Marking 500 years since the Renaissance artist's death the exhibition has been extended to 30th August 2020...

Perhaps understandably Raphael would have worn a face mask to cope with the foul smells on the streets of Renaissance Italy. It was in keeping then, that Val and I should cover our noses and mouths when we ventured to Rome on a hot summers day to marvel at his artistic achievements on the 500th anniversary of his death.
Self portrait of the artist 1504-1506
We took the train from our house in Tuscany. Like every other traveler we had to wear a facemask as Italy tries to bring the Covid-19 virus to heel. This is required by law on stations, on the trains, in bars and in the Scuderie del Quirinale museum, the venue for a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of Raphael’s work.
We had thought long and hard about leaving our little casa and Val’s studio in the hills above Cortona. There had been no cases of the pandemic in the Cortona comune for over a month and only one person had died there since the start of the outbreak five months ago.
Few people were travelling to Rome from Cortona station. The doors of every carriage had been re-badged either ‘entry only’ or ‘exit only’. Hand sanitisers were available for use inside the entry doors and every other seat was flagged with a ‘No Sitting’ sign to ensure social distancing. Everyone followed the rules.
On our journey of just over 2 hours we consulted a local man about Raffaello Sanzio, better known as Raphael. He was Giorgio Vasari, an important 16th-century painter, architect and chronicler from nearby Arezzo. Vasari’s book, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, is the best source of information on Renaissance artists. Despite the fact that it was written in the 1500's, it is an easy and engaging read packed with facts, attributions, and entertaining anecdotes about the great artists of the Renaissance.
By the time Raphael died unexpectedly at the age of 37, he was already one of the most celebrated artists on the Italian peninsula. The news of his death on Good Friday, 1520, drew mourners from far and wide to his shrine at the Pantheon in Rome.
We arrived at lunchtime at Rome’s Termini station and found a normally busy and bustling city with little on the roads and very few people, largely wearing face masks, in the street. Our destination was a twenty-minute walk away, an historic building in the shadow of the Quirinale Palace built in 1583 by Pope Gregory XIII as a papal summer residence.
Raphael was born in Urbino on 6 April, 1483 to the artist and court painter Giovanni Santi and his wife Màgia di Battista di Nicola Ciarla. When he was eight years old, his mother and infant sister died in childbirth. His father’s subsequent death left him alone at 11 years old.
Raphael was placed in the care of his uncles and was apprenticed to the painter Pietro Perugino in Perugia. He worked on large collaborative projects, such as altarpieces both there and in Città di Castello, near where we live. Within a few years, Raphael had begun to earn commissions around the ducal court of Urbino.
Raphael’s early portraits and his religious paintings during this era show a heavy reliance on the teachings of his father, of Perugino, and of other regional masters. At the same time, when we looked at some of these early works in the exhibition, it’s clear that Raphael’s talent would soon take him beyond his idyllic, isolated hometown.
Traveling on muleback to Florence in 1504, the ambitious 21-year-old Raphael carried just a sketchbook and a letter of introduction. A small fish in a pond of Michelangelos and da Vincis, the young artist rose to the challenge to prove his skill and he secured several notable Florentine commissions. Ultimately, the connections he made would take him to Rome. There, in the papal city, he would find not only artistic success and adoration from patrons, friends, and fellow artists. He would also find love.
La Fornarina. Portrait of Margherita Luti, said to be the artist's great love
Vision of Ezekiel 1516-1518 (retouched by Peter Paul Rubens)
Study for the Parnassus fresco. Head of the muse Thalia c.1509-1510
Detail from portrait of Leo X with two Cardinals 1517-1519
The Raphael exhibition in Rome opened to the public just three days before the Covid-19 lockdown in Italy forced its closure. When we heard it would re-open in June but only continue to 30 August, we knew we had to brave the crowds and chance travelling by train to see it.
As it was, we need not have worried. We could only book tickets in advance and online. This system requires you to select a time when a maximum of 10 people are allowed into the exhibition — and latecomers are not admitted.
Upon arrival at the Scuderie del Quirinale gallery, their staff checked our tickets, instructed us to wipe our shoes on a specially disinfected mat, stand in front of a camera to have our photo taken and then have our temperatures taken by a machine. From there we were directed to a holding area where Val and I, and eight other ticket holders, had to stand in individual circles painted on the floor to ensure social distancing.
A new group of 10 visitors are allowed to make their way through the show every five minutes. A chaperone came and collected us and stayed with us throughout the duration of our visit to ensure only one group were in each of the rooms of the exhibition at any one time.  
The system worked well but we could have spent longer than the 80 minutes that we had been allotted for our visit.
The Curators Twist
Most exhibitions are curated chronologically but this one starts by reminding the visitor about Raphael’s reputation at the time of his unexpected death, when the artist was still in his prime and enjoying A-list status. It then traces his artistic development in reverse, ending with his early years in Urbino.
