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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (22/10/2021)

(Review of Exhibition on Screen: Raphael Revealed)

There has always been something comforting about the Exhibition on Screen series, as each entry cocoons viewers from grim mundanity for around 90 minutes and allows them to escape into a hushed realm of beauty, innovation and humanity. A global pandemic is even held at bay in Phil Grabsky's Raphael Revealed, as coronavirus had intruded upon the 2020 exhibition at Rome's Scuderie del Quirinale that had been intended to mark the 500th anniversary of the artist's death at the age of 37.

The Eternal City went into mourning on 6 April 1520, as Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino was considered by his peers to be the greatest artist that had ever lived. In celebrating the scope and scale of his achievement, Matteo Lafranconi, the director of the Scuderie del Quirinale, considers Raphael to have been unique, as he was less of a homogeneous brand than rival Renaissance superstars, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Art historian Nicholas Penny suggests that the versatility and perfectionism that made Raphael so influential have also come to make him seem somewhat safe. As we compare Raphael's `The Transfiguration' (1516-20) with Leonardo's `The Adoration of the Magi' (1480-82), Tom Henry reminds us that Raphael's prolificity meant that he increasingly came to delegate to the trusted members of his workshop. But he remained heavily involved in the design stage of each commission and continued to paint throughout his life.

Born in the walled city of Urbino in the spring of 1483 (his exact birth date is unknown), Raphael was the son of Giovanni Santi, who produced works like `Tobias and the Archangel Raphael' (c.1480) while under the patronage of the enlightened ducal court. Luigi Bravi, the president of L'Accademia Raffaello, shows us round the large house in which the privileged youth grew up surrounded by art, literature and music. Despite being orphaned at the age of 11, Raphael continued to develop the precocious skills manifested in the sketch, `Self-Portrait' (1499), and the canvas, `Self-Portrait' (c.1506-08).

In the late 1490s, he went to Perugia to learn from Pietro Perugino, whom we see in `Self-Portrait' (1496-1500). President of the Scholarly Committee, Sylvia Ferino-Pagden claims that Raphael was a quick study, as the complexity of the sketch, `St Jerome With a View of Perugia' (c.1504), confirms. He was commissioned to produce the now-lost Boronci Altarpiece for the church of Sant-Agostino in Città di Castello before painting `The Crucified Christ With the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels' (aka `The Mond Crucifixion', c.1502-03) for the church of San Domenicol.

Raphael also worked on `The Oddi Altarpiece' (1502-04) for San Francesco al Prato in Perugia before heading to Siena to help his friend Pinturicchio with `Canonisation of St Catherine of Siena' (1502-07). He can be seen in the bottom left corner of the fresco, which was produced for the cathedral's Piccolomini Library. Yet, while he was now establishing his own style, it's still possible to see the influence of Perugino in `The Marriage of the Virgin' (1504), who had tackled the same subject over the previous four years.

His mentor completed `The Holy Trinity' (c.1505-21) fresco, which is housed in the San Severo chapel in the Camaldolese monastery in Perugia. Raphael only painted the top half, however, as he had decided to travel to Florence, where he painted `The Deposition' (1507), which is considered his first masterpiece. Rather than lingering in the cradle of the Renaissance, however, we hasten on to Rome because architect Donato Bramante had brought the young painter to the attention of the new pope, Julius II.

Over a view of Pietro Vanni's `The Funeral of Raphael' (1896-1900), the story leaps forward to discuss the lavish requiem that had presaged the artist's burial in the Pantheon. A reconstruction of the tomb made by Factum Arte was included in the memorial exhibition, which took the unusual step of chronicling Raphael's career in reverse. A montage shows the preparation of the show before the pace slows to focus on `Portrait of Pope Leo X With Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi' (1518).

