Raphael at the Scuderie del Quirinale – a walk in the exhibition

When Raphael died on 6 April 1520 – according to tradition, on his birthday – the Italian art world immediately felt his loss. This year marks the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death, and the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome had planned a large exhibition dedicated exclusively to the “infinite riches” of this artist, “endowed by nature with […] all modesty and goodness, […] courtesy and grace” (– Giorgio Vasari).

Dr Kathleen Olive offers a virtual guided tour of the show.

The Scuderie are the 18th-century papal stables on Rome’s Quirinal Hill, today an art gallery that consistently offers excellent exhibitions. This year’s anniversary show on Raphael was to be no exception, with Florence’s Uffizi even controversially loaning its celebrated and recently restored Raphael ‘triple portrait’ of Pope Leo X, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (the future Pope Clement VII) and Cardinal Luigi de’ Rossi. (You can read more here about why the Uffizi’s entire scientific committee resigned in protest over that loan.)

Four days after the exhibition opened to great acclaim, Italy went into lockdown and the museum had to close the doors on this once-in-a-lifetime show. Now that the Scuderie has uploaded a ‘walk-through’ of the entire exhibition online, we can explore the exceptional works brought together here and the 16th-century world they bring to life for us.

Highlighting the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death, the curators have staged the exhibition ‘backwards’, moving back in time from 1520 to the artist’s mature career in Rome, early formation in Florence and, finally, birth in Urbino in 1483. So the first rooms of the exhibition show Raphael at the height of his powers, already acknowledged by peers as an artist of sublime genius but also as a charmer, personally endowed with as much grace as his artworks.

Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary art historian whose Lives of the Italian Artists still form the backbone of the Western art canon, is generally known for his scurrilous gossip. But when it comes to Raphael, he reaches for adjectives like “modest”, “good”, “courteous”, “graceful”, “agreeable” and “pleasant”. Much like Leonardo da Vinci – and unlike Michelangelo, who was said to be lacking in personal hygiene – Raphael seems to have been universally liked. And not least by the ladies, as Vasari points out, hinting that Raphael died on his 37th birthday (which happened to be Good Friday) due to a violent fever caused by a night of excess love.

Raphael had already made plans for his burial, commissioning a chapel inside the Pantheon. In the Roman era this had been a pagan temple, but it was long a Christian church by Raphael’s day. Room 1 of the exhibition explores the pomp and circumstance of Raphael’s funeral, from a Madonna and Child sculpture commissioned from his colleague Lorenzetto, to the inscription on his tomb written by humanist Pietro Bembo: “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

The great and the good examine Raphael’s mortal remains, in Francesco Diofebi’s Opening of Raphael’s grave in the Pantheon, 1833

By the 19th century, Raphael was considered the pre-eminent Italian painter and his influence on artists of that period cannot be underestimated. On 14 September 1833 the artist’s tomb was opened in front of 75 distinguished guests, including the neo-classical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, as we see in Diofebi’s painting of the event. An intact skeleton was discovered and proclaimed to be Raphael’s final remains, so you can be sure that you really are paying your respects to him when next you visit the Pantheon.

Room 2 of the exhibition explores Raphael’s relationship with two key thinkers and patrons of the 16th century: Pope Leo X and Baldassare Castiglione. The pope, born Giovanni de’ Medici in 1475, was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and was made a cardinal at 13. His father’s letter on how this adolescent prince of the church should behave in the vipers’ nest of Rome is one of the most charming documents in the vast Medici archive.

Leo X is often remembered for his levity upon ascension to the throne of St Peter: “As God has given us the papacy,” he is said to have exclaimed, “let us enjoy it!” And he certainly did: his parties were legendary, with beautiful young boys and a pet elephant Hanno whose skeleton has been excavated within the Vatican. These excesses were widely criticised – along with Leo’s program of indulgences – by contemporaries such as Martin Luther. A true Medici, the pope possessed great diplomacy, as well as connoisseurship and general bonhomie, and his enduring relationship with Raphael highlights all of these qualities.

Raphael’s portrait of Pope Leo X

Leo and Raphael’s closeness is commemorated most beautifully in the triple portrait that Raphael executed for Leo X. This was probably a wedding present sent to Florence as an apology from the pope, who was unable to attend the wedding of the feckless Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino.

