Raffaello: a review

Piers Baker-Bates (Rome Scholar 2002-03) reviews Raffaello (Scuderie del Quirinale, 5 March – 30 August) after seeing the exhibition with Peter Fane-Saunders (Rome Fellow 2010-11) and Philippa Jackson (Balsdon Fellow 2017-18).

Entrance to the exhibition. Photo by Harriet O’Neill.

This year of Raphael celebrations has been rather overshadowed by the ongoing pandemic, perhaps however bringing vividly to life the spectre of early mortality that claimed Raphael at the early age of thirty-seven, 500 years ago this past April.  When everything locked down in March the Scuderie del Quirinale had just opened its major exhibition marking the event.  Thankfully as things gradually re-opened the Scuderie were able to extend the run until the end of August, allowing many of us an opportunity that we thought we had missed forever. 

In a sign of the exhibition’s popularity, for the last three days the Scuderie remained open 24/7 and even then, every slot was booked. Thankfully the three of us, ex BSR alumni all, albeit of different vintage, had made our bookings long beforehand and the visit was more than worth both the wait and the attendant hassle. For serious scholars the actual experience of the exhibition was a necessary trial. Marshalled into groups of ten and firmly allotted exactly five minutes in each of the fourteen spaces, there was regrettably no dawdling, and even with two visits in one day one hardly saw everything one wanted. Vice-versa, this did allow close looking at drawings such as is not normally possible in blockbuster exhibitions. Nonetheless, the impression that the visitor was left with was of a visually stunning and intellectually coherent exhibition that, unusually, showed the whole of Raphael’s varied genius to best advantage.

Many recent Raphael shows since the millennium have concentrated on his activities as a painter to the exclusion of all else, but the Scuderie show revealed his protean genius to its fullest extent across multiple media, the organisers having obtained an extraordinary and comprehensive range of loans worldwide.  The major talking point of the exhibition beforehand, however, had been that everything was displayed in reverse so that the narrative began with Raphael’s death and ended with his early years in Urbino. As became clear, this reflected the strengths of the loans. The very first piece in the exhibition proper, an exact replica of Raphael’s tomb, was the work of Factum Arte in Madrid and again reflected what their extraordinary recreations can add to a visitor’s experience, although the exhibition actually began with another unusual inclusion: a couple of nineteenth-century paintings of Raphael’s death, that threw new light on his fortuna critica.  The second space focused on the Letter to Leo X of around 1519, another remarkable loan as it was only acquired by the Italian state in 2016, as the centrepiece of a display based around Raphael’s grand urban projects. 

The Letter to Leo X. Photo by Harriet O’Neill.

This section truly revealed both his increasingly vaunting professional ambition and the range of his talents; Raphael’s remarkably ‘modern’ attitude to the preservation of ancient monuments seemed particularly relevant to the work of the BSR. The third space was a good example of how the exhibition was able to make unexpected connections in terms of Raphael’s creative processes. The organisers had been unable to borrow the actual statue of Jonah from the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo but there was a striking image of the statue to accompany the associated drawings by Raphael and his workshop, and also related classical sculpture. 

Jonah. Photo by Harriet O’Neill.

This was but one part of a much broader display that brought Raphael’s constant engagement with the antiquity that lay all around him in Rome vividly to life.  The next section displayed the late paintings but, to my mind at least, rather showed how thin his genius had become stretched by his death, with paintings such as the Visitation from the Prado.  It did, however again, illustrate, the sheer quality of the loans, containing as it did the Vatican cartoon for Giulio Romano’s, Stoning of Saint Stephen, displayed to best advantage.  After this, the viewer was able to see one of the Sistine tapestries, another unusual loan from the Vatican, for which Factum Arte had been able to re-create the relevant cartoon that could not travel from the V & A.  

Tapestries. Photo by Harriet O’Neill.

On the second floor of the exhibition, Raphael was showcased as an architect; the ability of the exhibition to use new media to best advantage was again demonstrated in a detailed film of the Villa Madama, a site normally inaccessible, which here was accompanied by original drawings for the project.  After that, the exhibition rather tailed off.  There were also some curious attributions, but that may just have been a result of viewer overload following the unavoidably militaristic route march through the earlier rooms. Certainly, the years before Raphael’s arrival in Rome in 1508 were much less well represented in terms of material; though it was a clever touch to end with the self-portrait from the Louvre.  One particular pity, however, after such an excellent exhibition was that the catalogue did not match the high expectations that had been raised; of considerable size, it nonetheless has little new to say.  Even so, this author took away with him a new and renewed appreciation of Raphael—a remarkable achievement on the part of the organisers for an artist whom we all think that we know so well—and a fine foretaste of the Raphael exhibition that is now scheduled for the National Gallery, London, in 2022.

Piers Baker-Bates (Rome Scholar 2002-03).