Friday 22 April 2022

Renaissance Man: Raphael as Artist, Architect and Archaeologist

Raphael's luminous Saint Catherine of Alexandria, about 1507. Photograph: ©The National Gallery, London

A major new exhibition of the superlative Renaissance artist, Raphael, has opened at the National Gallery. Painter, architect, designer and archaeologist, the show has 90 exhibits of his work from celebrated paintings and drawings to lesser-known poetry and designs for sculpture, tapestry, prints and the applied arts. Antonio Visconti reports from London  

Raphael: The Garvagh Madonna, about 1509-10
Oil on wood 38.9x 32.9 cm 
© The National Gallery, London

POSTPONED because of the pandemic restrictions, the National Gallery in London has just launched an important new exhibition which explores the career of Raphael, considered a giant of the Italian Renaissance. In his brief career, spanning just two decades, Raffaello Santi shaped the course of Western culture like few artists before or since. 

“We are delighted that following its delay because of Covid we are now able to stage this exhibition which marks the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death in 2020, and is the first ever outside Italy to explore the complete career of this key figure in Western art,” said Dr Matthias Wivel, one of the show's curators.

A  painter, draughtsman, architect, designer and archaeologist, Raphael captured the human and the divine, love and friendship and gave us lasting images of beauty and civilisation. 

Although Raphael’s life was short, his work was prolific, and his legacy has lasted for five centuries. This exhibition examines not just his celebrated paintings and drawings but also his not so widely known work in architecture, archaeology and poetry, as well as his designs for sculpture, tapestry, prints, and the applied arts. 

The aim of the show is to explore every aspect of his multimedia activity. For centuries Raphael has been recognised as the supreme High Renaissance painter, visualising central aspects and ideals of Western culture. Though he died at 37, Raphael's example as a paragon of Classicism dominated the academic tradition of European painting until the mid-19th century. 

Although Raphael’s life was short, his work was prolific, and his legacy lasted for five centuries.

Raphael: Study for the Head of an Apostle
 in the Transfiguration. 
©Private Collection, New York
Raffaello Santi was born in Urbino in 1483, where his father, Giovanni Santi, was court painter. He almost certainly began his training there and must have known works by Mantegna, Uccello, and Piero della Francesca from an early age. His earliest paintings were also greatly influenced by his teacher Perugino. 

From 1500, when he was already an independent master, to 1508 he worked throughout central Italy, particularly Florence, where he became a noted portraitist and painter of Madonnas. 

In 1508, at the age of 25, he was called to the court of Pope Julius II ((reigned 1503–13) one of the great patrons in Western art history, to help with the redecoration of the papal apartments. Now based in Rome, he became one of the great history painters. He remained in the Eternal City for the rest of his life and in 1514, on the death of Bramante, he was appointed architect in charge of St Peter's. 

Raphael died unexpectedly leaving behind a multitude of great projects, some unfinished, and a legacy as one of the defining artists of the Western tradition. 
This exhibition at the National Gallery has 90 exhibits, all by Raphael, except those in media he did not practice himself but for which he provided designs, The show demonstrates why the artist plays such a pivotal role in the history of Western art. Loans from across his entire career, many of them unprecedented, have travelled to London from around the world, to join nine works from the National Gallery’s own collection of paintings by Raphael. 

The Louvre, Musei Vaticani, the Galleria degli Uffizi, and the Museo Nacional del Prado have all lent works for the exhibition. Highlights include Santa Cecilia (about 1515–6, oil on wood, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna) and the Alba Madonna (about 1509–11, oil on wood transferred to canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.) 

Raphael was born in Urbino and must have known works by Mantegna, Uccello, Piero della Francesca and Perugino. 

Raphael: An Allegory, Vision of a Knight
about 1504. Oil on poplar
17.1 x 17.3 cm
The National Gallery, London 

Broadly chronological, the exhibition opens with a section devoted to the artist’s early works created in the Marche region of eastern Italy and his birthplace Urbino. 

These include the drawings for his Saint Nicholas of Tolentino altarpiece reflecting his lifelong practice of studying from live models. 

The exhibition then focuses on Florence where, as well as establishing himself within a new network of clients, Raphael continued to produce works for many other locations, including the Ansidei Madonna (The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas of Bari, 1505, oil on poplar, the National Gallery) for Perugia.

 A rare gathering of Raphael’s paintings of the Virgin and Child, the genre that he above all made his own, includes pictures dating to his time in Florence, as well as paintings executed during his first years in Rome. 

