaiting Him. There may be seen a young man possessed by a spirit, who has been brought thither in order that Christ, after descending from the mountain, may deliver him; which young man stretches himself out in a distorted attitude, crying and rolling his eyes, and reveals his suffering in his flesh, his veins, and the beat of his pulse, all infected by that malignant spirit; and the color of his flesh, as he makes those violent and fearsome gestures, is very pale. This figure is supported by an old man, who, having embraced him and taken heart, with his eyes wide open and the light shining in them, is raising his brows and wrinkling his forehead, showing at one and the same time both strength and fear; gazing intently, however, at the Apostles, he appears to be encouraging himself by trusting in them. Among many women is one, the principal figure in that panel, who, having knelt down before t he Apostles, and turning her head towards them, stretches her arms in the direction of the maniac and points out his misery.... [Christ], clothed in snow-white raiment, with His arms outstretched and His head raised, appears to reveal the Divine essence and nature of all the Three Persons united and concentrated in Himself by the perfect art of Raphael, who seems to have summoned up all his powers in such a manner, in order to show the supreme force of his art in the countenance of Christ, that, after finishing this, the last work that he was to do, he never again touched a brush, being overtaken by death. (6)

Although Vasari devotes most rhetorical energy to the description of Christ, he somewhat unexpectedly refers to the kneeling female figure in the center foreground (Fig. 2) as "the principal figure in that panel." With her back to the viewer, she kneels in a twisted contrapposto pose--her right knee forward and right shoulder back, left knee positioned slightly behind the right and her left shoulder forward, and arms directed to the right and her face turned to the left--and offers a structural and compositional bridge between the figures gathered around the demoniac boy on the right and the nine apostles on the left. In neither group, yet connecting each of them, the figure, not explicitly mentioned in the biblical accounts of the event, (7) appears to be handled differently from the others, Raphael renders her skin and drapery in much cooler tones than those he uses for the figures in heavy chiaroscuro in the lower scene and illuminates her pink garment, which twists to accentuate her pose, so that it a lmost shines as white with light as those draperies of the transfigured Christ and Moses and Elijah, the Old Testament prophets who flank him. (8) Her spatial and tonal isolation from the surrounding figures, and their apparent obliviousness to her stunning presence, suggest that we should read the significance of this figure as different from the others, as Vasari implied, and as the Flemish painter Rubens later suggested in his interpretation of the figure as an intercessor in his own Transfiguration, executed in 1604-05 (Nancy, Musee des Beaux-Arts). (9) A later reader, Jacob Burckhardt, extended, and complicated, such responses in his comments in the Cicerone (1855), where he wrote that "the woman lamenting on her knees in front is at it were a reflection of the whole incident." (10) Finding significance in her difference, Burckhardt read the figure as a formal structure which, somewhat paradoxically, encloses within itself the larger meaning of the event as a depicted whole.

Following these earlier readings, this essay addresses the specific role and significance of the twisting female figure in the Transfiguration through a consideration of Renaissance efforts to invest the represented human figure with rhetorical and poetic functions and affects. These efforts, perhaps best demonstrated in the work of Raphael, reach beyond the simple inclusion or philological citation of visual analogues of rhetorical figures--such as the embodiment of antithesis in the contrapposto, for example--to a more complex and genuinely creative pictorial intelligence in which artists develop the affective potential of the visual trope, or, in this case, the emotional, ontological, and temporal dimensions of the turning pose. As Raphael's most obviously striking depiction of the figura serpentinata (serpentine figure), the kneeling female in his Transfiguration is a culminating example of the artists sustained interest in the changing, multivalent significance of the turning pose and its figuration of conceptual turns in events, such as divine intervention and revelation.


We find Raphael's clearest and most sustained statement of his developing interest in the eloquence and range of meaning possible in the depicted human figure--in its pose, its movement, and its participation in complex groupings of figures--in the frescoes executed for the Stanza della Segnatura, especially the School of Athens (Fig. 3) and the Disputa (Fig. 4). Faced with the challenge of giving visual form to different disciplines, Raphael created multi-figured compositions in which historical and biblical figures interact in the same space and, despite the occasional identifying attributes, figure through poses and gestures the more general concepts relating to their specific beliefs and ideas and to the depicted discipline as a whole. We think, for example, of the well-known gestures of Plato and Aristotle in the School ofAthens that simply and eloquently express their distinct philosophies. These figures, collected together in a unified space but not linked by any narrative or shared history; come t o animate and personify the thoughts and writings expressed in the books stored in the library in which they appear; but they behave and interact with an integrated vitality and fluidity not found in traditional personifications.

