RAPHAEL was born in Urbino on Good Friday 1483; he died in the Vatican on his 37th birthday: 6 April, Good Friday (1520), causing the pope of the day to exclaim that no greater silence had fallen upon earth since the death of Jesus on the cross.
Painted in 1503, the so-called “Mond” Crucifixion, named for the bequest of Dr Ludwig Mond which the National Gallery in London has for more than a century dishonoured and contested, evaded and rewritten, therefore comes halfway through Raphael’s remarkable but all too short life.
Gabinetto fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi. Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e del TurismoRaphael’s Self-portrait (1506-08), on loan from the Uffizi Gallery, Florence
It was a commission given to a teenager, and it was commented later that if Raphael had not signed it (in silver leaf, mind you, on the cross itself), everyone would have thought that it was by his then master (Pietro Perugino). That painting will provide a critical hinge for the National Gallery’s own commemorative exhibition opening on 3 October in London.
The exhibition in the former stables of a papal palace, which I visited just before Italy went into full lockdown, makes the point that Raphael was not just a religious painter. It begins at his death and retraces his life back to the hills of Urbino: “1520 to 1483”, as it says on the box. Summoned to Rome in 1508, he was called on to decorate the rooms in the Vatican where he was to die.
Raphael was also a keen portraitist and no stranger to the city’s night life, where he, no doubt, met some of his models and mistresses. Here, the woman called “La Velata” (The Veiled One, Uffizi, 1521-23)) is nervously eyed up by “La Fornarina”, the baker’s wife in the role of Venus (Palazzo Barberini, 1519-20), in the first upstairs room that I entered, after a raft of tapestries and amazing studies after the Antique.
When Raphael died, he had been out on the tiles eight days before and caught a chill and took to his bed. At the time, he had recently completed a competition with his painting The Transfiguration (Vatican) for a Spanish church (S. Pietro in Montorio). Pope Leo X instructed that it be placed opposite Raphael’s deathbed as he lay in state. He was buried the following day in the Pantheon, and the exhibition opens with some ghastly 19th-century Romantic imaginations of both scenes, and with a facsimile of the wall monument itself.
A very Italian controversy overshadowed the opening with far-reaching consequences. The whole scientific advisory panel of the Uffizi gallery in Florence, including the successful London- and New York-based art dealer Fabrizio Moretti, resigned in protest that the great painting of 1518 of Pope Leo X with his Cardinal secretaries, Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi, had been loaned.
Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e del Turismo, Polo Museale dell’Emilia RomagnaRaphael’s The Ecstasy of St Cecilia (before 1518), on loan from the National Gallery of Bologna
Last year, they included it on a list of two dozen works that should never leave the Uffizi, either because of their fragility or because of their cultural significance. They had been earlier assured that it would not be among the exceptional loan of 49 paintings.
The Raphael triple portrait is a remarkable testimony to a growing awareness of realism in painting. It is properly “iconic”. I saw it here in all its glory, alongside an equally telling portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1513, The Louvre) and a self-portrait to illustrate an unrealised project that Raphael and Castiglione had proposed to Pope Leo X to record ancient Rome.
There was no medium that Raphael did not try or excel in; architecture as well as painting commanded his attention, and others worked out his ideas in sculpture. Dr Angelamaria Aceto, at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, has shown that his use of chalks, inks, washes, charcoal, and metalpoint was revolutionary.
It was good to find so many works on paper in this show, which came hard on the heels of the winter exhibition in his native city, with which it shares several exhibits, including the large-scale cartoon for the fresco of Moses kneeling at the burning bush, made for one of the ceiling vaults in the Vatican.
The life-size cartoon is drawn on 23 sheets of paper joined together and depicts a kneeling figure shielding his eyes, and demonstrates Raphael’s reliance (1514) on classical sculpture as understood by Michelangelo. A much smaller sketch rehearses ideas for Christ’s Descent into Limbo which Cesarino de Perugia worked up into a bronze roundel that here is hung on one side of a door opposite his bronze roundel of the Incredulity of St Thomas from the abbey at Chiaravalle.
Whereas the exhibition in Urbino commemorated Raphael’s industry alongside his local contemporaries, appropriately showcasing Timoteo Viti (1469-1523) and Girolamo Genga (1476-1551), who are not as widely encountered, that in Rome, a joint venture with the Uffizi, shows why Raphael deserves an international stage. Fittingly, it was opened by President Sergio Mattarella and our Queen heads the list of more than 50 global lenders.
Gabinetto fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi. Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e del Turismo
The Madonna and Child (Madonna del Granduca) (1506-07), on loan from the Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Some 120 works of Raphael (both on paper and in paint) trace the extraordinary journey from the courts of the Supreme Pontiff back to the hill city of a ducal family.
It is a fascinating journey: the painter we know from the Madonna of the Rose (The Prado, 1518-20) and from the Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia (Bologna) or from the Uffizi’s famous earlier Madonna del Granduca (1506-07) was precocious even when he drew his own left hand and a young face in 1497-99 (The Ashmolean).
But Londoners already know that much from the “Mond” Crucifixion, of course. A terrifyingly brilliant teenager showcased in the heart of Rome, where he reached his full stature, within sight of the Praxiteles statues of the horses of the Dioscouroi which he had so lovingly sketched (c.1513, Washington NGA) — may he rest in peace.
“Raffaello 1520-1483” at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, which has been closed to the public owing to the coronavirus regulations in Italy, reopens on 2 June, with longer opening hours and special health measures for visitors; and its run has been extended until 30 August