Raphael Rediscovered


His work in the perception of scholars and the public

Jürg Meyer zur Capellen

Raphael's paintings are among the highlights of European and American collections and continue to draw large numbers of visitors. The extensive restoration projects and numerous publications realised in connection with the Raphael Year 1983 resulted in a wealth of new insights, which by now are almost impossible to keep track of in their entirety. As part of the Raffael Projekt, which has its home at the Institut für Kunstgeschichte, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, a catalogue of works is currently being established that will give access to the results of research carried out during the past decades.

When the Bibliographische Institut and the publisher Brockhaus in 1996 made plans for a multi-volume project on the thousand greatest figures in history and culture, their list obviously included such famous artists as Leonardo, Rembrandt, Goya and Cézanne. Raphael was not among them: For such an enterprise, he probably was not deemed sufficiently 'interesting', according to current criteria, or perhaps not 'exciting' enough. Unease about Raphael's art is not a modern phenomenon, for the pioneers of classical modernity already enjoyed disparaging his work, which for centuries had been regarded as exemplary and was taught at the academies of art. His contemporaries not unreasonably saw Raphael as the protagonist of harmonious composition, but it was academic scholarship that eventually led to his canonisation and thus made him a target for the modernisers taking the stage in the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, Raphael remains a favourite among a wider audience. Visiting any of the great museums that hold important works by his hand, time and again one notices considerable groups of visitors gathering in front of his paintings and reacting with all shades from interest to veneration. The same holds true for exhibitions of his paintings and drawings put on during the past decades, which proved to be very popular. Mindful of this and not forgetting the undoubted significance of the artist, who together with Leonardo and Michelangelo make up the 'triad' of the High Renaissance in Italian painting, one might assume that scholars would reassess his &Oelig;uvre on a timely and more sophisticated level. What happened was just the opposite.
Leading the way for modern Raphael studies was a work that still remains instructive, namely Johann David Passavant's "Rafael von Urbino und sein Vater Giovanni Santi", published in three volumes between 1839 and 1858 and with a catalogue of works which is indispensable for scholars to this day. While many smaller contributions were published during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was only Luitpold Dussler's rather slim critical catalogue of Raphael's pictures, wall paintings and tapestries, appearing in German in 1966 and in English in 1971, that took into account of up-to-date research and offered useful references to the relevant literature about the artist's works. When the artist's quincentenary birthday came around in 1983, the inevitable happened. There was hardly a museum holding examples of his work that lost the opportunity for a special exhibition, numerous scholars contributed in his honour at least one publication, if not more, and on top of this, symposia brought forth a flood of expert opinions. After the deluge, little was heard again about Raphael for a considerable time. Only more recently have younger scholars in particular taken up the challenge, although they seem to prefer theoretical discourse to looking at the paintings themselves. In connection with the 1983 jubilee, many pictures had undergone remarkable changes, because several of the great museums had their Raphael holdings re-examined with scientific methods and restored according to state-of-the-art techniques. The results can also be appreciated in specialist publications, where many of Raphael's paintings now appear in brilliant colours. It is not only the new luminosity of the paintings, however, that has impressed scholars and the interested public alike, but also the technical insights the restorations provide and which reveal entirely new contexts. Here X-ray photographs play an important role, but even more crucial are infrared reflectograms, since they allow us to 'get under the skin' of the pictures. They reveal methods of transfer, for example, and slight or serious revisions of the concept, which the artist made before finishing a painting. Innovative technology now makes it also possible to identify later changes by different hands to a fair degree. All this means that during the last thirty years so many new and fundamental insights have been gained and so much literature about the artist produced that Dussler's creditable publication looks now definitely dated.


