When the National put this exhibition together, they were aiming for blockbuster. For my money, and they are welcome to it, they succeeded.
I don’t know what I expected. Two, maybe three rooms? Oh no. That’s not how they roll. Seven large rooms, brimming with Raphael’s work. They even reproduced The School of Athens and papered the side of an exhibition room with it, lest we forget how much of his work lives on the walls and ceilings of the Vatican.
There are preparatory sketches, cartoons for tapestries, the tapestries themselves, architectural drawings, and the glorious paintings. They even wrangled my all-time favorite, La Fornarina herself, rich with color, sparkling with life. It glows as if he has just put down his brush.
The audioguide commentary by the curator was quite skeptical, insisting no one really knows who the model was or, more importantly, who she was to Raphael. The curator must never have been in love.
I entered and was stymied by the crowd glutting the first room. I employed one of my favorite strategies – go to the farthest room away and work my way back – and It paid off. I was alone with La Fornarina, a Raphaels’ self-portrait with his colleague and heir Giulio Romano, and the most alluring banker of all time, Bindo Altoviti.
Raphael’s drawing skills were superb.
He continued to develop as an artist throughout his career. He paid close attention to the other masters and, consummate professional that he was, he stole from the best. You can see he’s absorbed some of the strength and physicality of Michelangelo’s work in this preparatory sketch of the Muse of Poetry for the Pope’s Library ceiling.
There are three self portraits on view, from his early youth to just before the fever that killed him, age 37. My favorite self portrait is this barely-there suggestion of a face. It’s only allegedly Raphael, but I’m a believer.
The audio commentary is erudite and brisk, an interesting counterpoint to the gentleness everywhere in evidence on the walls.
I learned Raphael’s mother died when he was eight and he was orphaned by the age of 11. For me, that casts a new light on all the madonnas tenderly embracing their babies. Sure, they were a guaranteed money maker, and yes, he was very good at ethereal virgins as opposed to, say, guts and glory battle scenes. Still. The yearning is palpable even when the faces are idealized.
I’m coming back Wednesday and staying until they turn the lights out.
Why did I leave after only two hours, you might well ask? I had an offer too good to refuse. My dear friend Nancy invited me to lunch. She could have asked me to join her for sandwiches and a bottle of water on a park bench, but as it happens she and her spouse Graham are members of the illustrious Chelsea Art Club. It’s an intimate venue, with art from every era on every vertical surface, steeped in the history of notorious and naughty artists. It was a real treat for me, a perfect place to get caught up on the details of our quotidian lives – their new home in the country, the ongoing saga of our children, and our shared passion for gardening. Honestly, once someone brings up mucking about with seedlings, the joy of tubers, and the perils of weeding in a pond from a tiny rowboat, I’m all in. They are both excellent storytellers, born raconteurs. I could have listened to them all day and nearly did – it was four o clock before an Uber was called, we made out farewells and I wended my way back to the hotel. I count myself very fortunate to know this witty and warmhearted couple.
There are no photos because cellphones are strictly banned at the club, absolutely forbidden, which made a very nice change.