Late Raphael

Raphael: Self Portrait with a friend

(Musée du Louvre, Paris, until 14 January 2013)

The things I do for art! Yesterday I got up horrendously early and went to Paris for the day, to visit the Louvre’s Late Raphael exhibition before it closed (yes, I took the Eurostar from London, went to the Louvre, saw the exhibition and took the train right back home again: there’s something faintly surreal about it). Previously at the Prado, this is the natural successor of the National Gallery’s 2004-5 show Raphael: From Urbino to Rome.

At the National Gallery we parted from Raphael in about 1510, when he had just established himself in Rome and embarked on his monumental project for the Stanze in the Vatican. Here at the Louvre, we begin with a small room setting the scene with some of his earlier works, including the Louvre’s serenely beautiful 1507 Madonna and Child (La Belle Jardinière), before we pick up the story in 1513-14 with some of the altarpieces executed in Rome by Raphael and his studio assistants. In what follows, I should emphasise that I haven’t yet read the catalogue. I’ve glanced over it very quickly and I am consumed with desire for it, but unfortunately the English edition wasn’t stocked at the Louvre bookshop and so I must simply grit my teeth and wait for it to arrive in the post.

The exhibition is presented clearly and methodically, with each section displaying several paintings linked by theme, with a selection of preparatory drawings nearby. This allows you to see how compositions changed during their development and to follow the workflow of the studio from first studies to final picture. You come to learn that Raphael often established poses for the most important figures – the Madonna and Child, for example – and then delegated responsibility for the design of the modello, usually to Gianfrancesco Penni, who brought the various elements together into a single drawing ready to be transferred onto the canvas. Almost every painting in this exhibition has a degree of workshop assistance: at this date Raphael had so many commissions flooding in that he couldn’t give them his personal attention at every stage.

Raphael: St Cecilia (detail)

Raphael, St Cecilia, 1516 (detail)

From 1508 he was engaged on decorating the Vatican Stanze; from 1514 Pope Leo X had him working on the Acts of the Apostles tapestries for the Sistine Chapel; in 1516 he was commissioned to paint the Vatican Loggia; and at the same date he was asked to decorate the Loggia of Psyche at the Villa Farnesina. That doesn’t take into account all the portraits and altarpieces he was also being asked to work on at the same time, nor his responsibilities as chief architect of St Peter’s from 1514 and as Inspector of Roman Antiquities from 1518. No wonder the exhibition’s curators speculate whether Raphael’s early death might have been due not to his excessive fondness for the ladies (as Vasari suggests), but in fact to simple chronic exhaustion.

I can’t resist mentioning a few of my highlights. For me, the St Cecilia stood out in that first room of Roman altarpieces. It isn’t as showy as The Way to Calvary (Lo Spasimo) or as dynamic as The Holy Family of Francis I, but it was painted almost entirely by Raphael himself and so is of consistently high quality with the exception of the strangely perfunctory ring of angels at the top. Plus, it contains one of Raphael’s most beautiful heads (in my opinion), that of St John the Evangelist, and a superb foreground still life of musical instruments, cast aside to represent the inferiority of earthly music against divine. Then there are some of Raphael’s great portraits, which the curators have assembled in the last room as a final treat for the weary visitor. Here is Raphael’s iconic Portrait of Bindo Altoviti, which I’d never seen before in the flesh and which was strangely less sumptuous than it looks in photographs (the colours less rich), yet nevertheless a compelling piece of work. Here too was what I consider to be Raphael’s most beautiful female portrait: La Velata from the Pitti in Florence, with her extravagantly crumpled sleeve and chemise and an understated jewel glittering in her hair.

Raphael: La Velata

Raphael, Portrait of a lady (La velata) (detail)

The show closes with two brilliant double portraits: first, Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazzano (1516) from the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj in Rome, a touch on the dark side but with a magnificent suggestion of character in Navagero’s nonchalant expression. Then, finally, we have the portrait from the Louvre previously known as Raphael and his Fencing Master (1519-20), which is now thought to show Raphael with his most talented assistant, Giulio Romano. I remember the shock of the first time I saw this, having become accustomed to the Victorian idea of Raphael as an eternally clean-shaven, long-haired twenty-year-old: this careworn, bearded man was a stranger to me. Now the shock came from the state of the painting, which I’d obviously never registered before: used to seeing it in glossy books, I was struck by how ‘dusty’ and dull the colours looked. Does it need cleaning, I wonder?

And yet, even in this less-than-perfect condition, it’s still a remarkable picture: to modern eyes, Raphael and Giulio look as if they’re posing for a photograph. Raphael modestly relinquishes the bulk of the canvas to Giulio, who is captured in the middle of speech and movement as he turns back to the viewer. And yet, although Giulio takes up most of the room, I find that my gaze is always drawn to Raphael first, perhaps because of the calm, dark eyes that stare straight out of the canvas. Of course I know that the composition is affected by the logistics of painting a self portrait with a friend: it helps to have the friend as the main figure so that you can paint him from life and then add yourself at the back; similarly, self-portraits usually have this direct, searching gaze because the artist has had to paint himself in a mirror. However, I still nurture a romantic and completely unacademic notion that maybe Raphael already knows this will be one of his last paintings – that it is, in a way, a visual will and testament in which he acknowledges Giulio as his heir.

