PRINT September 2004



IN THE WAKE OF ARTISTS SUCH AS CINDY Sherman, Yasumasa Morimura, and John Currin, playing “I spy the Old Master citation!” has become a popular sport, offering opportunities to reexamine (and occasionally give facile nods to) figurative art’s early-modern roots. Critically reworking canonical images, the postmodern bait and switch foregrounds thorny concepts of authorship and identity, encouraging a reconsideration of source material, as well as querying crucial factors behind the surfaces of these masterpieces and even their status as such.

Another opportunity arrives at the National Gallery, London, this fall with “Raphael: From Urbino to Rome,” which contains over one hundred paintings and drawings from international loans and the museum’s collection, including works by significant influences on the painter. Emphasizing transformations from the artist’s early years in central Italy (where he was born in 1483), through his time in Florence, to his first years in Rome (where he died in 1520), the exhibition also investigates the artistic dialogues that shaped Raphael’s indelible mark on Western painting. The works make evident that Raphael was prodigiously skillful from the get-go and undeniably belonged to the High Renaissance troika with Leonardo and Michelangelo—but also that he was an accomplished emulator, adapting cues from his contemporaries. Walking through Raphael’s artistic maturation, we are reminded that critical appropriation was as common in sixteenth-century Rome as in twenty-first-century Chelsea, albeit with different theoretical strategies.

When under the sway of his father and the Umbrian master Perugino (possibly his teacher), Raphael favored ephemerally graceful protagonists in broad landscapes (for instance, the placid Mond Crucifixion, ca. 1503). His sources, replete with dulcet figures, appear in three of his father’s and eight of Perugino’s paintings and drawings. The same honeyed tones characterize Raphael’s paintings for the court of Urbino, including the Vision of a Knight, ca. 1504, whose pricked cartoon demonstrates Renaissance preparatory technique, as do sketches for later works.

The exhibition will show how, when in Florence from 1504 to 1508, Raphael borrowed from local painters, fashioning compositions with bolder, psychologically engaged figures; gone are the floaty, distracted waifs, displaced by vigorous (but still dulcified) protagonists. The period’s many Virgin and Child paintings reveal Raphael drawing from Leonardo (literally, in his sketch after Leda and the Swan), who is represented by The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, ca. 1500, among other works. Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow, 1505 or 1506, a study for which is included in the exhibition, clarifies how Raphael adapted Leonardo’s chromatic unity, interlocking gazes, and famous pyramidal composition all within his unique Classicism. Raphael’s drawing after Michelangelo’s David indicates that he looked at sculpture and its leading proponent, but he consistently showed greater affinity for Leonardo’s harmonies than for Michelangelo’s terribilità.

In 1508, Raphael left Florence to fresco the Vatican apartments. Preparatory drawings on view in London suggest that the frescoes’ theological import, the grandiosity of their patron and site, and a sense of competition with Michelangelo (who was simultaneously painting the Sistine Chapel) inspired a new solemn magnificence in Raphael’s work. In sketches for the Disputa, a 1510–11 Vatican fresco, and in contemporaneous paintings, he grapples with these changes, maintaining poise while upping the potency of his imagery. The era’s devotional images are bigger, bolder siblings of their Florentine precedents: In the just-restored Alba Madonna, ca. 1510, the figures’ Michelangelesque heft and contortions are new, while chromatic harmonies, landscape, and more tender gazes illustrate the signature themes manifest throughout his oeuvre.

In Raphael’s portraits, tactics of identity fashioning reach their height (and offer the conceptual return reaped today), while stylistic changes echo the sacred images’ tensions. For instance, the almost bodiless inquisitiveness of his early Self-Portrait, ca. 1506, is replaced by a physical and psychological presence (and technical virtuosity) in the later, ecclesiastical portrait Pope Julius II, 1511–12. The difference is due partly to his sitters’ desired personae, though it is also indicative of broader explorations evident throughout the exhibition. With its expansive scope and exceptional visual material, the show asks us to engage with the concerns that catalyzed and shaped landmarks of Renaissance painting, redressing the material’s occasional exile to the background of our cultural consciousness, where it often serves only as a target for critical harvest.

“Raphael: From Urbino to Rome” will be on view at the National Gallery, London, Oct. 20–Jan. 16, 2005.

David Drogin is a professor in the History of Art Department at the State University of New York, FIT.