Indeed, as we see in Raphael's preliminary efforts to include an isolated, static personification in the Disputa, his highly figural conception of the body makes such allegory superfluous, even irrelevant, if only because its general structure of signifying pervades all of the figures. In one preparatory study (Royal Library, Windsor Castle) Raphael included on the left side of the composition a figure positioned midway between the figures on earth--the church fathers, cardinals, popes, among others--and the saints and Old Testament figures seated in the clouds of heaven. (11) Placed within an architectural frame, it stands on both a ledge and clouds and gestures up to heaven. Raphael isolates the figure from the central group and from any particular level within the composition; however, the logic of isolation and stratification determines how we read the figure. Standing between the levels of earth and heaven, it operates as a personification of faith--a concept particularly important in a fresco which addresses the mystery of transubstantiation. In the final fresco, the previously isolated personification appears within the central group on the level of the discussion, directing to the monstrance the figure searching a book for answers. The youth still represents an abstract concept, but one which participates with and affects, rather than presides over, the rest of the figures. (12)

Raphael's effort to avoid an absolute hypostasizing of an abstract concept not only suggests the pervasiveness of the personified idea within the depicted scene but also clearly and fully responds to and realizes the eloquence attributed to the body in fifteenth-century painting theory. Conceiving of the body as an index of the mind, Quattrocento writers advance a new mode of reading the body in which all figures function as signs which point beyond themselves, while nonetheless referring to an aspect of themselves. (13) Leon Battista Alberti articulates many times in his On Painting (1435) the close correspondence between states of being and the appearance of the body: "A 'historia' will move spectators when the men painted in the picture outwardly demonstrate their own feelings as clearly as possible ... These feelings are known from movements of the body. We see how the melancholy, preoccupied with cares and beset by grief, lack all vitality of feeling and action, and remain sluggish, their limbs unsteady an d drained of color." (14) Nearly fifty years later, Leonardo da Vinci approached the same issue, writing in his notebooks: "That figure is most praiseworthy which best expresses through its actions the passion of its mind." (15) Represented bodies, these theorists imply, always have the potential to personify abstract affects and, correspondingly, the act of reading these bodies involves a process analogous to hermeneutics.

Both this conception of the painted body and the hermeneutic reading necessary for understanding it derives, in large part, from the ancient rhetorical and poetical theories of figurative language which served as the paradigm for Renaissance painting. Treatises on oratory, especially those by Cicero and Quintilian, offered an important model in the figure of the orator for the close correspondence between the motions of the mind and those of the body. Quintilian provides the following prescriptions in a lengthy exposition on gesture in his Institutio Oratoria: "[I] will proceed first to the discussion of gesture which conforms to the voice, and like it, obeys the impulse of the mind ... For we can indicate our will not merely by a gesture of the hands, but also with a nod from the head: signs take the place of language in the dumb" (12.3.65-66). These ancient texts suggest their relevance to the visual arts when the writers discuss the "visual" qualities of eloquence, especially with the human body as the gui ding metaphor.

For the term [figure] is used in two senses. In the first it is applied to any form in which thought is expressed, just as it is to bodies which, whatever their composition, must have some shape. In the second and special sense, in which it is called a schema, it means a rational change in meaning or language from the ordinary and simple form, that is to say, a change analogous to that involved by sitting, lying on something or looking back. (9.1.10-11)

The body as metaphor is a visual figure for a more complex poetics, a system of language. Significantly, the depicted body advised in Renaissance painting makes literal the metaphor but maintains the same referential relationship as the body in the examples from rhetoric; the painted body functions and means no differently from the rhetorical figures which assume the metaphors of the corporeal.

Undoubtedly these discussions, as many scholars have demonstrated, shaped the Renaissance conception of painting in general; but the mention in these texts of specific figures in ancient sculpture and painting had the most profound influence on the introduction of specific figures in Renaissance painting. Perhaps the most important, if not protracted and well known, citation of works of art as demonstrations of rhetorical operations occurs in Quintilian's discussion of the importance of the modification of rules and the importance of movement in speech.

The body when held bolt upright has but little grace, for the face looks straight forward, the arms hang by the side, the feet are joined and the whole figure is stiff from top to toe. But that curve [flexus], I might almost call it motion [motus], with which we are so familiar, gives an impression of action and animation ... Where can we find a more violent and elaborate attitude than that of the Discobolus of Myron? .... A similar impression of grace and charm is produced by rhetorical figures, whether they be figures of thought or figures of speech. For they involve a certain departure from the straight line and have the merit of variation from the ordinary usage. In a picture the full face is most attractive. But Apelles painted Antigonus in profile, to conceal the blemish caused by the loss of one eye. So, too, in speaking, there are certain things which have to be concealed, either because they ought not to be disclosed or because they cannot be expressed as they deserve. Timanthes ... provided an examp le of this in the picture ... [which] represented the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and the artist had depicted an expression of grief on the face of Calchas and of still greater grief on that of Ulysses, while he had given Menelaus an agony of sorrow beyond which his art could not go. Having exhausted his powers of emotional expression he was at a loss to portray the father's face as it deserved, and solved the problem by veiling his head and leaving his sorrow to the imagination of the spectator. (2.13.9-13)