This was the situation in the early 1990s, when the Institut für Kunstgeschichte together with the Kunsthistorische Institut of the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg was able to initiate a project to make Raphael's pictorial &Oelig;uvre accessible on the basis of the current state of scholarly debate and scientific research. The target audience are not so much Raphael specialists but rather our colleagues at the universities and museums and in particular the students, who will be provided with a convenient research gateway to the paintings. Following the publication of "Raphael in Florence" (1996), work began on the catalogue proper, which is written in English so as to reach a larger audience. The catalogue is to appear in three instalments, the first of which was published in 2001 ("Raphael - The Paintings: The Beginnings in Umbria and Florence ca. 1500-1508"). The second volume, on the Roman altarpieces and panel paintings, is in preparation, while the final volume will be devoted to the frescoes and tapestry designs. In the first volume, which covers Raphael's early works from his Umbrian and the subsequent Florentine periods up to 1508, it is the genres of altarpieces, devotional pictures and portraits that provide crucial insights into the evolution of the young Raphael and his artistic dialogue with his great contemporaries and the traditions of fifteenth-century art. Here the main points to establish are a chronology of the works which is basically consistent and also to relieve the &Oelig;uvre from mistaken attributions. While opinions about the chronology still widely diverge among the specialists, attributions have been carefully reconsidered over the last few decades, and so relatively few dubious paintings remained to be rejected. In order to avoid the problem of confounding contentious attributions with even more controversial ones, the approach was adopted to reject any paintings that do not conform with Raphael's own painting style nor fit with the chronology.

Raphael's studies in Florence

Already the important early source for Raphael's life, the "Lives" (1550 and 1568) of the art critic Giorgio Vasari, calls the Florentine years Raphael's apprenticeship. The relatively large number of drawings surviving from this period record how the painter systematically acquired a grammar of forms which at first was used to resolve immediate challenges and then provided the basis for his later and more ambitious compositions. A good example to illustrate his work methods is the "Madonna del Prato" (ca. 1505-6) in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna (ill. 1). Many preparatory drawings for this painting have survived, of which those on a double spread are particularly illuminating. Whereas the verso shows several single studies for the Child and St John, the recto (ill. 2) is concerned with variations of the Mother and Child, in one sketch accompanied by St John. Raphael is feeling his way around the theme, so to speak, until he has found a satisfactory solution. On the basis of such sketches - possibly with intermediary stages - a full-scale cartoon, exactly defining the composition, would be prepared, and after copying it on the ground of the primed painting space would in turn serve as the basis for the painterly execution. In most cases the cartoons have disappeared, but technical tools like infrared photographs or infrared reflectograms will show traces of the transfer on the ground. At the same time we can observe that the artist - like his contemporaries in general - did not adhere to a rigid scheme as regards the conception and execution as well as the methods of transfer.
While for many paintings infrared photographs document highly precise underdrawings on the prepared ground, which define the composition in detail, the "Three Graces" in the Musée Condé at Chantilly, for example, shows a very freely drawn design which was heavily revised for the finished work (ca. 1504, ills 3 and 4). The most prominent revision concerns the beauty on the right, who originally did not hold a globe, but was meant to cover her pudenda with her left in the 'pudicitia' gesture. The central figure as well was at first not holding a globe and instead had placed her hand on the shoulder of the maiden to her right. Changes of this kind sometimes have considerable implications for a scholar's final evaluation. Thus we may assume that the artist prepared only a cursory preparatory sketch, defined the composition with light brush or chalk on the ground and during the rather free execution decided on important revisions. These latter are also of significance for the reading. When we call the painting "The Three Graces", we do so partly because of its formal relation to an antique marble group, even though the globes added during the late stages of the execution may also be understood as golden apples, which would identify the figures as the Hesperides. It remains an open question whether this revision was the result of the master's own cogitations or whether it related to a possible commission. At the time, Raphael was usually working by himself, and although our sources sometimes mention collaborators, we can only vaguely conjecture how they were employed. This also means that discussions about the artist's early career always focus on problems of authorship and so questions concerning this period are simple.

