Late Raphael continues at the Museo del Prado until September 16th, 2012. A slightly different version will be shown at the Musée du Louvre,Paris, from October 8th, 2012 to January 14th, 2013. The catalogue was edited by Tom Henry and Paul Joannides.
If we think of Raphael today—and that is a big “if”—our mental picture is probably of a painter of Madonnas or, perhaps, of the Raphael of his first Roman frescoes, which long epitomized academic art at its best. But these are works associated with the early to middle periods of the painter’s brief life (1483-1520) and do not tell the whole story of his evolution, one of the most remarkable in the history of western art. The splendid exhibition now on show at the Prado gives us a glimpse of the greatness Raphael achieved in his last decade even though it does not fully answer the question of who Raphael really was.
From his death until the twentieth century, Raphael’s star outshone those of Leonardo and Michelangelo. He was very much the art historian’s artist, admired for his virtuosity and the sheer variety of his achievement as well as for the spell he seemed to cast over any young artist coming to Rome in his wake. It would be impossible to imagine the careers of Annibale Carracci, Poussin, or Ingres, to name but three, without the example of Raphael; yet his star began to dim when modernism overturned the accepted canon of the fine arts. True, there was renewed academic interest in the artist for the five hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1983 and some major exhibitions earlier in this century, but the imagination of the general public has never really been seized by Raphael as it has been by Michelangelo and Leonardo.
Late Raphael is essentially the story of the painter’s career under the Medici Pope Leo X (1513-21), a connoisseur of the arts who saw Raphael’s potential and pushed his career in unexpected directions. Called to Rome initially by Pope Julius II (1503-13), Raphael earned his spurs through two suites of revolutionary frescoes as well as a handful of altarpieces and portraits. Under the new reign of Leo X, Raphael began to work in a variety of genres from frescoes to tapestry cartoons and even architecture and archaeology, and he assembled a large workshop, thus enabling him to move simultaneously from project to project. Wholly autograph works are rare from this period, and his interventions often began with an initial design or verbal suggestions to assistants, followed by direct intervention at a later stage in the most significant areas of the most important commissions. In this way, Raphael laid down the model for all the great workshops that followed his; yet the rapid changes in his style, the presence of a number of hands in individual works, the absence of a secure chronology, and the disruption caused by his early death pose problems in understanding the trajectory of his career. These are the issues that the exhibition in Madrid sets out to address, and if the results are mixed, the whole experience is nonetheless compelling. With forty-four paintings, twenty-eight drawings, and ancillary items, Late Raphael marks an ambitious attempt to capture the variety of a mythic figure in the history of art.
The exhibition is divided into sections that deal with different aspects of Raphael’s career as painter under Leo X. The first and most impressive is devoted to major altarpieces, followed by smaller sections on large Madonna compositions, smaller religious works, portraits, and some works by or attributed to Raphael’s chief assistants, Giulio Romano (ca. 1499-1546) and Gianfrancesco Penni (ca. 1496-1528). The main purpose is didactic, seeking to distinguish between the hands of Raphael and his two most gifted followers, and it requires the visitor to move back and forth through the galleries in order to verify the organizers’ observations. The first room, designed to resemble a Greek cross, admirably presents the issues of the exhibition as a whole. On the walls are some of the greatest altarpieces of Raphael’s last seven years, and to see the Madonna del Pesce, the St. Cecilia (Fig. 1), the Spasimo di Sicilia, the St. Michael (Fig. 2) and Holy Family of Francis I (Fig.3) is a breathtaking experience. In a small compass, the works exhibited here chronicle the constant development of this period, in which Raphael moves from the traditional Madonna and Child compositions of his pre-Roman days to narratives that reinvent the nature of the altarpiece. Of these, the St. Cecilia of ca. 1515 is a major tour de force, both conceptually and aesthetically (Fig. 1); it creates a visual equivalent of the Platonic harmony of the spheres, focusing upon Cecilia, who drops her portative organ as she hears the singing of angels above. Human music— symbolized by the broken instruments at the saint’s feet—is imperfect and transient while Cecilia and her fellow saints share a vision of eternal harmony, identified by the angelic choir above.
