Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Raphael's Renaissance Reunion

The Vatican has long since been associated with that most illustrious of artistic periods – the Renaissance. A number of popes of the High Renaissance period were enthusiastic supporters of the arts, acting as patrons to many artists of the day, including the holy trinity of Renaissance masters - Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. Indeed, it is fair to say, without the Vatican’s patronage during this explosively creative period, many of the masterpieces we so admire today would never have come into existence.

As such, it seems entirely appropriate that the Victoria and Albert museum, in association with the Vatican, is preparing an extraordinary exhibition to mark the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK later this year. The exhibition will celebrate one of the most ambitious artistic projects of the Renaissance era, and will bring together the four of the famous Sistine Chapel tapestries with the preparatory paintings from which they were made.

In 1515, Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici) commissioned a series of tapestries to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. Tapestries were highly prestigious symbols of wealth and power, and as such, were considered to be an appropriate complement to Michelangelo’s recently completed frescoes on the Chapel’s ceiling.

It was not, however, Michelangelo who was asked to design the tapestries; this honour fell to his much-detested arch-rival Raphael. Pope Leo X reportedly found the genial Raphael far more agreeable and easier to deal with than the petulant and notoriously difficult Michelangelo. Given the extent of the rivalry between the two artists, one can safely assume that Michelangelo was more than a little miffed by this rebuff. In fact, it has been said that he was unhappy about the prospect of Raphael’s work being displayed in such close proximity to his own. As it turned out, he may well have had good cause to worry; the tapestries (which, incidentally, cost five times as much as the frescoes) are considered by some to be more accomplished works. Arnold Nesselrath of the Vatican Museum has been quoted as saying the subtlety of these paintings and resulting tapestries “goes way beyond the subtlety of Michelangelo’s frescoes … (the workmanship) is like painting in threads”.

Despite the inevitable squeals of protest from Michelangelo, Raphael duly set to work. He produced a series of ten preparatory paintings, depicting scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul. These paintings came to be known as “Raphael’s Cartoons”. The cartoons, which are three metres tall and up to five metres wide, are actually made up of many smaller pieces of paper joined together, and are painted in glue distemper. Upon completion, the cartoons were sent to the workshop of Pieter Van Aelst in Brussels (which was renowned for weaving excellence), to be made into tapestries. The weaving process was an epic undertaking, lasting three years. The finished products (which were mirror images of the cartoons, due to the fact that the weavers worked the tapestries from behind) finally returned to the Vatican in 1519 - just in time to be displayed as part of the Christmas celebrations.

The original set of tapestries was to meet a tragic fate. Seized during the Sack of Rome in 1527, some of the hangings were burned, primarily to liberate the precious metals from the gold and silver threads, while others were dispersed throughout Europe. The set of ten hangings was eventually re-assembled using tapestries from other identical weavings (several sets of the tapestries had been made over the years). This set was finally returned to the Sistine Chapel in 1983, and they have resided there ever since.

The cartoons had an entirely different, yet equally eventful, fate. It is unclear what became of them once they left Brussels. Convention dictated that such preparatory paintings should be returned to the painter, but this did not happen in this case. Seven of the cartoons eventually turned up over a hundred years later – discovered by Rubens in a drawer in Arras in the north of France! (The remaining three paintings have never been recovered.)

Spotted by an eagle-eyed collector, they were purchased in 1623 on behalf of Charles I (then Prince of Wales), for the relatively small sum of £300. The bargain-basement price reflected the fact that the paintings were considered to be working designs - the cartoons were actually cut into narrow strips to fit onto the weavers looms! (They were permanently rejoined in 1699). It is believed the Prince of Wales intended to use the designs to create copies of the tapestries for his own collection. Thankfully, after the Kings execution, the cartoons were among the few pieces of art from the Royal Collection not sold by Oliver Cromwell. They have been in the possession of the British Royal Family ever since, currently owned by Her Majesty, The Queen.

In 1865, the paintings (now on canvas backing) were given, on permanent loan, to the V&A by Queen Victoria. They are housed in a magnificent gallery built especially for the purpose (which is now rather innocuously known as Room 48A) – and they remain there to this day.

And now, the cartoons and four of the tapestries are to be reunited for the first time since they left the weaver’s workshop in Brussels - something even Raphael himself never witnessed. Perhaps fittingly, these two art forms are now coming together as equals. The paintings, never intended to be artworks in their own right, have become as treasured and valuable as the tapestries themselves. After five hundred years, one could argue it is a reunion long-overdue.

Incidentally, it is unlikely that Her Majesty will be making a reciprocal gesture to the Vatican; the cartoons are widely regarded as being entirely too fragile to ever be moved. It would seem Room 48A will remain the adoptive home of these awe-inspiring creations for some time to come.

The exhibition runs for six weeks from September 8th and entry is free, but sessions are timed. Pre-booking is advisable.