And what will early July 2022 bring, I wonder? Raphael at the National Gallery

Raphael’s work is astonishing! Born in 1483 in the Marche (possibly Urbino) to a court painter at the Dukes of Urbino, he lost his mother when he was 8 and his father at 11, but supported by an uncle, he took over the family workshop and by 15 he was acknowledged in Perugia as a skilful draughtsman and gifted painter.

The tiny panel An Allegory: Vision of a Knight was painted in oil on poplar when he was perhaps 21. Virtue and Vice present as complementary rather than conflictual! The ink over black chalk of Leda and the Swan is dated c 1506, and the serious young man is considered a self portrait from 1506. He was 22.

The following religious pieces were painted between 1506 – 8, probably in Florence and possibly Rome as Raphael’s fame spread, though the first, of John the Baptist preaching was part of an altar piece in Perugia created in 1505 for the Ansidei family (note the playful toddlers, stage right).

There are echoes of  Leonardo da Vinci in several of these early works (eg the Madonna of the Pinks, also in Leda, above), and as Raphael experiments with forms, light and shade, his distinctive genius emerged. The Tempi Madonna exudes maternal love, as well as a wistful (proleptic?) infant’s gaze. The Holy Family plus Pomegranate drawing was a gift sent from Raphael in Florence to Domenico Alfani in Perugia and used by him as the basis of an altar piece there in 1510. 

From 1508 Raphael was offered work in Rome by Pope Julius II, and he fulfilled these largely religious commissions in a variety of styles and and media. The Garvagh Madonna introduces subtle changes in Raphael’s use of colour and light and complex intwined poses, as well as greater sophistication of dress. The Alba Madonna, exploring the circular form of the tondo, is extraordinary in its composition and balance, and totally dominated the viewing space. Raphael’s design of the Descent in Limbo from 1511-12 was used by the Perugian Cesarino Rossetti (d. 1527) as one of two rondels in Santa Maria della Pace.

In 1513 pope Julius II died, and his successor Leo X retained Raphael, making him chief architect of the new St Peter’s basilica in 1514. He expanded his repertoire into frescoes, and designs for the series of hugely expensive flemish tapestries for the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

The National Gallery reproduced full scale the huge School of Athens fresco from the Stanza della Segnatura of the Vatican Palace and exhibited at eye level. To be so close to this tremendous piece was breath-taking; the detail, the expression by the individuals portrayed of Aristotelian interest in the natural world and human activity, and the Platonic abstraction and idealism was laid out before us. What a talent Raphael had!

Raphael was only 37 when he died suddenly in 1520. He left an indelible mark on the religious art in Rome, in Florence and Perugia, agile in every available form of expression.. Nor were his interests exclusively religious, though many of his patrons were, as these final paintings tell us….

These paintings date from 1517 and 1520, and indicate his eclectic interests – and friends…. The Standing Female Nude was perhaps drawn from life in 1517 or 18, in preparation for a fresco version of Psyche; by contrast the over-dressed guy is Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, pope Leo’s nephew. Baldassare Castiglione follows, with his bright blue eyes, author of the Book of the Courtier (1528)who aimed to epitomise a Renaissance gentleman, with his impeccable but tastefully understated dress. There’s a brilliant painting self portrait with the stunningly handsome Guilio Romano, his principal assistant.

And finally La Fornarina…. On whose left arm Raphael left his name – in capital letters!

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