The show proved to be a unique experience, with more than 200 works on display, including 120 by Raphael. Of these the drawings are a revelation, many loaned by the Queen and the Ashmolean in Oxford, as was the room devoted to the tapestries he produced for the Vatican.
For centuries, Raphael’s art was idealised as the epitome of perfection, inspiring generations of artists, but the curators have also fleshed out the role the artist played in the Rome of Pope Leo X (1513-1521). This is when Raphael turned his mind to architecture, archaeology and antiquarian studies in service of the grand project of reconstructing and preserving the ancient city. It was then his star shone brightest.
The ten tapestries he created under Leo X to decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel made his classical, religious style celebrated across the world. These are rarely taken out of storage so to come face-to-face with one of them, ‘The Sacrifice at Lystra.’ was a privilege.
Raphael didn’t live long enough to see the tapestries in situ, but for one week before lockdown, a few lucky people were able to see all 10 tapestries exhibited in the Sistine Chapel as part of the Vatican Museums’ homage to the artist.
Raphael had plenty of hands-on experience with the classical. In 1515, Leo X commissioned him to conserve the ancient marbles and inscriptions in Rome, making the artist the first appointed caretaker of ancient art, a position that over the centuries evolved into Italy’s multifaceted artistic heritage administration of today. On display is one of the drafts of a now famous letter to Leo X written by Raphael and his friend Baldassare Castiglione, in 1519, about the need to protect and preserve Rome’s ancient monuments.
Raphael’s famous portrait of Castiglione as a well as a portrait of Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi, on loan from the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, greet you at the start of the exhibition. This latter painting caused a storm in Italy just before the exhibition opened after the Uffizi’s scientific committee resigned en masse in protest. The portrait, they said, was one of 23 works that should never leave their care because they were part of the identity of the gallery’s collection and as much a part of the fabric of Florence as the duomo.
The rivalry between Florence and Rome never stops!
Before taking the train back to Cortona we went for a coffee at a bar that is normally a regular haunt of the people who work in various commercial and government offices between Palazzo del Quirinale, the official resident of the President of the Italian Republic, and Rome Termini station.
The owner told us Rome had been a ghost town since March. His monthly takings in June last year were around 10,000 euros, this year just 700. ‘Everyone is working from home’ he told us adding ‘I don’t see people returning to their offices for very many months, if at all.’
Safer for Now
Italy was the first European nation to be engulfed by coronavirus, but as the prospect of another lockdown looms in some of its neighbours, the country has managed to avoid a resurgence of infections. Contact tracing and compliance with safety measures have helped Italy achieve a stable, low rate of new Covid-19 infections but the situation beyond its borders is one of the reasons that prime minister, Giuseppe Conti, has just extended the country’s state of emergency until October. This means he will continue to have the power to impose a lockdown and other safety measures without needing the approval of parliament.
Despite gatherings outside bars and crowded beaches, for the most part physical distancing and the wearing of face masks have been widely observed. Regional leaders have acted swiftly against those who don’t comply. In Campania, people caught without a mask in enclosed spaces risk 1,000 euro fines, while those who flout quarantine rules in Veneto face hefty fines or jail.
This said, last Friday night our local town Cortona was fuller than we have seen it in recent months, mainly with teenagers and other young people not respecting social distancing. None of them were wearing face masks, which they are not obliged to do outdoors, but many older people were.
On 4 May, when Italy began easing lockdown restrictions, more than 1,200 new cases were reported in a day. Since 1 July, the daily increase has been relatively static, reaching a high of 306 on 23 July, then falling but, worryingly, rising again to 295 on 1 August. Several coronavirus clusters have emerged across the country, mostly due to infections imported from abroad.
Italians take their health very seriously. International data for mask wearers indicates that 90 per cent of people in Italy wear one, among the highest in the world. Italian officials say this helps.
Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist at the University of Milan, has been widely reported here saying Italy was in a ‘state of limbo’ and that perhaps the stability has simply been down to some good luck.
‘For now things are going well, but we are walking a fine line,’ he has warned. ‘This stable situation could either end badly or carry on the same, but that would depend on two things: the continued capacity to identify clusters and the behaviour of the majority of Italians. In the absence of specific therapies or a vaccine, quarantine, distancing and identification of asymptomatic carriers remain the only measures to control the epidemic.’
Leonardo da Vinci lived to be 67, Michelangelo to 88.
We left the Raphael exhibition wondering how his style would have developed if he had lived longer. What would have resulted if he had been released from the deadening strictures of the subject matter imposed by the papacy? What architectural projects would he have created and championed? What other frescoes would he have produced, and what other insightful portraits would he have painted? We can only dream.
At a time when the corona virus has cast uncertainty over the world Raphael’s untimely death at 37 acted as a sobering memento mori.
Roger Jupe, 13/08/2020 11:11:33

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