The portrait shows the pope seated on a throne of red velvet, its brass knob so highly polished that it reflects a window in Raphael’s studio. The pope has been looking at a beautifully detailed illuminated manuscript, identified as the Hamilton Bible in Berlin. Raphael’s treatment of Leo’s garments and their contrasting textures – from the plushness of the rich, red velvet to the watered and embossed white silk robes (complete with soft fur cuffs) – is nothing less than extraordinary. The light plays across these surfaces with great care, the pope’s soft and restful hands contrasting with the active energy of his face. In fact, he’s such a busy man that he doesn’t have time to shave off his five o’clock shadow.

Powerful men don’t have time to shave, like Raphael’s Leo X or Emperor Justinian in the famous Ravenna mosaics

To our left, behind the pope stands his literal righthand man: Giulio de’ Medici, illegitimate son of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s brother Giuliano, who had been assassinated in the Pazzi Conspiracy. Giulio grew up with his cousin, the future Leo X, in Florence and in 1523 became the family’s second pope, Clement VII. His was a turbulent reign: he famously refused to grant King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and he fled in ignominy to Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo when the city was sacked in 1527 by disgruntled imperial landsknechts. But like his kinsmen, Clement VII too was an exceptional patron of the arts: think of Michelangelo’s mannered staircase for the Laurenziana Library in Florence, or his sculpted tombs in San Lorenzo.

Together with Leo and Clement is yet another Medici cousin, Cardinal Luigi de’ Rossi, and by grouping them so closely together, Raphael sets an enduring mould for portraits of dynastic power. This triple portrait was copied for the Marquis of Mantua almost immediately: Andrea del Sarto did the job so well that not even Raphael’s pupil Giulio Romano could pick it as a copy. You can compare del Sarto’s work, now in Naples’ Museo di Capodimonte, with another triple portrait that hangs alongside it and was also inspired by Raphael: Titian’s portrait of the Farnese papal dynasty, showing Paul III and his grandsons.

Titian’s Paul III Farnese and grandsons, a triple portrait of another complex papal dynasty

Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, now held by the Louvre, is also on display in Room 2 of the Scuderie exhibition. Castiglione was a courtier and diplomat with strong links to Raphael’s hometown Urbino and to its Montefeltro court, where Raphael’s father Giovanni Santi was the official painter. Castiglione set the dialogue of his manual of courtesy and etiquette, The Book of the Courtier, in Urbino and his conception of the ideal courtier – an increasingly important profession, as European rule moved from local despotisms to permanent and hierarchical courts – had an international reach in the 16th century.

Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione, Europe’s premier theorist of courtly life

Castiglione identified two key qualities in the ideal courtier: grace (grazia) and sprezzatura, a studied lightness of touch. Think of the swan, gliding effortlessly across the lake while its ungainly feet paddle furiously away below the surface of the water. The courtier had to master his craft, its etiquette, diplomacy and tireless service, but this should never look studied: nonchalance, or sprezzatura, was the order of the day. If you think about it, this still explains much about Italian flair today!

Raphael was an embodiment of many of Castiglione’s principles, praised for his natural grace but knowing too when to call in professional assistance to bolster his areas of weakness. He seems to have subcontracted Castiglione to write his papal archaeological survey for example, recognising that while his artist’s education was sufficient for its professional purposes, it did not equip him to communicate elegantly and persuasively with popes, princes or plutocrats.

Rome’s first music academy was founded in honour of Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, in 1485 (when Raphael was 2 years old)

Room 4 of the exhibition focuses in on some of the great commissions sponsored by these high-profile patrons. The stunning Ecstasy of St Cecilia (1516-17), loaned to the exhibition by Bologna’s little-visited Pinacoteca Nazionale, shows the saint in rapture, listening to heavenly music while Sts John the Evangelist, Paul, Augustine and Mary Magdalene form a ‘holy conversation’ (sacra conversazione) around her.

Contemporary musical instruments – perhaps painted by Giulio Romano – are strewn at Cecilia’s feet and she is front and centre of the work. Intriguingly, the commission may have come from a prominent Bolognese woman, Elena Duglioli Dall’Olio: records show that as the aristocratic women of Bologna controlled more of the household budget than women in other Italian cities, they tended to commission more artworks.

Also in this room is the Prado Madonna of the Rose from the same period (attributed by many to Giulio Romano), which shows a clear influence from the Lansdowne version of Leonardo’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder (ca 1501). Raphael’s filmy handling of the Madonna’s sheer veil shows another debt to Leonardo – compare her to the Mona Lisa – and the rich depth of colour and subtle contrasts of light and shadow that could be achieved with myriad oil glazes.

Echoes of Leonardo’s Lansdowne Madonna, right, in Raphael’s Madonna of the Rose, left

Raphael had a staggering ability to incorporate his predecessors’ innovations into his own unique style, and this is one of his chief achievements. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, as the Scuderie exhibition explores, were contemporaries at work – at great personal and professional odds – in Raphael’s own time, but rather than adhere to one artistic trajectory or the other, Raphael fuses their advantages into a new and graceful style.

