Some say he died from sexual excesses. Others attribute his early demise to overwork.
This much is certain: Raphael died on April 6, 1520, having just turned 37 years old.
The exhibition that opened in June at the Prado and is now on view at the Louvre is the first in recent memory to explore Raphael’s final years. There have been several reasons for the neglect.
The primary explanation is that his best works from that period, the frescoes at the Vatican and the Villa Farnesina in Rome, don’t travel. Nor do other masterpieces such as the Sistine Madonna in Dresden or the seven cartoons for the tapestries in the Sistine Chapel, the pride of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The second reason is that it’s very hard, not to say impossible, to determine with certainty which works are by Raphael’s own hand and which, though inspired by him, were executed by others.
Raphael was a very busy man after Pope Julius II had summoned him to Rome in 1508. To cope with increasing demands, he employed some 50 assistants, a set-up not unlike Peter Paul Rubens’s crowded workshop or Andy Warhol’s “Factory.”
Inevitably, this approach led to a certain routine. That didn’t prevent Raphael from being idolized as the greatest painter of all times by a clientele that couldn’t get enough of his Madonnas and Holy Families.
Even Edouard Manet, who declared that his illustrious predecessor made him seasick, wasn’t immune to his charm. He used Raphael’s drawing “The Judgement of Paris” as model for one of his most famous canvases, “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.”
The Prado and the Louvre haven’t been deterred by the difficulties of mounting such an exhibition. Concentrating on Raphael’s final three years, they have brought together some 50 paintings, 35 drawings and a couple of tapestries.
They don’t claim that every work was genuinely created by the hand of the master. Some paintings are labeled “Raphael and workshop,” others are attributed to Giulio Romano and Gian Francesco Penni, his pupils and most important assistants.
Two sideshows with drawings by the pair of assistants complement the exhibition.
Raphael’s authorship of the portraits is least contentious. Instead another question often arises: Who is the sitter?
For a long time, the blond young man with a beret and a blue gown whose portrait normally hangs at Washington’s National Gallery of Art was believed to be the artist himself. Today, most experts agree that he is Bindo Altoviti, the Pope’s banker, and it’s no longer called “Self-Portrait.”
The second man on the celebrated double portrait at the Louvre used to be identified as Raphael’s fencing master. The exhibition presents the two men as Raphael and Giulio Romano, who seems to have shared his boss’s proclivities as a voluptuary: In 1524, he had to flee from Rome after producing a series of pornographic drawings.
“La Fornarina” (the baker’s daughter), Raphael’s insatiable concubine, is absent from the show -- unless you share the popular belief that she was the model for “La Velata,” the chastely veiled lady on loan from Florence’s Palazzo Pitti.
The portraits form the most impressive part of the exhibition. As for the religious paintings, I tend to agree with the 20th-century Viennese writer Egon Friedell in his book “Cultural History of the Modern Age.”
“There they stand, Raphael’s figures,” he writes, “nicely painted red and blue like sugar sticks or tin soldiers, and it is impossible to suppress the feeling that these famous female images might just as well adorn a soapbox or be packed in with a scent bottle.”
“Raphael -- The Last Years,” which is supported by Eni and the law firm Gide-Loyrette-Nouel, runs through Jan. 14, 2013. Information: http://www.louvre.fr.
A Raphael drawing being sold by Peregrine Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, may fetch as much as 15 million pounds ($24 million) in a Sotheby’s London auction tomorrow.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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