THE BIG REVIEW | Raphael – National Gallery, London

For a concise review of The Credit Suisse Exhibition: RAPHAEL, please click here.

The Early Umbrian Years⁠

Opening the National Gallery show is an elusive, faintly drawn portrait of a young boy whose features are generally believed to be that of a 15/16-year-old Raphael (British Museum, London). His eyes show an ambition and determination that foreshadows his eventual success as the most sought-after artist in Renaissance Italy.⁠

Grouped together with the glimmering St Sebastian (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo) and a head study for the great Oddi Coronation for San Francesco al Prato, Perugia – both from about 4 years later – the ensemble sets a strong example for Raphael’s technical proficiency as a brilliant painter and excellent draughtman.⁠

Following on, the National Gallery’s highly-prized Mond Crucifixion for San Domenico, Città di Castello, represents Raphael assimilating and transcending the sweet style of Perugino. The only indicator of its true authorship is from the signature at the bottom of the cross.⁠

Raphael, The Mond Crucifixion, about 1502-3. National Gallery, London

Raphael was equally capable of producing small devotional pieces, such as the great diptych pair of St George and St Michael (Louvre, Paris).⁠

The National Gallery’s Vision of a Knight is also displayed, but sadly without its Three Graces counterpart (Musée Condé, Chantilly); they were not intended as a diptych, but one probably served as a cover for the other, or perhaps they were displayed back-to-back.⁠ The cartoon for the Vision can currently be seen at the British Museum’s Raphael and his School display.⁠

Surprisingly, we still know very few concrete details about Raphael’s early years, and missing works of art certainly don’t help at all. His earliest documented commission refers to the Baronci Altarpiece for Sant’Agostino, Città di Castello, on 10 December 1500; Raphael was 17 and already called magister (master) in the contract. Heavily damaged in 1789 by an earthquake, the painting was sawn into fragments and dispersed.⁠

Alas, none of the surviving fragments are in the exhibition, but it is a pleasure to see both surviving sheets of drawings united: the all-important compositional drawing (Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille) and a double-sided sheet (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). However, the Lille sheet is not shown double-sided, hiding the excellent head study for St Nicholas of Tolentino.

Florence and Perugia⁠

I’ve always found Raphael’s early Florentine Madonnas quite unappealing. The colours tend to be quite sombre, the infants too fleshy (sometimes ugly), and an obvious battleground between the Umbrian and Florentine schools of painting.⁠

However, one can’t deny the significant improvement in his adoption of Florentine chiaroscuro, as can be seen in the Terranuova Madonna (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) and Ansidei Madonna (National Gallery).⁠

In Florence, Raphael was heavily indebted to Leonardo da Vinci, as the trio of elegantly poised female portraits evidently shows: the first Raphael’s own pen-and-ink copy of La Gioconda (Louvre), the second La Muta (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino), and the third a portrait drawing of a young girl historically thought to be Raphael’s sister (British Museum).⁠

Raphael Exhibition

Similarly, the young artist also knew of Leonardo’s Leda and the Swan, as a drawing in the Royal Collection at Windsor attests. Leda’s meandering figura serpentinata pose went on to inspire the National Gallery’s St Catherine beside it, now beautifully reframed in a 16th-century tabernacle frame (with segmental pediment and cornice).⁠

Leonardo’s greatest impact, however, was spurring Raphael to experiment with Madonna and Child compositions. Like the elder artist, Raphael would rapidly sketch many ideas on a single sheet in pen and ink; none of these drawings are in the show, but one can be seen in the British Museum’s Raphael and his School display.⁠

As one edges towards the Madonna of the Pinks and the Holy Family with a Pomegranate drawing (Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille), you can see Raphael slowly imbuing his figures with greater dynamism and emotional intimacy.⁠

Finally, for me, the two best drawings in this 2nd exhibition room are the Siege of Perugia (Louvre) and the Annunciation (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), betraying the influence of Leonardo and Michelangelo’s huge Battle cartoons for the Palazzo della Signoria (present-day Palazzo Vecchio) and Donatello’s Calvalcanti Annunciation in Santa Croce, Florence.