The figures in the sculpture and paintings cited by Quintilian embody the affective function that the related rhetorical figures have in language: with their covered faces, Agamemnon and Antigonus stand for the rhetorical figure of aposiopesis or omission; (16) and the Discobolus, or Discus-Thrower, with its twisted torso, stands for the rhetorical figure of antithesis, the juxtaposition of contraries. (17) Renaissance painters and sculptors, eager to rival the ancients, turned to the passage as a source for the poses of depicted figures: examples of aposiopesis include, among many others, one of the figures in Giotto's now-destroyed Navicella at the old St. Peter's and the grief-stricken man who covers his face in Rosso Fiorentino's Descent from the Cross, 1521, (Florence, Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicita); and examples of antithesis occur most commonly in the form of the contrapposto pose, as David Summers noted. (18) These poses, like the rhetorical figures they embody, have a recognizable and even repeatabl e structure, which suggests and elicits innumerable emotional responses in the depicted and the beholder (or the spoken word and the listener in oratory). The figures of aposiopesis and antithesis, although easy to identify in both the visual and verbal arts, are inextricably connected to the thoughts and emotions conveyed through the structures. (19) As Quintilian reminds us, "like language itself, figures are necessarily concerned with thought and with words" (9.1.18). Not unlike the rhetorical figures they embody, the eloquent body, in effect, personifies the structure and potential range of meaning and emotion inherent in the rhetorical figure; but, unlike personifications of abstract conditions like inconstancy and faith in which the appearance and the actions of the figure are read as metaphors which refer back to the designated state of being, the embodied rhetorical figures function without any referential specificity, initiating our response and guiding, rather than limiting, our interpretation. For example, a contrapposto pose, just like the concept of antithesis which it embodies, does not signify uniquely, absolutely, and consistently; but rather, functions as a structure which generates a range of meanings.


The pose of the female figure in the Transfiguration (Fig. 2) combines in a unique hybrid different variations of these rhetorical figures--including their ancient pedigree in her allusion to sculpture--with a complex version of the contrapposto, referred to as the figura serpentinata. (20) The serpentine pose extends to three dimensions the counter-position of opposites found in the traditional contrappostal pose, exemplified by Donatello's David (Florence, Bargello), in which one leg relaxes and the other bears weight. With the figura serpentinata, the shoulders project to create a recessive diagonal and the hips move forward in opposition to create a spiral-like or serpentine motion. Although later writers associate the invention of form with Michelangelo, its greatest exponent, Leonardo developed one of the earliest and most influential articulations in his Leda, ca. 1504 (painted copy in Rome, Borghese Gallery), which Raphael copied upon his arrival in Florence. (21) Known through painted copies, Leo nardo's Leda assumes the serpentine pose by drawing her right arm across her chest, which then generates the opposing shift forward in her right hip and leg and the backward right movement of her head. Leonardo also explores the complexity of pose in a series of drawings of a kneeling Leda, which more directly evokes Raphael's kneeling woman in the Transfiguration, but which is less easily connected to Raphael than the standing version. (22) Following the same compositional logic, Raphael's female figure draws her left arm across her chest, bringing her left shoulder forward while her head twists to the left, and her right hip draws forward while her left pulls back--although with her back and her twisted, braided hair directed to the viewer, the figure implies, rather than clearly demonstrates, the general appearance of these movements.

Raphael also alters the original and fundamental conception of the figura serpentinata by including it in a narrative. The figure in Leonardo's Leda exists independently of the depicted subsidiary figures--the seducer Jove in the form of the swan, and the two sets of twins, Castor and Pollux and Helen and Clytemnestra, who came from their union--which help to identify her. The surrounding figures, in fact, seem to occupy their different positions in the composition as a way to complete, or circumscribe, an otherwise artificial and seductive pose; they function as carefully placed attributes rather than as participants in the telling of the story of Leda and the swan. Leonardo speaks to the isolation required by such complex poses when he writes in his notebooks the recommendation of the pure form of movement for "una figura sola fuori della storia" (one isolated figure outside of the story I narrative). (23) The figure should not participate in a multi-figured narrative composition, the social "istoria" d escribed by Alberti in his On Painting, but should rather stand alone, isolated, and independent. (24) Not surprisingly, such a figure found its most eloquent expression in the work of a sculptor, Michelangelo, who--laboring in the medium of the single figure--continued and developed Leonardo's interest in the single figure in his sculptures, including the St. Matthew and the slaves for the tomb of Pope Julius II and the frescoed prophets and sibyls on the Sistine ceiling, which are separated from one another by the massive, fictive architectural frame.

Under the influence of Leonardo and Michelangelo in particular, Raphael in his years in Rome repeatedly returned to the problem and effect of incorporating the figura serpentinata into his multi-figured compositions. Vasari alludes generally to these efforts when he describes Raphael's assimilation of the work and contributions of the two masters--namely Leonardo's "sublime groundwork of conceptions" and Michelangelo's representation of the nude body--to his own mode:

[Raphael observed] how certain graceful flexures are produced by changing the point of view, and also the effect of inflating, lowering, or raising either a limb or the whole person .... Knowing, however, that in this respect [that is, the representation of the human body] he could never attain to the perfection of Michelangelo, he reflected, like a man of supreme judgement, that painting does not consist only in representing the human form, but has a wider field [i.e., history painting]. (25)

In Raphael's first multi-figured (although not narrative) painting in Rome, the School of Athens (Fig. 3), he incorporates the figura serpentinata pose as a means to bridge different parts of the composition, to create fluidity among historical figures from different time periods who were collected together in the unified space of Philosophy. (26)

Creating a transition from the lower foreground to the upper level, the twisting figure dressed in white gestures to Diogenes sprawled below, and climbs the stairs--an inventive, functional adaptation of the opposing bent leg of the serpentine pose. But Raphael also explores the meaning inherent in the form, the potential significance of turning, when the pose is no longer isolated: here, the figure turns from one form of study to another as he ascends from the instructed group in the lower right to the level of independent philosophers. In Raphael's pictorial vocabulary the pose easily becomes a metaphor for learning. As Giovanni Pietro Bellori writes, "[Raphael] depicted one of these disciples who, having graduated from the lower level, from the school of Archimedes [sic], as though having completed [the study of] mathematics, turns upward toward philosophy." (27) Raphael's "socialization" of the figura serpentinata, the placement of the figure within the "wider field," similarly expands the reach and ran ge of the significance of the form.

