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The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael at the National Gallery, London

01 July 2022

Nicholas Cranfield sees the National Gallery’s postponed exhibition for the Raphael quincentenary

© The National Gallery, London

Raphael, The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels (The Mond Crucifixion), c. 1502-03

Raphael, The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels (The Mond Crucifixion), c. 1502-03

FAR in the distant landscape of the Mond Crucifixion (1502-03), beyond Calvary attended by St Jerome and St Mary Magdalene, we see a winding river and hilltop town. It is in the first room, alongside what might be a self-portrait of the artist at 15 (British Museum) and an oil painting of a teenage St Sebastian.

It resembles the Tiber Valley below Città di Castello, to which the 17-year-old Raphael (1483-1520) had travelled from his home in Urbino. His father, Giovanni Santi, was a well-established painter in the ducal household there, with whom he trained. The Mond Crucifixion was painted for the family chapel of a local wool merchant, Domenico Gavari, in his eponymous church.

Raphael was already a prodigious expert in his own right; he signed his first contract with another Città wool merchant in December 1500 as a guild “master” for an altarpiece in the chapel of St Nicholas of Tolentino at Sant’Agostino.

On Raphael’s anniversary this year, on a day when I was unexpectedly stranded in Pisa, I was able to see one of its predella panels in the Palazzo Reale. Lille has sent studies for the central altarpiece evidencing Raphael’s care and attention to detail.

These altarpieces more than justify the claim later made by the biographer Giorgio Vasari. He commented that, had the youthful Raphael not signed the Mond painting so prominently (in gold letters, on the cross), many would have thought it the work of the more mature artist Pietro Perugino (1446-1523), from Perugia.

When Raphael moved there, possibly invited by the older painter Pintoricchio (1454-1513), for whom he provided designs for a commission that he had received for the Piccolomini chapel in Siena, his maturing style reflected Perugino’s.

In 1504, he received a letter of introduction, from a patroness in his native Urbino, sending him forthwith to work in Florence with the artist Soderini. There, in the city of Michelangelo and Leonardo, he became known for producing small-scale Madonnas, magnificently displayed here in the fourth room.

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, WashingtonRaphael, The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (The Alba Madonna), c.1509-11, on loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Andrew W. Mellon Collection (1937.1.24)  

He was in contact with the successful Florentine merchant Taddeo Taddei, who owned the Michelangelo tondo (Royal Academy, London) that clearly influenced his handling of the Christ Child in the Bridgewater Madonna (1507). The infant is cradled almost horizontally (National Gallery of Scotland). Even in Michelangelo’s incomplete sculpture, this compositional device is a tour de force.

Perhaps the most affecting of the Florentine Madonnas is that once owned by the Tempi family (Munich, Alte Pinakothek). Here, Raphael brings the Virgin and Child into a binding intimate embrace of loving-kindness that recalls the sculptures of Donatello and reaches back to the Byzantine icons of the Glykophilousa.

Raphael left Florence in some haste, moving to the papal city of Rome to work in the Vatican palace and for the pope’s banker, Agostino Chigi. Was the move occasioned by his failure to gain more public commissions in Florence or at the direct invitation of the Ligurian Pope, Julius II della Rovere? Or was he run out of town for borrowing one too many designs of other painters?

Raphael was not always the plaster saint that Vasari depicted. His early death in Rome, aged just 37, on Good Friday 1520 might have been a direct consequence of riotous living. It brought an end to his 20-year career, but not his influence.

Professors Ekserdjian and Henry have been able to mount a compendious exhibition. Originally planned for the anniversary year (Arts, 17 April 2020), it has come through largely unscathed, although the great double portrait of Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazzano is not shown; but the Uffizi 1506 self-portrait is handsome compensation. The real loss is a direct casualty of the invasion of Ukraine: the Russian Federation withdrew permission for another Tuscan picture, Holy Family with Beardless Joseph, to be sent from Vladimir Putin’s home city.

Raphael appears as a universal artist, as Giorgio Vasari called him: “universal” in the sense that he explored and succeeded in all the media known in his day. Whether designing buildings, painting frescoes, altarpieces, portraits, table settings, or tapestries, he led. Truly, then, a Renaissance man with universal appeal.

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Photo: Jörg P. AnderRaphael, Terranuova Madonna, on loan from the Staatliche Museen, Berlin  

But, if we look more closely at his work, we find, perhaps surprisingly, how often he paints without shadows, both literally and metaphorically. Figures stand in landscapes or, as in the case of The Vision of a Knight (NG), lie recumbent on the ground, in broad daylight, but without casting shadows.

As a result, many of the figures appear weightless, suspended in the imagination. Beautiful as they may be, are they also perhaps painted without their shadow side? Could they be angry, mischievous, or downright evil, or are they simply representations of Virtue and Beauty?

Only in his portraits does Raphael indicate a degree of psychological understanding that we can recognise. The Louvre portraits of the diplomat Baldassare Castiglione, whether it is from 1512-13 or is the later picture mentioned as being worked on in 1519, and a double portrait that includes his own self-portrait with Giulio Romano blaze with insight. A final room of friends and patrons is an exhibition in and of itself.

The canny nervousness of the Della Rovere pope (1511) — occasioned, perhaps, by a poorly judged intrusive modern reproduction of one of Raphael’s frescoes alongside — the self-assurance of his fellow artist Valerio Belli, and the extraordinary moustachioed Christ in the Descent into Limbo (1511-12) reveal human interest.

It is perhaps as a draughtsman that he is triumphant overall. The numerous sketches on display show very clearly the painstaking way in which he sought to establish his presence.

In the highly finished drawing in pen and ink of the Annunciation (Stockholm), the Archangel and Mary are monumental figures in what could well be a church setting. If it is as early as suggested (1504/05), it is a remarkable achievement, as there appears to be no resulting altarpiece; was it an idea for a sculptural group?

© Courtesy Ministero per i beni e le attivita culturali, ItaliaCesarino Roscetti, after a design by Raphael, The Incredulity of St Thomas, c. 1511-12, on loan from the Ministero per i beni e le attivita culturali, Italia  

From the same sort of date comes the sketch of “Leda and the Swan” after Leonardo (HM The Queen) which, Claudio Calí has recently determined from a study of its watermark, is drawn on the same Tuscan paper as Leonardo used in Florence. Whether Leonardo ever completed a painting of the same subject is debateable, but the figure of Leda herself resembles sculpture.

A not dissimilar monumentality characterises the forms in the sketch for The Massacre of the Innocents, another work in the Royal Collection which came from the King’s purchase of the collection of Consul Smith in 1762. It gained widespread circulation in an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi (c.1480-pre-1534).

I first became aware of Adam Lowe’s work for the Factum Foundation, with its use of digital technology to make exact reproductions of works of art, in Walpole’s house at Strawberry Hill. At Bishop Auckland, the top floor in the Spanish Gallery (Arts, 14 April) recreates the tomb chest of Cardinal Tavera, bomb-damaged in the Civil War, El Greco’s Risen Christ in its tabernacle, and paintings by Valdés Leal. There, the declared purpose is educational.

Here, next to the one of Leo X’s tapestries from the Sistine Chapel (St Paul preaching at Athens), there is a high-resolution 3D facsimile of one of the cartoons in the V&A (Arts, 12 March 2021). With all the originals on show, I wondered why the National Gallery was giving a platform to Factum. Raphael needs no such questionable support.

“The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 31 July. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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