Review of Hugo Chapman, Tom Henry and Carol Plazzotta.
Raphael: From Urbino to Rome.
London: National Gallery Company, 2004

Review of Hugo Chapman, Tom Henry and Carol Plazzotta. Raphael: From Urbino to Rome

Catalogue of the exhibition at the National Gallery, London,
from 20 October 2004 to 16 January 2005
.
ISBN 1 85709 999 0 (pb), 1 85709 994 x (hb)


 

REVIEW

WESTFÄLISCHE WILHELMS-UNIVERSITÄT MÜNSTER
Institut für Kunstgeschichte
Prof. Dr. Jürg Meyer zur Capellen
Münster, January 23, 2005

Review of Hugo Chapman, Tom Henry and Carol Plazzotta. Raphael: From Urbino to Rome. London: National Gallery Company, 2004. Catalogue of the exhibition at the National Gallery, London, from 20 October 2004 to 16 January 2005.

With this exhibition, the National Gallery in London had set itself an ambitious target. The idea was to illustrate Raphael's beginnings in Umbria and his artistic career down to his first great successes in Rome with the help of representative paintings. The choice of this period, which is of particular interest for the artist's development, probably was also influenced by the fact that the gallery itself owns a number of important works, to which were added mainly smaller compositions from other collections. To show the paintings side by side with the relevant preparatory drawings was the basic principle of the presentation, and here again the National Gallery profited from the rich holdings of graphic material in collections in London and near by, for example in Windsor and Oxford. The international reputation of the gallery as well must have helped to obtain paintings from more remote museums such as those in St Petersburg and Sao Paulo, which most people will rarely see.
   The 101 items on view made up a very impressive exhibition: rich in works of art and well paced. The presentation worked best, however, where paintings and the corresponding studies could be compared next to each other. By contrast, those parts of the show appeared dry where the drawings were only accompanied by photographs or engravings of the original, as in the case of the Disputa or the Massacre of the Innocents. Again, the Cavaliere d'Arpino's copy of the Borghese Entombment failed on account of its completely different colours to provide an artistic unity with Raphael's preparatory drawings. It is a simple fact that even in exhibitions of this kind, the aura of an autograph is the prime attraction. It would be wrong though to blame the organisers for a assembly that in some way must be seen as a compromise, because even a museum of such standing as the National Gallery may be able to obtain every original it covets.
   The catalogue was written by Hugo Chapman, Tom Henry and Carol Plazzotta, all of whom only recently have come to immerse themselves in Raphael's works, and who here seem to represent the new guard; Arnold Nesselrath and Nicholas Penny, both long-established scholars, contributed only relatively short articles. The catalogue of works is preceded by an introduction by Tom Henry and Carol Plazzotta, "Raphael: From Urbino to Rome", and followed Arnold Nesselrath's "Raphael and Pope Julius II", which perhaps should have been included in the early section, and Nicholas Penny's "Raphael and the Early Victorians", an essay in cultural history. The introduction contains some very interesting observations, but towards the end, where the Roman frescoes are discussed, becomes more and more like an enumeration; here it would have been preferable to keep to the timeframe of the exhibition.
   In regard to Raphael's beginnings, it is interesting to note that the authors clearly disassociate themselves from the position, still found in recent literature, that the young artist was trained by Perugino at a very early stage. I have expressed similar doubts more than once and am therefore glad that the authors were able to further clarify the situation. Since the few documents that survive are not conclusive, we depend for evidence on the paintings themselves. Under these circumstances, the analyses by the restorers involved offer valuable insights into the painting materials and their application. What emerges is that Raphael's earliest paintings show similarities with the painting methods of his father Giovanni Santi, and that only in later works like the Pala Gavari (Mond Crucifixion, no. 27) Perugino's influence becomes apparent in regard to technical aspects; in Florence the young artist took Leonardo as an important model for such matters. These findings confirm the traditional chronology, which is also reflected in Raphael's stylistic development, and here the authors rightly emphasise his initial orientation on his father's style.
   Less satisfying is the attempt in the exhibition and the catalogue (which I shall discuss elsewhere at greater length) to add two insecure attributions to the early period. The processional cross from the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan (no. 14) cannot be linked with Raphael's early works nor with the two accompanying studies (no. 13), even if the latter were probably made for a similar cross. More recent scholarly literature tends to ignore the work altogether and in his catalogue entry, Tom Henry himself seems to regard the attribution to Raphael with little enthusiasm - an unnecessary addition, therefore.
   Carol Plazzotta argues with greater conviction for her attribution of the Resurrection of Christ in the Museu de Arte in Sao Paulo (no. 21), at least a work that in more recent literature is occasionally still attributed to Raphael. In the exhibition the painting was joined with two Raphael drawings, which have always been seen as references for the painting, together with a sheet used on both sides and referring to the figure of Christ in the painting. The sheet was discovered only recently by Anna Forlani Tempesti, who has convincingly ascribed it to the young artist. It is to be welcomed that the exhibition was able to bring together all the relevant sheets, and Forlani Tempesti's discovery certainly has changed the factual situation. It now seems possible to relate Raphael more closely and directly to this work. I believe that Carol Plazzotta, however, reaches the wrong conclusions. The painterly facture of the Resurrection of Christ, which here is dated to about 1501-2, does not correspond to the other works of the period, the Coronation of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (no. 17) and the gonfalone in Città di Castello (nos 18 and 19). It seems furthermore that more than one hand took part in the execution. If in such a situation one wanted to link the Resurrection of Christ with Santi's workshop, one needed to ask how it was organised in about 1500. As far as the Resurrection is concerned, Raphael may have produced preparatory drawings, but he would certainly not have been involved in the actual painting process. Carol Plazzotta does not take this explanatory model into account, although in the introduction Henry and Plazzotta themselves point out that the artist even only slightly later, about 1502-3, was making drawings for the frescoes of the Biblioteca Piccolomini in Siena Cathedral, but that the execution lay solely in Pintoricchio's hands.