Beginning with a series of frescoes in the Stanza d'Eliodoro, the papal chamber adjacent to the room with the School of Athens, Raphael introduces the pose into narrative scenes and continues to explore the possibilities of its thematic significance in these compositions. In the lower left foreground of the Expulsion of Heliodorus, 1512, (Fig. 5), a woman, seen from behind, assumes a pose strikingly similar to that of the female figure in the Transfiguration: with her left knee forward and right knee back, she twists her right shoulder forward and left back and looks across her shoulder to observe the punishment of Heliodorus by the celestial messengers for attempting to steal, on behalf of one of the Selucid monarchs, the treasure of the temple in Jerusalem. (28) Though she is one of the bereft widows, she stands apart from the others in scale and position, leads the beholder into the fresco, and generates the movement both across the composition to the punishment and directly above her to the two spectators climbing the column who continue her spiral. (29) Her body not only directs the beholder to the cause and effect--the priest who prays for the return of the booty and the divine response--but also conveys the reversal of events effected by divine intervention, the situation which miraculously and unexpectedly takes a turn. Two other scenes of divine intervention, also in the Stanza d'Eliodoro, include twisted, turning figures as signs of narrative reversal: the seated female figure in the lower left corner of the Mass at Bolsena, 1512, (30) and, in Repulse of Attila, 1513-14, the horseback Atrila, who responds to the appearance of saints Peter and Paul, and the Hun in the middle foreground gesturing to Pope Leo I. (31) Raphael offers variations of the 'true' figura serpentinata, the figure shown frontally and in isolation, and thereby explores the dramatic structure and content supplied by the torsion of the form.


The female figure in the Transfiguration actively intervenes, not responding to or observing an action unfolding before her, but inflecting it by attempting to direct the attention of the apostles to the sick boy. Here the turning pose combined with the declarative gesture of the two pointing fingers has an affective function and structure similar to that of the rhetorical figure of apostrophe, or a form of direct address. Quintilian describes it as follows:

Apostrophe also, which consists in the diversion [aversus] of our address from the judge, is wonderfully stirring, whether we attack our adversary as in the passage, 'What was that sword of yours doing, Tubero?' ... or turn [convertimur] to make some invocation . .... The term apostrophe is also applied to utterances that divert [aversio] the attention of the hearer from the question before them. (9.2.38-39)

As a rhetorical turn, apostrophe changes and, usually, names the object of the address, and creates a dialogic exchange which has the equal potential to create a startling episode of accusation or an intimate moment of confession and revelation. Renaissance writers on poetics seemed to focus more on the latter effect when writing about this figure, which they referred to as "conversione." In the sixth book of his Poetica (ca. 1549) Gian Giorgio Trissino, one of the few who retains the Latin term "apostrofe," cites for his examples passages from Petrarch's Rime sparse in which the author suspends the discourse and turns to the poem itself: "Ben sai, canzon, che quant'io parlo e nulla" (You know well, Song, that whatever I say is nothing; Rime 127) or examples from Dante's Divine Comedy in which the poet turns to the readers: "Ricordati lettor" (Remember, reader; Purgatory, 17.1). (32) Petrarch frequently employs the figure in his Rime sparse as a fruitless way to find comfort, to find an audience for his unrec iprocated feelings and unheard thoughts. Bernardo Daniello, in his Della poetica (1536) cites from Rime 125 in his discussion of "conversione": "do you, green shore, hear it and lend to my sighs so wide a flight that it be always remembered that you were kind to me" (odil tu, verde riva, / e presta a miei sospir si largo volo / che sempre si ridica / come tu m'eri amica). (33) The turn allows Petrarch to tell something that would otherwise be unknown.

The turn of apostrophe acquires an intimate and personal resonance in Renaissance poetics, especially as the scene of speaking moves out of the courtroom and embraces the post-classical evocations of the word "conversione." Conversion, the experience of turning from one state of being to another, usually from non-believer to devout believer, evokes, and intensifies, the formal structure and affects of apostrophe. (34) Augustine speaks in his Confessions of his direct calling by God and the resulting turn to Him when hearing a story of another's conversion. "But while [Ponticianus] was speaking, O Lord, you were turning me around to look at myself. You were setting me before my own eyes so that I could see how sordid I was" (viii.7). (35) A few chapters later, Augustine describes his own conversion in similar terms, employing the turn as a figure for his divided and unresolved spirit:

I stood on the brink of resolution, waiting to take fresh breath. I tried again and came a little nearer to my goal, and then a little nearer to my goal, and then a little nearer still, so that I could almost reach out and grasp it. But I did not reach it... I was held back by mere trifles... all my old attachments. They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, 'Are you going to dismiss us?.... These voices, as I heard them, seemed less than half as loud as they had been before. They no longer barred my way, blatantly contradictory, but their mutterings seemed to reach me from behind, as though they were stealthily plucking at my back, trying to make me turn my head when I wanted to go forward. (viii. 11) (36)

As both the theme and the organizing trope in Augustine's narrative, the turn of conversion is a physical manifestation of the change in consciousness, the discontinuity and contradictions of the self.