I think it’s fair to say Raphael practically perfected the genre of Madonna and Holy Family images, imbuing them with an elegance and grace unlike any other painter before or after him.⁠

The Alba Madonna (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), in my opinion, is his best rendition of the subject, painted in the first few years of his permanent residence in Rome. As the Palais des Beaux-Arts drawing in Lille attests, it was holistically designed for the circular tondo format.⁠

Raphael Exhibition

Unlike the balanced but static Madonna of the Palm (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) from a couple years earlier in Florence, the Madonna’s angular composition – echoed also by the infant Christ – dynamically sways with the painting’s curved edges, creating further leading lines that accentuate the directional gazes of his figures.⁠

Raphael Exhibition

My personal vendetta against this room is that the Lille drawing was not displayed double-sided, hiding a more finished study of the Madonna herself, arguably one of Raphael’s best drawings.⁠ The only other surviving study is in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, of the infant John the Baptist.⁠

The tondo format was very fashionable in Florence for Madonna and Child images. In fact, Raphael was heavily inspired by Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (Uffizi) and marble Taddei Tondo (Royal Academy of Arts, London); the latter’s influence is evident in the Bridgewater Madonna (National Galleries of Scotland).⁠

As one moves from his Florentine Madonnas to those made in Rome, one will notice the Madonna’s garments shift from a traditional red-and-blue palette to the more vibrant pink and baby blues found in the Garvagh Madonna (National Gallery) and Alba Madonna.⁠

This is one of my favourite features of Raphael’s early Roman Madonnas. Also exhibited is the sweet Tempi Madonna (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) which represents a transition point where the Madonna is dressed in pink and teal with a gold undershirt. The composition derives from a Madonna roundel in Donatello’s Miracle of the Newborn Child in the Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua.⁠

Raphael Exhibition

When comparing the Tempi Madonna with the smaller sketches above the Lille drawing, you can see just how far Raphael improved in his experiments to create better intimacy and interaction between the Madonna and the infant Christ.

The Chigi Chapels⁠

In Rome, one of Raphael’s most important patrons was Agostino Chigi, the richest man in Italy and principal banker for Popes Julius II and Leo X. He commissioned several projects from Raphael, notably the decorations of the Villa Farnesina and two family chapels in Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo; neither chapels were completed in their lifetimes.⁠

For Santa Maria della Pace, Raphael planned – for his first time – a multimedia ensemble, encompassing frescoes, two bronze roundels, and an altarpiece, all thematically linked to Christ’s Resurrection. The two frescoes depicting Sibyls and Prophets remain in situ above the chapel.⁠

Both bronzes from the Abbazia di Chiaravalle and attributed to Cesarino Rossetti are on display alongside all of their surviving designs by Raphael (two each). However, they were never installed in the chapel, which would have occupied the wall spaces below the Sibyls, flanking the altarpiece.⁠

The interesting thing about the drawings is how Raphael used variations in line pressure to mimic the contours of relief sculpture under directed light, especially the metalpoint (Städel Museum, Frankfurt) for the Incredulity of St Thomas.⁠ The Descent into Limbo is easily my favourite and the Palais des Beaux-Arts drawing of Christ alone reveals Raphael’s drawing process: outline in blind stylus, then fill the undraped areas in pen and ink, leaving space for drapery.⁠

The Resurrection altarpiece was also never executed, but the surviving drawings reveal the extraordinary amount of variation given to the soldiers’ reactions to the risen Christ. A double-sided sheet (Ashmolean) features a flurry of rapid figure studies, many of which survive independently as highly finished black-chalk drawings; one is on display.⁠

This section also includes two drawings related to the chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, which presently features a mosaic dome by Luigi de Pace designed by Raphael, where the red-chalk angel can also be spotted. Architecture fanatics will love his ground plan for the chapel (Uffizi) – a very rare survival – lightly gridded and annotated with measurements in Roman ‘palmo’ (22.35 cm).

The Vatican Stanze⁠

Raphael came to Rome on an invitation to join a team of painters to decorate the Vatican Stanze for Pope Julius II, whose National Gallery portrait is shown with a 1:1 reproduction of the School of Athens, placed at ground level to better appreciate Raphael’s life-sized figures.⁠

Raphael Exhibition

The exhibition’s challenge, however, is to condense four rooms’ worth of ceiling and wall frescoes along two-and-a-bit walls. As a result, many frescoes lack representation; the Stanza del Incendio di Borgo is omitted entirely.⁠ About half of the works relate to the Stanza della Segnatura, intended as the Pope’s personal library.

Of all the frescoes, the Disputa drawings are the most extensive. A pen-and-wash half-compositional study in an already very advanced state of development (Royal Collection, Windsor) shows Raphael’s first idea.⁠ The fresco’s right half features a figure leaning on a parapet, intensely studied in the Musée Fabre sheet (Montpellier), and includes his draft of a (not particularly good) sonnet.

