Commemorating Raphael 500 Years after His Death

This year marks the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520), the painter who left us a vast legacy of inestimable beauty and grace.

This outstanding artist died, “having sunk under continuous acute fever which carried him off in eight days” — as Alfonso Paolucci sadly writes in Rome to Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (G. Campori, Notizie inedite di Raffaello da Urbino, Modena 1863, p. 30) — at only 37 years old on April 6, 1520, in Rome, in the sumptuous residence a few steps from the Vatican that he had bought from the Caprini of Viterbo on October 7, 1517, and in which he lived during the last years of his life. In the present day, after the building upheavals done to the Borgo district between 1937 and 1941, is the building called the Palace of the Convertendi, located on the Via della Conciliazione 34, built on a design by Donato Bramante a decade earlier in the old Piazza S. Giacomo, also called Scossacavalli. For a hundred years also the words of the art historian Corrado Ricci, carved on a memorial tablet in the entrance hall of the palace, have handed down the memory: “Here Was the House / Built by Bramante for the Caprini / Raphael Sanzio / Having Bought It in 1517 / Here Died on April 6, 1520 / The Circle of the Marches Set This Up.”

While the Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office dedicated to Raphael a two-euro commemorative bimetallic coin and a stamp, we offer a musical commemoration of the great painter from Urbino by talking about the Hymn to Raphael the Divine, for mixed chorus (unaccompanied), music by Marco Enrico Bossi on verses by Fausto Salvatori, English version by Ernest H. Wilkins (J. Church, New York 1921), composed in March 1920 for the fourth centenary of Raphael Sanzio’s death and given on April 7 of the same year in the Roman Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs, the ancient Pantheon. No audio recording seems available, therefore we’ll have to make do with talking about it, supported by the complete score and relevant historical notes.

The scholar from Rome, Fausto Salvatori (1870–1929), author of the well known Hymn to Rome set to music by Giacomo Puccini in 1919, had written the following elegy: “Oh, Master, that peacefully sleepest / Beneath the overshadowing laurel, / A hymn to thine honor, sonorous and solemn / Oh, listen, shall now in the silence arise. // A gladness, a radiance, a wonder, / To us by thy hands have been given; / In sunlight resplendent o’er valley and mountain, / The verdure of all Umbria doth open in flower. // Oh, laughter of light-hearted children! / Oh, gladness of virgins beloved! / In heavenly yearning her countenance lovely / O’er Jesus, the Christ-Child, the Mother doth bow. // Forever on earth it is springtime / Through thee who art Italy’s April! / Thy name in its beauty alluring and charming / Thy fatherland, thy country, doth honor and sing.”

The famous organist and composer Marco Enrico Bossi (1861–1925) was then director of the Royal Liceo Musicale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, a position he held from 1916 to 1922. In March 1920, he composed a short score of fourteen pages on verses by Salvatori, commented on here authoritatively by the musician Giulio Cesare Paribeni:

In a harmonic rather than a counterpoint style, it uses a lot of modulations  and phonic combinations to carry out the expressive passages required by the text. The choral structure is always free in the number of parts that, set on the normal mixed quartet, are then splitting up to give at some point ensembles of nine elements of harmony. Even in the use of vocal textures, the author is impelled to unusual freedoms, but always with the prudence of those who entrust the reasons for the effect to a sure technical expertise. At the end the voices imitate a joyful blaring of brasses. (Paribeni – Orsini – Bontempelli, M. E. Bossi, il compositore, lorganista, luomo, Casa Editrice Erta, Milano 1934, p. 38)

One hundred years ago, on the afternoon of April 7, after unveiling the aforementioned memorial tablet, a popular procession, led by the administrators of Rome and made up of artists, various associations, delegates from the town of Urbino, and Romans, went to the Pantheon, where the painter is still buried today since April 7, 1520, in the marble tomb he had purchased. On it you can read the memorable Latin couplet composed by the scholar Pietro Bembo, friend of the artist: “Ille hic est Raphael. Timuit quo sospite vinci / rerum Magna Parens, et moriente mori” — This is that Raphael, by whom in life our mighty mother nature feared defeat and in whose death did fear herself to die. At the Pantheon were the entire Chapter of Canons of the Collegiate Basilica, the representative of the government, the virtuosi at the Pantheon (the Pontifical Academy, which has included the most important artists since 1542) and other people in charge. After the laying of laurel wreaths and flowers, a choir of 120 voices of the Royal Academy of Santa Cecilia — one of the oldest musical institutions in the world of which Bossi was an Academy member since January 1917 — performed the Hymn to Raphael the Divine, under the composer’s direction.

To think that in 2020, already renamed Anno Sanzio, we don’t go back to listening to this score by Bossi, now available only in some music library! Meanwhile, let us listen, so to speak, to the Urbinate master’s voice, who, serving the Roman Church under the pontificates of Julius II and Leo X, along with others in the Vatican Apostolic Palace who lavished the wealth of his genius, “often charged with great spiritual depth. … Here speaks the delicate and profound genius of Raphael, highlighting in the array of his paintings, and especially in the ‘Dispute’ in the Room of the Signatura, the mystery of the revelation of the Triune God, who in the Eucharist befriends man and sheds light on the questions and expectations of human intelligence” (John Paul II, Letter to Artists, April 4, 1999, n. 9).

Image: Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (1509–1510).

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