For the next few months, there is a sweet little opportunity to sample the British Museum’s collection of drawings by Raphael and his workshop, including Giulio Romano, Giovanni Francesco Penni, Giovanni da Udine, Perino del Vaga, and Polidoro da Caravaggio.
On the Raphael side, a thematic highlight of this display is their collection of his full-size cartoons, both pricked and ‘auxiliary cartoons’. Cartoons were usually destroyed in the process of transferring their outlines to their intended surface, so the fact they survived at all is a miracle. The pricked outlines and indentations from scoring serve as a visual record of this delicate but violent process.
Worthy of note is the rare public appearance of the cartoon for the Mackintosh Madonna (National Gallery, London); little known to the public and completely repainted, the latter is on display in Gallery A. This is my first time seeing it in the flesh and it’s always a tender moment. It’s also quite cute that a related metalpoint drawing of the Madonna and Child’s heads reversed is shown nearby, one of the British Museum’s more famous drawings (for good reason).
If you’re familiar with the NG’s tiny painting of An Allegory (Vision of a Knight) then you’d love its equally tiny cartoon with all its little holes around the outlines of its figures. I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing it feels to hold this drawing against the light, an effect that the current display sadly doesn’t reproduce.
Additionally, there is also a small cartoon fragment for a putto in the Poetry fresco on the vault of the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, a taste of the rough draughtsmanship that these types of drawings often exhibit.
Finally, one also gets to meet their two ‘auxiliary cartoons’ for St Andrew and an unidentified apostle in the extravagant Transfiguration, Raphael’s last panel painting.
These were independent reference drawings based on a transferred design from a normal cartoon, which have then been drawn to a high level of finish to aid with the painting process. Seven of these have survived the test of time for this painting, all heads for figures in the lower half; I’ve seen five so far!
This display also offers quite a broad representation of Raphael’s draughtsmanship, featuring drawings in metalpoint, black and red chalks, and pen and ink/wash.
Proudly gracing the marketing material is the very attractive female saint, one of Raphael’s most underrated drawings. Having spent nearly three years researching it, I’m clearly biased.
Once thought to be a portrait of Raphael’s sister – impossible; she was born in 1494 – it may have been drawn for a painting of a saint (as indicated by the halo) around 1504. The drawing barely gets exhibited, so I was pleased to see her recent appearance in the Albertina’s Raffael exhibition in 2017-18.
One of the British Museum’s most famous drawings is the little metalpoint drawing of the heads of a Madonna and Child from the so-called Pink Sketchbook. Its carefully built-up lines offer a fascinating contrast next to the rapidly sketched Madonnas in pen and ink, embracing the influence of Leonardo da Vinci.
There are no shortages of nudes here. Raphael’s creative interpretation of the back of Michelangelo’s David indicates his reception of art in Florence where he would stay for four years until 1508. This newfound interest in human proportions and anatomy quickly redefined his style towards a more classical approach that carried him through to the end of his life in Rome.
From a complex compositional study for the Baglioni Entombment to his design for Marcantonio Raimondi’s Massacre of the Innocents engraving, nudes lay at the heart of Raphael’s creative process, the best of them done in chalks, before being redrawn with drapery added. The British Museum’s drawing of a skeleton for one of the Entombment figures would’ve been an amazing addition to this display.
Finally, a pen-and-wash study for the Disputa fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura gives visitors an excellent idea of the kind of drawings that mediated between rough sketches and detailed studies of individual elements. Such compositional drawings had numerous uses: partly as working proofs to show clients how the finished work might look, but ultimately for laying the groundwork in terms of lighting and modelling.
On the other side of the room in the British Museum display is an eclectic mix of drawings by Raphael’s workshop assistants and collaborators. Most of these are related to identifiable final products.
A portrait of Giovanni Francesco Penni by Giulio Romano offers a unique face-to-face encounter with the managing force behind Raphael’s workshop. This portrait was used in the Allocution of Constantine fresco in the Sala di Costantino.
Although tricky to identify his hand, Penni was a competent artist. Two of his modelli drawings are on display: the first for Jacob’s Dream in the Pope’s Loggia, and the second a Dormition and Coronation of the Virgin which may possibly be an intermediate study for the Monteluce Coronation (Musei Vaticani, Vatican City), of which he painted the entire lower half.
One can’t talk about Raphael’s workshop without mentioning Giulio Romano, the more innovative of the bunch. One of the drawings shown is a study for the ceiling octagon of the Camera di Attilio Regolo in the Casino della Grotta, part of the garden of the Palazzo Te, his masterpiece in Mantua.
For the ‘lesser’ members of the workshop, the examples exhibited generally showcase their specialisms. Giovanni da Udine was well-known as a painter of still lifes and stucco decoration, so naturally he was also proficient in tapestry design, here represented by a design for the Giuochi di putti tapestries for Pope Leo X.
In addition to Polidoro da Caravaggio’s drawings for friezes, there are several drawings showing a more uncharacteristic side of his art: a schoolmistress with her pupils, a Madonna and Child, and a sheet of studies for the figure of a Baptist, perhaps for a free-standing statue.
As for Perino del Vaga, a study for the vault of the Loggia degli Eroi in the Villa del Principe (Palazzo di Andrea Doria a Fassolo), Genoa, retains a freshness of his experience with dramatic battle scenes painted by Raphael in the Vatican.
More interesting for me, however, is a gorgeous red-chalk Descent from the Cross. Full of rich, velvety goodness, the composition is a pleasing assemblage of various figure groups and expressions.
Raphael and his school: drawing connections ran from 2 February to 15 May 2022 at the British Museum, London, https://www.britishmuseum.org/
Disclaimer: The above content was originally published as a three-part Instagram series in 2022.