October 10, 2010

Raphael in London

Raphael, The Sacrifice at Lystra 

Four tapestries by Raphael have been reunited with the Urbinate’s original cartoons for the first time in nearly 500 years for a major exhibition in London (Victoria and Albert Museum, September 8 through October 24, 2010), made possible by a collaboration between the V&A and the Vatican Museums. Even Raphael himself never saw them together, nor is this a juxtaposition Londoners, as well as the rest of the world, are ever likely to see repeated, since both the tapestries and the designs are judged to be too fragile to be moved more than once in a lifetime.

The V&A’s Raphael expert Mark Evans described the event as a dream come true. “When the Vatican telephoned us in February offering to provide the tapestries for an exhibition, I couldn’t believe it” he said. “I’d always thought that logistic difficulties and a lack of political support would have made it impossible.” And Vatican Museums Director Antonio Paolucci echoes these words by saying, “This is a unique, one-off and unforgettable occasion, it has long been the dream of every art historian to see the cartoons and the tapestries alongside one another and it is indeed marvelous (...) to see how tapestry subtly alters the form and colors.”

To give a better idea of what we are talking about, let’s recall the testimony of the early art-historian and Raphael’s contemporary Giorgio Vasari, according to which the reception of the finished product was enthusiastic: “After they had been completed, the tapestries were sent back to Rome. The work was of such wonderful beauty that it astonished anyone who saw it to think that it could have been possible to weave the hair and the beards so finely and to have given such softness to the flesh merely by the use of threads.”

The tapestries (Acts of St Peter and St Paul, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, Christ’s Charge to Peter, The Healing of the Lame Man, and The Sacrifice at Lystra) were made for the Sistine Chapel. Raphael was commissioned by Pope Leo X to design them, then they were woven in Brussels, Europe’s leading center for tapestry-weaving, and finally sent to Rome for display.  As Arnold Nesselrath, who edited the exhibition book with Mark Evans and Clare Browne, writes in his essay on the Sistine Chapel (as reported in this NYT article), the tapestries were displayed when major liturgical services were celebrated by the pope.

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