Illustrations 1 - 4 (click into the picture to enlarge it)

Raphael - "Madonna of the Meadow"
Illustration 1:
„Madonna of the Meadow“

Raphael - "Compositional Studies"
Illustration 2:
„Compositional Studies“

Raphael - "The Three Graces"
Illustration 3:
„The Three Graces“

Raphael - The Three Graces, Infrared photograph
Illustration 4:
Raphael „The Three Graces“,
Infrared photograph.

Raphael in Rome

The range of problems becomes much wider during his Roman period. This in a way reflects the rise of the artist, who previously had worked mainly on his own, to become the head of a large workshop and a member of the papal household under Julius II and Leo X. At the same time, panel paintings increasingly played a lesser part among Raphael's artistic activities, as he was also working on large pictorial and decorative cycles for the popes and other eminent patrons, not to mention his architectural projects. It is nevertheless the panel paintings that time and again not only show his own hand, but also very poignantly record his artistic reorientations. The questions arising from the new situation in Rome cannot be restricted to analysing the different shares of master and collaborators, but also need to carefully define the characteristics of Raphael's pictorial inventions against those of his assistants and followers. As the latter aspect has been much neglected especially among younger Raphael scholars, it seems apposite to take a leaf from a tradition of German art historical writing which emphasises the analysis of artistic conceptions. In addition, one needs to explain the increasingly complex iconographic programs and critically weigh the different theories which have been put forward. A case in point are the "Sistine Madonna" at Dresden and the "Transfiguration" in the Vatican Pinacoteca, two paintings which have been the object of countless scholarly publications without their contents having become much clearer. - Examples follow to illustrate some of the relevant questions relating to the Roman period.
Whereas the fresco cycles were produced on behalf of the popes or the banker Agostino Chigi, the large altarpieces and the panel paintings were mostly made for different types of clients; only in a few exceptional cases can we assume, rather than prove, the involvement of a patron of the highest rank, the "Sistine Madonna" being one example. A similar situation applies to the "Madonna di Loreto" (ca. 1511-12, ill. 5), where Julius II's assumed involvement is all the more plausible as the painting together with the pope's portrait were put on public view already in the early sixteenth century at S. Maria del Popolo, a church with which Julius had close connections. The original painting disappeared sometime later in the sixteenth century, but the composition became so popular that more than a hundred copies still survive. Its popularity also meant that the search for the original began early; and for a long time a copy at the Santa Casa in Loreto, after which the picture was named, was believed to be just that. It was only on the basis of recent archival research that the version in the Musée Condé at Chantilly was suggested to be autograph; this was confirmed after meticulous examination in conjunction with its cleaning. It also showed that the figure of St Joseph presumably was added by Raphael himself at later date. It remains unclear, however, who was responsible for this idea, and so we are again confronted with the fact that the content of a picture was considerably altered in the making: In precise iconographic terms, the type of "Madonna with the Veil" metamorphosed into a "Holy Family". The questions posed by this painting from the early Roman period are just a foretaste of the problems to come, however, for during this time Raphael was still executing most of his works wholly by himself.
This situation was soon to change and we are faced with completely new problems. A very interesting example of this situation is the "Spasimo di Sicilia" of about 1515-16 and now at the Prado; the title may be rendered as the "Agony of the Virgin" (ill. 6). The painting exemplifies new artistic strategies which Raphael was developing partly in response to the heavy workload of his activities at the papal palace. It is well known that for the frescoes in the later Vatican Stanze and Logge, Raphael devoted himself mainly to establishing the pictorial concepts, the execution of which he left to his assistants. For the "Spasimo di Sicilia", our sources suggest that it was commissioned by the jurist Giacomo Basilic= from Palermo, whose identity is a blank.