Giulio Romano: Stoning of St Stephen

Giulio Romano, The Stoning of St Stephen (detail)

I’d never taken Giulio Romano very seriously before and the exhibition’s main legacy was in convincing me that he deserves to be appreciated as more than just Raphael-lite. One of  the most delightful drawings on display is his preparatory study for La Petite Madone (1515-17) from the Louvre. This lovely little drawing shows a young mother holding her wriggling, beaming baby boy: the girl looks straight out of the drawing at us, straight-backed, her face suffused with quiet pride. Her interlaced fingers are a little awkward, but everything else has a wonderful degree of freshness and spontaneity. Less charming but more impressive was Giulio’s monumental cartoon for his painting The Stoning of St Stephen (1520-21) from the Vatican; the final painting is in the church of Santo Stefano in Genoa. I had never seen this before and was stunned by this immense drawing, more than three metres tall (the fact it has survived for almost five hundred years, intact, is remarkable enough). The figures in the foreground are life-sized and there are some wonderful passages, such as the enraptured face of the saint and the tumbling crowd of people carrying stones.

And then there is the Portrait of Isabel de Requesens (1518) from the Louvre, which until recently I’d always thought was a portrait of Giovanna d’Aragona by Raphael, which shows how behind the times I am. I’ve always liked this portrait, with its rich deep nap of red velvet and the sitter’s silky hair. Like many of the paintings by Raphael and studio which are now in the Louvre, it was sent to France as a diplomatic gift for Francis I. Although the sitter was the wife of Francis’s enemy, the viceroy of Naples, she had such a reputation for beauty that the king (a devotee of beautiful women) was delighted to add her portrait to his collection.

Giulio Romano: Isabel de Requesens

Giulio Romano, Portrait of Isabel de Requesens, 1518, Louvre (detail)

Just to emphasise the wealth of the Louvre’s drawings collection, there’s also an entirely separate exhibition of Giulio’s works on paper upstairs in the Denon wing (also closing today I think). I did pop up here after finishing Late Raphael, but my mind was so saturated with art by this point that I couldn’t take everything in. Nevertheless there were a few things that caught my attention: Giulio’s two drawings for the vaults of the Loggia of Psyche, for example, showing Psyche receiving the Vase of Beauty from Proserpine and Jupiter’s Eagle bringing Psyche the Water of the Styx; as well as an impressive drawing of The Fall of Icarus which once belonged to Giorgio Vasari and is still on his mount.

It must be a nightmare to curate an exhibition like this, deciding what to include and what to leave out. The curators have done incredibly well to present a broad and balanced view of Raphael’s last years, turning a welcome spotlight onto Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni and – best of all – presenting paintings alongside their preparatory drawings wherever possible. Naturally one can always point to favourite items that haven’t made the cut, and I did note that the drawings on display were drawn overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) from the Louvre’s own collection; not surprising, considering how many works they have by Raphael’s followers. But I did wonder why, having taken some loans from the Royal Collection and the Ashmolean (both with dizzying collections of Raphael drawings), they didn’t ask for more sheets by Raphael himself. There are so many explanations, of course: the insurance levels for a loan exhibition like this must be sickening; collections may well have limits on the number of items they can lend; and it may be that this exhibition is specifically intended to give a clearer idea of Raphael’s workshop operation in his later years, rather than just presenting us with one stunning autograph work after another. (It already does this to some degree, of course.)

Raphael: Bindo Altoviti

Raphael, Portrait of Bindo Altoviti (detail)

But there were a few drawings whose absence I missed: what of the Studies of the heads of two Apostles at the Ashmolean, which is an exquisite preparatory drawing for The Transfiguration? Why, in fact, is there nothing on The Transfiguration at all? It was referenced for its influences over Giulio’s nocturnal scenes but there was no section dedicated to it. Considering that it was one of Raphael’s most influential works, and that it hung over his bier while he lay in state, this felt like an unexplained absence (perhaps the catalogue will explain). It may be that the Pinacoteca Vaticana refused to part with their star exhibit. Even so, it might have been interesting to see a collection of preparatory drawings as the exhibition did so well for other unmoveable works, like the Vatican frescoes and the Loggia of Psyche at the Villa Farnesina.

Speaking of the Farnesina, I felt that it would have been wonderful to have included the gorgeous red-chalk drawing of The Three Graces from the Royal Collection in that section, which consists only of three drawings, one of which is a rather poor copy of Jupiter and Cupid and another a counterproof. And what of the Study of two male nudes from the Albertina? It’s not only impressive as a drawing but also has a fascinating history: it was sent by Raphael as a gift to Albrecht Dürer, whose prints had influenced compositions such as The Way to Calvary (Lo Spasimo). However, I’m being overly particular, I know. The curators have made every effort to bring together the richest and most representative selection that they can, and it’s a remarkable show.

Someone told me, and I agree, that you come away from the exhibition with a burning question: what if Raphael hadn’t died so young? What would he have created if he’d had twenty more years or even thirty? The temptation is to dream of great fresco cycles and paintings that might have changed the history of art. But I wonder whether, in fact, Raphael might have been swamped with more and more official positions and commissions until he had next to no time for the business of actual painting. Mightn’t he just have relinquished more and more to his studio, thereby leaving us with a lot of pseudo-Raphael and not much more original work by the master himself? It’s an interesting game to play… I think you could make a persuasive case for the fact that Raphael’s influence over the history of art has been cemented by the fact that he did die young – he was cut off in his prime – and, unlike many other artists, he didn’t have the chance to grow old, to lose his powers and to undermine his youthful brilliance.  

Buy the catalogue

Raphael: Navaero and Beazzano

Raphael, Portrait of Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazzano, 1516, Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, Rome (detail)

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