Meanwhile, the other side of the room features a red-chalk drawing of the Doctrine of Two Swords (Royal Collection). The studies on this double-sided sheet were for two grisailles on the window embrasures of the Jurisprudence wall, normally hidden by window shutters during opening hours.

My favourite double-sided sheet of studies for two women in the Expulsion of Heliodorus (Ashmolean) is also here! Designed for the Stanza di Eliodoro, Raphael characteristically studied each figure fully and honed in on specific details around the periphery.

However, the true highlight is the Moses and the Burning Bush cartoon (Museo Real e Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples) from the room’s ceiling. Its imposing size – over 18 sheets glued together – is shocking since the painted version looks quite diminutive in person. It’s been my dream to see this cartoon in person (and in good lighting!).

Finally, the drawing of Pope Leo X in a sedia gestatoria using coloured chalks (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) is an exceptional example in Raphael’s graphic oeuvre. New scholarship suggests it was intended for the Repulse of Attila fresco in the Stanza di Eliodoro, a transitionary step from the original idea to use Julius II’s features on Pope Leo I (the Great), but whose death prompted a revision.

Holy Families and Divine Interventions⁠

In Rome, Raphael’s new engagement with tapestry design had an immense effect on the visual nature of his paintings.⁠

The small Vision of Ezekiel (Palazzo Pitti, Florence) is probably one of the most loaned paintings in Raphael exhibitions. Well-documented in early sources and possessing a luminous quality, the execution is often given to Giulio Romano, after a design by Raphael.⁠

Raphael Exhibition

Unlike the painting, the tapestry focuses solely on God the Father with the Symbols of the Evangelists (Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas, Madrid), from a cartoon by Tommaso Vincidor (Boughton House, Kettering), and woven in Pieter van Aelst’s workshop.⁠

As Thomas Campbell demonstrated in 1996, the tapestry originally served as the canopy of a letto da paramento for Pope Leo X, a ceremonial bed in the room where the pope would be robed prior to services in the Sistine Chapel. Therefore, the pope would effectively fill in for the absent Ezekiel, who features diminutively in the bottom left corner of the painting.⁠

The National Gallery exhibition unites three lovely Holy Families from Raphael’s Roman years: the Museo del Prado’s Madonna del Pesce and Madonna della Rosa, and the Capodimonte’s Madonna del Divin Amore. Returning to the enthroned Madonna, the former’s cohesive interactivity marks a grand departure from the Ansidei Madonna nearly 10 years earlier.⁠

These Holy Families also reveal Raphael’s new interest in darker, simplified colour palettes with strong contrasts, no doubt a consequence of the visual strategies needed for tapestry design where blocks of bright colour function heavily in picking out narrative elements.⁠

Alongside such fabulous company is the newly-discovered metalpoint drawing sold at Drouot Estimations, Paris, in April 2019 for over a million euros, against a €5,000-7,000 estimate.⁠

Over-cautiously attributed to Giovanni Francesco Penni, it was revealed to be a drawing by Raphael himself, and relates directly to Giulio Romano’s Spinola Holy Family (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) but not necessarily preparatory for it. The combination of a pyramidal composition and St Joseph’s presence firmly establishes an early Roman dating, about 1512-13.

The Antique⁠

A true highlight for me in the National Gallery show is the tiny portrait of the celebrated medallist Valerio Belli from the Abelló Collection, Madrid. But first, some background information.⁠

Raphael Exhibition

Like every artist in Rome, Raphael absorbed its antiquities and architecture like a sponge, studying them in measured drawings like that for one of the Quirinale Dioscuri horses (National Gallery of Art). Giulio Romano also copied in a drawing two Ionic column bases that were visible in Raphael’s house.⁠

These were also the result of his many prestigious positions appointed by Pope Leo X, notably Chief Architect of St Peters and Inspector of Antiquities. This meant he was in charge of all ancient marble unearthed in the city, for the purposes of reusing some of them as materials for rebuilding St Peters. His co-written letter with Baldassare Castiglione to Leo X reveals many of his worries:⁠

‘How much mortar was made from the statues and other ornaments of the ancients?’⁠

This influx of material naturally fed into Raphael’s compositional designs for paintings and especially the Sistine Chapel tapestries. But it’s the prints by Marcantonio Raimondi and Agostino Veneziano which fully show the breadth of his sources, from sarcophagi reliefs in the Judgement of Paris to the visual format of tabulae iliacae in the Quos Ego. He seemed also to have designed vases for the papal court, and reused past figures for prints like the Massacre of the Innocents.⁠