Lafranconi concedes that a portrait of an unprepossessing prelate may not excite modern audiences. But he urges them to look at the way in which Raphael captures his sitter's power and the delicate detail in his robes and in the bible and bell beside his hand. He is pleased to bring the picture to Rome, but gallery president Mario De Simoni highlights the fact that the city had fallen far from its imperial glory and, as the capital of the non-dynastic Papal States, was home to only 100,000 people when Raphael set up his studio.

The sheer fact that the popes were elected by their fellow cardinals limited the capital's developmental continuity. Yet Rome's spiritual power prior to the Reformation was unassailable and Julius II and Leo X set out to reflect this potency by drawing on the ancient past to bring about an architectural transformation. Roman historian Andrew Wallace-Hadrill explains how the decline and fall of the empire had impinged upon the population and status of a city that Tom Henry avers would have been full of narrow medieval streets on Raphael's arrival.

Around this time, Rome was reconnecting with its heritage, as statues like `Laocoön and His Sons' by Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus had recently been unearthed. Raphael was fascinated by the ruins and wanted to preserve them rather than allow them to be demolished for new builds. He even ventured through a hole in the roof to explore the Domus Aurea, the golden house built by Nero. In reading up on the subject and consulting the experts on hand to acquire an understanding of ancient architecture, he also visited Hadrian's villa on the outskirts of the city.

As we see `Crouched Venus' from the 1st century AD, we hear from Giorgio Vasari how Raphael took inspiration from antiquities in a way that no one had before. But, as Lafranconi suggests, he also sought to capture character psychology in works such as `The Visitation' (c.1516-17), `The Ecstasy of St Cecilia' (before 1518) and `St John the Baptist' (c.1518), with the curator believing that the humanity and naturalism evident in these canvases and a sketch like `The Prophets Hosea and Jonah' (c.1510) derive from Raphael's study of his adopted city.

Nicholas Penny wonders if the beauty in Raphael's work came from his familiarity with sculptures like `Antinous'. His knowledge of the ancients certainly influenced his contribution to the building of St Peter's, following Bramante's death in 1514, when Leo X asked the 31 year-old to take over the project. The same year saw him become betrothed to Maria Bibbiena, although it's implied via `Self-Portrait With a Friend' (1518-19) that this prolonged engagement was a match of convenience. Yet, among his many lovers was Margarita Luti, the baker's daughter who posed for `Portrait of a Young Woman' (c.1518-20), `Portrait of a Woman' (aka `La Velata', c.1512-13) and `Portrait of a Young Woman' (aka `La Fornarina', c.1519-20).

Art historian Patricia Rubin mentions Vasari's discussion of Raphael's dalliances, while it's suggested that his love of life was evident in the vibrancy of the figures in pictures like `Madonna of Divine Love' (c.1516) and `The Holy Family Meeting the Infant St John the Baptist' (aka `The Madonna dei Passeggio', c.1516), which some have claimed to be a workshop piece, even though others insist that none of Raphael's assistants came close to matching his talent. Penny comments on the sense of movement in `The Holy Family With the Infant St John the Baptist' (aka `Madonna of the Rose, 1517) and concludes that the prolific painter worked quickly and confidently, without much anxiety over any technical or physiognomical issues that might have arisen.

Returning to the theme of Raphael's versatility, the focus now shifts on to the cartoons that he drew for the tapestries based on the lives of Saints Peter and Paul that Leo X had commissioned for the Sistine Chapel. Lafranconi is particularly pleased to see items like `The Sacrifice at Lystra' (1517-19) in the exhibition and compares the composition to the 2nd-century `Relief With Sacrificial Scene' and `Ezekiel's Vision' (c.1516-17), a small painting that shows how Raphael was able to combine scale and intimacy.

Back in 1508, the 25 year-old Raphael had come to Rome at the invitation of the sitter of `Portrait of Pope Julius II' (1511). The papal court is imagined in Horace Vernet's `Pope Julius II Ordering Bramante, Michelangelo and Raphael to Construct the Vatican and St Peter's' (1827), as Wallace-Hadrill reasons that the popes often saw themselves as successors of the emperors and that Julius II sought comparisons with Julius Caesar by restoring Rome to its former glory with his ambitious and self-aggrandising building programme.