Speculation has been going on for a long time about how somebody as seemingly nondescript and living far away in Sicily was able to acquire a large signed altarpiece (3.18 x 2.29 cm) from Raphael, while grandees like Duke Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara failed miserably to obtain a painting by the artist's hand. A closer look reveals, however, that next to some brilliant painterly areas undoubtedly by Raphael himself there are large parts of considerably poorer quality which were obviously executed by members of the workshop. Against this, the unusual and inventive composition is very remarkable, as Raphael was obviously contemplating a complex iconographic program which included Northern pictorial conventions and in effect produced a composition which foreshadowed the Baroque. The artist must have been primarily concerned with conceptual lines of approach. Here a suggestion recently put forward by Konrad Oberhuber and Achim Gnann offers a new perspective ("Raphael und der klassische Stil in Rom", 1999). They argue that Raphael commissioned engravings to be made from his designs in order to make his pictorial inventions more widely known. In the case of the "Spasimo di Sicilia", the argument is fully substantiated. Probably on the basis of a modello the artist had the engraver Agostino Veneziano make an etching as early as 1517 (ill. 7), and this was what art critics relied on, pre-eminently Giorgio Vasari, who praised the painting, or rather the composition, to the skies without having seen the actual picture. It seems save to assume that in this and other cases Raphael's prime interest was to make his pictorial ideas known through prints and not the autograph execution of a work which was meant for a far-away city. In a way, Basilic='s commission was likely treated as a means to an end.
A clearer picture about the collaboration between master and assistants during Raphael's later years emerges from a study of the "Virgin and Child with St Elizabeth and the Young St John" of about 1518, also known as "La Perla", at the Prado in Madrid (ill. 8). In the seventeenth century the picture came into the possession of King Philip II of Spain, who is said to have treasured it as the pearl of his collection, whence it's enduring alternative title. The fame of the picture declined only in the later nineteenth century, when Raphael's authorship was first challenged and finally the invention and execution attributed to his assistant Giulio Romano. More recently, technical investigations have led to a revision of this view, as the genesis can now be more precisely defined and the practices of the workshop elucidated. It was certainly on the basis of a Leonardesque design for the central group of a complexity only Raphael would have been capable of, that Giulio Romano executed individual studies such as that for the Christ Child (ill. 9). The studies were then combined for the cartoon and the latter transferred to canvas. The X-ray photograph (ill. 10) shows that it was indeed the central group with Mary, Elizabeth and the Child which was corrected and painterly reworked at the final stage. We may give this revision to Raphael himself, all the more because the facture is pictorially superior. The remaining areas, especially the background, he again left to Giulio Romano, giving him great freedom. In this way "La Perla" provides significant insights into the close collaboration of Raphael and his assistants.
Confronted with such a painting, our idea of an 'original' becomes questionable, in particular if we equate it with a work solely executed by the artist. It is therefore necessary in each case to define as precisely as possible the contribution of the master and that of his assistants and thus determine the merits of the original in question. For Raphael's later years in Rome, a further problem needs to be addressed, namely that of the repetitions which appeared very soon after a painting was finished - like the numerous copies of the "Madonna di Loreto" already mentioned (ill. 5). The most important distinction is between a copy, which is a later repetition by another hand, and a replica, which is a duplicate produced by the workshop, occasionally with the artist directly participating. - In this context, something needs to be said about the critical evaluation of copies, a well-established part of research in other branches of the Humanities such as archaeology.
A good example that a similar approach can be fruitfully applied also to the arts is the "Portrait of a Young Man" in the Muzeum Czartoryski in Cracow, which is given unanimously to Raphael and dated to his early Roman years. Apparently the picture was stolen in about 1944 by the German gauleiter or his second-in-command and then vanished without a trace; it may have been destroyed during the war or still exist in a private collection. Some black-and-white photographs survive, but only one old and very poor colour photograph which gives no indication of the picture's quality. The Accademia Carrara in Bergamo holds a very good copy dating from the early sixteenth century (ill. 11). This picture, which is certainly not by Raphael's workshop but possibly by an artist from northern Italy, gives a very vivid impression of the pictorial merits of the vanished original, especially the delicately nuanced colours of the dress, but also the individual rendition of the different types of textiles. Because of its high quality, the copy may help to identify the original should it ever turn up again.