The turn of a depicted figure has the same significance and effect, especially when the figure turns from behind to address the viewer directly and intimately. Leonardo da Vinci first explores the significance of such a turn to the beholder in the figure of the angel in his Madonna of the Rocks, begun 1483 (Paris, Louvre), who, seen nearly from behind, looks at the viewer and directs our attention to John the Baptist who, in turn, kneels in a humble gesture of prayer. Seated next to Christ, the angel reveals His divinity through a gesture that indicates the recognition of John and that emphasizes the protective halo formed by the hand of Mary. Leonardo continued to develop the pose of the angel in single-figure half-length compositions, which evidently influenced the pose and composition of Raphael's Bindo Altoviti (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art). (37) Simultaneously turned away from us and toward us, the sitter situates us as a distraction from the unknown and hidden object of the sitter's initia l attention and gaze, and, consequently, we understand the decision to turn from there to here through shifting dialectical pairs of emotional conditions: secrecy leads to intimacy and familiarity; the unknown and absent lead to the known and present. The physical revelation invests the visual exchange between sitter and viewer with a parallel immanent (emotional, psychological) revelation. Aware of the general significance of the pose in isolation, Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo extends it to a devotional context by depicting the Magdalene as a turning half-length figure who lifts up her veil to address the viewer (London, National Gallery). Mourning at the empty tomb of Christ, she turns, enacting and evoking her own conversion into the repentant sinner, to respond to an unknown man who reveals himself as the resurrected Christ. (38)

These turning figures only further emphasize the affective and revelatory dimension attributed to the visual figure of apostrophe at least a half-century earlier by Alberti in On Painting. In a well-known passage, he recommends that in every narrative painting (or istoria) there should be a figure who directly addresses the beholder:

I like there to be someone in the 'historia' who tells the spectators what is going on, and either beckons them with his hand to look, or with ferocious expression and forbidding glance challenges them not to come near, as if he wished their business to be secret, or points to some danger or remarkable thing in the picture, or by his gestures invites you to laugh or weep with them. (39)

The figure functions as, and should be read as, an index of the subject of the painting. Simultaneously inside and outside the painting, the interlocutor turns and comments on himself and the painting to the beholders, and thereby issues a call to the beholders to interpret, to assume their role within Alberti's didactic paradigm. The visual figure of apostrophe only initiates the interpretative process in which, as Alberti conceives in this section, beholders turn to their imagination, to their minds. Painting should, according to him, "leave more for the mind to discover than is actually apparent to the eye." (40)

This introspective, open-ended model of viewing apparently operates most clearly and effectively when the viewer responds to depicted rhetorical figures. Further exploring the uncircumscribed role of the beholder, Alberti turns from the figure of apostrophe to that of aposiopesis when he discusses the veiled figure of Agamemnon--in the Sacrifice of Iphigenia attributed to the ancient painter Timanthes--who "thus left more for the onlooker to Imagine about his grief than he could see with the eye." Interpretation, especially when such rhetorical figures are involved, becomes a kind of figurative unveiling or revelation, which Alberti clarifies by including in the passage his famous reference to the Navicella by Giotto, a scene which depicts the revelation of Christ's divinity through the miracle of Peter walking on the water. (41) Alberti seems to imply that such visual expression of rhetorical figures introduces the ineffable into the visual arts and that the unseen, just as the seen, falls within the pro vince of painting and interpretation.


Evoking these pictorial and rhetorical traditions and conceits, the twisting figure in the Transfiguration fulfills the same role as Alberti's interlocutor; however, she directs her address to the apostles within the painting, rather than to the viewer, as an appeal to them to interpret the demoniac boy. The apostles look past her, despite her striking presence, and remain unresponsive to the call. Their inability to see the figure emphasizes their corresponding inability to view the boy as more significant than a sick child, to discover and imagine more than is apparent to the eye. To the viewer of the altarpiece, however, the importance of her role is more apparent: her beauty and white-shining skin clearly suggest that she figures on earth the divine manifestation of the radiant Christ--the divine as beautiful--a correspondence which only further evokes her responsibility as a rhetorical figure to make abstract concepts more visible and tangible, to make the ineffable more vivid. She communicates and e mbodies a message of hermeneutic revelation, which is, in fact, that of the Divine Revelation. Both the immediate and the universal epiphanies remain invisible to the apostles. (42)

The inability of the apostles to transcend their corporeal sight and see the sick boy as a test of their faith, to read hermeneutically in effect, prevents them from being able to heal him. Saint Augustine speaks of such spiritual ignorance in a New Testament sermon on the episode in which Christ heals the boy:

Our Lord Jesus Christ rebuked even his disciples for unbelief, as we heard when the gospel was read just now. When they said, 'Why could we not cast him out?' he replied, 'Because of your unbelief' (Matt. 17:19-20). If the apostles were unbelievers, who is a believer?... They were themselves aware of their weakness, and so as we read somewhere in the gospel, they said to him, 'Lord, give us more faith' (Luke 17:5) ... The first thing that stood them in good stead was knowledge, knowing what they had too little of; they were even more fortunate in knowing where to look for it. See how they were carrying their hearts, so to say, to the wellhead, and knocking to get it opened up, so that they may fill them up there. He wanted to make them knock at his door in order to exercise them in desiring, not to rebuff them in their knocking.