The painting is shown in a replica of its original frame, resembling the border of a tapestry and still in situ in the Bolognese church for which it was designed. This is a significant point because one of Raphael’s transformative commissions of these years was a series of cartoons for tapestries to be hung in the Sistine Chapel. The papal commission occurred around 1514, just after the full splendour of Michelangelo’s ceiling had been revealed, and the challenge for Raphael was to match his older rival’s work with something in a different vein. Raphael was clearly responsive to the monumental example set by Michelangelo, and the meditative St. Paul in the St. Cecilia looks as if he had just come down from the Sistine Ceiling. But Raphael also introduces two female figures, Cecelia and Mary Magdalene, whose grace and delicacy are alien to Michelangelo. Raphael has here recast the sacra conversazione or communion of saints as a showcase of his range and versatility. At the same time, these figures anticipate two different trends of art following Raphael: the classicizing feminine beauty of St. Cecelia was adopted by Domenichino and later Baroque artists while the Magdalene displays a cool elegance, recurring in a number of late works by Raphael as well as in the more mannered artists of the next generation, chiefly Parmigianino.
The tapestry cartoons, one of Raphael’s major artistic statements, could not travel here from their permanent home at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Instead, their style is captured in an unusual altarpiece of the period, called the Spasimo di Sicilia or Christ Fallen Under the Cross. Originally commissioned by a Sicilian nobleman, the painting eventually ended up in the Prado and is a rare example of a narrative altarpiece by the painter. For it, Raphael had recourse to the Passion prints of his contemporary Albrecht Dürer, but the German artist’s emotional gestures are transformed into something more monumental here, more in keeping with the requirements of designing for a two-dimensional medium like tapestries. The painting is particularly notable for the beautifully expansive, late-afternoon landscape of the procession towards Calvary. This, too, is an echo of the cartoons where the landscapes often figure as a foil to the protagonists as in that one known as The Miraculous Draught of Fish (Fig. 4), and they also become prominent features in some of Raphael’s later altarpieces, notably the two now in the Prado: La Perla (Fig. 5) and The Madonna della Quercia.
Despite the absence of the cartoons, there is one telling example of their impact on Raphael’s art in the form of a handsome tapestry of God the Father Accompanied by Signs of the Evangelists, which is juxtaposed with its source in a small, gem-like painting, The Vision of Ezekiel (Fig. 6).
The painting has long been known as Raphael’s although here it is plausibly given to Giulio Romano on the basis of a design by the master. It registers a discordant jump between the tiny figure of the Old Testament prophet in the lower left-hand side of the panel and the Jove-like figure of God the Father. In the tapestry, Ezekiel and the landscape have been removed so that the focus is on the vision alone. The powerful, almost Michelangelesque presentation of the protagonists confirms the shift evident in the Spasimo di Sicilia and is a constant in the later paintings of Raphael. This kind of split-level structure reappears in later works by Raphael, most notably in his altarpiece of the Transfiguration (seen here in a workshop copy in the Prado’s collection) and in a related work by Giulio Romano, the magnificent Cartoon for the Stoning of St. Stephen of 1520-21 on loan from the Vatican (Fig. 7).
At the same time, Raphael also appears to have been preoccupied with a new canon of beauty that sometimes takes precedent over the inherent narrative. A good example of this can be seen in the paintings for the court of Francis I, lent from the Louvre. Of these, the St. Michael of 1518 (Fig. 2) is the most fascinating. Commissioned by Leo X to celebrate a dynastic wedding between the Medici and the French royal family, the St. Michael also nods in the direction of the chivalric order founded by Francis’s predecessor, Louis XI, in 1469, and while the ostensible subject is the defeat of Satan by Michael, the painting is more about style than substance. The focus is very much on the pirouetting figure of the saint, whose adversary is scarcely distinguishable from the rocky ground on which he lies. Both the threat of danger and triumph of good over evil are curiously played down, but the effortless gesture of St. Michael would resonate with later artists like Benvenuto Cellini and Giambologna.