Room 5 explores Pope Leo X’s commission to Raphael of the cartoons for a series of tapestries. These were to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. On the walls above, the 15th-century frescoes balanced Mosaic law and the New Testament to show the pope as inheritor of both Jewish and Christian traditions; on the ceiling and the altar wall, Michelangelo’s magnum opus charted man’s place in God’s world from its creation to the Last Judgement. Raphael’s tapestry designs would celebrate the apostles and builders of the early Church, Peter and Paul, so taken together, they ‘closed the loop’ of papal power in the Sistine Chapel. They also added an important final chapter about the Medici, the new papal dynasty.

We know an extraordinary amount about the tapestries’ design and execution, thanks to the unprecedented survival of both some of the preparatory paintings to be used by the weavers (the ‘cartoons’, cut into strips to guide the loom, now put together again and on display in the Victoria & Albert) and the final tapestries. Just once, in 2010, the cartoons and tapestries hung side by side thanks to a generous Vatican loan to the V&A, and in February 2020 – for a week – the tapestries were installed in the Sistine Chapel. (You can watch an excellent video about that installation here.)

Room 6, on the other hand, explores Raphael’s study of idealised female beauty. You might already be familiar with the so-called “Fornarina” portrait here of the baker’s daughter, Margherita Luti. She is said to have proved so bewitching that Raphael couldn’t finish his frescoes at the Villa Farnesina until she was brought to sit near him while he worked. The same woman, with her large eyes, dark hair, milky skin and beguiling smile, is often identified as the subject of La Velata, loaned from the Galleria Palatina in Florence’s Pitti Palace. The doe-like eyes, determined chin and steady gaze are the same – but both women are also clearly idealised versions of the female form.

Raphael is said to have explained that his ideal female beauties were made by forming a composite of the various beautiful women he encountered in his life; ideal male beauty, on the other hand, he claimed came more easily to him as he could simply look in the mirror. It’s hard to quibble with this sheer hubris when surviving self-portraits show him as such a lovely youth!

Might La Fornarina, left, Raphael’s beloved baker’s daughter, also be the model for La Velata, right, the ‘veiled one’?

La Fornarina is both exotic and erotic, with her stylised turban, exposed breasts and armband identifying her as belonging to RAPHAEL URBINAS; La Velata, “the veiled one”, is on the other hand a tour-de-force in texture, light, luxury and modesty. The contrast between the taffeta of her sleeve, with its expensive gold-embroidered trim, and the filmy lightness of the white undergarment; the glints of light hitting the necklace around her fleshy white throat; the luminescent pearl in the sitter’s hair – these are all hallmarks of an artist at the height of his powers.

But lest we forget, Raphael was as much an architect – and event planner, and chief papal archaeological surveyor – as he was a painter, and Rooms 7 and 8 of the Scuderie exhibition remind us of this with projects such as the Villa Madama, a highly influential Medici villa designed for the Monte Mario in Rome, and Raphael’s decorative scheme for the Villa Farnesina.

Sebastiano del Piombo was a keen follower of Michelangelo, as his muscled Polyphemus shows, at left, in high contrast to Raphael’s sinuous Galatea, at right

That work was undertaken for a wealthy and powerful Sienese banker, Agostino Chigi, who underwrote much of Pope Leo X’s papacy and was married to his long-time mistress, after years of flagrant adultery, by the pope himself. The trials and tribulations of Chigi’s arduous path to monogamy are celebrated by Raphael in the Farnesina frescoes, from the graceful Galatea riding sensual waves of mermen and dolphins – a direct challenge to the adjacent work by Michelangelo’s student Sebastiano del Piombo, a muscular and giant Polyphemus – to the less-than-smooth path trod by Cupid and Psyche.

Before Raphael’s arrival in Rome and great success with men like Agostino Chigi, his career had been stimulated in the innovative atmosphere of Florence. Room 9 of the exhibition brings us to this phase of Raphael’s life. Although he spent some of his early career with the Umbrian artist Perugino – who himself trained in the same workshop as Leonardo – after 1504 Raphael’s Florentine inspiration comes mainly from Leonardo and Michelangelo. Many of Raphael’s commissions in this period were works depicting the Virgin and Child, and it can be hard now to distinguish the greatest of these when their subject matter is endlessly repetitive. We have a tendency to see Raphael’s Madonnas – such as the Madonna della seggiola, with its beauty and soft colouring – as somewhat sentimental.

