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"Raphael at the Metropolitan: The 'Colonna Altarpiece'" The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

"Raphael at the Metropolitan: The 'Colonna Altarpiece'" The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. August 30, 2006-December 16, 2006

Quick. What other prominent Italian Renaissance artist, besides Raphael, has enjoyed the posthumous privilege of having his name anglicized? The answer, of course, is Titian. But then are Tiziano and Raffaello so much more difficult to pronounce in English than Donatello ... or Ghirlandajo? And yet there is a reason. Not only did the Venetian and the Marchigian define and transform the subsequent course of European art, they came to occupy a central place in the artistic consciousness of England and its people. Ever since the seventeenth century, both painters have been avidly studied, revered, and very successfully collected in England, and both have recently been commemorated in London by large, comprehensive, and lavishly installed monographic exhibitions. Of the nearly ninety paintings and drawings by Raphael that were gathered for the great show held at the National Gallery at the end of 2004, almost half were from English collections. These works, some of capital importance and many seen together for the first time, illustrated the astonishing breadth of accomplishment attained by this genius during an equally astonishing and prolific career lasting barely two decades. Needless to say, the parallel with Mozart has all too often been cited.

There is, however, one phase of Raphael's art that can never be adequately represented, certainly not beyond the walls of the Vatican in Rome. It comprises the years between 1510 and 1515, the period the artist was at work decorating in fresco the Stanze for Popes Julius II and Leo X. This is the grand, heroic phase of his career. Raphael's figurative language at this moment is characterized by an unsurpassed monumentality and yet tempered by a restraint and equilibrium that has, ever since, come to define terms such as "classical" and "High Renaissance."

The London exhibition, however, was particularly rich in works dating from the years between 1500 and 1506. It was during this period that Raphael traveled extensively beyond his native Urbino, coming in contact, and perhaps collaborating, with artists such as Pinturicchio and Signorelli, but principally with Perugino who was, at this time, the most sought-after and successful painter in Central Italy. The precise relationship between the older artist and his much younger "apprentice" is still the subject of conjecture. There is little doubt, however, that at least some of Raphael's securely datable "early" works such as the Mond Crucifixion (1503) and the Brera Marriage of the Virgin (1504) are brilliant paraphrases not only of Perugino's compositions, but also of his style.

Probably the single most significant example from this pivotal moment of Raphael's artistic development was, in fact, not present in London: it is the so-called "Colonna Altarpiece" representing The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John and Four Saints. This large panel, together with a crowning lunette representing God the Father Flanked by Two Angels and one of the elements of the predella, has been part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collections since 1916. The main panel and lunette were bequeathed in that year by the museum's great benefactor J. Pierpont Morgan while the single element of the predella, representing The Agony in the Garden, only rejoined the altarpiece in 1932 via another New York private collection.

Perhaps sensing that, in the wake of the London exhibition, a thorough reexamination of the Colonna Altarpiece might be appropriate, the curators of the Metropolitan, and in particular Linda Wolk Simon, have drawn together not only the remaining four elements that originally composed the predella, but also a considerable number of other paintings and drawings, some by Raphael himself, and others by contemporaries from whom he clearly drew inspiration.

The principal focus of the Metropolitan exhibition is, understandably, the altarpiece and its constituent elements. Although a precise date for the work has never been conclusively established, its execution must have occurred no later than 1505, possibly a year earlier. This uncertainty is surprising since many of the details about Raphael's patrons (the nuns of Sant'Antonio di Padova) and the original placement of the altarpiece (in the nuns' church in Perugia) are well known. Nonetheless, the kind of close study which an exhibit such as this affords is amply justified by the fact that the Colonna Altarpiece was created at a crucial moment in the artist's career. If for no other reason--but many could be cited--this is an important event, richly instructive in matters pertaining to art history but also bountiful in aesthetic and sensual delights. A further dividend is the excellent booklet, prepared by Ms. Wolk Simon, which does double duty as the museum's spring Bulletin. It traces a concise critical outline of the altarpiece and its place within the canon of Raphael's work. Welcome attention is also devoted to the fascinating story of the vicissitudes that determined the painting's destiny since its installation in Perugia almost exactly five hundred years ago.

This origin of the commission--Perugia--is interesting in itself, for it recalls the obvious connection with Perugino, and it also reminds one of how rapidly the young Raphael moved about precisely in these years: beyond Urbino and Perugia to Siena, Citta di Castello, Florence, Venice, Rome, and surely other destinations that, for want of documents, have remained unknown. Each of these centers provided new artistic experiences and influences and, in each, the gifted painter enriched his creative potential. Every drawing, every painting, every scrap of visual evidence that survives from these years, shows Raphael analyzing, distilling, and transforming ideas that he derived from his sources. This tightly knit and exciting exhibition gives a lucid account of some of these sources, primary among them being, of course, Perugino. He is represented here both at the height of his considerable talents (as in the Sepulcrum Christi, Clark Institute, Williamstown) and as a dependable purveyor of insipid imagery, hastily, almost sloppily, produced (as in the Saints John the Baptist and Lucy, Metropolitan Museum of Art). There is a richly finished and splendidly preserved Virgin and Child by Pinturicchio (Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection). It is a lovely example of the sort of high-style, rather dated, iconography that Raphael rapidly mastered, made his own, and then instantly reinvented. Not surprisingly, Leonardo makes an appearance as well with his drawing Studies for a Nativity (Metropolitan Museum of Art). We know that the sort of compositional complexities and chiaroscuro experiments revealed in this beautiful sheet were closely studied by Raphael, inevitably to be digested and then reinterpreted through his own inventions. What greeted him on his visit, or visits, to Florence is exemplified by the magnificently chaste and monumental image of the Holy Family by Fra Bartolommeo (The Los Angeles County Museum). It is impossible not to imagine that the sculptural gravitas that is so much part of Tuscan art in these years is not reflected in the solemnity of the two male Saints in the Metropolitan's altarpiece. With these figures, we see Raphael taking a long and very significant step away from the graceful Perugino in the direction of what was to become, less than a decade later, the summa of his art: the Vatican Stanze.

