Published  10/01/2005

Raphael: From Urbino to Rome

Raphael: From Urbino to Rome

National Gallery, London
20 October 2004-16 January 2005

'Raphael: From Urbino to Rome' charts the development of one of the most important artists in the history of Western art. Born in Urbino (1483-1520), Raphael's precocious talent, developed painting altarpieces for provincial towns in central Italy, went on to assume an exceptional position at the papal court of Pope Julius II. The subject of the National Gallery's exhibition is this transformation that took little more than a decade during which he studied in Florence under the influence of Leonardo and Michelangelo.

Raphael (1483-1520), Madonna of the Pinks, 1507-8 oil on wood (probably cherry) 29 x 23 cm © The National Gallery, London

This is the first comprehensive exhibition of paintings and drawings outside of Italy. It centres on the National Gallery's collection of nine superb Raphael paintings including the recently acquired 'Madonna of the Pinks', (c.1507-08). Many of the loan paintings have never been shown before in Britain, while others are back in this country for the first time since they were sold in the 19th century. These include 'Alba Madonna' (1509-11) from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the 'Conestabile Madonna' (c.1503-04) from the Hermitage, St Petersburg, 'Saint George and Saint Michael' (1503-04) from the Louvre and 'Self-Portrait' (c.1506) from the Uffizi. This is the third of a series of three exceptional Renaissance exhibitions at the National Gallery: Titian and more recently El Greco. As with the first two exhibitions, Raphael is accompanied by a fully illustrated book with detailed catalogue entries for over 100 works and scholarly essays by Raphael scholars.

The fact that the National Gallery in London has nine early paintings by Raphael enables it to offer itself as a venue for precious, fragile works that museums around the world are normally reluctant to lend. The sometimes controversial history of the National Gallery's acquisition is told in detail by Nicholas Penny in his catalogue essay. The purchase of 'Portrait of Pope Julius II' (mid-1511) in 1824 (when the National Gallery was founded) also precipitated the first drama when it was demoted to the status of a copy, two decades later. It was only in 1970 that it was again recognised as an original work. Most recently, in 2002, the threat of a sale to the Getty Museum in California by the Duke of Northumberland and therefore its export from the UK provoked passionate debate. Since 'Madonna of the Pinks' was one of only a few Raphaels left in private collections in Britain its probable loss prompted great anger. Through a vast public appeal and the largest ever grant for a single work of art from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the painting was sold to the National Gallery in March 2004. The history of Raphael acquisitions is a mix of missed opportunities and relentless connoisseurship. As the Director, Charles Saumarez Smith says in his Foreword to the catalogue: 'The exhibition's success is a testament to generations of collector's, scholars, directors and curators.'1 The exhibition's scholarship and excellence are very much due to the collaborative efforts of the curators Carol Plazzotta, Tom Henry and Hugo Chapman. Over 200 individuals are listed in their acknowledgements; the British Museum and Ashmolean Museum are singled out for their spectacular generosity.

Giorgio Vasari waxed lyrical, not only of Raphael's extraordinary gifts as a painter, draughtsman and architect, but also of his character, 'nature had every reason to display in Raphael … the finest qualities of mind accompanied by such grace, industry, looks, modesty, and excellence of character as would offset every defect … '2 Vasari reports his premature death aged 37, to be the result of his overindulgence in amorous pleasures leading to a violent fever.

What the exhibition presents in the form of 80 works by Raphael and another 20 by artists whose work was seminal to his development is Raphael's development in only a decade, from a provincial painter to assuming a near monopoly of papal patronage in the field of painting at the court of Pope Julius II. His work commanded high prices and attracted international attention. He assimilated various styles but also established his own. 'He was quick to appreciate quality and absorb innovation, adapting and improving the inventions of other masters with incredible ease'.3

Raffaello di Giovanni Santi was born in Urbino at Easter 1483. His mother died when he was only eight and his father, the painter Giovanni Santi, died three years later in 1494. Santi the father was a kind and intelligent man, an accomplished poet and courtier and an artistic mentor and role model. After his father's death, Raphael inherited his workshop - as a child he had worked alongside his father using oil as well as traditional tempera. Raphael's exceptional talent was recognised early; he had a great ability to absorb other artists' styles. Vasari's account of Raphael's early life acknowledges the importance of his father's guidance and instruction in painting. Raphael's meteoric rise to fame was a combination of outstanding natural talent and a human affinity for religious figures and subjects. The tenderness in his images of women and children is exquisite and essentially very accessible. His drawings are breathtakingly accomplished and works of innate beauty while his heads and portraits are sublime.

