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Distilling the Artist’s Hand: Late Raphael in El Prado

Raphael, Bindo Altoviti, Oil on panel, 59.7 x 43.8 cm, ca. 1516 – 1518. Washington, National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection 1943.4.33


Late Raphael

Museo Nacional Del Prado

June 12-September 16, 2012

Curated by Paul Joannides and Tom Henry


The Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain, will be holding until September 16 an exhibition focused on the late works of Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520) and his workshop. The exhibit presents forty-four paintings and twenty-eight drawings made by Raphael after 1513 and by his most important assistants, Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni, in the years following the artist’s death. Embracing a chronological display of the material, the curators Paul Joannides and Tom Henry aim to establish a clear distinction between works executed by Raphael and those created in collaboration with his assistants, a notoriously difficult task. The Raphael that emerges from the exhibition is not a new character, but the well-known master whose strong hand articulates beautiful figures and harmonious compositions. Indeed, the exhibition’s conclusions, which the museum has labeled as highly efficient and effective, suggest that Raphael’s artistic qualities permeate the works produced in his workshop, showing the artist’s tight quality control and the strength of his aesthetic vision.

The effort made the museum in negotiating loans is commendable. The exhibition borrows from over thirty collections and museums, including the Louvre, the Uffizi and the Bologna Pinacoteca Nazionale, bringing to Spain essential works by Raphael such as Santa Cecilia, Self-Portrait with Giulio Romano and the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione. In addition to those masterpieces, the area dedicated to the Transfiguration is of special interest, which displays a large number of cartoons, studies and preparatory drawings. Though Raphael’s Transfiguration remains in the Vatican, El Prado displays its workshop copy made by Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni, which manifests a new vitality through its interaction with the drawings.


Raphael, Santa Cecilia, Oil on panel transferred to canvas, 236 x 149 cm, ca. 1515 – 1516. Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale


Despite this ambitious assembly of artworks, itself worthy of the visit, the exhibit Late Raphael can leave the scholar with a bittersweet taste. In emphasizing the importance of the hand of the artist and the functionality of linear historical contextualization, the exhibition Late Raphael exemplifies the pervasive disconnection between early modern scholarship and curatorial practices. The goal of strict delineation between Raphael and his collaborators is especially debatable as the exhibition presents collaboration as a problem that needs to be resolved—the aspiration being to distill Raphael out of artworks that are intrinsically plural. Though it is true, the Renaissance rhetoric of writers like Giorgio Vasari seems to stress the importance of the conceptualization and drafting of the artwork (the disegno), it is also clear that Raphael saw collaboration as a productive means. This is visible, for example, in his work on prints, a medium that is inconceivably unrepresented in this exhibition.

Raphael’s workshop was notoriously large, perhaps having up to fifty assistants and trainees. The output of Raphael and his studio included painting, architecture, print design, tapestry cartoon preparation and even archeological surveying.  In this creative nucleus, the figure of Raphael cannot be isolated, as the diversity of his multi media interests could not come to exist without relying on other artists. As art historians have shown in recent years, it is precisely his interest in collaboration that so fascinatingly characterizes Raphael, an artist that challenges the notion of an individual artist as a sole creator of a work of art. What the works of the late Raphael show is precisely the multiplicity of artistic directionalities and practices that were present in 16th century art production, an environment where reduction to artistic identity and individual intentionality was impossible.

Late Raphael is a significant exhibition, and the sole presence of masterpieces such as Santa Cecilia and the Castiglione portrait justifies a trip to El Prado. Indeed despite the conservatism that surrounds the curatorial theory behind the exhibition, it is clear that Late Raphael will be one of the most important art historical events held this summer in Europe, and no doubt, a must see for those who will find themselves near Madrid. Though the exhibit will certainly satisfy the crowds of tourists that inundate the Spanish capital every summer, it misses an opportunity to participate in current art historical discourse.


For more information about the exhibition, please click here.


Javier Berzal de Dios is a History of Art Ph.D. Candidate at the Ohio State University.



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