Raphael Exhibition

Back to Valerio Belli, this 12.5 cm diameter painting is actually painted on the underside of a wooden box-lid. A knob and inscription is on the reverse. Well-documented since 1598 (without authorship) in the inventory of Belli’s son, it was one of four miniature family portraits in three little boxes. Details of the commission are unknown.⁠

Technical analysis revealed several pentimenti beneath the surface, above all that Belli’s right hand was originally visible, holding either a cameo or portrait medal between his thumb and index finger, which obviously inspired the profile format of this portrait. His eyes also looked straight ahead instead of downwards, and his nose was also straight without a bump.


Raphael’s architectural prowess is no secret. Since at least 1504, he had depicted brilliant architectural spaces inspired by Vitruvius and Donato Bramante in his own paintings, the Vatican frescoes being no finer example. When Bramante died in 1514, Raphael succeeded him as Chief Architect of St Peter’s and of the Vatican Palace.⁠

In the oncoming years, he contributed to Rome’s urban development, designing townhouses, churches, and villas, the most famous being the Villa Madama in 1518, here represented by a rare elevation drawing for an early idea (Ashmolean).⁠

One of Raphael’s most celebrated drawings is of the Pantheon’s interior (Uffizi), dated on the basis of a hypothetical visit in 1506-7, when he was still living in Florence. It is shown next to a study of its interior details (Royal Institute of British Architects, London) from 1515, thus uniting his only two surviving drawings of the Pantheon; both are in fact double-sided.⁠

The Uffizi drawing is not a direct, faithful copy of the interior, posing questions about whether it was drawn on-site or from the studio. It has some omissions to the colonnaded niches and tabernacles, as well as a medieval altar and ciborium. The presence of a second draughtsman has also been detected, perhaps both copying a lost drawing.⁠

Visits to excavated ruins also informed his decoration of Cardinal Bibbiena’s stufetta (bathroom) in the Vatican in 1516, with its all’antica frescoes and stuccoed satyr masks and cornucopia reliefs by Lorenzetto (Musei Vaticani, Vatican City). He also decorated Agostino Chigi’s Villa Farnesina twice, the second time featuring an abundance of female nudes (Louvre) in the Loggia di Psiche, likely drawn from life.⁠

Finally, a surprise highlight is the study for the right-hand wing of a stage set (Uffizi) made up of three sheets, for a 1519 staging of Ludovico Ariosto’s comedy I Suppositi. Not immediately obvious is that the upper piece was cannibalised from a project for the courtyard of the Palazzo Branconio dell Aquila. Built around 1518-21, it was demolished in 1660 to make way for a square; the exhibition shows a large 3D reconstruction by Centro Studi Vitruviani of its façade.

Raphael Exhibition

Grand Visions⁠

There can be very little doubt that Raphael’s most prestigious commission in his 37-year lifetime was designing the Sistine Chapel tapestries for Pope Leo X, woven in the workshop of Pieter van Aelst. They reputedly cost the spendthrift pope more than five times the amount paid for Michelangelo’s ceiling by his predecessor, as much as 2,000 gold ducats each.⁠

Graciously, the Musei Vaticani have briefly parted with their tapestry of Paul Preaching at Athens, the last in a 10-piece set of narrative scenes from the Acts of the Apostles; it is also one of the more squarish pieces, to fit in the National Gallery’s average-sized and temporarily-bisected walls. Shown beside it is a 1:1 facsimile by Factum Foundation of the corresponding cartoon; 7 cartoons have survived (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).⁠

Raphael Exhibition

Designed to hang on the lowest register of the Sistine Chapel on special occasions, its massive size up close gives a very good sense of the monumental space it would’ve inhabited. Competing directly with Michelangelo’s ceiling and the 15th-century frescoes below it, Raphael adopted a new stylistic language for the tapestries, grounded in antiquity and contemporary sources – St Paul references the Brancacci Chapel in Florence – marrying monumentality, narrative clarity via dramatic gestures and large blocks of colour, and a pragmatic sensitivity to the limited tonal possibilities and hues of dyed coloured threads.⁠

The exhibition has chosen an offset drawing of Christ’s Charge to Peter (Royal Collection) to illustrate one of the major hurdles of designing for tapestries: reversal. Commonly used in printmaking, an offset is a reversed copy of a drawing created by laying a slightly damp piece of paper over the original. This method was not only quick and simple for visualising the final product, but it resulted in copies that retained the details and tonality of the original drawings.⁠ An upper fragment of the corresponding original drawing is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

As a result of the cartoons’ portability when sent to Brussels for weaving, Raphael’s grand style finally had an international audience outside of the Vatican Stanze, and generations of future artists in those regions were heavily inspired by these works for years to come.

