Raphael: Painter in Rome


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As you read the book, you can use the author's website to see the paintings referenced throughout the novel.

I am in love with Raphael (no, not my nephew, that would be weird, the painter, the one from Urbino), si certo, the one who painted the angels.  I could "listen" to him talk for hours (of course I mean read his words and hear his voice in my head), not actually listen.   - That is just the kind of fun repartee style that Stephanie Storey uses in her novel based on the art world of 1500's Italy. 

I've never had an interest in art, but suddenly I felt like a scholar who was well versed in the great and legendary artists.  Storey has a gift for making this lofty subject attainable.  Being multi-lingual, I also love how she peppers the book with little Italian phrases.  It is also noteworthy how Raphael, the narrator, talks like the painter he was.  When he describes a scene, the things that stand out to him most are the colors and he talks about them like it is second nature for everyone to describe the ripeness of a pear by considering five different shades of green before he lands on just the right shade of ripeness.  I also appreciate that the chapter numbers are in Roman numerals - it adds to the authentic feeling.

I was surprised at the idea that the famous painters used people they knew to base a face on in their paintings.  It probably shouldn't surprise me, being an author I often put qualities into characters that match someone I know in real life - but I was very surprised by it.

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex:  1

Religion:  4

Gruesome:  0

Suspense:  4

Morality: 3

Traditional: 2

Sex - some references to a brothel frequented by clergy, among others.

Religion - by today's standards a lot of this seems blasphemous (cardinals visit brothels, the pope has a daughter and a male lover - Ch. 31)  Religion appears on practically every page, especially because large parts of the novel take place in the Vatican, however, it is more religion as a part of history than religion as something a non-believer would be convinced of by reading this novel.

Gruesome - nothing that I recall

Suspense - (pg. 45) The new duke tells Raphael he wants him to kill Michelangelo.  (end Ch. 11) When Raphael escapes out one door into a dark hallway as Michelangelo enters his studio through the front door.  Whose drawing would Cardinal de'Medici pick at Chegi's contest? As Raphael fled Rome after the unveiling of the Sistine, I wondered if it all played out like he imagined since we are usually our own worst critic. (Ch. 57)

Morality - Raphael exhibited good morals several times, choosing to do the right thing above what was in his own best interest.  In general, this time in history is characterized as a time when people had somewhat loose morals.

Traditional - allusions to a high-ranking Vatican member having a clandestine relationship with another Vatican person of the same sex. A man falls in love with a prostitute and they have a relationship for many years before finally getting married but keeping it a secret so it did not reflect poorly on him in his job.

Discussion Questions

Raphael was superstitious.  He liked to arrive at a door on his seventh step. (pg. 43) 
Do you have any superstitions?

At the end of Ch. 8, Raphael realizes he won't be able to get to Rome by politics so he'll have to do it by talent.  Tell of a time when conventional methods didn't work for you and you had to dig deep and find another way.

Cancel culture was alive and well in the 1500s.  (pg. 106) The way Roman's punished traitors was known as "damnatio memoriae" ... "if they did it correctly, how would we ever know?"  Do you think there is anybody from this time period that has been erased from history?

When Raphael lost the Sistine (again) at the end of Ch. 23, he decided to stop being a technician and start being a painter.  Tell of a time when you had a turning point and stopped holding yourself to be less and finally stepped up to your destiny.

At the end of Ch. 25, Felice wanted Raphael to fix Michelangelo's painting (flipping the fig - the thumb to the pope).  Would you have fixed it?

In Ch. 29 the guests thought they were in a banquet hall with marble floors and were surprised to find they were in a stable.  "Change perception, change the world."  Tell of a time that your perception was revealed to be far from the real.

In what ways did this book change your views on art?

This book has a lot of great quotes.  Use one or more to start a discussion:
- "...the danger for most of us isn't setting our sights too high and missing them, but in setting them too low and hitting our mark." (Pg. 211)
- A quote fro Boccaccio - "People are more inclined to believe bad intentions than good ones." (Pg. 214)

At the beginning of Ch. 44, Raphael recalls the advice of his mother to walk like you know where you are going and why.  He supposed she hadn't imagined it would help him during a riot.  What advice of your mother's have you recalled at significant times?  At strange times?

Several times it is mentioned that Michelangelo has marble dust on him.  On pg. 235, Raphael even remarked that it was odd since he wasn't working with marble at that time.  Were you suspicious of the marble dust?

"How do you recall the most transformative moments of your life?" (Ch. 55, Pg. 268)
Crisp and clear or soft and fuzzy?

Raphael said Michelangelo told him, "the only person [he] needed to chase, catch, and best" was himself. (Ch. 56, pg. 273)  Do you find more motivation in chasing yourself or others?

Raphael told Chegi he hadn't given up but "decided to fight for what's truly important." (end Ch. 61, Pg. 292)
What had he decided to fight for?

Of course, this is historical fiction, but assuming it is mostly true - which painting's backstory did you most enjoy? (For example, the boys looking in the baker's window as the inspiration for the Sistine Madonna. Pg. 302 Or the idea that the faces are based on Michelangelo and Raphael. Pgs 307-308)

Additional questions are available at the author's website.  You can even request that she visit your book club.

Theme Ideas

Serve food from carnevale (Pg. 148): cured meats, herb tarts, fried cheeses, balls of golden safron bread and veal in truffle sauce.
Serve saffron soup and roasted duck like at the party at Chegi's. (Pg. 253)
Serve meat pies and pomegranates like Raphael ate with the pope before the Sistine was unveiled. (Pg. 266)
Serve roasted pheasant, flamingo tongue and fig tarts like at the wedding in Chegi's garden. (Ch. 58, Pg. 279)

Give your guests a postcard or some other medium with a copy of one of Raphael's prints. (Sistine Madonna or the Cherubim featured on the Sistine Madonna)

Decorate with coffee table books suggested in the Author's Note (Pg. 319):

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