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Christopher Ondaatji

Raphael: From Urbino to Rome

Hugo Chapman, Tom Henry and Carol Plazzotta (London 2004)

320 pages, 220 illustrations

HB ISBN 1 85709 994 X £40.00
PB ISBN 1 85709 990 0 £25.00

It is no secret that the acquisition of Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks by the National Gallery in March was a great coup for the Nation, the National Gallery itself, and, indeed, for the Gallery’s new charismatic director, Charles Saumarez Smith.

In order to acquire the painting several of the art world’s unwritten rules had to be broken and several adjustments made in order to accommodate the purchase, following the untimely primary sale of the small, but extraordinarily beautiful painting by the Duke of Northumberland to the Getty Museum in California . The first rule that was broken was that, at the top end of the international market where paintings sell for over £20 million (the sale to the Getty was for £34.8 million), British institutions don’t and can’t compete. After all for more than a century, Britain has consistently allowed great works of art to be exported and has only very occasionally exerted itself to prevent this long-term historic process. The second rule that was broken was that, after a starred export stop had been placed on the painting, the Heritage Lottery Fund was prepared to support the acquisition with an unprecedentedly high grant of £11.5 million, running counter to its recent tendency to award grants to small-scale local community projects, rather than big, national institutions. The third rule that was broken was that incoming Directors should be seen, but not heard, when they first arrive in a new post, whereas Charles Saumarez Smith was placed in the uncomfortable position of having to fight a fairly high profile and very public campaign about the public’s attitude to heritage very soon after taking up his post as Director.

In the end, the Madonna of the Pinks was only acquired because the Duke of Northumberland agreed to accept a much reduced price of £22 million, recognising, of course, that this was likely to be the same amount that he would have received after paying tax, had he sold to the Getty. In other words, for the sale of go through, not only did the HLF provide £11.5 million, but the government also had to forego £12.8 million in tax, an unusual act of considerable generosity on the part of the Treasury.

Now, by an extraordinary piece of good fortune (since the scheduling of large-scale international exhibitions means that it must have been planned long before the acquisition of the Madonna of the Pinks), the National Gallery is about to open (on October 20th) the most comprehensive and scholarly examination of Raphael’s early career ever undertaken, certainly in Britain. Just at the moment when one would like to see how the Madonna of the Pinks fits into the context of Raphael’s other work, how it relates in style and conception to his altarpieces and other larger and less devotional work, lo and behold, this is suddenly possible. In the exhibition, which will be held in the downstairs galleries of the Sainsbury Wing, we will be able to see and study the evolution of Raphael’s career from its early tentative beginning when he was a pupil of his father, Giovanni Santi, and of the better known Umbrian artist, Perugino, through his work in the hill towns of Tuscany, to his absorption of influences from the work of Leonardo and northern Renaissance artists when he moved to Florence, to his apotheosis as the first internationally recognised superstar artist working for Pope Julius II in Rome.

To coincide with the exhibition, the National Gallery have published an extremely handsome exhibition catalogue, which is really more of a book about Raphael than it is a guide to the exhibition. Indeed, as is often the case with exhibition catalogues, it is not really something to carry around the exhibition as it is too large and, besides, is printed in minuscule type (why did its designers choose a font which is too small for convenient legibility?). The introductory essay provides the best possible, relatively short summary of Raphael’s career, written by two of the organisers of the exhibition, Carol Plazzotta and Tom Henry, accompanied by detailed scholarly entries on each of the works included in the exhibition. Together, the authors tease out some of the intricacies of Raphael’s development - for example, the exact extent of the influence of Perugino, the families who commissioned Raphael’s work in Florence , always with a careful examination of how his style developed through his ability to absorb outside influences into his work. Not surprisingly, one of the most fascinating aspects of this catalogue is the way in which the authors treat The Madonna of the Pinks, relating its composition to a page of sketches in the British Museum , but, also, to contemporary, so-called ‘sweet style’ sculpture by Desiderio da Settignano.

The catalogue demonstrates the extraordinary range of works which have been assembled for the exhibition, including a number of works by Perugino, which I myself regard as at least the equal in quality to some of the works of Raphael and which include Perugino’s Apollo and Daphnis, now in the Louvre, but which was offered in the nineteenth century to the National Gallery as a Raphael. There are drawings from the British Museum , the fragments of a processional banner from Città di Castello and a fine Resurrection of Christ which has been borrowed from Sāo Paolo in Brazil , all assembled together for the first time.

Reading the catalogue it is easy to understand why Raphael was so much admired in the nineteenth century and so comparatively much less so in the twentieth. His career reads like a Samuel Smiles account of the young artist possessed of every possible talent, including an extraordinary fluency in drawing and composition. He moved easily from the more courtly atmosphere of Urbino, where he was born, to the politics of the papal court. He was deft at self-promotion and had no sense whatsoever of angst. If one admires talent and the ability to absorb a diverse range of artistic influences into a style of remarkable fluency and intelligent charm, in which painting can explore for the first time the softer emotions of tenderness and intimacy, then there can be no doubt whatsoever that Raphael is one of the greatest artists of all time. But, of course, these were not the characteristics of art that were most admired in the twentieth century. In the twentieth century, the hallmarks of genius were preferred to more conventional talent. Awkwardness and angst were regarded as superior to fluency and charm.

It will be interesting to see exactly how an audience at the beginning of the twenty-first century responds to Raphael’s artistic skills. Will everyone queue round the block, as the Director rashly predicted when I had lunch with him earlier this summer? Or will the exhibition appeal more to those who are interested in the niceties of attribution and the close print of art historical scholarship? At this stage, it is too soon to tell.

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