Not relying solely on Raphael's contemporaries to give the Colonna Altarpiece its context, the Metropolitan exhibit includes three further panels by the master himself. These are works that pre-date the altarpiece by two or three years, and offer a valuable measure of perspective to judge the artist's development. Two are predella panels that once were part of the Mond Crucifixion (National Gallery, London). Raphael's narrative skills in these charming scenes are still clearly somewhat limited: the brittle, elegant figures move about on an open landscape proscenium as if in a ballet. In the recomposed predella of the Metropolitan altarpiece, each episode has now taken on a frieze-like integrity and weight of its own, despite the landscape continuum that links the three panels. One can only lament the deplorable state of the central Procession to Calvary (London, National Gallery), rendered insubstantial and lifeless by repeated over-cleanings.

On the wall just across, however, is a panel by Raphael that has survived in a truly miraculous state: the so-called Madonna at Nones (Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena). It precedes the Metropolitan altarpiece by perhaps a year or so and enjoys the added distinction of being surrounded here by no less than four preparatory drawings (none, except for a rapid landscape sketch, have been identified for the altarpiece). By a superb feat of draftsmanship and visual imagination, the artist has taken a theme, repeated in Italian art for nearly three hundred years, and made it again fresh and surprising. Matchless in its execution and irresistible in its charm, this jewel's presence in New York is an event in itself, the Metropolitan having evidently overcome the notoriously restrictive lending policies of the Simon Foundation.

If, after such a feast, gluttony still prevails, one would wish that two works by Raphael that were present in London might also have traveled to New York. One is the tiny Madonna Conestabile of the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, an almost exact contemporary of the Metropolitans altarpiece. The other is a relatively little-known panel representing The Resurrection (Museo de Belas Artes, Sao Paolo, Brazil) executed, perhaps as early as 1501, in tempera (a unique occurrence in Raphael). Each would have complemented, in its own way, the "environment" surrounding the Colouna Altarpiece. The Sao Paolo picture, in particular, would have revealed the surprising un-Perugino quality so evident in this very precocious work by the "pupil" Raphael.

Despite these absences but still comfortably surrounded by its peers, the Colonna Altarpiece can finally be read in an appropriate context. What one derives from this reading is a perception, surely more accurate historically, but, alas, one that on an aesthetic level remains essentially unchanged from that expressed by Bernard Berenson (in a letter to Isabella Stewart Gardner) over a century ago: "a squat, crowded composition, with a top heavy baldachin, and no escape whatever to the au dela." There is no denying that, standing before the Colonna Altarpiece we see a large, reasonably well preserved and well documented work by the "prince of painters" that, somehow, is far less satisfying than it ought to be--especially for its having been created at such a key juncture in this artist's career.

The good nuns of Sant'Antonio di Padova, with some justification, have been blamed for imposing on the artist programmatic conditions that resulted in the somewhat stilted, retrograde appearance of the composition, what with its golden haloes and neatly dressed Children. In fact, one hallmark of Raphael's paintings and drawings is the ubiquitous presence of putti, invariably radiant in their nudity.

In the end, the subtext of this exhibition might well be that the evident shortcomings of the Colonna Altarpiece stem precisely from those aspects of Raphael's creative persona that contributed to his greatness: his passionate, almost ravenous, assimilation of every significant artistic strand within sight, and his relentless weaving of these strands into new and ever-changing patterns. In this instance, this process of synthesis was simply less successful; an abundance of brilliant details that fall to coalesce into a satisfying whole.

Probably less than a year later, using essentially the same compositional formula that failed to serve him well in the Colonna Altarpiece, Raphael painted the so-called "Pala Ansidei" (National Gallery, London). It is a masterwork by the artist and one of the great altarpieces of the Italian High Renaissance.

Critical considerations aside, the Metropolitan is justly proud to possess the only large-scale work by Raphael in America. Mounting this exhibition was undoubtedly a precious service rendered toward a better understanding and appreciation of this highly important painting. Voices have been heard in some quarters complaining that the museum missed an opportunity to show the Colonna Altarpiece in its reconstructed entirety. They are totally misguided. Arranged at eye level in the smaller side galleries leading to the "Nineteenth Century" rooms, each element of the whole tells its own story, in its own voice, and does so far more convincingly than would be the case with a "normal" hanging.

As New Yorkers visiting "Raphael at the Metropolitan," we harbor only a single regret: that the matchless Madonna at Nones now resides in California. In fact, it is painful to think, seeing it again here among us, that until the day before yesterday (1974-) it made its home on 64-th Street with Wildenstein!
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Title Annotation:Exhibition notes
Author:Marco, Grassi
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
Previous Article:Bellini and the East" at the National Gallery, London.
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