   The early phase of Raphael's artistic formation is combined in the catalogue with a considerable number of representative works by other artists of the time. Paintings and drawings by Giovanni Santi, Perugino and Pinturicchio give a vivid idea of the art created in Raphael's immediate surroundings and by their illustrative presence situate his works in a wider context.
   Representing the beginnings of Raphael's Florentine period are the predellas (nos 40-44) - shown here together for the first time - of the Colonna Altarpiece, their juxtaposition in the exhibition as impressive as that of the small single-figure paintings (nos 32-35) from the late Umbrian period: the Conestabile Madonna from St Petersburg, Saint Michael and Saint George from the Louvre and the National Gallery's own Vision of a Knight, a fascinating group from which only the Three Graces at Chantilly is sadly missing. In these arrangements the paintings belonging to the National Gallery invariably appeared brighter, more brilliant than those from other collections. This is probably explained by the approach and working methods of the London restorers, who are evidently going further than many of their colleagues elsewhere. The catalogue, of course, can reproduce this unmediated impression only to a limited degree.
   The whole Florentine period is represented by comparatively few paintings, a drawback probably due to the restricted availability of larger works. It is noticeable here and elsewhere that the authors show a tendency for lyrical intonations, while precise readings are not always their strong point, as when Hugo Chapman compares a drawing by Raphael of Five Studies of Nude Male Torsos (no. 57) with a Michelangelo sketch for the Battle of Cascina (no. 56). Here the distinct weaknesses of the young artist, who was in fact in the midst of learning from the great master, are skated over, and one misses the analytic powers of someone like Martin Clayton, who in Raphael's Hercules and the Hydra, for instance, identifies the weak points of the sheet, yet does not fail to appreciate its achievements (Raphael and His Circle: Drawings from Windsor Castle, London 1999, no. 14). This would have been an opportunity to discuss equally the weaknesses of the young Raphael as he was pursuing his studies in Florence - mindful of the exceptional quality of his early Roman drawings such as the Massacre of the Innocents (nos 87-90).
   The secret star of the Florentine period, and indeed of the whole exhibition, is the Madonna of the Pinks (Madonna dei garofani, no. 59), re-discovered by Nicholas Penny not long ago and attributed to Raphael. It was hardly an inspired decision by the organisers to pair this work in the exhibition and the catalogue with the Holy Family with the Lamb from the Prado (no. 60). Apart from the questions surrounding the composition, which I have repeatedly raised, the discussion by Tom Henry is slightly confused, as one gains the impression of a mix-up between the characteristics of the Prado painting and those of the work formerly in the collection of Lee of Fareham - the measurements, the pricking and the x-ray evidence all apply to the latter. And even if Henry prefers the Prado version to the Lee picture, one at least would have expected a reference to the most important publication about the latter composition, namely Jürgen M. Lehmann's Raffael: Die Heilige Familie mit dem Lamm, Landshut 1995. The Holy Family in Madrid seems to have been regarded by the organisers as supporting the attribution of the Madonna of the Pinks, since doubts about its authorship have never completely disappeared. It has to be said that it was this small, miniature-like painting which was the gem of the exhibition and whose colour values do not really compare with any other composition. There are no obvious counterparts, but echoes can still be found, as the authors rightly point out in the introduction, in the National Gallery's Saint Catherine of Alexandria (no. 74).
   The last representative painting from Raphael's Roman period, of which just four works were shown, was his Portrait of Pope Julius II (no. 99), the latest composition by the artist that the National Gallery owns. The accompanying, slightly later Donna Velata from the Palazzo Pitti (no. 101) is certainly a beautiful picture, but in this context one could have managed without it. It is to be regretted, however, that a worthy counterpart to the pope's portrait, the Madonna di Loreto at the Musée Condé in Chantilly, was probably unavailable. These two paintings in particular one naturally would have loved to study side by side, as was indeed possible already in the early sixteenth century. This could have produced a similar effect as the pairing of the National Gallery's Garvagh Madonna (no. 91) with the Alba Madonna tondo (no. 93) in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The famous tondo was recently cleaned and now radiates with the same bright colours as the London painting, while the delicate nuances of the palette, especially in the background landscape, fully correspond to those of its counterpart. Such opportunities to admire the harmonious relationship of two compositions were rather the exception in the exhibition, however, a situation that is also reflected in the catalogue.
   It is indeed impressive how the National Gallery, somewhat like a battleship of the Royal Navy, was able to fire a veritable broadside of scholarly publications to coincide with the exhibition. The National Gallery Technical Bulletin (vol. 25, 2004), for example, printed a long article by the restorers of the artist's works at the gallery, and the Burlington Magazine in its November 2004 issue published eight contributions on Raphael alone. This goes to show how closely museums and science are linked in the metropolis, and how successfully topical subjects can be presented. Although in format and presentation the catalogue of the exhibition lives up to this event, which was celebrated the world over, it can hardly be regarded as a breakthrough in terms of scholarship. It is generally well-informed about the current state of art historical research, offers some new insights and has a text that is always engaged and lively, but in substance the contributions do not establish a new base from which to approach the problematic nature of Raphael's early artistic development. It may be that external factors weighed too heavily and even in such an exceptional case placed many, perhaps too many constraints on dedicated scholars.

Jürg Meyer zur Capellen

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