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Prodigious, prolific, phenomenal: Raphael’s last 17 years in Rome on show at the Louvre

The Prado and the Louvre collaborate for a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition

The adjective in the English title of this exhibition is an ironic modifier. Raphael’s final period stretched from the age of 20 to his death at 37. Hardly “late” as one would understand the last decades of, say, Titian or Michelangelo, but beyond a doubt the age of Raphael’s uncontested greatness, not dissimilar from the “late” period of Mozart, to whom he has often been compared.

This exhibition is a collaboration of the Prado and the Louvre (where it will be displayed, 8 October-14 January 2013) showing 40 paintings and 30 drawings (from the Louvre) and has been organised by Tom Henry, an independent art historian, and Paul Joannides, the professor of art history at Cambridge University. They have also edited the catalogue, available in English, Spanish and French. The exhibition is sponsored by the Fundación Axa.

It traces Raphael’s career chronologically from his arrival in Rome in 1508 to his death there in 1520 (neatly complementing “Raphael: from Urbino to Rome” at the London National Gallery in 2004-05, which traced his career from his birth in 1483 to his departure from Florence to Rome).

“Late Raphael” can, of course, tell only half of Raphael’s Roman story: the works that transformed him from a highly successful, but provincial, artist to an international star—the Vatican frescoes, the Farnesina decorations and other unmoveable works cannot be included. Nevertheless, a raft of altarpieces, small devotional paintings and portraits testify to Raphael’s prodigious ability ever to respond creatively to new commissions.

Called to Rome in 1508 by Julius II to join the team that included Sodoma, Peruzzi, Lotto and Perugino, his former teacher, who had been summoned to decorate the papal apartments (Stanze), Raphael was, by 1511, made the sole artist of the project that was to occupy him and his assistants for the rest of his life and beyond. On the death of Julius, his appointment was confirmed by Leo X de’ Medici, who, along with members of his Humanist court, lionised the painter.

Previously having been confined to making altarpieces, small devotional works and portraits, mostly on panels in tempera, Raphael was now working on large-scale frescoes. He developed a large and complex workshop to cope with the orders that poured in, employing many of the great artists of the following generation, such as Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni, whose works are included in the show. Most of all, the move to Rome acquainted the highly absorbent artist with the art of antiquity and of portraying the active human figure, Michelangelo and Leonardo providing the “anxiety of influence”. As soon as 1513 he no longer needed to seek commissions; the demand was so great that some requests were turned down.

The works on paper draw our attention to his architectural projects (designs for St Peter’s, the Chigi chapels, the Villa Madama) and printmaking with Marc Antonio Raimondi. A lone tapestry based on the The Vision of Ezekiel, 1518, stands in for his renowned Sistine cartoons, 1515-16, and tapestries, 1517-19.

The Prado and the Louvre between them have the world’s largest collections of Raphael’s works. These resources and the scholarship involved make “Late Raphael” a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.

Correction: Raphael was in Rome for the last 12, not 17, years of his life and Prado’s exhibition “Late Raphael” covers the last seven of those years, not as we stated (June, “What’s On”, p10).