Raphael had a preference for intellectual company not really typical for an artist in the Renaissance and had literary friends and aristocratic connections. He was charming, good looking and adaptable. Raphael studied under Timoteo Vito, and then at Perugia (1500) under Perugino, whose work is represented in the National Gallery exhibition. He imitated Perugino's work so convincingly that scholars have struggled to discern between the two artists' work. He went to Siena where he assisted Pintoricchio (also in the show) and next to Florence (1504) to study the works of the great masters including Leonardo and Michelangelo. Pintoricchio (c.1454-1513) 'was one of the first Renaissance artists to take a serious interest in the decorative painting of antiquity, and to simulate the fanciful caprices of ancient painting known as grottesche … [grotesque]'.4

Raphael provided numerous accomplished compositional drawings for Pintoricchio's frescoes in spite of being 30 years his junior, 'spatially sophisticated designs, with figures moving back and forwards through space …'5 He designed narrative histories of a complex standard before he was 20, which stood him in good stead when he worked on a large scale at the Vatican. As Tom Henry and Carol Plazzotta point out:

… the sequence of Raphael's work in Perugia is comparable to his subsequent Florentine experience: he seems to have moved to a city, developed close relationships with the leading artists and patrons there, producing small works to prove his mettle, and subsequently obtained more prominent commissions.6

Raphael was drawn to Florence to see the cartoons that Michelangelo and Leonardo were producing for victorious battle scenes in the Sala del Consiglio, the new council hall in the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of the Florentine government. In Leonardo's battle scene full-scale cartoons were created of horses and men in a savage conflict. Leonardo conjured remarkable fury and muscular action. Raphael was inevitably affected and impressed; by contrast to his graceful devotional works, Leonardo's work was monumental. When Raphael came to depict horses they were rather tame with calligraphic manes - very much part of a beautifully conceived composition. Raphael did not draw horses from life but from other artists' work.

Of great importance to Raphael's development was the famous Leonardo cartoon of 'Madonna and Child with St Anne', (1510) included in the present exhibition. Vasari described both the effect of this work on other artists but also its revolutionary composition.

Vasari … praised Leonardo's ingenuity in evoking not just the beauty and grace of the Madonna, but also her inner qualities - including simplicity, modesty, humility, joy, tenderness and honesty - appropriate to her unique role as virgin and mother of Christ. It was Leonardo's ability to convey the intangible motions of the mind, emanating as if naturally from within his graceful figures, ‘that left Raphael amazed and entranced', and persuaded him to add to what he had learned from Perugina.7

Raphael absorbed Leonardo's tenderness into his own repertoire and learnt new styles and techniques of drawing and composition. 'Madonna of the Pinks' is both a homage to Leonardo and an assertion of Raphael's own creative independence and use of new and unexpected colour combinations: 'Raphael infused these devotional pictures with an unprecedented naturalism and grace and his extremely rapid turnover of variations on this theme in this period is indicative of the demand for works of this type from his hand'.8

Vasari described Michelangelo's cartoon from the 'Battle of Cascina' (1504) in Florence as 'a school for artists'. Raphael was one of many artists who studied Michelangelo's monumental male nudes. Raphael learnt to make figures interact dynamically and to create greater depth. Raphael also studied Michelangelo's sculptures. Unlike Michelangelo, though, Raphael maintained more subtle harmonies of colour and tone. As an exceptional architect, Raphael had a spatial sense which he used to emphasise the narrative in his paintings. Michelangelo, however, resented Raphael's study of his worked practically accusing him of plagiarism. Raphael did not limit himself to learning from Leonardo and Michelangelo; he befriended many artists and he succeeded in attracting the patronage of influential Florentines and became a portraitist of great distinction. His 'Portrait of a Lady', (1505-06) shows Raphael's debt to Leonardo in portraiture showing remarkable parallels (pose, framing with columns, landscape background) to the 'Mona Lisa', (1504) suggesting that Raphael was probably in direct contact with Leonardo around 1505.

