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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers


Five centuries ago, what made an artist? Education? Talent? Curiosity? Luck? All four contributed to the success enjoyed by Raphael, the quincentenary of whose life and works are being celebrated by the National Gallery in London. Sharing many of the same exhibits as Rome’s clever, reverse-chronological show two years ago it is smaller in scope and – arguably – innovation than that blockbuster to judge from the filmed record that I have seen but remains an informative and enjoyable experience, I found, whose real heart is the works on paper.

Raphaello Sanzio da Urbino was born in 1483 to Giovanni Santi and Magia di Battista Ciarla, his name deriving from that of his father and the town in which the family lived. Santi was court painter to the Dukes of Urbino and so his son was immediately exposed to that milieu – one of linseed oil, powdered minerals and coloured chalks, yes, but also one of commissions, influences and finance. By the age of eleven both his parents had died and young Raphaello was being raised by his uncle and trained at the workshop of noted artist Pietro Perugino; by the time he was a teenager, the painter’s son was capable of assured works of his own such as the tantalisingly faded Head of a Boy that opens the exhibition as a presumed self-portrait.

Travel between the independent city-states that Italy then consisted of was rare for the vast majority of people, but Raphael was already providing drawings and fully-painted works for places like Siena and Perugia where he later lived. In The Mond Crucifixion (named after the industrialist who bequeathed it to the National Gallery between the wars, although the lack of an explanation for this and other such works’ common titles is one of several small irritations within the exhibition) the influence of Perugino emerges along with how Raphael was developing his own approach, blending and softening sources and including a wide range of materials and techniques like gold leaf and silver leaf for the sun and moon, respectively. He also used models, posing them as needed to help with the figures in his designs.

Florence, the cultural centre of the Renaissance, was an obvious pull for all artists and Raphael studied there next. Examining the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who was in his fifties at the time, was of course a given and the exhibition includes both The Madonna of the Pinks, based on Leonardo’s Benois Madonna, and a charming Study for a Portrait of a Young Woman that proves Raphael was at least aware of the Mona Lisa; it’s fascinating to speculate on whether he had seen the actual painting, but despite noting that Raphael probably knew Leonardo, the curators frustratingly avoid doing so.

Raphael certainly knew Michaelangelo Buonarroti, who was only a few years older. The former’s attempt to master the tondo or circular painting, a format particular to Florence, began with The Terranuova Madonna in which a standard rectilinear composition is simply if slightly naively framed by the new shape but he soon improved to yield a tight though wholly naturalistic arrangement of the Virgin, Child and St John the Baptist in the tondo now referred to as The Alba Madonna. An accompanying study assists in understanding how Raphael eventually achieved this (the Rome show’s demonstration of how the pose of Mary was derived from classical sculpture is not included) though as helpful, one assumes, was the friendship between Raphael and Taddeo Taddei, for whom Michaelangelo carved the marble tondo that is today in the Royal Academy and which Raphael saw.

That Raphael was increasingly confident at differing scales is also clear, from the intimacy of Portrait of a Woman (‘La Muta’) where the precision of her dress detail and finger rings are astonishing to the vast altarpiece called The Ansidei Madonna, whose symmetry, exactitude and sheer power seem to anticipate the Napoleonic propaganda of Ingres or David. His combined skills, then, made further elevation inevitable and at about the age of twenty five Raphael arrived in Rome, to work initially for banker Agostino Chigi and then for the man Chigi backed – the Pope. Such patronage both required and resulted in Raphael expanding his scope of operations dramatically, designing frescos, mosaics and bronzes for the chapel and villa commissions that followed (and for which he soon gathered to him a group of experts in those allied crafts to execute them) on top of his output of paintings. This last included his portrait of Pope Julius II which, in addition to being a compelling image of a man whose vitality is waning, also just happened to set the future standard for such works in the innovation of its three-quarter-length framing.

All of this was but a preface to the most well-known of Raphael’s works, those made for the Vatican Palace itself. He initially provided frescos for Julius II’s private apartments, including an imaginary gathering of ancient Grecian philosophers titled The School of Athens that is here reproduced photographically, and whilst still supervising these was asked by papal successor Leo X (whose portrait Raphael also painted but which sadly remains in Florence) to design the tapestry cycle Acts of the Apostles for the Sistine Chapel. This is represented by one of the tapestries themselves, and – more curiously – a 3D facsimile of its life-size preparatory drawing or cartoon; all seven of the surviving originals can after all be seen in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Of course Raphael’s tapestries lined the walls below Michaelangelo’s famous ceiling, completed about five years earlier, yet by stating the men’s works in the Chapel were “in direct competition” with each other the curators seem content to accept the assumption described (created?) by their contemporary Georgio Vasari rather than question it, surely an odd approach in context.

