The Big Review: Raphael at the Scuderie del Quirinale

Socially distanced visitors taking in Raphael's masterpieces at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome © Alberto Novelli

Artists often turn their pictures upside down to check whether they work. The curators of Raphael 1520-1483 at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, the main Italian exhibition celebrating the quincentenary of Raphaels death, are looking backwards at the artists entire career. And there is no doubt: it works.

Nothing has seemed straightforward with this exhibition: only three days after its opening it had to close, as the world shut down for Covid-19. It reopened on the day it had been meant to finish, 2 June. There could have been no worthier tribute to the artist than the unprecedented solidarity of the lenders extending their loans for a second turn, until 30 August.

In the celebrations in 1983 for the 500th anniversary of Raphaels birth his masterpieces were spread across exhibitions in the regional venues in Italy and international institutions where they are held, so there was no equivalent struggle for loans or concerns about the risks of shipping the artists irreplaceable creations. The central exhibition then, hosted by Romes Capitoline Museums, focused on Raphael as architect; it changed the perception of the artist completely, but assembled less delicate materials.

“Raphaels genius will remain beyond all measure”

Thirty-seven years on, in a globalised world, growth is the incentive, even for cultural initiatives. The enterprise behind the present quincentenary exhibition is a joint venture between Arte Lavoro e Servizi (Ales) SpA—the Roman company that runs the Scuderie—and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It was their goal to stage the largest Raphael exhibition ever. Their success is demonstrated more plainly in the insurance value for the exhibits—around €4bn—than in counting the number of autograph works by the master in the exhibition, since there is no scholarly consensus on many attributions. The stakes had been high given the recent volume of Raphael exhibitions: at least one extensive show annually, just counting the last ten years, with four in 2012 alone.

Marzia Faietti, the former director of the Uffizis print room, and Matteo Lafranconi, the Scuderies director, complemented by Sylvia Ferino, the chair of the shows advisory committee, present Raphael as the universal artist, involving many specialists and authors in the well-produced catalogue. State-of-the-art technology, mostly 3D, is employed to produce evocative facsimiles or videos, which do not conflict aesthetically with the original exhibits, but succinctly explain complex issues to non-specialists. The installation is pleasantly unobtrusive, leading the visitor gently through the ten sections in a dark environment, which enables combining exhibits according to the specific topics, despite varying conservation requirements.

Telling Raphaels story backwards retraces the career of this still enigmatic artist from his tomb—one of his last creations, reduced slightly in scale here in a convincing facsimile by Factum Arte—down to his early beginnings. His activities—as painter, architect, archaeologist, entrepreneur and much more—are bracketed between his two easel self-portraits: the one of the established personality known as Self-Portrait with his Fencing Master (1518) from the Musée du Louvre welcomes the visitor and the one of the young aspiring genius from the Uffizi concludes the show. The curators provocative approach in reversing the artists chronology keeps the visitors on their toes, intensifying their dialogue with Raphael directly through his works rather than treading habitual paths of artistic evolution; it is even somewhat congruous with Raphaels celebrated wit in his creations. But judging by the scepticism to the idea among colleagues in the UK, it seems more commedia allitaliana than the famous British sense of humour.

The approach to attributions or dating pays homage to the great Austrian Raphael scholar Konrad Oberhuber (1935-2007) by adapting his continuously more “permissive connoisseurship”. While this blurs the focus on Raphaels spontaneous inspirations, it renders effectively the achievements of his huge workshop: the Raphael “brand”. The indistinct display of works by him and his pupils relieves the visitor of unresolved academic disputes and offers instead a vivid perception of Raphaels environment. Nevertheless, a lot of material is gathered to induce the specialist or astute student to indulge in specific questions, like who was responsible for the designs for the tapestries in the Sistine Chapel or the enchanting Madonna delle Rose (1520).

The shows “most impressive room”, featuring Raphaels great portraits of Pope Leo X and Baldassare Castiglione, and, in the display case at the centre, a draft of Raphaels famous letter to the Pope © Alberto Novelli

Raphaels death was lamented most by his contemporaries for the curtailing of his archaeological activity and his unfinished graphic reconstruction of ancient Rome. Its legacy for the preservation of European culture emerges from a description in a draft letter to Pope Leo X written by Raphaels friend Baldassare Castiglione, which is displayed in six showcases in the exhibitions most impressive room. This decisive document is brought to life on the surrounding walls and in the adjoining cabinets by Raphaels spectacular portrait of Castiglione from the Louvre and of the Pope from the Uffizi, by instruments used to survey antiquities, as described in the letter, and by four related books of drawings after ancient monuments: Francesco di Giorgio Martinis treatise; the famous Codex Escurialensis; Baldassare Peruzzis beautiful notebook; and the drawing book from Fossombrone by Raphaels workshop. The importance of Vitruviuss ancient architectural treatise is rendered through the translation which Raphael commissioned from Marco Fabio Calvo and intended to publish with woodcut illustrations.

It is in this area that the exhibition probably makes its greatest scholarly contribution, since Alessandro Viscogliosi, the professor of ancient and medieval architecture at the Sapienza University of Rome, has identified nine topographical surveys by Raphaels assistant Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. By translating the drawings into a 3D video reconstruction, Viscogliosi provides, for the first time, an idea of what Raphaels enterprise would have looked like and, in just three minutes, renders visually comprehensible Raphaels great unrealised achievements.

Technology, provided again by Factum Arte, enables the juxtaposition of a facsimile of Raphaels cartoon of the Sacrifice at Lystra (around 1515-16) with the respective Vatican tapestry. The educational impact for the general public is indisputable; now scholars have to face the challenge of inserting these new tools into their research and exploiting their potential, before they are once more outwitted by commercial applications. The exhibition implicitly urges collaborations beyond the borders of museums and disciplines.

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