I will never forget sitting in a darkened seventh grade history room, legs crossed on an uncomfortable plastic chair, with an “Introduction to the Renaissance” Powerpoint playing on the projector. That was the day that I fell in love with Raphael. Raphael wasn’t one of the angsty, pre-pubescent boys in class who knew nothing but Abercrombie and Fitch and AXE Body Spray. Raphael was an artist, one who commanded surreal colors with the flick of a brush (perhaps not a brush but a magic wand?), mastered human form with ease, perfected the sly inclusion of clever details that forces gasps and laughs, and transported past to present before my eyes (again, magic?). The moment that School of Athens popped up on the Powerpoint, I fell in love with Renaissance master Raphael Sanzio. Raphael introduced me to his world of art and I’ve been hooked ever since. I pored over pictures of classic paintings and, history geek that I am, voraciously memorized each painter’s biography as if collecting treasure. I lounged in bed while images of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Birth of Venus floated behind my eyelids, keeping me happily awake. I begged my mom to take me to art museums, which took her very much by surprise. I imagined laughing alongside Raphael at the grumpy Michelangelo in School of Athens, a painting I now passionately declare my favorite when anyone makes the mistake of asking. I slipped the subject into all conversations, even forcibly redirecting the fourth-grader that I tutored towards a Magic Tree House book set during the Renaissance. I ran into the warm, comforting embrace of Raphael, of detail and of complexity and of talent, and I’ve never looked back.
Raphael’s School of Athens (Photo courtesy of sartle.com)
In short, I had fallen in love, which is precisely why March 6th, 2016 was such a special day for me. Indeed, I remember that afternoon so clearly that I have trouble reckoning with the fact that it was officially over two years ago. I love that I’m able to call the San Francisco Bay Area my home, and while that association brings with it a host of reasons to feel lucky, I’m possibly most grateful for the world of art that San Francisco has provided me with. The Legion of Honor, with its incomprehensibly picturesque view of Land’s End and intimidatingly beautiful Parisian colonnade, is a personal favorite. And on that day, the Legion was hosting a travelling Raphael exhibit, highlighting his Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn. To the standard observer, the exhibit may have seemed small to the point of anticlimactic; it was a surprisingly miniscule room, probably one hundred square feet in total (though don’t quote me on that; I’ve never been accused of being particularly good at math), and had only the one painting. But to me, it was a dream come true, a realization of years of dreaming of, and pining after, Raphael. I didn’t need more than the one painting.
View of the bay from the Legion of Honor (Photo courtesy of theselfishyears.com)
I arrived to the Legion on that day with my mom and sister in tow because, as I explained it to them with superfluous dramatics, I might need reinforcements on the not-so-off chance that I fainted from pure elation upon laying my eyes on the Lady (this is how I’ve come to refer to her, as I like to fantasize that we’ve become so well acquainted that she’s allowed me to dispense with the formalities). I’m pleased to report that I did not faint that day. I’m also pleased to report that the elation I experienced that day exceeded my expectations, that to be able to see a Raphael not only up close, but also with my own eyes, was nothing short of mindblowing. She was beautiful, and I probably spent an hour inspecting every inch of her. I took some mental pictures as well as real pictures to remember her by, and then we left the modest room, her room. We spent some time meandering through the Legion’s other, permanent treasures, but nothing measured up the Lady.
Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn (Photo courtesy of wikiart.org)
Indeed, I find myself subconsciously yet consistently measuring all works of art up to Raphael’s Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn. And while I think it wrong to compare one piece of art to any other, I can’t help but notice that Raphael wins every time. It’s an unfair competition, with Raphael as my personal, predestined champion. Perhaps this bias is the simple product of a middle school crush, but I don’t think I’m getting over this one any time soon.