Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Majesty of Raphael in London

The New York Times
September 10, 2010

LONDON — Art as a tool of international diplomacy has its ironical twists. Thanks to the imminent visit next week of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain, admirers of Raphael can enjoy a privilege that the artist himself never had.

For the first time in history, seven of the 10 “cartoons,” or full-scale compositions, commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X are assembled at the Victoria and Albert Museum, together with four of the tapestries woven after them to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in the heart of Rome.

The occasion is unique. The seven surviving cartoons were bought in Genoa in 1623 on behalf of the prince of Wales, later King Charles I of England. They were to serve as models for tapestries woven in the Mortlake Manufactory. The cartoons eventually entered the Royal Collection and in 1865 were sent on permanent loan to their present home, the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Painted on joined-up sheets of paper later laid on canvas, the cartoons are too fragile to travel. So, generally, are the tapestries woven in wool, silk and gilt-metal-wrapped thread at the Brussels workshop run by Pieter van Aelst.

The Royal Collection
“The Miraculous Draught of Fishes.”

As Arnold Nesselrath, who edited the exhibition book with Mark Evans and Clare Browne, writes in his essay on the Sistine Chapel, the tapestries were displayed when major liturgical services were celebrated by the pope. Their dispatch outside the Vatican is unlikely to recur within anyone’s lifetime today.

The law of unintended consequences applies to art shows as to all other undertakings with a political slant. The exhibition underlines with startling vigor the transformation of papacy from the Renaissance to the present time. It is a brilliant reminder that five centuries ago, the papacy was a princely family business attuned to the intellectual and artistic elite of Italy.

Raphael himself was the ultimate scion of that elite. He was born in 1483 in the small duchy of Urbino, one of the main centers of humanistic culture from the 1460s to the 1480s, as Mr. Evans points out. His father, Giovanni Santi, was a court painter. This allowed the youngster access to Elisabetta Gonzaga, the duchess of Urbino, who granted him her patronage. At 17 he began training under one of the famous painters of the day, Perugino. It was from him that Raphael probably learned the technique of painting in oils recently introduced into Italy from the Netherlands.

Success quickly beckoned. Raphael was 25 when Pope Julius II invited him to decorate the papal apartments in the Vatican palace. In the course of the next nine years, the artist established himself as an acclaimed master.

Several of his assistants and pupils later became celebrities, notably Giorgio Romano and Poliodoro da Caravaggio.

Raphael turned into a figure to be reckoned with at the papal court. When Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici was elected to the papal throne, succeeding Julius II under the name Pope Leo X, the painter’s dominant position at the Vatican was confirmed at the expense of his older rival Michelangelo. A year later, Raphael scored once more. Donato Bramante had died. In addition to his many commitments, the painter then became architect of St Peter’s.

Never overcome by work, Raphael portrayed the great men of the day. His likenesses included such luminaries as his friend Balthasar Castiglione and Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi.

In 1515 and 1516 Raphael embarked on one of his greatest projects thus far, the tapestry cartoons of the Acts of the Apostles for the Sistine Chapel. He followed that up with the decoration of the bathroom and loggia of Cardinal Bibbiena in 1516 and the private loggias of Leo X in 1518-19.

When he died in 1520 at the age of 37, the indefatigable painter was completing his largest oil painting ever, the “Transfiguration” altarpiece for the cathedral at Narbonne in France, and had started to decorate the Sala di Constantino in the private apartments of Leo X.

Commenting on this Herculean amount of work, Mr. Evans puts it down to “Raphael’s artistic genius and managerial skills” and cites the ability of his assistants.

But the milieu in which this took place and the churchmen who played lead roles in succession were equally crucial, particularly Pope Leo X, the former Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici.

The cardinal’s father was Lorenzo the Magnificent, under whom Florence had soared to unrivaled artistic heights, and his mother, Clarissa Orsini, belonged to an old aristocratic family that had given Rome two popes and several cardinals.

"Christ's Charge to Peter"

Young Giovanni received a golden education. The great influence in his formative years was the poet Angelo Poliziano, who induced in him a lifelong love of the classics. But as Mark Haydu observes in a biographical essay in the exhibition book on Leo X, the future pope was equally fascinated by the novelties of his time, the discovery of the New World included.

After his election to the Holy See, Leo X displayed considerable interest in urbanism. The building of the new basilica of St. Peter’s took off. Financial incentives given by Pope Sixtus IV to encourage private owners to renovate their residences had been abolished. Leo X reinstated them in 1516.

This modern man was also profoundly pious. He made huge monthly donations to help displaced families and discharged soldiers, and to distribute food to the destitute.

A fascinating side to Leo X’s character, his passion for music, is analyzed by Adalbert Roth in the exhibition book. A renowned Flemish composer, Heinrich Isaac, was in charge of Leo’s musical education from 1485 to 1589. The young man became an accomplished musician and singer who even composed music. When pope, he paid musicians from his personal purse and made music with them as he had done while still a cardinal. In short, the princely ecclesiastic was the epitome of the cultivated Renaissance man.

The cartoons and tapestries woven after them resulted from the encounter of these two extraordinary characters of the Italian patrician elite, Leo X and Raphael.

The present time may not give the desirable scope for artistic and cultural concerns to the papal entourage, but the present show, and even more so the highly interesting book that accompanies it, unwittingly underlines the unflattering cultural contrast between past and present. If meant as a public-relations coup, it misses out.

Interestingly, the show sends another unintended message — genius is not transferable.

Some of the cartoons, particularly “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes” and “Christ’s Charge to Peter” (long known as “The Donation of the Keys”), are among Raphael’s most beautiful works. Translated into the weavers’ technique, the dramatic tension of the cartoon curiously gives way to banal gesticulation. The depth and relief of the painted work vanish. The pretty decorative tapestry hardly does justice to Raphael’s monumental tableaus, which are overwhelming.

If this unusual exhibition should move more visitors to go and admire the cartoons always on view in the V&A, where they rarely attract vast crowds, that would be enough to validate it.

There is another major justification for it. A few preparatory studies by Raphael shed light on the visionary process that leads to artistic creation. In one of these, the characters lightly done in brown wash heightened with white, as a preliminary study for “Christ’s Charge to Peter,” are ethereal apparitions in an unreal world. In the cartoon, figures with colored drapes shimmering in the light firmly stand out and each individual face is a masterly portrait.

Tapestry connoisseurs may be gripped by the differences between the original Pieter van Aelst specimens and the versions executed a century later in the Mortlake Manufactory, also by Flemish weavers, while scholars will scrutinize the engravings made by Agostino Veneziano after the Pieter van Aelst tapestries. These popularized the compositions across Europe.

Even limited to a few works, this is a show that requires a long time to be fully taken in. The aesthetic language belongs to another age. The evocation of the acts of St. Peter and St. Paul, still obvious to a Western public until the last century, will seem unfamiliar to some visitors.

To many, it will all feel like a trip into a forgotten world — beautiful, complex and remote.

Raphael. Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Through Oct. 17.

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