The V&A and the RA compete to present a Vatican show timed to coincide with the first state visit to Britain of Pope Benedict XVI

V&A will reunite Raphael’s Sistine tapestries with their cartoons for first time in 500 years


The papal trip in September is expected to draw huge crowds. The Art Newspaper has learned that the V&A and the RA have each been conducting intensive negotiations with the Vatican over the past few weeks. The RA wanted to mount an ambitious show with nearly 400 works of art, whereas the V&A wanted to borrow four of the Vatican Museums’ ten Raphael tapestries, the “Acts of St Peter and St Paul”, which were woven for the Sistine Chapel. He designed them to go with Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes, completed three years earlier.

Last month, the RA was forced to drop its exhibition plans because there was not enough time to secure key loans from the Vatican Museums. The V&A’s exhibition is set to go ahead, however.

The V&A has Raphael’s seven surviving 1515 cartoons permanently displayed in a large gallery in the South Kensington museum. Each is composed of 200 sheets of paper, so for conservation reasons they never leave the building. The idea is to display four of the Vatican’s 5m-wide tapestries on stands in the middle of the gallery, at right angles to the cartoons on the walls. This is the first time that the cartoons and tapestries will have been brought together in nearly 500 years, when they were woven in Pieter van Aelst’s workshop in Brussels.

In 1519, the tapestries were sent to Pope Leo X. They are normally on display in the Vatican’s Pinacoteca, although occasionally they are hung, as intended, in the Sistine Chapel. In 1623 the cartoons, which had probably remained in Brussels, were bought by Charles I. Queen Victoria lent them to the V&A in 1865.

The idea of lending the tapestries to London came from the Vatican, and was only proposed in January, a few weeks after the RA had submitted its request. Both exhibitions could have run alongside each other, but once the simpler V&A loan was agreed, the RA’s ambitious venture became more difficult. The V&A told us that it did not regard itself in competition with the RA over the display, and knew little about the RA’s proposal.

The RA began work on a Vatican exhibition immediately after its Liechtenstein show was cancelled last December (see p41). The Vatican show would have focused on St Peter’s Basilica and the rise of Catholicism. It would have included paintings, sculptures, drawings, manuscripts and decorative art. The Raphael tapestries were also on the list.

The project was submitted to the Pope, with the support of the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols. He and RA exhibitions director Kathleen Soriano travelled to the Vatican in February, where they met Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, president of the pontifical commission. But despite Vatican support, the complex nature of the project made it too difficult to arrange at short notice. At the Vatican, the objects are held in different institutions, including the Pinacoteca, Apostolic Library and Treasury. “We had got a long way down the line for the great Vatican exhibition, but in the end time was against us,” Soriano told us.

The RA’s autumn show will now be “Treasures from the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts”. The paintings will include masterpieces by Altdorfer, Raphael, Tintoretto, El Greco and Goya, as well as Pissarro and Monet. The director of the Hungarian art museum, László Baán, agreed the loans in record time. Soriano said that the Budapest museum’s collection is not well known in Britain, so the RA show should prove “a revelation” in London.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'UK museums vie for Vatican treasures'