Illustrations 5 - 11 (click into the picture to enlarge it)

Raphael - Madonna di Loreto
Illustration 5:
„Madonna di Loreto“

Raphael - Lo Spasimo
Illustration 6:
„Lo Spasimo“

Lo Spasimo - Nachstich von Agostino Veneziano
Illustration 7:
„Lo Spasimo“ - Etching
by Agostino Veneziano

Raphael - Madonna with the Child, St Elizabeth and the Young St John
Illustration 8:
„La Perla“

Giulio Romano - Figurenstudie zum Christusknaben
Illustration 9:
Giulio Romano
„Figure Study for the Young Christ“

Madonna with the Child, St Elizabeth and the Young St John - X-ray photograph
Illustration 10:
Raphael „La Perla“
X-ray photograph

Copy after Raphael - Portrait of a Young Man
Illustration 11:
Copy after Raphael
„Portrait of a Young Man“

Commercial and scholarly interests

A totally different dimension is revealed once questions are raised about replicas or variations in which the artist might have taken an active part. As in his later Roman period Raphael's paintings or rather the compositions were much acclaimed, it seems likely that already during his lifetime versions of the originals were commissioned from his workshop. This assumption is partly based on the fact that we know of a number of repetitions of outstanding works, of which many examples are held in private collections to this day. Now the relationship of scholars, especially those knowledgeable about paintings and prints, with private collectors and art dealers has a long and also positive tradition, because it is often only with such contacts that one can get to know works in private collections and gather valuable information. In recent years the situation has changed, however, in that scholarly activities have occasionally been compromised. The large amounts of money sometimes spent on Old Master paintings at auctions has encouraged a commercial attitude not only among the public, but also among collectors.
With regard to Raphael, a case in point is the "Madonna of the Pinks" of around 1506 (ill. 12), a version of which was fairly recently discovered in a private collection and attributed to the artist. In competition with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the National Gallery in London acquired the picture for some forty million euros. It is understandable that some collectors, should they find themselves in the possession of a Raphael, would try for a repeat of such a success story.

Illustration 12 (click into the picture to enlarge it)

Raphael - Madonna of the Pinks
Illustration 12:
„Madonna of the Pinks“

As I found out, however, similar expectations may have problematic repercussions also for someone who is engaged in compiling a catalogue of works, since said collectors or art dealers (or now rather their lawyers) sometimes seem to believe that with the right kind of expert opinion a painting can be glorified to the point where it is implicitly ranked as an original. It is easy to see that under such circumstances it would be tempting to put pressure on the researcher and thereby endanger the integrity of the catalogue. Regardless of such dilemmas, the study of copies and replicas is in fact a further area for future research, investigating, for instance the manner and amount of Raphael's assistants' contributions to earlier versions. The aim is surely not to discover new autograph works or what are commonly called 'originals', but first and foremost to obtain a fuller understanding of the organisation and practice of the workshop. Archaeology again provides a suitable reference, because both it and art history are not in the business of finding great treasures, but primarily concern themselves with the painstaking retrieval of historical and artistic processes.

Jürg Meyer zur Capellen - Photograph

Jürg Meyer zur Capellen was born in Göttingen, Germany, in 1941. He studied art History, archaeology and Italian at the universities of Munich, Göttingen and Würzburg, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Andrea Previtali. He was assistant at the Institute of Art History at Freiburg University in 1974, and has taught at the universities of Freiburg, Cologne, and at Münster, where he has been Professor of Art History since 1988. Professor Meyer zur Capellen has written widely on Italian Renaissance painting, on exchange in the visual arts between Europe and the Near East, and on twentieth-century art. His publications include studies of Gentile Bellini, Titian, Paolo Veronese, European portraits of the Ottoman sultans and, most recently, of Raphael. For several years he has been leading the Raffael Projekt established at the universities of Münster and Würzburg. For this project he studied all the paintings discussed in the original.

Corrected version of an article published in:

  • Forschungsjournal. Universität Münster. February 2005, vol. 13, pp. 15-22.

which is available as Acrobat-Reader-File in the download-section.

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Raphael Rediscovered