My Favourite Painting: Dervla Murphy

'I liked to go barefoot, and those unshod but evidently estimable individuals were useful in disputes with parents'

Parnassus, 1509/10, 274in wide at base, by Raphael (1483–1520), Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace. Bridgeman Images.

Dervla Murphy says:
‘When I was a child, a chromo of this hung above the foot of my bed. I liked to go barefoot, and those unshod but evidently estimable individuals were useful in disputes with parents. I’d no notion who or where they were. They’d surely met for a picnic, in some climate very unlike Ireland’s. The central musician had captivated nine women, and I invented complex motives for the 10th woman’s sitting apart. The old gentleman with the tangled beard puzzled me until my mother explained that he was blind. Many were the fantasies inspired by that “picnic”. Now, it hangs above my living-room door.’

Travel writer Dervla Murphy celebrates her 80th birthday with new editions of her books Tibetan Foothold, The Waiting Land and Where the Indus is Young

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘The four frescoes Raphael painted to embellish Pope Julius II’s private library in the Vatican proclaim the ultimate unity of mankind’s varied efforts towards understanding; a summation of the all-embracing Renaissance world view shortly to be shattered by the Protestant Reformation. Vasari writes that the architect Bramante of Urbino, a distant relative of the artist, ‘persuaded the Pope to build some new apartments where Raphael would have the chance to show what he could do’.

Raphael’s ‘gentle and delicate style’ had made the Pope ‘reject the projects of other masters, old and new’. In the autumn of 1509, Raphael was warranted as an ‘official’ painter to the papal court. Each fresco represents a means to Truth: the spiritual (Theology), intellectual (Philosophy), imaginative (Poetry) and social (Law). Parnassus shows the great poets, past and present, gathered round Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto, god (among other things) of song and music, on Mount Parnassus (a peak north of Delphi), source of poetry and song and hallowed as one of the chief seats of Apollo and the nine Muses.

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‘Picnic’ is apt, because Raphael departed from the convention of a triumphal procession, preferring to portray the famous in an informal ‘story’ (Vasari’s description), reactions and relations conveyed by gestures, poses and facial expressions. Eighteen poets, differentiated by their laurel crowns, are shown, ascending and descending. The seated foreground poets Sappho, the only woman (left), and Pindar (right) reveal the trompe l’oeil deception of the window frame, also true of the inner arch of the vault.’

This article was first published in Country Life, December 14/21, 2011