by Roderick Conway Morris

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British Museum
The Massacre of the Innocents by Marcantonio Raimondi after a design by Raphael, c.1510

Raphael's Studio and Legacy

By Roderick Conway Morris
MANTUA, Italy 24 April 1999


Raphael died in Rome in 1520 at the age of 37, having gathered around him a group of talented young artists who were to guarantee not only that his name lived on, but also that the house style he created would be widely propagated.

The fact that Raphael's workshop came to employ many hands to fulfill the multiple commissions showered on the young prodigy, and that some of these commissions were fulfilled after his death entirely by his collaborators, has made extremely problematic the untangling of who exactly was responsible for originating and carrying out which works from this Renaissance artist's studio.

'Rome and the Classical Style of Raphael: 1515-1527,' a show of more than 300 drawings, paintings, tapestries and engravings, is the most ambitious attempt yet to survey in detail this hive of activity.

The setting is the splendid Palazzo Te, designed and frescoed between 1525 and 1535 by Giulio Romano, Raphael's most brilliant pupil and principal heir. When the exhibition closes here on May 30, it will go on to the Albertina gallery in Vienna, where it will run from June 23 until Sept. 5. More than half the material at Palazzo Te comes from the Albertina, whose director, Konrad Oberhuber, has curated the show with his colleague Achim Gnann.

They have taken the opportunity to launch an avalanche of new attributions, reversing many from the last century, and the majority reinstating the master himself as the author. They have also secured an impressive array of loans from other collections, and made new attributions here, too.

The show opens with works from around 1514-1515, when Raphael and his assistants were embarking on the frescoes for the Stanza dell'Incendio in the Vatican and the designs for his cycle of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel - the point when Raphael's new 'classical' style, inspired by ancient models, fully emerged. The comparatively short period of intense industry and experimentation during which this new manner was developed and elaborated unfolds in the subsequent sections of the exhibition.

By all accounts Raphael's charisma, generosity and affability made his studio an oasis of sweetness and light, but relations between his assistants did not always afterward remain so cordial. Two of his closest aides, Giulio Romano and Giovanni da Udine, for example, were entrusted with the completion of an outstanding commission at Cardinal Giulio de' Medici's Palazzo Madama. They were soon at each other's throats, and their Florentine patron was demanding an end to the incessant disputes between these two 'madmen.'

The school, nonetheless, remained very much in demand to conclude unfinished projects. The decoration of the Hall of Constantine, Raphael's last large commission for the Vatican, was carried out by Giulio Romano and Penni in 1523-24, despite a strong counterbid by Sebastiano del Piombo and Michelangelo to secure the job. The Pope's decision to go ahead with his predecessor's plans, using members of the original team even in the absence of the master himself, was apparently decisively influenced by their possession of Raphael's drawings for the frescoes.

There are a considerable number of prints throughout the show, notably by Marcantonio Raimondi, Agostino Veneziano, Marco Dente and Ugo da Carpi, who engraved works by Raphael and other members of the studio. These matrices were very important in spreading the circle's style beyond Rome, and a means by which Raphael's own work continued to be reproduced after his death.

This was a period when major advances in the technology of engraving and printing were being made, and an exceptionally gifted practitioner like Raimondi, labored unremittingly to improve and perfect his technique and exploit the possibilities of the medium. Interestingly enough, Giulio Romano was particularly alive to the new technology's potential for the production of erotica, and a series of 16 drawings, expertly engraved by Raimondi for wider distribution, in due course landed him in jail for obscenity.

Giulio departed for Mantua in 1524, where his myriad talents were rewarded by the Gonzaga and he was given free rein in his creation of Palazzo Te, whose walls he was able to decorate unmolested with explicit amorous scenes, thinly veiled as episodes from ancient mythology. To be able to go straight from the special exhibition to see the exuberant extremes to which Giulio Romano ultimately pushed his interpretation of the Raphaelesque style is one of the great pleasures of visiting the show while it is in Mantua.

Less than three years after Giulio Romano's departure from the Eternal City, the Sack of Rome took place at the hands of an army of imperial troops. Marco Dente was killed and another member of the circle died in the plague that followed the devastation. Other artists suffered maltreatment and imprisonment, and were reduced to penury. Several subsequently fled to the hometowns they had left to make their fortunes in Rome, and some took refuge elsewhere.

Ironically, this catastrophe and the school's diaspora further assured the diffusion of Raphael's classical manner throughout not only the peninsula but Europe as well.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024