Another section of the exhibition traces Raphael’s arrival in Rome where he quickly gained the patronage of the Sienese banker, Agostino Chigi (1466–1520). Chigi became his most important lay client, commissioning frescoes for his suburban villa, now called the Farnesina, as well as designs for chapels in two Roman churches: Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo. 

Raphael’s Roman years saw him applying his talents widely and building a thriving and multi-faceted artistic enterprise.

Cesarino Roscetti: The Incredulity of St Thomas
Bronze, 88.5cm . Courtesy: Ministero per
 i beni e le attivita culturali  
The exhibition also includes two bronze roundels from Santa Maria della Pace, never previously exhibited outside Italy, including Cesarino Rossetti's The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, after designs by Raphael, about 1511-12 (see at right). 

One room is entirely devoted to Raphael’s frescoes for Julius II’s private apartments, known as the Stanze. This project included monumental, multi‐figure compositions depicting biblical subjects, scenes from the history of the Church, allegories of concepts such as Poetry and the great gathering of philosophers known as the School of Athens (1509–10).Drawings on display include a life study for the Greek philosopher Diogenes.

In addition to his demanding commitment to the Stanze, Raphael found time for other commissions, including his penetrating portrait of the sickly and elderly, yet strong-willed Julius II, also exhibited in this room, which transformed the way the powerful were depicted in Western art.

Never previously exhibited outside of Italy, are two bronze roundels from Rome's Santa Maria della Pace church.

Raphael: Madonna of the Pinks,
(La Madonna dei Garofani)
about 1506-7
Oil on Yew
27.9 x 22.4 cm 
©The National Gallery, London 
Raphael’s Roman years saw him applying his talents widely and building a thriving and multi-faceted artistic enterprise. The artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) described him as a ‘universal artist’ in recognition of the mastery he developed across different mediums.

The exhibition examines his innovative work in printmaking, decorative art and tapestry design, as well as his architecture and archaeological work as surveyor of ancient Rome. 

However, painting remained central to his work, as demonstrated by his many variations on the subject of the Holy Family on display in the exhibition. 

Several of his original print designs, engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi (1470/82 ~ 1534), are here displayed alongside his preliminary drawings revealing the immense trouble Raphael took over what others might have regarded as minor works. 

This includes his Study for the Massacre of the Innocents. Also, included in this section is a single autograph drawing for the border of a salver. 

As surveyor of ancient Rome to Pope Leo X (reigned 1513–1521) Raphael undertook an ambitious survey of the ancient city with drawings of its principal buildings, having lamented in a letter on display in the exhibition, the destruction of significant ruins as ‘the shame of our age’.

The exhibition also provides an overview of his work as an architect in Rome, including his most prestigious appointment as architect of the new St Peter’s, the beginnings of the basilica we know today. His designs for private townhouses, or palazzi, are represented by a model of the façade of the Palazzo Branconio dell’Aquila, while his designs for the sprawling Villa Madama, created as a Medici refuge just outside Rome, were the most ambitious of their kind since antiquity but sadly the villa was only partially completed.

As surveyor of ancient Rome to Pope Leo X, Raphael lamented the destruction of significant ruins as ‘the shame of our age’.

Pieter Coeckle van Aelst:
Vision of Ezekiel c1521,
Tapestry, 440 x 337 cm 
©Museo Nacional de Artes
Decorativas Madrid 
Raphael’s ground-breaking work as a designer for tapestries is represented by the work he did for the Brussels workshop of Pieter van Aelst in 1517. These tapestries, like the Vision of Ezekiel  (see at left) were woven from wool, silk and gilt‑metal thread, This was part of his series on the Acts of the Apostles, designed to be hung in the Sistine Chapel under, and in direct competition with Michelangelo’s famous, frescoed ceiling. 

This series is among his most complex and influential works, bringing the logic of his monumental and meticulously planned narratives of the Vatican frescoes to a different, transportable medium. 

A digital facsimile of the original painted cartoon for the tapestry, made especially for this exhibition, helps elucidate the collaborative creative process behind these great projects, involving assistant painters and draughtsmen as well, of course, as the weavers in the Netherlands who created the finished works. 

The spectacular final room of the exhibition is dedicated to the portraiture of Raphael’s last years. He was generally too busy to take on portrait commissions, unless there was a strong political imperative, as with the 1518 Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici . The portraits he did execute, therefore, tend to have been painted out of friendship or affection, exemplified by his famous Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, completed in 1519, and on loan from the Musée du Louvre, Paris for this must-see show.

Raphael is at the National Gallery, London, until 31 July 2022.

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