As we see `Stanza dell'Incendio del Borgo' (`The Room of the Fire in the Borgo'), Barbara Jatta, the director of the Vatican Museums, explains how the Raphael Rooms (or `Stanze') came about. We pass through `Stanza della Segnatura' (`Room of the Signatura'), `Stanza di Eliodoro' (`Room of Heliodorus') and `Sala di Costantino' (`Hall of Constantine'), where the combination of artistry and spirituality almost becomes overwhelming. Tom Henry follows up by exploring the relationship between patron and painter and how Raphael's intellect and social skills made it easy for him to interpret instructions in creating frescoes like `The School of Athens'.

Such was Raphael's popularity with patrons that contemporaries like Sebastiano del Piombo complained about him hogging the limelight. As we see `The Four Sibyls' (c.1514) in the Chigi Chapel of Santa Maria della Pace, Henry informs us that Rosso Fiorentino was beaten up by members of Raphael's workshop for having the temerity to criticise his work.

Toiling in the next room at the Vatican was the sitter of `Jacopino del Conte's `Portrait of Michelangelo' (c.1535). Art historian Arnold Nesselrath reveals that the former friends became wary competitors for Julius's patronage, as he contrasts the monumentality of Michelangelo's figure painting and the narrative fluency of Raphael. He also refers to Michelangelo's unfinished `The Entombment' (c.1500-01), which was replaced by Caravaggio's `Madonna of Loreto' (c.1606) in Sant'Agostino in Rome.

This basilica also contains Raphael's `The Prophet Isaiah' (1511-12), which forms part of the Goritz altar dedicated to St Anne, which Michelangelo claimed was plagiarised from his own depiction of the prophets in the Sistine Chapel. However, Nesselrath insists that Raphael was always the more dynamic painter and that Michelangelo must have realised his own limitations on seeing `The Liberation of St Peter' in the Stanza di Eliodoro and suggests that he decided to rewrite history by telling biographers that Raphael had learned everything from him.

As we see Fra Bartolomeo's `Portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti' (c.1516-17) and `Studies of Two Ancient Headless Figures of Venus' (c.1510-20), Nesselrath and Rubin contrast the two men's temperaments. She notes that Vasari used Raphael as an example of how talent should conduct itself and how to manage the challenge of being both an artist and a businessman.

Close-ups reveal the dexterity and reverence of `Madonna dell'Impannata' (1511), `The Sistine Madonna' (1512-13) and `Madonna With Child and Infant St John the Baptist' (aka `The Alba Madonna', c.1510). Lafranconi considers the latter to be a flawless masterpiece that conveys the melancholy that infused many of his studies of the Virgin and her son. He also highlights the influence of ancient reliefs on the way in which Mary looks back while seated and how he made such awkward poses seem natural.

Back in Città di Castello in 1501, the 18 year-old Raphael was working on `Gonfalone della Santissima Trinita' (c.1501-02). Henry explains that this was a banner commissioned by the Confraternity of the Holy Trinity and has been damaged from being carried in processions. The front shows a Crucifixion with plague saints Sebastian and Roque, while the reverse depicts the removal of Adam's rib. Such projects enabled Raphael to demonstrate his talent on a small stage and get people talking about him.

Despite the presence of Leonardo and Michelangelo, he did the same thing in Florence. But he also studied and used his social skills to gain access to the likes of Leonardo. As a result, he was able to produce more complex works like `Madonna of the Pinks' (c.1506-07), which is contrasted here to the older artist's `Madonna and Child' (aka `The Benois Madonna', c.1478-80). We also see similarities between Leonardo's `Virgin of the Rocks' (c.1495-1508) and Raphael's `Madonna in the Meadow' (c.1505-06).