Augustine understands the episode of the failure to heal as a parable for the need to exercise one's faith, interpreting the passage in the context of Peter's unsteady belief in Christ's divinity when crossing the water: "'Lord, deliver me,' [Peter] said. Then the Lord took him by the hand and said, 'Little faith, why did you doubt?"' (Matt, 14:28-31). (43) The twisting female figure, not seen by the apostles, emphasizes their failure to see and understand the true challenge presented by the sick boy, which is the challenge faith always presents: "faith is ... the conviction of things not seen ... by faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear" (Hebrews, 11:1-3). (44)

Raphael emphasizes and develops the relationship between sight and faith by referring to the illusory properties of painting in the least faithful apostle, the seated figure holding a book. Placed in the lower left foreground, the apostle assumes a complex pose: his foreshortened right leg and left arm extend into the space of the viewer and his head twists back over his left shoulder to look beyond the woman to the boy. Twisting at his waist, the figure generates a spiral movement similar to that created by the female figure, and initiates a sweep that begins from the center foreground and continues from the figure seen from behind to the red-draped figure gesturing to the scene on the mountain. Apparently seeking some guidance in the absence of Christ, the apostle holds a book on two logs, all reflected in the pond and rendered in difficult and challenging foreshortening. (45) These conscious demonstrations of art, not merely displaying the technical bravura and competitive spirit of the painter, (46) clear ly invoke and refer to the effects of illusion -- difficult foreshortening, spectacular effects of light and reflection -- central to the assertions and celebrations of the superiority of painting. (47)

Painting, practiced on a flat surface, deceptively suggests depth, relief, and texture where there is none; it is an art which, according to Raphael's friend, Baldassare Castiglione, "adorn Es] the truth with pretty colors or mak[es], by perspective art, that which is not seem to be." (48) The seated apostle, in emphasizing the deceptive "seeming to be" that is part of painting, embodies his own lack of faith through a representation that makes visible those things which are not, in contrast to the invisible, unseen workings of faith. More specifically, the foreshortened books suggest the deceptions of logic and reason found in books and in the foundations and practice of perspective, and their irrelevance to matters of faith. They recall in appearance and significance the open book which appears to project beyond the delimiting railing in the Disputa: the reader of this book turns back to share textual proof with the pivotal figure--earlier identified as faith--who, much like the twisting female in the T ransfiguration, directs the reader's attention, this time to the monstrance, away from logic and reason and towards faith.

As a clear display of art, the depiction of the seated apostle reinforces the beholders' reception of the upper scene as a vision which, by contrast, occurs only in the minds and imaginations of the faithful, rather than on the painted surface of a panel. The passage in the lower left affirms the illusion achieved through painting and the effect of such devices on the beholders' understanding of the painting as an object outside of them, emphasized, in this case, by the division established by the reflective pond at the pictures edge. The projections of the apostle into the viewer's space, despite their apparent traversal of the picture plane, also seem to obstruct entrance into the painting and alienate the viewer. By contrast, Christ seems to float impossibly over and in front of the foreground scene of the apostles, as if suspended before the painting itself--and in closer proximity to the viewers than even the seated apostle, who seemed to mark the farthest extension of the frontal plane. Spectacular effe cts of light--which blind the three accompanying apostles--have the effect of bringing forward the figure of Christ, especially in contrast with the darkness of the lower scene, and the representation of His drapery, particularly around the waist, creates a sense of projection from the position of the beholder.

Through such devices and the noticeably looser brushwork in the figure of Christ, Raphael attempts not to depict the transfigured Christ, but to present us with the vision itself. Raphael underscores that such a visionary experience depends on belief by including the two kneeling figures on the far left, identified as the early Christian saints Justus and Pastor (49) who, although within the painting, also experience the upper scene as a vision in their ecstatic prayers: they see, and are illuminated by, the heavenly figures because of their faith. Acting as intercessors on behalf of the beholder, they evoke the role of the saints in Raphael's other representations of visions, the Madonna of Foligno, ca. 1512 (Vatican, Pinacoteca) and the Sistine Madonna, ca. 1512-14 (Dresden, Gemaldegalerie: (50) the saints affirm the upper scene as a vision which occupies a different pictorial reality from their own. However, unlike Raphael's earlier Sistine Madonna, for example, in which structural devices such as the para pet, putti, and curtains create a vision, the Transfiguration evokes a visionary world through light, color, and a transcendence over narrative.

