|Raphael: From Urbino to Rome|
|A Special Exhibition Catalogue Review by Stan Parchin|
Hugo, Tom Henry and Carol Plattozza,
et al. Raphael: From Urbino to Rome (exh. cat.).
London: National Gallery Company, 2004.
Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn (ca. 1505-06)
Oil on wood (transferred to canvas)
Museo e Galleria di Villa Borghese, Rome
Raphael (1483-1520) was the short-lived but well-
traveled contemporary of Italian Renaissance masters
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-
1564). Cut short in his remarkable career by malaria at
the age of 37, he was the great synthesizer of artistic
styles and proponent of Classicism. Raphael: From Urbino
to Rome is the most recent, hard-to-get catalogue that
accompanies London's National Gallery's ambitious special
exhibition. It amply documents his early achievements in
religious and secular art. Due to the fragile nature of many
of Raphael's extant paintings, the show is not traveling
stateside from England. It closed on January 16, 2005.
Undeniably a classic text, the catalogue is a must-have
for any serious Renaissance Art scholar.
This 320-page, color and black & white, hardcover monograph
chronicles Raphael's early artistic development. Starting with
his humble beginnings in rural Urbino under the tutelage of his
father, Giovanni Santi (ca. 1440/5-1494), it concludes with
his papal patronage in Renaissance Rome. Called to the Eternal
City in 1508, he painted his famous series of four frescoes in
the Vatican apartments, among them the School of Athens
(1510-11), for Pope Julius II della Rovere (r. 1503-13), on the
eve of the early sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.
The catalogue includes Arnold Nesselrath's enlightened
discussion of Raphael's papal commissions for the embattled
Refreshingly current reinterpretations of Raphael's training
and many of his early works (based on the most recent
scientific studies) abound in this volume. Portrait of a Lady
with a Unicorn (ca. 1505-06) (above) is vividly described.
A bright, buxom and benign virgin tames a mythological
unicorn in her lap. The painting is a symbol of purity steeped
in the vestiges of late-medieval iconography. The catalogue
entry aptly dissects this enigmatic painting scientifically and
elaborates upon its current art-historical interpretation.
Tom Henry and Carol Plozzotta's lengthy introductory essay is scintillatingly revelatory. Through the authors' avid documentary research, the reader comes to discover:
Pietro Perugino (ca. 1450-1523), whose vibrant, largely religious paintings were popular in rural Perugia, was not so much Raphael's mentor (the absence of documents proves so) as he was the young Raphael's artistic contemporary for a short time; and the itinerant Raphael traveled from city to city, having quickly absorbed what he saw, and incorporated what he learned into his own unique vocabulary of painting, surpassing his older contemporaries.
Raphael's familiarity with the works of Leonardo da Vinci becomes obvious when one compares his pen and dark brown ink drawing of Leda and the Swan (ca. 1505-07), a Classical theme, with Cesare da Cesto's (ca. 1477-1523) copy of Leonardo's long-lost masterpiece (ca. 1515). In Classical mythology, Jupiter, disguised as a swan, seduced Leda. Their resulting progeny included Castor, Pollux, Helen and Clytemnestra. All of their offspring were issued from two broken eggs in the left-hand foreground of Leonardo's and da Cesto's compositions. Raphael's incomplete yet sensitive study on paper features his graceful Leda, the swan and one child (whose identity is undetermined).
Raphael's familiarity with Leonardo's artworks is all the more
apparent when one compares his pen and ink Portrait of a Lady
(ca. 1505-06) with the master's Mona Lisa (1503-06). To
Raphael, the young overachiever, imitation was the sincerest
form of flattery. According to the myriad list of international
scholars who contributed to this show and book, Raphael's
art was a means to a much more glorious end (as in his beatific
Sistine Madonna of ca. 1512-14, not within the scope
of this special exhibition).
Raphael's evolution as a portraitist in Rome is poignantly conveyed in his painting (mid-1511) and drawing (after mid-1511) of the aged Pope Julius II. Raphael clearly captured the Pope's facial features. Julius was bearded due to illness and deliberately remained unshaven until the French invaders were driven out of Italy. Both depictions evoke the Pope's tiredness, etched in his face, in oil paint as well as in ink.
Raphael: From Urbino to Rome is heavy reading (even for a
scholar of Italian Renaissance art). Its index is not very helpful.
The book comes with an updated chronology and bibliography.
Bring reading glasses. All three are hard on the eyes.
For further reading:
Becherer, Joseph Antenucci, et. al. Pietro Perugino: Master
of the Italian Renaissance (exh. cat.). Grand Rapids, MI:
The Grand Rapids Art Museum, 1997.
From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums/Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history. His interests include: the art and culture of Old and New Kingdom Egypt; the Italian and Northern Renaissances; Church history; and witchcraft, heresy and social dissent in late-medieval and early Modern Europe.
See all Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews from Stan Parchin.