We see the clear influence of Raphael’s Madonna della seggiola, left, on Benjamin West’s portrait of his wife and son Raphael (named for the master), at right

This is probably the effect of subsequent artists who, in seeking to emulate Raphael, rendered his Madonnas banal and somewhat clichéd to our eyes. Yet look closely at Raphael’s Alba Madonna, painted ca 1510 and loaned to the Scuderie exhibition by the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and you will begin to pick out some of the young Raphael’s brilliant synthesising of his great masters. Here the Virgin is a so-called “Madonna of humility”, sitting directly on the ground rather than the throne of heaven. The drapery of her robes, the design of her sandals and headwear – these are subtly classicising but in no way inappropriate.

Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, right, is his only finished painting on panel, and its influence is clear on works such as Raphael’s Alba Madonna, left

And the grouping of Mary, Christ and John the Baptist, low on the ground and drawing close to one another, is an explicit homage to two key works by the great rivals Michelangelo and Leonardo: Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, now in the Uffizi, a swirlingly circular composition that is echoed in the Alba Madonna; and Leonardo’s experiments with similar compositions, such as his designs for the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, as we have already seen. The physical unity of the three bodies alludes to the connectivity of these figures in life and in theology, and the cool blues of the smoky distant landscape are inherited as much from Leonardo da Vinci (think of the landscape in the Mona Lisa, for example) as they reflect the real landscape around Raphael’s Urbino.

This ability of Raphael to understand but also to exceed the artistic traditions that came before him is also the subject of Room 10. The Lady with a Unicorn, on loan from Rome’s Galleria Borghese, is said to have been influenced by no less a lady than Leonardo’s Mona Lisa herself – but if you look closely at a reproduction of this painting you’ll see that Raphael continued to tinker with his portrait perhaps as much as Leonardo is said to have with ‘la Gioconda’.

Catherine, Agnes or a chaste young lady? Technical analysis of Raphael’s Lady with a unicorn has revealed some of its secrets

Painted ca 1505, The Lady with a Unicorn had a disputed attribution until the middle of the 20th century, when art historian Roberto Longhi argued convincingly for Raphael. At this point, the Borghese artwork showed a lovely St Catherine, calmly sitting within an open loggia – again, like Mona Lisa – while holding a martyr’s palm and nursing the broken ‘Catherine wheel’ that failed to kill her. Restoration revealed that this was a heavy overpainting, and that in fact underneath St Catherine lay a young woman holding a unicorn. The unicorn, as we know from medieval tapestries, was a sign of chastity: it would only allow itself to be caught by a virgin.

And yet even this painting, subsequent restoration work demonstrated, was a repainting (probably by Raphael’s own hand): lying under these two layers was the original subject, a woman holding a small lapdog, a symbol of conjugal fidelity. (Others see St Agnes with a lamb.) A drawing in the Louvre revealed the similarity of the preparatory drawing for Raphael’s painting to the Mona Lisa, the sitter’s hands calmly held in repose one on top of the other.

The Scuderie closes its sustained investigation of Raphael’s career with a literal spotlight on the artist: his lovely self-portrait, loaned from the world’s largest collection of artists’ self-portraits in the Uffizi’s Vasari Corridor. An early work, the sitter’s features allow us to identify Raphael as an onlooker in both Pinturicchio’s Piccolomini Library frescoes in Siena cathedral, and Raphael’s own School of Athens in the Vatican. Its smaller dimensions suggest that he treated the Uffizi self-portrait as a kind of exercise in painting or portraiture, presumably using a small convex mirror of the type commonly possessed by Renaissance artists.

Raphael’s self-portrait, painted in his early 20’s

Half-turning towards us and inviting a connection, Raphael is controlled as he looks out. It is his face and the light falling on it that constitute the primary interest of this work: our interest isn’t distracted from the artist’s pensive face by either his sober black clothing, with only a hint of a white undergarment at the neck, or the umber background (perhaps just the preparatory ground of the panel). The shape of his eyes, the curve of his adam’s apple, the texture of his wavy hair, the shadow cast by his nose on his upper lip – these lend a measured grace, psychological interest and careful control to this portrait of Raphael, all elements that continue to keep us engaged with the oeuvre of this “most divine painter”.

Dr Kathleen Olive

Has more than 15 years’ experience leading tour groups. She is one of Academy Travel’s most respected tour leaders, and is known to Academy Travellers as a skilled and sensitive presenter. Kathleen has a PhD in Italian Studies, speaks fluent Italian and lectures on the art, history and culture of Europe and Japan.


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