The depicted physical separation of these two events within the unified formal structure of the altarpiece requires the viewer to bring them together in an act of interpretation similar to exegesis -- an approach which is facilitated by the female figure, whose aesthetic grace conveys on earth a vision of the grace of God. (51) Not unmindful of Raphael's inventions, Johann Goethe writes in his Italian Journey (1787):

What is the point then of separating the upper action from the lower? Both are one. Below are those who are suffering and need help: above is the active power that gives succour: both are inseparably related in their interaction. And how would it be possible to express it any other way? (52)

Almost a century later Jacob Burckhardt would assert the same reading by emphasizing the role of the spectator's imagination in this depiction of the Transfiguaration:

Here, by a dramatic contrast which one may call monstruous, the supernatural is far more forcibly put before us than by all the glories and the visions of the other painters. Two entirely different scenes are combined in the picture -- a piece of audacity not to be recommended to everyone... the connection of the two scenes exists only in the mind of the spectator. And yet one would be incomplete without the other; one has to only cover the upper or under part with the hand to see how much the picture forms a whole. (53)

The division is not, however, a sign of the "post-classical" or mannerist style which develops soon after Raphael's death, as some art historians have suggested. (54)

Raphael's conception of the twisting female figure does, though, mark a significant transitional moment in painting in the sixteenth century, when the depicted body begins to obscure, if not lose, its indexical relationship to the mind. As a figure which functions like a figure in rhetoric, she means differently from the surrounding apostles, a difference which is emphasized by her isolation, her artificial elegance, and her cool-colored drapery and body. She, in fact, signifies at the extreme boundaries of meaning as artists and writers on the arts working in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries imagine, it, and does so for the powerful, purpose of representing that which cannot be represented. That which is isolated and comparative in this composition, though, begins to comprise and generate entire compositions. In the following decades, the self-reflexive and declarative gestures, the clear differentiation and calibration of emotions among the figures, and the mimetic standard of the natural wo rld give way to nearly hyperbolic expressions of emotion, variations in proportions and disproportion, extremely artificial poses and figures, and bright pastel colors. Positioned conceptually and chronologically between these two modes, Raphael's female figure is suggestive for thinking of mannerist painting as not simply an elimination of content and an elevation of form, as some scholars have proposed; the female figure demonstrates an alternative paradigm in which the ornate and the eloquent mode in painting is not purely formal and without significance but represents the visionary, the ineffable--those qualities, conditions, and states of being which do not occupy and defy the natural, visible world. (55)

* The research and writing of this essay were supported by the Humanities Foundation at Boston University. I am grateful to David Rosand for his thoughtful reading of an earlier draft and for his continued support of the project. I would also like to thank the RQ readers, Marcia Hall and an anonymous reader, who offered helpful suggestions.

(1.) Vasari, 1:728.

(2.) Posner, 3-28. See also Oberhuber, 1962, 116-49; Pope-Hennessy, 71-81; Dussler, 67; Freedberg, 1971, 78-82; Redig de Campos, 1975-76, 173; Mancinelli, 1979; Freedberg, Mancinelli, and Oberhuber, 39; Gombrich, 241-43; King, 148-59; Joannides, 27-28; Jones and Penny, 240-45; Teuffel, 765-66.; Calvesi, 33-41; Brown, 237-43; Preimesberger, 88-115; Hall, 1992, 13 1-36; and Oberhuber, 1999, 223-29.

(3.) Until the cleaning of the painting in 1972-76, scholars limited Raphael's participation to the left lower group and attributed the right lower group and the upper section to Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni, respectively. The cleaning affirmed that the majority of the work was by Raphael, and assistants finished only the group at the lower right. For the results of the cleaning, see Redig De Campos, 1975-76, 173-75; Ibid., 1977, 101; and Mancinelli, 1979.

(4.) Lutgens, 1929.

(5.) For Vasari's approach to the history of art, see Rubin, 148-86, 357-402.

(6.) Emphasis added. Vasari, 1:739-40.

(7.) Raphael's depiction of the upper scene follows, for the most part, the descriptions of the event in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Although there are significant differences in the three gospels, especially the accompanying apostles' understanding of the event, they offer a similar account of the participants in the revelation. 'And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them into a high mountain apart by themselves, and was transfigured before them: And his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus" (Mark 9:2-9; The Holy Bible, 1064). The story represented in the lower scene is not part of the Transfiguration itself, but occurs simultaneously at the base of the mountain and precedes the successful healing of the boy by Christ after the latter returns. The consequences of the apostles' inability to heal the boy are described immediately followin g the narrative of the Transfiguration in the gospel of Matthew: "And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and kneeling before him said: 'Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is a lunatic and he suffers terribly: for often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples and they could not cure him' (Matthew 17:14-16; The Holy Bible, 1037)." Raphael develops the implied event into a dynamic narrative in the lower half of the composition.

(8.) Before the cleaning performed in 1972-76 some scholars interpreted these differences as support for the participation of Raphael's assistants, especially Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni. For the results of the cleaning, see Redig De Campos, 1975-76, 173-75; Ibid., 1977, 101; and Mancinelli, 1979. For the articulation of these formal differences, see Freedberg, Mancinelli, and Oberhuber, 1981, 39; Preimesberger, 105-07; and Oberhuber, 1999, 224.

(9.) Jaffe, 26.

(10.) Burckhardt, 145.

(11.) Rosand, 1985, 38-43; Ibid., 1990, 143-64, with a reproduction of the drawing.

(12.) Rosand, 1990, 143-64. See also Ibid., 2000, n. 12.

(13.) Shearman, 1972, 127-32, also acknowledges the rhetoical significance of the figures in Raphael's work, and the apparent relationship between his conceptions for compositions and contemporary work in theater and poetics.

(14.) Alberti, 76.

(15.) Leonardo da Vinci, 1989, 144.

