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Raphael and the Beautiful Banker: The Story of the Bindo Altoviti Portrait.

David Alan Brown and Jane Van Nimmen. Raphael and the Beautiful Banker: The Story of the Bindo Altoviti Portrait.

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. x + 262 pp. index. append. illus. bibl. $35. ISBN: 0-300-10824-9.

Many of Raphael's paintings have eventful histories of ownership and reception. Because he was considered for centuries the greatest modern painter in the West, Raphael's art was frequently copied and reproduced in print, and his moveable paintings were more highly sought after than those of any other Renaissance artist. When Napoleon's deputies systematically confiscated Raphael's altarpieces from Italian chapels, they seriously contemplated detaching and removing to Paris as well Raphael's frescoes in the Vatican and the Villa Farnesina. In their 2005 book, David Alan Brown and Jane Van Nimmen chart the fascinating historical "biography" of the Portrait of Bindo Altoviti, attributed to Raphael and his workshop, and perhaps datable to about 1512. Though it was never taken as a trophy of war, or damaged during traumatic political times and then radically restored, the Altoviti portrait nevertheless experienced a remarkable journey of a critical and artistic nature. With evocative prose, Brown and Van Nimmen draw the reader into the tale of how textual ambiguities, judgments of artistic taste and connoisseurship, and the precipitous acts of museum directors and art dealers have directly affected the understanding of Raphael's portrait. As the authors emphasize, their study is not about the fortuna of Raphael's painting, but rather the history of human reactions to the image, since it "was not by chance ... but rather the viewers" who determined the evaluation of the picture over time.

By general consensus the painting is now given to Raphael, with the understanding that the design was Raphael's but the execution in paint was carried out by either Giulio Romano or Gianfrancesco Penni. The identity of the young Florentine banker, Bindo Altoviti, is certain, as research on the family stemma and the painting's provenance has confirmed. Yet, as Brown and Van Nimmen's compelling narrative unfolds, it becomes evident than neither the artist nor the subject of this portrait were secure for a long period in the history of Raphael scholarship, from about 1750 until the research leading up to the quincentenary Raphael exhibitions of 1983. The ambiguity over the sitter's identity seems to have been provoked by the idealized beauty of Raphael's representation. However, the central viewer and culprit here was Giovanni Bottari, papal librarian, contemporary of Winckelmann, and editor of the Pagliarini edition of Vasari's Lives (1759-60). Whether by mistake or with some deliberation, Bottari misread the passage where Vasari describes the portrait Raphael gave to Bindo as "il ritratto suo." Finding in Vasari evidence that the Altoviti portrait was actually Raphael's self-portrait, Bottari inserted an engraved copy of the Altoviti portrait for the frontispiece to Raphael's life in his new edition of Vasari. So began the celebration and proliferation of the Altoviti portrait as a likeness of Raphael, an attractive and highly influential case of mistaken identities that would be perpetuated by numerous artists and writers through the late nineteenth century.

The changing views on the attribution of the painting had less to do with pleasant mistakes than with the natural development of art history as a discipline. The striking beauty of the portrait did, however, influence some connoisseurs of Raphael, and certainly human foibles affected the reputation of the picture. In chapter 6, Brown and Van Nimmen paint a colorful picture of the scholars, scientists, and connoisseurs who expressed their opinions on the painting in the years 1830 to 1920. Cavalcaselle, who had an incredibly detailed knowledge of Italian Renaissance painting and of Raphael's work because of his research in preparation for the volumes written together with Crowe, felt the portrait was by Raphael. In contrast, the brilliant but outspoken Morelli said the picture left him "quite cold," and that it did not even merit the designation of "School of Raphael" since the brushwork was unattractive and the shape of Bindo's ear did not fit, according to Morelli's "science," with those in paintings definitely by Raphael.

Evidently much new historical material has been assembled by Brown and Van Nimmen to tell the story of the Raphael portrait. But it is perhaps the methodological approach of the project as a whole that is most significant. Renaissance art historians have only begun relatively recently to show pronounced interest in the afterlife of images, following, perhaps, in the footsteps of literature scholars, who have been actively investigating the history of performance, editing, and interpretation of Renaissance plays. In the study of Raphael, notable contributions in reception history have been made by, among others, Martin Rosenberg on Raphael's stature in French academic theory and practice, and Claudia Brink, Andreas Henning, and Christoph Scholzel on the history of admiration for the Sistine Madonna in Dresden. The recent study by Brown and Van Nimmen thus finds a place within a body of emerging research on the critical and artistic reception of Raphael, contributing particularly to the understanding of how the myth of Raphael dominated his reception during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


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Author:Hoeniger, Cathleen
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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