RAFFAELLO SANZIO was born at Easter 1483 in the city of Urbino in the Marche, and he died at Rome on Good Friday in 1520. The son of an established painter, he joined Pietro Perugino’s atelier as a teenager. He was already a master by the age of 17, and in the previous year he had painted a processional banner for the hilltop town of Città di Castello.
Several of his first assured works were painted there, including the so-called Mond Crucifixion in the National Gallery, which he painted in 1503 for the Dominicans. In the same year, he was commissioned by Alessandra di Simone degli Oddi for an altarpiece of The Coronation of the Virgin for a Franciscan church in Perugia. Did Pope Julius II admire it when he said mass in the same church in September 1506? Two years later, Raphael was summoned to Rome to work for the pope in decorating his private apartments and library in the Vatican.
His early work, and the first room of the exhibition, takes us from a highly sensitive portrait of a 17-year-old, which is surely a self-portrait, to his time working in Perugia, Florence, and Milan, where he was influenced by all he saw of Leonardo and Michelangelo, shows an inventiveness and a spiritedness that further develops the freedoms taken up by the earlier generation of painters, such as his master Perugino and the older Luca Signorelli (1445-1523).
Rome challenged and transformed any artist. In particular, the rich inheritance of classical form was just beginning to be explored; in 1506, the Hellenistic sculptural group of Laocoön and His Sons had been unearthed. A year earlier, Bramante had begun to design the Cortile del Belvedere to display classical statuary.
Dr Catherine Whittaker, in an extensive exhibition of six score drawings, follows his development in minute detail. Her decision to eschew including any paintings encourages us to look closely at the variety of textures which an artist can achieve with charcoal, chalk, metalpoint, and graphite, besides using ink and white heightening.
When the exhibition transfers to Vienna (Albertina, 29 September to 6 January 2018), a range of paintings will also be included to demonstrate how the drawings were built up as a corpus of work towards a final commission. But many of the drawings are consciously works in their own right.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was the proud owner of drawings made by many artists. On one of Raphael’s red-chalk study of two naked men standing beside each other and looking away (Vienna, Albertina) is inscribed: “1515/ Raphael of Urbino, who was so highly esteemed by the pope, made this nude image and sent it to Albrecht Dürer in Nuremberg to display his hand.” One of the figures, that of a declamatory orator, appears in The Battle of Ostia, with which Raphael decorated one of the papal rooms 1514-17, suggesting that this might have been a working drawing that Raphael worked up into a gift for a fellow-artist.
Crucially, we do not need to know the history of the defeat of the Saracens in a naval battle off the coast of Rome at Ostia in 849 to appreciate the drawing, as the German artist evidently did, as an academic study of the male nude.
Raphael has carefully ensured that neither figure overlaps or occupies the space of the other, and has, therefore, only hinted at a third figure between them, marking his left leg and his face, at a distinctly different angle from the others. The intensity of expression on all three faces indicates the import of what they are regarding and invites us to join with them in discerning what may lie beyond the sheet of paper, which has at some stage been trimmed on one side.
Such use of figures is nothing new, as Raphael’s own studies after other artists show: for instance, in the rear view of the David (British Museum) and the half-comic Leda and the Swan (Royal Collection); but Raphael invests them all with a certain freedom. He is clearly using other established masters and then making them his own, and he, at one time or another, presumably had access to Leonardo’s workshop, and to that of Michelangelo.
He remained careful in the way in which he placed his figures, whether six of the Apostles at the right-hand end of the Last Supper, as in a marked-up metalpoint drawing that was seemingly never transferred to a painting (Ashmolean), on pink paper, or in another we see where he has deliberately marked place settings, as it were, for the Twelve (Albertina).
The last drawing that we come to is the famous study of heads, one that of a man wiser in years, the other of a youthful ingénu, both of them included among the gathered apostles who stand below Mount Tabor in Raphael’s award-winning painting The Transfiguration (Arts, 12 May), which he undertook in competition with Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus. It is the humanity of both expressions and the subtle distinctiveness of their hands which give the drawing its inexpressible unity.
That the Ashmolean can mount such an extensive and unrepeatable exhibition is, of course, much indebted to other lenders; but the permanent collection has the largest collection of his drawings. These had once belonged to the portrait-painter Sir Thomas Lawrence.
At Lawrence’s death (1830), the nation refused to buy his enormous art collection wholesale, and it was sold off piecemeal. A group of far-sighted private investors formed a syndicate to raise the necessary funds for the purchase of 75 Raphaels in 1846.
The exhibition makes an excellent introduction to the show “Drawing in Rome”, which will be staged at the Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford from 16 September to 22 December.
”Raphael: The Drawings” is at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until 3 September. Phone 01865 278000. www.ashmolean.org