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Art review: The Raphael Cartoons at the V&A

12 March 2021

Raphael’s famous work can be studied closely, says Nicholas Cranfield

Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

Raphael Cartoon, The Healing of the Lame Man (Acts 3, 1-8), by Raphael, 1515-16, Italy

Raphael Cartoon, The Healing of the Lame Man (Acts 3, 1-8), by Raphael, 1515-16, Italy

LIKE all our galleries and museums, the V&A has repeatedly had to reschedule its plans. No doubt, in the weeks after the Budget, the museum will be among the supplicants at the court of Dowden and the votaries of Sunak, seeking poor relief for a much deprived sector of our national society, as essential for many for well-being as is unfettered access to church and places of worship.

Raphael was commissioned to design the tapestries for Pope Leo X soon after the 1513 papal election. They were intended to hang on the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel beneath 16 paintings completed by the likes of Botticelli and Perugino.

For Pope Benedict XIV’s UK state visit (Arts,10 September 2010), the Vatican loaned four of them to the V&A; and all hung together in February last year for just one week, on their original hooks, in honour of Raphael, who died on Good Friday, 6 April 1520, his 37th birthday.

Around 1515/16, the ten cartoons — each drawn full-scale on some 200 sheets of paper glued together — were sent to be woven in Brussels by Pieter van Aelst (c.1495-c.1560). Flanders was the centre of the expensive luxury market for such decorative works. Once used, the cartoons were widely copied and often replicated. Pieter Coecke, for instance, conceived a not dissimilar series of Pauline tapestries in the early 1530s, which formed the core of the 2014-15 winter exhibition of Renaissance tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

In 1623, Prince Charles, later King Charles I, acquired seven of the original set of cartoons from Genoa, probably at the recommendation of the Flemish painter Rubens, who, that year, had presented him with a flattering self-portrait soliciting his patronage. Rubens had first visited Genoa in 1604, and in 1622 he published an architectural treatise on the new palatial architecture of the maritime republic.

Sir Francis Crane MP, who served in Prince Charles’s household, owned a tapestry manufactory that King James I helped fund at Mortlake, built on what had been John Dee’s estate. In 1623, Crane wrote to the king to explain that on behalf of the prince he had paid out £300, for “certayne drawings . . ., which were desseignes for tapistries made for Pope Leo the Xth” with a view to shipping them to England.

Thanks to Piero Boccardo, we now know who owned the cartoons. In 1615, Andrea Imperiale (1574-1641) had “seven or eight large pieces by Raphael” which he sold in 1623; perhaps they were too large even to display in his palazzo. If Crane paid him the £300, it could explain how Andrea Imperiale was able to buy himself a title to a grand fiefdom. Cash for honours.

In Mortlake, the newly arrived German-born artist Francis Cleyn (1582-1658) from Rostock translated the strips of Raphael’s cartoons into tapestries, making the first set for Charles I, finally completed in 1640/41.

Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021V&A digital interactive, showing colour and infrared detail of the Raphael Cartoon Christ’s Charge to Peter

Cleyn had earlier worked extensively for Charles I’s uncle, King Christian IV, at the Danish court before travelling to Venice and then coming to London. He is not widely known today, but was regarded as the equal of Van Dyck in his lifetime. Perhaps his most visible painting is the large picture of the Last Supper which hangs above the west-end gallery in Windsor Parish Church, originally the gift of King George III for the holy table at the east end (1788).

New scientific research undertaken during the refurbishment of the central hall where the cartoons are displayed has found that four of the large sheets of paper (cartone) which Raphael tacked together bear the same watermark as appears on some of his accredited drawings. This convincingly argues that the cartoons in London are the originals among other full-size copies of the cartoons.

Lucida 3D scanners have now been used to reveal fascinating details. Visitors using their own iPhones and the like will be able to see the intricacy of the artist’s handiwork. In the mean time, the museum has taken the decision to make this resource available online, which more than complements Dr Ana Debenedetti’s booklet.

As one of the greatest Italian Renaissance treasures to be seen in England for free, along with the Michelangelo marble Taddei Tondo (Royal Academy of Arts) and the Leonardo Burlington House cartoon for the Virgin of the Rocks (National Gallery), the Raphael cartoons deserve a new scholarly volume with the latest photographic resources, to replace John Shearman’s (1972) invaluable work.

The online site offers a slideshow in ultra-high-resolution colour, 3D, and infrared photography. This makes it possible to see Raphael’s individual brushstrokes; and 3D definition shows how the surface has fared over 500 years, while the infrared images show the underdrawings (charcoal).

This may all sound a bit technical, but not only is the site easy to use, but the images come as a real revelation. Any time spent now will prepare the visitor for the experience of seeing the cartoons when the Raphael Court finally reopens.

In the past, this large hall has been used out of hours as a changing room for the temporary catering staffs brought in night after night for large corporate money-spinners. Bags, rucksacks, and clothes were piled against the walls as youngsters jostled, black trousers and white shirts were donned, hair was slicked back, and orders were given, while the famous tapestry cartoons hung perilously close. I can only hope that the Trustees will now ban such misuse.


The Raphael Cartoons, on display in The Raphael Court at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), Cromwell Road, London SW7, reopening in 2021. Explore the Raphael Cartoons at www.vam.ac.uk

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