Anne Gardom on the precocious genius

RAPHAEL was not one of your agonised geniuses struggling for recognition. Throughout his tragically short working life his brilliance was acknowledged and admired. His precocious talent was fostered and encouraged by his father, Giovanni Santi, himself a successful painter, and by the age of seventeen Raphael had inherited his father’s studio and was regarded as a master painter in his own right.

The exhibition at the National Gallery is an opportunity to see paintings and drawings, some of which have never been shown in this country before. The nine paintings in the National Gallery are the largest collection of his early works outside Italy, and form the basis of the exhibition. The British Museum and the Ashmolean are also rich in Raphael’s work, and their drawings complement the paintings. The exhibition charts Raphael’s artistic development and journey from Urbino, where he was born, to Rome. Pope Julius II, the great patron of artists, for whom Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were working, commissioned important works from an artist who was still a very young man.

The exhibition concentrates on Raphael’s early development and the influences that affected and modified his painting. There are some paintings which relate to his later work but the huge frescoes in the Vatican have to be seen in Rome. We do have, however, the cartoons for tapestries made for the Vatican. These can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and give some indication of the magnificence and complexity of his later work.

The first picture on display is a self-portrait made at about the age of fifteen. It shows a confidence and economy of line which is breathtaking. Here also are shown paintings by his father, his earliest teacher, and Perugino who was an established painter, and whose warmth and delicacy and beautifully detailed landscape backgrounds Raphael interpreted and adapted in his own paintings. These artists were the first influences on him, and his ability to absorb new techniques and ideas was already apparent.

His first documented work, undertaken at the age of seventeen was a huge altarpiece, nearly four metres high, showing the Coronation of St Nicolas of Torentino; this was damaged in an earthquake in the 18th century and only fragments remain, one of which, showing God the Father, is on display. But the preparatory drawings, including a beautiful study of a man’s head, show how Raphael as a very young man, handled a large and complex design.

At this time he was working on a much smaller scale as well, painting exquisite

small paintings, designed for private devotion and to appeal to the taste of the court. Five of these are displayed together, and include two lovely paintings of St Michael and Saint George, full of movement and minutely painted detail. There is also the National Gallery’s own Allegory of the Vision of a Knight, a tiny painting of a knight sleeping under a tree in an exquisite landscape, visited by a vision of two beautiful women representing Virtue and Pleasure. The detailed preparatory drawing hangs alongside, showing the pricked out lines used by Raphael to transfer the drawing on to its final panel.

Here too is a large Crucifixion (known as the Mond Crucifixion) one of his early works, where he took Perugino’s as style and developed his own version. The beautiful elongated figure of Christ, high above the gazing figures below, is flanked by animated angels with swirling draperies and rhythmically twisting ribbons.

Raphael moved to Florence in his early twenties. To an ambitious and determined young man, well aware of his immense talents, Florence was a magnet where the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Donatello could be seen, among many others. Raphael copied the sculptures of Donatello and studied the vigorous sculptural and three-dimensional style of Michaelangelo. Leonardo’s famous cartoon of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist is to be seen here, as well as some of his other works, including enchanting sketches of the Virgin and Child playing with a cat.

During his time in Florence, Raphael painted portraits and a number of small devotional paintings of the Virgin and Child. In these smaller paintings the interaction between the Virgin and Child is studied and interpreted in a variety of ways, but always

with the emphasis on the grace and humanity of the subject. The Alba Madonna, shows Raphael using the tondo (circular painting) with brilliant skill. The complex composition has freedom and confidence and the interaction between the three figures is subtle and very moving.

His splendid altarpiece, The Entombment of Christ, is shown here in a full-scale copy. It was commissioned for the furious people of Perugia by Cardinal Scipione, when he stole the original from the Baglioni chapel and took it to Rome. It is accompanied by an extensive series of preparatory drawings. The style and painting shows the influence of Michaelangelo, but Raphael gave the subject his own emotional charge and intensity.

In 1508 Pope Julius II, looking for artists to decorate his private apartments in the Vatican, summoned Raphael to Rome. The first fresco he executed for the Pope was the Disputa, depicting saints and theologians discussing the status of the Host as the Body of Christ. Raphael had little experience in painting frescoes: the huge arched space was a challenge he met by making many detailed preparatory drawings, some of which are shown here. The final composition of the Disputa (shown in reproduction) was a complex visible exposition of theological and intellectual concepts. The Pope was so impressed that Raphael was asked to make designs for the rest of the apartments.

One of the most remarkable portraits is that of Pope Julius II. It shows an autocratic, intelligent and powerful man, though the eyes and mouth betray his age, the strong be-ringed hands shown no sign of decline. Raphael painted his patron, towards the end of his life, as a dominating and daunting man.

In total contrast is the portrait he painted about the same time La Donna Velata — a beautiful young woman, dark-eyed and dark-haired, dressed in elaborately folded gold and white silk. It is a picture clearly influenced by Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, but imbued with Raphael’s warm response to beauty and painted with his own freedom and energy.

It is very easy to take Raphael’s charm and grace for granted. The very accessibility of his work can lead us to undervalue its importance. This exhibition demonstrates how, as a brilliantly gifted young man, he responded to the challenges posed by his contemporaries and by commissions that came his way. It explains his remarkable rise to fame and his continuing popularity and influence.

Exhibition runs till 16th January at the National Gallery. £9 entry £8 concession.

Anne Gardom is the art critic of New Directions.