There's also a touch of Leonardo about `Young Woman With Unicorn' (1504-05) and `Portrait of a Young Man With an Apple' (c.1504). Vasari contends that what he saw in Florence drove Raphael to improve in works like `Virgin With the Child' (aka `Madonna del Granduca', c.1506-07) and `Virgin With the Child' (aka `Madonna Tempi', c.1507-08), which also bear the imprint of `The Benois Madonna'.

The importance of sketching to Raphael's method is explained before Lafranconi introduces us to the final piece in the exhibition, a drawing of a young man and a left hand. This could be the first attributable work and it may well be a self-portrait that allows us to gaze into the eyes of a man who would go on to transform art, Rome and attitudes to the conservation of the past. It may have been sort, but Raphael's was undoubtedly a life well lived.

Given that this documentary was produced at the height of the pandemic, it's an almost miraculous achievement. Indeed, it should be plain from the detailed analysis that this has much to recommend it to scholars and devotees alike. As usual, Grabsky and his crew glide around the venue to give viewers an appreciation of the gallery space and the way in which the pictures and drawings are hung in relation to one another. He also brings the camera close to the canvas to show the brushwork and small details that bring the paintings alive.

One of the great strengths of the Exhibition on Screen series is the insight it offers into the painting techniques of the great artists. But we learn little about Raphael's style or the materials he used. Granted, David Bickerstaff had examined the difficulties of producing frescoes on an epic scale in Michelangelo - Love and Death (2017), but the focus here is more on the pair's proximity in the Apostolic Palace than on their differences of approach.

It's also a shame that more wasn't made about the extent to which Raphael relied on such unsung workshop aides as Giulio Romano, Giovanni da Udine, Gianfrancesco Penni, Marcantonio Raimondi, Agostino Veneziano and Marco Dente. The point is raised that modern experts can discern between the style of the master and his apprentices and it might have been revealing (Covid permitting, of course) to have included a forensic analysis of a disputed canvas. Engraver Ugo da Carpi might also have been mentioned, as he did much to help spread Raphael's fame and bolster it against the vicissitudes of changing tastes.

Coming after John Holdsworth's Raphael: A Mortal God (2004) and Luca Viotto's Raphael the Lord of the Arts (2019), Grabsky's film provides a more nuanced introduction to Raphael's evolution and the multifariousness of his interests. It's intriguing to envisage him as a kind of Renaissance Indiana Jones being lowered through holes in order to examine the Domus Aurea. Indeed, the entire section on the rediscovery of what the ancient world could teach civilisation 1500 years on is compelling and all the more ironic considering that Raphael's Palazzo Branconio dell'Aquila was demolished to make way for Gian Lorenzo Bernini's piazza at St Peter's.

The discussion of why Rome fell into disrepair is equally fascinating, as are the reasons why it failed to grow organically like such rival city states as Florence, Venice and Milan, which could profit from wool, commerce and banking when all Rome could rely on were rents, dues and indulgences. Such tainted means of raising revenue provoked would-be reformers like Martin Luther and something might have been made of how the popes could afford Raphael and Michelangelo, who were glorifying their Catholic God in the face of theological and socio-political opposition from within the Holy Roman Empire.

Something might also have been said, as it was in Carol Reed's The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), about the bellicose nature of Julius II amidst the meddling of France and Spain in the internal politics of Italian peninsula. This need to defend the Papal States and restore Rome following decades of division is referenced in relation to the trappings of power shown in Leo X's portrait. But it's easily forgotten that Raphael was creating works of exquisite beauty at a time of theological unrest, diplomatic opportunism and military brutality.

As the exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale was postponed from 8 March, it might have given events a sense of immediacy to have included some footage of masked and socially distanced patrons attending between 2 June and 30 August, as well as reflections from the curators on the possibility that their hard work in putting the show together might have all been in vain. Let's hope things run more smoothly when the National Gallery hosts its own Raphael retrospective next April. In the meantime, this engaging, enlightening and expertly produced profile of a timeless genius will sustain the levels of expectation.

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