We The Italians | Italian art: Raphael 1520-2020

Italian art: Raphael 1520-2020

Italian art: Raphael 1520-2020

  • WTI Magazine #128 Jun 20, 2020
  • 939

During 2020, on the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of his death, Raphael Sanzio will be celebrated with a number of events, exhibitions, debates, studies and publications truly out of the ordinary.

Every area of his activity, every city in which he lived and every place where he worked will be involved in a total retrospective that will invest painting, architecture, engraving, archaeology, drawing and weaving. One of the fathers of Italian art is put under the magnifying glass of the research but also widely disseminated as happened to few other Italian artists before him.

The meeting of the great tapestries with the theme "the Acts of the Apostles" in the Sistine Chapel, all designed by Raphael, was the first major event in honor of the Artist. 

The biggest event of the celebration is certainly the exhibition that has reopened in these days in Rome at the Scuderie del Quirinale where more than two hundred works have been selected to best represent the multiform activity of the artist and also to try to recreate the atmosphere around his figure at the time of his sudden death, at the height of his career in 1520.

It is a backward journey that starts from the 1:1 scale reproduction of Raphael's tomb at the Pantheon and goes back through the great turns of his biography to Florence, then to Perugia and finally to Urbino in his childhood.

In the second room there are original archaeological finds alongside the drawings of the same finds drawn by the artist, studies which were then reused in his pictorial compositions; each drawing has a caption next to it depicting the original work and the detail that is represented in the case. Tapestries and frescoes in the great commissions of Leo X, studies and contributions for the works carried out for Agostino Chigi and the first great commissions of Julius II with the birth of the great workshop. The madonnas and portraits of the Florentine period in which the great families of the Tuscan city competed for the works of the young Raphael from Urbino.

There is also the original copy of the very important letter written by Raphael and Baldassarre Castiglione to Pope Leo X where the methodology of conservation of the archaeological heritage is outlined.

The exhibition has many reasons to be defined as epochal. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence contributed substantially to the exhibition, giving dozens of works. The other museums in Rome helped not only by lending Raphael's material to the exhibition, but also by coordinating their commemorative activities so as not to overlap in the same period of time. The result is the concentration of works that have not been side by side since the sixteenth century in the artist's workshop in Palazzo Caprini near St. Peter's. The Madonna Tempi from Munich, The Madonna della Rosa from the Prado in Madrid and The Madonna d'Alba from Washington return to Italy for the first time. There will also be an unprecedented dialogue between the two portraits of Julius II and Leo X, the popes who made Raphael Sanzio the star that still shines powerfully and that in the history of art has undergone very few inflections of fame and importance.

Raffaello was born in Urbino in 1483, from a painter father, well active in the court of the Signoria of the city held by the Montefeltro, a very powerful family that dosed with extreme versatility war and art, strategy and classical culture. He trained in Perugia in the workshop of Pietro Vannucci known as "Perugino" and at the age of seventeen he obtained the title of "Magister" in order to be able to exercise his art independently in the most traditional central Italian taste. His first years of work saw him involved in various commissions scattered throughout central Italy, including the square in Florence where he had the opportunity to confront with Leonardo's new technical achievements and for the first time with Michelangelo, a term of comparison and counterpart of that artistic manner that would later be labeled by the History of Art as the late Italian Renaissance. They will all meet in Rome in 1513.

In 1508 he arrived in Rome, called by Pope Julius II for the decoration of the Stanze della Segnatura, the Pope's private rooms, and from this point his climb to the top of the European artistic pantheon became unstoppable. In 1514 he became head of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, in 1515 Prefect of Antiquities of Rome, maintaining the commissions for paintings, tapestries, frescoes and palaces to be built as architect. His sudden death caught him at this very peak of his notoriety, and that’s exactly where the Rome exhibition begins.

But what has made this productive empire possible? And what are the innovations made by Raphael in the field of artistic matter?

The answer is not to be found in the technical-stylistic field, where in fact the work of Raphael follows the central Italian tradition, renewed by assimilating Leonardo's chiaroscuro and sfumato and Michelangelo's anatomy and movement. The answer is in the new entrepreneurial gaze with which Raphael organizes his work, his workshop and the proposal of the contents in his works.

Free access to the archaeology of the city of Rome is the first great strong point on which much of Raphael's work is focused; he himself and all his students were required to take reliefs and drawings from life of architecture, pediments, sarcophagi, statues and friezes of ancient imperial remains.

This is how the grotesques were born, the drawings taken from the walls and vaults of Nero's Domus Aurea on the Oppio hill, which at the time were accessible only by descending into the underground rooms through the "caves", i.e. the cavities in the ground that corresponded to the openings in the vaults of the rooms that remained practically intact underground.

Giovanni da Udine, who joined Raphael's workshop in 1514, became the undisputed master of this new "old-fashioned" decoration, present in every architectural work conceived by Raphael from Villa Madama to the Farnesina, from the Vatican Loggias to the great palaces of the Borgo district, demolished for the construction of Via della Conciliazione since 1936. The design was at the basis of all the work, thanks to the marvelous ability to modernize the ancient decorations, which also passed through a strong dose of eroticization of the figures, Raphael created inventions that were easy to read for his students, balanced assembly, but with a high scenic effect. The reason for this type of procedure, in which the master dictated the stylistic line and content to be followed through sketches and drawings, and then left much of the work to the helpers (almost always Giulio Romano, Giovan Francesco Penni, Pierin Del Vaga, Polidoro da Caravaggio and Raffaellino del Colle), is due both to the large number of commissions that the workshop took on, and to the large number of assistants who could be entrusted with the work. Increasing the immediacy of reading the drawings guaranteed an ease of transmission of Raphael's ideas and also an ease of conversion on various supports, from canvas to fresco, from ceramics to engraving.

It is precisely engraving that plays a fundamental role in the diffusion of Raphael's innovations in content, which finds in Marcantonio Raimondi the perfect shoulder to lean on so that his designs could travel throughout Europe through the fast and portable reproducibility of printed copies. It is no coincidence that Raphael created some drawings only for Raimondi's burin, not for the will of a precise client, but only so that new ideas could be multiplied and widely disseminated alongside the copies that the engraver made of paintings on canvas and drawings for frescoes and tapestries.

The fascination of these inventions will still have its effects in the nineteenth century, when Manet chose the right group of Raimondi's engraving, based on Raphael's drawing "The Judgement of Paris", for his famous "Dejeuner sur l'erbe".

So a workshop that under the signature "Raphael" actually hid the work of many people, a real brand that the artist himself had created by combining classicism, eroticism, balance and an extraordinary dose of ante litteram management skills, for the creation of works of art of excellent quality, perfect balance and unchanged beauty. Works that have become exemplary for later artists and landmarks of Art History such as the "Galatea" in Villa Farnesina, "The School of Athens" in the Vatican Rooms or the "Santa Cecilia" currently in the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna.