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Decoding Late Raphael – An Exhibition at the Prado Museum on the Last Years of His Life
While Raphael has gone down in history as one of the great renaissance masters, little is understood about the works from the final years of his life. This can be attributed to problems in ascertaining their chronology and to their sheer diversity. Raphael worked on a various range of projects from frescos, such as the famous Stanze in the Vatican, to cartoons for tapestries, and even dabbled in architecture. But we shouldn’t forget his easel paintings from this era, which are the focus of this exhibition. There is also another important factor we cannot ignore, one that clouds our understanding of the master’s late works: he didn’t work alone.
This unique exhibition on display at the Prado, which will also be exhibited at the Louvre at the end of the year, is one of the first exhibitions to focus solely on this late period of Raphael’s work. Also, it is set to be one of the most important exhibitions entirely devoted, not only to this period of time, but also on Raphael’s studio and the effect on his latter work.
The above issues, which affect our understanding of the artist in the final years of his life, are carefully addressed by this exhibition at the Prado. For example, the confusion of the chronology is considered in the exhibition’s structure, where Raphael’s work is viewed in chronological order and not just thematically. Raphael’s studio participation is also investigated; where individual works by Raphael’s student are highlighted. Their contribution is detailed in Raphael’s larger scale works, but they are also shown alongside both Raphael’s solo work and authored work from the students’ themselves.
The display at the Prado tracks the artist’s activity, both as a painter and designer of easel paintings during the last seven years of his life, but it also focuses on the work of his most important pupils: Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni.
Raphael, Madonna with the Fish (Madonna del Pesce), 1512-1514
Oil on Panel, 113cm x 88cm
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
The exhibition opens with altarpieces. While Raphael’s frescos are celebrated for being the artist’s most creative and innovative works, he continued to produce major works on canvas, such as the Madonna del Pesce. This altarpiece takes on the traditional form, where the Virgin and Child are surrounded by an array of saints. We can see the original canvas set side-by-side with the “modello” preparatory drawing, where the figures are developed as a rehearsal for the final stage. Here, the initial design of the Madonna del Pesce can be seen. Raphael used his students to construct a “tableau vivant,” a living picture, to structure the composition. In the modello, instead of a child, an unidentified object from his studio is used as a stand in. What makes this simple drawing so interesting, asides from contrasting it with the original to see how the basic elements affect the final painting, is that it is one of the last modelli to have been autographed by the artist himself.
The original altar panel is a bright composition combining intense colours and simple construction. The foreground and background are understated, where hard lines frame the bottom half of the painting with rectangular shapes that contrast with the softness of the flowing drapes and blue skies of the upper half. This simplicity allows for the figures to take centre stage, where the Madonna and Child become the focal point, while the other characters become secondary.
There is a pronounced asymmetry that marks a shift away from the centrally focussed axial organisation that is usually associated with these altarpieces. The inclusion of St. Jerome can be traced back to its commission, from Girolamo de Doce for the chapel of St. Jerome in Naples. The other characters in the painting are the Archangel Raphael and Tobias who holds a fish in his hand, symbolic of Christ – who blesses its bearer.
Raphael, Santa Cecilia, ca. 1515 – 1516
Oil on panel transferred to canvas, 236 x 149 cm
Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale
Along side the Madonna del Pesce is another narrative composition, Santa Cecilia. In Santa Cecilia, Raphael endeavoured to recast the traditional form associated with altarpiece design. It is a dramatic piece; the saints are grouped together to enhance their spiritual strength, yet Santa Cecilia draws us in. Her expression illuminates her vision, an experience unshared with the others in the painting. Broken instruments lie on the ground depicting the vanity and inferiority of human music when compared to the choir of angels mirrored in the sky. An interesting point to note is the darker tones in the colouring combined with pronounced contrast. It is this colouring, along with the precisely defined forms that show Leonardo Da Vinci’s influence on Raphael’s art.
While Raphael’s work in Rome concentrated on the traditional, large-scale productions of the Virgin and Child, he also worked on a variety pieces that took a different approach on the Holy Family.
There is a blurred line between the larger panels and those destined for altarpieces. It’s also probable that some of these panels were installed in private chapels, but some could have also found their home in private residences.