Heavenly Visions

Raphael’s Ecstasy of St Cecilia (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna) is a painting that teases visitors from across several doorways, sharing the room with the Sistine Chapel tapestry for Paul Preaching at Athens (Musei Vaticani).

Raphael Exhibition

From St Paul’s deep colours and gravitas, both works were clearly designed around the same time. He is studied in the only surviving drawing by Raphael for this altarpiece (Teylers Museum, Haarlem).

Commissioned around 1515 by Elena Duglioli dall Olio via Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci and his nephew Antonio Pucci, the altarpiece was intended for her private chapel dedicated to St Cecilia in San Giovanni in Monte, Bologna.

Elena was devoted to living like ‘un’altra Cecilia’ – whose knucklebone she owned – remaining a virgin in marriage, and supposedly wearing a coarse hair shirt underneath her clothes; such a garment lies underneath Cecilia’s sleeves and bottom of her dress in the picture.

Costing about 1,000 ducats, it belongs to a category of export paintings from Rome and is believed to be entirely by Raphael’s hand, although Giorgio Vasari attributes the instruments to Giovanni da Udine; they were certainly added after the figures. Francesco Francia reportedly unpacked and installed the painting, and:

‘died of grief and melancholy, so some believe, overtaken by the same fate, through contemplating too attentively that most lifelike picture of Raffaello’s’.

Generally commenting on the superiority of heavenly music over earthly music and, by extension, spiritual faith in God over material possessions, this is also most likely the first visual depiction of St Cecilia’s association with music, inspired by a passage from the antiphon sung at Lauds on her feast day:

‘Playing the organ, Cecilia chanted to the Lord, saying: Let my heart be made spotless, so that I may not be confounded.’

(trans. from Latin)

The original gilt wooden frame is in situ in the church, housing a 19th-century copy by Clemente Alberi. It was likely created by Giovanni Barile, who also produced other frames for Raphael in Rome, including the Transfiguration.

Portraits and Portrayals

Despite his extraordinary workload and necessity to delegate work to his assistants, Raphael’s late-career portraits are practically entirely by his own hand, revealing his close contacts and priorities, as the last room of the National Gallery exhibition attests.

Recently featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medici Portraits exhibition in New York, the portrait of Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino (private collection), sold in 2007 for £18.5 million at Christie’s. Contemporary letters suggest it was painted in haste, not that its sparkling surface leads one to believe. Painted on canvas for ease of transport, it was sent as an engagement gift to Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, who married Lorenzo on 13 June 1518.

Although not strictly a portrait in the conventional sense, the £29.7 million auxiliary cartoon for the head of an apostle in the Transfiguration (private collection; sold at Sotheby’s in 2012) shows how Raphael treated his figures with extraordinary individuality. It was once part of the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth.

La Donna Velata (Palazzo Pitti) and La Fornarina (Palazzo Barberini, Rome) are the only female portraits Raphael made in his Roman years. Despite numerous attempts to identify them, they may also be celebrations of ideal female beauty, a picture type popular in Venice.

The poster boy is Bindo Altoviti (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), a Florentine banker who commissioned the Madonna dell Impannata (Palazzo Pitti). This likeness was long believed to be the artist’s self-portrait and the (uncomfortable) pose is borrowed from the School of Athens. Furthermore, it was deaccessioned by the Alte Pinakothek in 1938 as by Giulio Romano!

The Baldassare Castiglione picture (Louvre) is probably the later of two documented portrait, mentioned in a letter by Alfonso Paolucci on 12 September 1519 that he tried to see Raphael, who was too busy taking Castiglione’s likeness; his blue eyes permeate from an otherwise monochrome image.

Finally, the master and his pupil, which Self-Portrait with Giulio Romano (Louvre) hierarchically suggests in the way their right arms seem to merge as one. A tender portrait in its own right, I like to think it was Raphael expressing his confidence in Giulio Romano as his soon-to-be successor.

Disclaimer: The above content was first published in 2022 as an 11-part Instagram series.

Raphael Exhibition

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