(16.) Pardo, 87-91.

(17.) Summers, 1977, 336-61; Ibid., 1981, 74-87.

(18.) Summers, 1972, 269-301.

(19.) Although my analysis is indebted to the important work of Summers, it differs in its acknowledgment of the contrappostal pose as a signifying structure with a variety of meanings that include and extend beyond the gracefulness of the form. By contrast, Summers seems to think of the contrapposto as, above all, a stylistic motif, as an aesthetic device with little relevance to a particular theme. His approach is most clearly expressed in a discussion on Leonardo's Leda: "Leonardo perfected the Leda figure over many years, with great love and diligence, as his contemporaries might have said, and its gestation in such iconographically different matrices as Leda and the Swan and the Adoration of the Magi argues, as we have noted,. that the Leda figure had a value in itself, beyond its being turned to any particular theme. But if there may well have been a level on which Leda and the Virgin coalesced in Leonardo's imagination and demanded similar forms, this was not the case for artists who took up the figura l theme after him. For them the Leda figure had the canonical status of its parent, classical contrapposto; it was clearly an ideal Figure for later artists, one whose significance lay in its gracefulness, its complete aesthetic resolution and self-containedness. The stylistic force of the invention is evident in its progression through many repetitions without important change... The Leda figure became, in short, one of the normative inventions of the terza maniera, a kind of stylistic signature to some of the most representative works of cinquecento painting and sculpture" (Summers, 1972, 280). For recognition of the thematic significance of the pose, see the remarks made by Sheard in the context of Michelangelo's Medici tombs (1979, n.p.) and Pardo, 74-82, 90.

(20.) Summers, 1972, 269-301; Ibid., 1981, 74-87. In his Trattato dell'arte de la Pittura (1584), Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo associates the figura serpentinara with Michelangelo.

(21.) Hoogewerff, 173-183; Summers, 1972, 279; Ibid. 1981, 74-87;Jones and Penny, 2829; Popham and Wilde, 309, no. 789; and Joannides, 156.

(22.) Allison, 375-84; Ames-Lewis, 73-76.

(23.) Leonardo, 1956, 385-86; Summers, 1981, 78.

(24.) Paolo Berdini raised these issues in a paper entitled "'More Work to Do': Michelangelo and the Unfinished," presented at The Humanities Center, Harvard University, 29 November 2000.

(25.) Vasari, 1:742

(26.) A bibliography on the painting may be found in Hall, 1997, 171-75.

(27.) Bellori, 55. For a fuller discussion of the legibility of the figures in Raphael's fresco and Bellori's analysis, see Rosand, 2000, 216-17.

(28.) The similarity between the two Figures is often noted. See, for example, Posner, n. 124; Jones and Penny, 245; Oberhuber, 1999, 224. For the fresco in general, see Shearman, 1986, 75-88; Ibid., 1992, 196-202; Schwartz, 467-92.

(29.) See Donatello's earlier use of the same motif in his bronze relief, Miracle of the Believing Donkey (1444-49), on the high altar, Sant'Antonio, Padua.

(30.) Vasari 1:725: "Among the women is one who is seated on the ground at the foot of the scene, holding a child in her arms; and she, hearing the account that another appears to be giving her of the thing that has happened to the priest, turns in a marvelous manner as she listens to this, with a womanly grace that is very natural and lifelike." For the fresco, see Jones and Penny, 119.

(31.) On the fresco in general, see Ibid., 119-21; Shearman, 1992, 199-200.

(32.) In Weinberg, 2:84

(33.) In Ibid., 1:296.

(34.) For conversion as both a religious experience and as a poetic structure, see Freccero, esp. 258-71.

(35.) Augustine, 1961, 169.

(36.) Ibid., 176. Michelangelo also uses the metaphor of turning in his own poetic reflections on his mortality: "Relieved of a troublesome and heavy corpse, / and set free from the world, I turn [rivolto] to you, / my dear Lord, as a tired and fragile boat / heads from the frightful tempest toward sweet calm" (290).

(37.) Pedretti, 181-85.

(38.) Pardo, 67-91.

(39.) Alberti, 78.

(40.) Ibid., 75-76.

(41.) Ibid., 76.

(42.) For a concept of poetic revelation which is coextensive with divine revelation, see Ricoeur, 1-37.

(43.) Augustine, 1991, sermon 80.

(44.) The Holy Bible, 1255.

(45.) Posner (6, nn. 15 and 55) compares this passage of the painting to works by Leonardo and to a passage from Philostratus.

(46.) See also the discussion of the technical challenges undertaken in Tintoretto's Miracle of Saint Mark in Rosand, 1997, 134-39.

(47.) Farago, 3-91; Richter, 19-108.

(48.) Castiglione, 3. See also Summers, 1981, 41-55.

(49.) For a review of the various identifications of these figures, see King, 150.

(50.) Beltine, 478-84.

(51.) For grace in Raphael's work, see Lodovico Dolce, Dialogue on Painting (1557) in Roskill, 177. See also Cropper, 159-205; Rosand, 2000, 230.

(52.) Goethe, 431-32.

(53.) Burckhardt, 145.

(54.) Freedberg, 1971, 83-84.

(55) For alternate approaches to mannerism, see Elizabeth Cropper's introduction to Smyth, 12-21.


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