No wonder I spotted only one lone Raphael painting in the Uffizi – most of his best (portable) work is currently in London at the National Gallery’s sumptuous exhibition.

Trying to sum up Raphael’s short but spectacularly productive career in seven rooms is not an easy task, but while paintings – madonnas in particular – make up a large part of the show, the curators have achieved an impressive balance, with areas dedicated to architecture, design and archaeology, printmaking and bronze casting.  The scale of his larger works, notably in the Vatican stanze, is also made apparent by means of a facsimile of The School of Athens covering an entire wall, accompanied by some of the preliminary drawings.  A little further on, one of the Sistine tapestries, which once lined the walls below Michelangelo’s infamous frescoes, stretches to the gallery ceiling.

The early works are exquisite, luminous – painted in oil on poplar wood they have a precision and detail closer to the Northern artists such as Van Eyck, while the creatures being vanquished by Saint Michael (c.1505, above) would make Hieronymus Bosch proud. The small scale paintings, especially the horizontal compositions of the predella panels (such as ‘The Procession to Calvary’, c.1504-5, top), have the lively narrative element and the jewel-like colour of fairy-tales. But Raphael’s mastery of anatomy is already apparent, even if the faces are still perfect ovals with little hint of strong emotion –  and scaled up to a full-size altarpiece in the ‘Mond Crucifixion’ (1502-3), his exceptional ability is clear, despite being barely out of his teens.

The Madonna and Child paintings are all breathtakingly beautiful, but what is so interesting about seeing them gathered here together is the way one can trace Raphael’s development, as he experiments with composition, expression, backdrops and lighting techniques.  He moved from his home town of Urbino to Florence and then to Rome to work for the Pope, and his changing style reflects the new influences that each city offered him. 

One of the earlier compositions, ‘The Madonna of the Pinks’ (c.1506-7, above top), is thought to have been inspired by Leonardo’s early work of around 15 years before, the ‘Benois Madonna’.  It shows a tender connection between mother and child as they grasp the delicate stems of flowers, situated in a plain dark interior with a naturalistic landscape glimpsed through the window. It is a more intimate scene than the ‘Ansidei Madonna’ (1505), which was created as an altarpiece with the Virgin and Child enthroned, their contemplative gaze directed at the book open on her knee. The ‘Tempi Madonna’ (1507-8, above) is perhaps the most loving depiction of the bond between mother and child, their cheeks pressed together, her hands gently supporting the soft bare skin.  

Time in Florence also introduced Raphael to the circular format of the ‘tondo’ which he naturally strove to master. An early attempt, ‘The Terranuova Madonna’ (1505-6, above) sees him employ a horizontal parapet to divide the space between the figures and the landscape beyond, resulting in the flanking infant saints being partly cropped, the circular frame arbitrary. ‘The Alba Madonna’ of c.1509-11 (below), considered by the curators ‘the culmination of Raphael’s exploration of the tondo’s circular form, takes a very different approach, freeing the composition from centralised and geometrical constraints; it is remarkable in its perfect balance despite the fact that the focal point – where Jesus grasps the small wooden cross of Saint John – is shifted heavily to the left, piercing a strong diagonal movement that follows the Madonna’s gaze downward. The only features weighting the right hand side are the Madonna’s left arm leaning on a shadowy wedge of rock.  But the positioning of the Madonna’s body lends a circularity to the group that is all the more beautiful for being so asymmetrical.  Raphael pays homage to Botticelli’s mastery of the form, while taking it a step further into studied naturalism.

In contrast to the limpid blue skies and ethereal misty landscapes of many of these earlier paintings, Raphael’s ‘The Madonna of the Rose’ (1516-17) has a completely obscured background from which the figure group appears dramatically spotlight.  This effect was to prove hugely influential throughout the 16th Century – and is one of the most distinctive features of the Baroque master Caravaggio.

‘The Madonna of Divine Love’ (1516, above) combines all the successful techniques Raphael had learnt. The figure group is similar to the ‘Alba’ tondo, with the addition of Saint Anne, whose loving careworn face, arm extended as if to protect the baby Jesus from his fate, is deeply affecting; the protagonists are spotlight within a penumbrous interior – yet one that opens out onto a twilit sky, the shadowy figure of Joseph adding another layer of narrative depth to the painting.

Accompanying the finished works in almost every room are drawings which have the effect not only of illustrating the metamorphosis of the work but give a visceral sense of the artist himself – they pulsate with a restless imagination, rapid strokes exploring and reworking gestures and foreshortening (‘Study for Diogenes’ for the ‘School of Athens’, c.1508-10, above).

Amidst the variety of his output – the bronze roundels for Agostino Chigi, designs for tapestries, engravings, architecture – it is easy to forget Raphael’s extreme youth (he died aged only 37 in 1520).  Two self-portraits (above) bring home his extraordinary precocity, one showing a fresh-faced youth of 23, another, completed shortly before his death in 1519-20, depicting the bearded artist standing behind his pupil Giulio Romano, paternal hand on shoulder.

The featureless backgrounds and very muted colour scheme ensure a psychological connection, an approach repeated in the portraits of friends such as Bindo Altoviti (c.1516-18, left), turning to catch our gaze over his shoulder, and Baldassare Castiglione (1519, below) who surveys us calmly with his piercing blue eyes. They also focus the attention on the luxurious texture of the fabrics – such as the rumpled gold-trimmed silk-satin sleeve of ‘La Donna Velata’.  So against such restraint it is a shock to turn to ‘La Fornarina’, glaringly nude against a lush jungle of plants that almost entirely obscure the night sky.

I couldn’t help wondering if ‘La Donna Velata’ and La Fornarina, facing each other across the gallery with enigmatic smiles to their lips, might be one and the same woman – and indeed on further reading it seems many have wondered the same. The model is thought to be Margarita Luti, the daughter of a baker to whom Raphael may have been secretly betrothed, x-rays having revealed a ruby ring on her left hand, covered up upon his untimely death.

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