Raphael arrived in Rome in 1508, the same year that Michelangelo had embarked on painting the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II had entrusted Perugino, Raphael's former teacher to decorate his new staterooms, known today as the Stanze. As Perugina was elderly he elected to work only on the last and most important room. Together with Sodoma, Raphael worked on the vault of the Stanza della Segnatura and several artists worked on a third room. Raphael was put in charge of the Pope's projects and appointed to a papal sinecure in October 1511.

The Stanza della Segnatura is a remarkable achievement. Originally a library, the decorative scheme of the ceiling is divided into four branches of learning or faculties: Theology, Poetry, Philosophy and Jurisprudence. On the walls below each discipline are narrative scenes, historical and contemporary. For Raphael, a project on this scale was an amazing chance to develop his visual expression to dazzling new heights, spatially sophisticated and daring. In this, Raphael represented the history of ideas, the very essence of Renaissance Italy. The drawings for parts of this project are included in the exhibition. The importance of Raphael's achievement, 'a powerful new rhetoric of gesture and expression',9 cannot be overstated.

The revolution Raphael effected in the Stanza della Segnatura frescoes is astounding. The challenges and resources offered by this supremely important project commissioned by the wealthiest and most powerful patrons, the erudite environment of the papal court, and the competitive rivalry that naturally existed among so many talents working alongside each other evidently stimulated in Raphael a desire to surpass all others. Vasari described the artist's development in his early years in Rome as his most extreme transformation to date, and he attributed his grander and more majestic style to the study of antiquity and the Roman works of Michelangelo.10

That Raphael received prestigious commissions and great recognition wherever he went is clearly illustrated by this exhibition and the accompanying book. The scholarship is immaculate where issues of chronology, attribution and iconography are concerned. The emotional content or philosophical significant of Raphael's contribution is less clear. The exhibition sadly has some significant flaws. Cross-referencing between works is often made at the expense of the concentration of the meaning of particular works in a broader sense. If one believed the media beforehand, the Raphael exhibition would, for the grace of the religious images and the superlative quality of the work, be truly inspiring. But having missed the press view and thus attending the exhibition as a member of the public was anything but a spiritual experience. Unlike the works in the Titian exhibition, where the average size of each painting was significantly larger that any works in the present show, Raphael's paintings require space around them for an intimate response. There was a keen public response, but it felt like an overcrowded sausage factory. The energy required to see all the works in the gallery was so great that the mind was unable to view these small, beautiful works appropriately. Cross-referencing of works by Raphael and those who influenced him was in some instances in different rooms; by the time one accounted for the scrum, it was impossible to follow. A number of works were hung too low and the lower level of the Sainsbury Wing felt claustrophobic. Perhaps the greatest disappointment was that the exhibition seemed to lack an appropriate climax that did not do justice either to the outstanding scholarship or the quality of the works presented.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Director's Foreword. In: Chapman H, Henry T, Plazzotta C (with contributions from Nesselrath A, Penny N). Raphael: From Urbino to Rome. London: National Gallery Press, 2004.
2. Vasari G. Raphael of Urbino, Lives of the Artists. Translated by Bull G.
3. Henry T, Plazzotta C. In: Raphael: From Urbino to Rome; op cit: 15.
4. Ibid: 23.
5. Ibid: 23.
6. Ibid: 31.
7. Ibid: 36.
8. Ibid: 37.
9. Ibid: 53.
10. Ibid: 55.

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