If there is a recognizable “Raphaelness” about the works in the exhibition’s first section, the subsequent ones on large and small holy families are more challenging. Here the evidence of multiple hands is the source of highly nuanced readings of works like The Madonna dei Candelabri from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (Fig. 8). This was the first work by Raphael to be exhibited in the United States and was acquired by Henry Walters in 1901 as a rarity, despite the fact that most connoisseurs felt it was largely a workshop production. Modern infra-red photography has enabled scholars and conservators to interpret the painting more accurately as a composite work, drawing upon the pose of the Virgin in the Madonna del Pesce and the Christ Child from a separate drawing; the heads of the two angels were added after the main figures were drawn in. This new knowledge reinforces the variable quality of the brushwork in the painting, with the face of the Madonna being the only area, according to the catalogue’s authors, that came from the hand of Raphael. With other works like La Perla and the Madonna of Divine Love (Figs. 5 and 9), the difference between largely autograph and largely workshop productions is convincing if more complex. The former is a ravishing example of late Raphael with some help from his workshop in a figure like St. Elizabeth and the Baptist, but what stands out is the extreme beauty of the Virgin, whose pose and form are strongly reminiscent of the St. Michael. She is given a monumental body with long limbs and small head; her hair appears sculpted and almost metallic. It is figures like this that made Raphael’s contemporaries recognise the young Parmigianino as Raphael’s successor, and it is not a long step from here to Parmigianino’s Madonna dal collo lungo (Madonna of the Long Neck) of 1535. In the foreground, the Virgin appears to be the primary source of the light, which steals across the other figures while a secondary source illuminates St. Joseph in the upper left corner. In addition, there is the wonderful twilight landscape with antiquities, which is a Leitmotiv of a number of late works. By contrast, the Madonna of Divine Love suggests a more simplified, less nuanced and collaborative affair. While the sculptural nature of the composition is very sophisticated, much of the detail found in a work like La Perla has been ironed out, and Raphael was sparing with his efforts. Less time was also taken with the landscape, and Joseph has the appearance of a classical term.
Much of the latter part of the exhibition consists of works reflecting a varying degree of autography as well as attempts to isolate the hands of Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni. It is an ambitious undertaking, and the result is inevitably mixed. Of the two, Giulio emerges more clearly in his Roman years, both as a capable lieutenant of Raphael and as a considerable artist in his own right. Penni is less successfully evoked here, and meagre works like the two Nativities on view here do not sustain the case for his hand in the landscapes of some of the great altarpieces. Certainly, it seems inconceivable that a great work like the Madonna of the Diadem from the National Gallery in London could be considered as possibly autograph Penni; for that matter, a dating of 1512-20 for the work seems to undermine the careful analysis on display elsewhere in the exhibition.
The final section on portraits makes, however, for a resounding conclusion to Late Raphael. If the artist had never painted anything other than his portraits, he would still be ranked among the great figures in Renaissance art. Here some old, established works like the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (Fig. 10) and Bindo Altoviti (Fig. 11) are joined by others that shade into workshop performances, such as the Giuliano de’ Medici from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The former works fall into the category of portraits of friends, in which the artist engaged himself fully; these glow with a warmth not found in official portraits, even that of his friend and patron, Cardinal Bibbiena from the Pitti Palace. The two most interesting of this latter category were the Doña Isabel de Requesens y Enriquez de Cardona-Anglesola, the wife of the Neapolitan viceroy and a great beauty of her day, from the Louvre, and the Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, from a private collection. Here the emphasis is upon the splendour of the clothing rather than an exact representation of an individual. As it happens, we know in the case of Doña Isabel that the painting was based upon a cartoon by an assistant, and Raphael never saw the sitter, only adding finishing touches. Both paintings had a decisive impact upon court portraiture for the rest of the sixteenth century, in which status is emphasized rather than likeness. The difference between these official portraits and those of Raphael’s inner circle could not be made more clearly than in the selection here.
Visitors to the exhibition in Madrid will be treated to a final section given over to Raphael’s last, great altarpiece, The Transfiguration, which remained unfinished at his death. Commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the painting brought Raphael into direct competition with Sebastiano del Piombo and his mentor, Michelangelo. As a consequence, Raphael took the challenge very seriously, turning it into two episodes: one, the miracle of the Transfiguration, appearing in the upper register and the healing of a possessed boy occupying the lower part of the altarpiece. A replica of the painting from Raphael’s work is now in the Prado, and it is shown in a separate room with thirteen drawings produced by Raphael and his assistants as The Transfiguration was under way. These include some magnificent studies for heads of the apostles and the kneeling woman who figure in lower portion of the painting, studies that rival Leonardo’s for his Last Supper in their evocation of a range of human emotions. They testify to how far Raphael had travelled from the Madonna del Pesce of 1513 and to the promise of even greater achievements if death had not taken him on his thirty-seventh birthday. If Raphael had lived longer, he might now be better known as the architect of St. Peter’s or as a painter whose career took even further, unexpected directions. Late Raphael offers evidence of the steady growth of this great artist, but it also testifies to the fact that his was in every way a life unfinished.