Celebration of ‘supreme High Renaissance painter’ is unlocked at last

The National’s Covid-delayed Raphael show examines his entire career, as John Evans reports

Thursday, 12th May — By John Evans


Raphael, Study for the head of an apostle in the Transfiguration Private Collection, New York. © Private Collection

TWO, maybe three self-portraits by Raphael can be seen at the National Gallery in a Covid-delayed celebration originally planned for 2020 to mark the 500th anniversary of his death.

Thankfully most loans were honoured so more than 90 works from the Italian master, taking in a vast range of his expertise not only as a painter but also in “multimedia” as tapestry designer, print-maker, sculptor and architect, are included. Roughly chronological, the exhibition spans his whole career.

Though cut down by fever on his 37th birthday, the life of Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520) was that of a prodigious talent, one who gained his first altarpiece commission aged just 17. He was known as a master from that time on.

Raphael, Study for an angel, pen and brown ink over geometrical indications in blind stylus, 17.9 x 20.6cm, The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Born in Urbino, the son of an artist, he would work across Italy, notably in Florence and then in Rome. His output was prolific, for merchants, bankers and princes; and especially the church. In 1508 Raphael was called to the Vatican to help decorate the papal apartments where work had begun on a new St Peter’s Basilica. How important the patronage of popes Julius II and, following his death, Leo X was for the Raphael’s development is central to gauging his fame and reputation.

The National says for centuries Raphael has been regarded as “the supreme High Renaissance painter, visualising central aspects and ideas of Western culture”. But here there are also works, including tapestries and more, from the artist’s designs.

For his contemporary, the artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Raphael was one of those people who “are not simple mortals but… mortal gods”.

Raphael, The Virgin and Child with the infant Saint John the Baptist (‘The Alba Madonna’), about 1509-11, oil on wood transferred to canvas, 94.5cm diameter, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Andrew W. Mellon Collection (1937.1.24)

A feted superstar of his day his entrepreneurial talent partly explains that fame. Vasari notes: “…he always kept a great number of artisans at work, helping them and teaching them with the kind of love that is more appropriately given to one’s own children than to other artisans. For this reason he was never seen leaving home to go to court without 50 painters… accompanying him to pay him honour. In short, Raphael lived more like a prince than a painter.”

Highlights to complement the nine paintings from the National’s own spectacular holding of his works, include the “Alba Madonna” from Washington DC; “The Madonna of the Rose” from the Prado; Portrait of a Woman (“La Fornarina”) from Rome; and 1506 oil self-portrait from the Uffizi in Florence.

Yet for all of the remarkable oils perhaps the most memorable pieces here are rarely-seen drawings from as far and wide as the Queen’s collection, the British Museum, Louvre, Ashmolean, Uffizi, and Albertina. Alone these are testament to the range of Raphael’s vision, from a Study for the head of an apostle in the Transfiguration and Study for an angel to – notably – Head of a boy (self-portrait?) 1498, from the British Museum and an ultimately timeless and remarkable Standing female nude in red chalk from the Louvre.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael is in the First-floor galleries, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, until July 31. Tickets: www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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