Raphael , The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Baptist (The Perla), 1519 – 1520
Oil on panel, 147,4 x 116 cm
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
It is precisely these panels on the Holy Family that cause the greatest confusion in Raphael’s late chronology. One reason is that the influence of his students’ contribution in the execution of the paintings is on such a large scale. Since Raphael’s fame had brought with it an excess of work and extreme pressure, he frequently delegated aspects to his most trusted students, Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni. Regardless of this team production, the paintings would still go out under Raphael’s name, and the artist always kept firm control on the works’ production. In spite of this, we can still find some of Raphael’s great masterpieces, such as Perla.
Commissioned by Ludovico Canossa, the Bishop of Bayeux, Perla was produced in parallel with Raphel’s epic work, The Transfiguration. The crepuscular light in the painting is borrowed from Sebastiano del Piombo, but we can still see Leonardo da Vinci’s influence in the fusing of the figures into a compact, geometrical area and the chiaroscuro effect used. This work is one of Raphael’s great masterpieces, since it combines the artist’s visual ambition with his descriptive sense of detail, colour combination and psychological depth.
Moving onto the small Madonnas and Holy Families, we begin to see how Raphael’s students would etch their mark on his work. Since these years were exceptionally busy for Raphael, where even the large scale panels had to be delegated to the members of his studio, it is natural to assume his involvement in the smaller productions would be even less. For this reason, we can begin to identify the individual contributions from his principal students, Romano and Penni.
While these paintings carry all the trademarks of an authentic Raphael, they show no influence from the hand of the master. In fact, these paintings can be thought of as independent productions. It is interesting to see here is how the works of Romano and Penni develop from Raphael’s lifetime to the period after his death. From their later works, it becomes clear that Raphael’s presence had limited the individual development of these artists.
Giulio Romano, Cartoon for The Stoning of Saint Stephen, 1520 – 1521
Charcoal and black chalk on paper, mounted on canvas, 411 x 285 cm
Vatican City, Musei Vaticani
The work of Giulio Romano is also highlighted as an independent artist. He worked as Raphael’s principal assistant, and his influence on the collaborative works can be seen in other thematic areas of the exhibition. Compared to Penni, Romano was a more ambitious painter with greater versatility. The cartoon for the Stoning of Saint Stephen is perhaps the best representation of the artist’s work. Raphael originally designed this, we can see this in the arrangement and the horizontally depicted narrative echoes the Transfiguration, but Romano made numerous changes after his master’s death.
One of Rapheal’s contributions to evolution of Renaissance art was his effect on portraiture. These can be divided into two categories –commissioned portraits: official portraits of the Pope, cardinals and various prestigious sitters, while the second type were portraits of his friends. The latter is considered some of his best work. The former category were executed under pressure, and hence frequently delegated to his workshop. But the personal portraits were made without payment and can be considered a labour of love. There is no hint of workshop assistance, and these intimate portrayals of his friends demonstrate the artist’s skill and genius.
Raphael, Baldassare Castiglione, 1519
Oil on canvas, 82 x 67 cm
© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier
His portrait of his friend, Baldassare Castiglione is expressed with a simple palette of greys, whites, browns and blacks. While this colour range is toned down compared to the brilliant colours associated with Raphael’s work, the softened contours create an atmosphere around Castiglioni, which conveys the immediacy of their friendship. The figure appears alive, where his lifelike grey eyes draw you into the painting.
The Transfiguration, completed just before his death, is perhaps one of Raphael’s greatest works. Originally commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici, it was intended for the cathedral at Narbonne. But due to Raphael’s death, the painting remained in Rome and is now housed in the Musei Vaticani. Raphael’s workshop produced a replica of The Transfiguration, which came to Spain in the 17th century. The replica, alongside thirteen original drawings by Raphael and Romano, is displayed in the Prado Museum. This epic piece can give us an idea of the original, but it’s the preparatory drawings by the master that are the most interesting, since they show the progression in the construction of the original. We can see how Raphael developed the drama in the painting by developing the details, such as the inclusion of the possessed boy and the apostles left behind at Christ’s ascension.
With forty-four paintings, twenty-eight drawings, an archaeological item and a tapestry, loaned from forty different institutions, this exhibition gives us an insight into Raphael’s aesthetic evolution during a period that would have an immense impact on the history of European art. By understanding is studio, and their effect on the artist’s final work, we can begin to decode Raphael in the late years of his short life.
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