Leo X also appointed Raphael – by then in his thirties – as architect to St Peter’s and the Vatican and supervisor of excavations. The buildings and art of ancient Rome were just beginning to be studied systematically, and Raphael embraced his new role enthusiastically by collecting antiquities, commissioning surveys and drawings and disseminating Roman architectural theory. For the Rome exhibition digital studio Progetto Katatexilux’s impressive extrusions of his plans and photo-real images reconstructing what he found brought to life the city that Raphael knew but unfortunately in London a screen is used to rather more prosaic effect, showing footage of buildings he designed based on these rediscovered principles, some decades before Andrea Palladio became famous for doing the same. Both these aspects of Raphael’s work were entirely new to me and I would have liked to know more, but a single, small drawing of his surviving Villa Madama and a large-scale model showing the principal façade of a palazzo which he only worked on and was later demolished (and which was impossible to see properly anyway due to visitors gathering to watch the film) felt unbalanced as a summary of this part of his life.

Overall the exhibition does a good job of justifying its claim for Raphael being a humanist, a collaborator and an artist who worked fluidly and fluently across a range of media, if not quite the “universal artist” (Vasari again) claimed. The links it makes between Raphael and other artists old and new are useful and remind us of the sheer breadth of talent then working in Italy, as well as explaining how Raphael himself gathered much of that talent around him in a workshop-cum-studio-cum-brand to work across the disciplines and provide whatever was needed for a given commission. To achieve what he did in a foreshortened career of just twenty years was remarkable.

The show does, though, feel rather thin in parts, both at the level of individual works and when considering that wider world in which the practitioners lived. Thus in no case does the display, the caption or even the multimedia guide show images of linked works by other artists such as the Benois Madonna or Taddeo tondo, and whilst mention is made (for example) of Leonardo’s battle scene in Florence as a comparator it’s left to those in the know to intuit this is the infamously never delivered Battle of Anghiari. And given the distances involved but also the importance of sharing imagery, letters, documents and contracts some understanding of how these communications channels worked in the early fifteen hundreds and the sense of time those who existed in that era had would have had could have done much to truly immerse us in Raphael’s world.

There is one part of that world, though, where this exhibition is at its best. No matter how good the final piece, whether portrait, altarpiece or fresco, I have always found something far more compelling about the preliminary drawings that inform it. Straight from the hand of the artist, unfiltered by paint, colour or time, it’s the most direct way into his mind. Every mark, every error, every change says something of what he thought and that holds true with Raphael; indeed, seeing what a man sketched half a millennium ago is utterly beguiling.

A careful and sensitive sketch of A Young Woman is beautiful and present, whilst so crisp and fresh are Studies for Figures Leaning on a Parapet and Studies for Two Kneeling Women for one of the Vatican frescoes that it’s very hard to accept their true age. Similarly destined for the papal rooms, Pope Leo in a Sedia Gestaoria is a very rare sketch loosely blocked in four colours, bringing a wholly new angle on Raphael’s practice. Clustered in the corner of one sheet a tight, almost furious twist of bodies, outlined in ‘speed marks’ and easily at home in a modern graphic novel, is interpreted as Raphael testing the positions of soldiers recoiling from the shock in Studies for a Resurrection. Soldiers also feature in my favourite drawing from this exhibition, Siege of Perugia, a frieze-like group of fighting men drawing bows, wielding swords and climbing ladders done as a sketch for a scene from the life of the city’s patron saint. All of the men are naked and none actually holds any weapon yet each is brilliantly convincing in the complex, technically correct pose their individual placement in the action of assaulting the walls requires of them.

Raphael died suddenly at the age of 37 in 1520, the year after Leonardo but more than forty years before his near-contemporary Michaelangelo; the Rome exhibition including a facsimile of his tomb in the Pantheon. London’s effort, also marking 500 years since that day, may have been delayed and be of reduced ambition but does a fine job of explaining why that life still matters.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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