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Raphael comes to London – Huon Mallalieu

Blog | By Huon Mallalieu | Apr 06, 2022

Raphael's self-portrait in the Uffizi

Raphael died today in 1520 – due to bloodletting prescribed for a fever, brought on by his ‘more than usual [sexual] excess’, according to the art historian Giorgio Vasari. A new show opens on April 9, reviewed by Huon Mallalieu


A month ago, the National Gallery announced that Raphael’s The Holy Family, in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, will no longer be included in this Raphael show. No one was surprised. We must hope it isn't impounded like an oligarch's yacht.

The exhibition of about 90 works still includes 17 stellar loans from Italy, France, America and Germany, and the Gallery’s own group is unrivalled. Originally intended to mark the 500th anniversary of the painter’s death in 1520, it should have run just after the still larger show at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, so that international loans could be seen at both. Covid put paid to that, but a walkthrough of the Rome show can still be found on the Quirinale website.

Such was Raphael’s standing that when he died at 37, contemporaries recorded it as 33, making him the same age as Christ. His death is considered to mark the close of the High Renaissance, and his reputation has waxed and waned ever since.

To many, he was the “prince of painters”, and detractors have criticised his long influence on painting well into the 19th century, rather than the man himself. This was true even of the Pre-Raphaelites, whose real target was his great admirer “Sir Sloshua” Reynolds. What the latter saw in Raphael as “simple, grave and majestic dignity”, others have found over-sweet. It is time for a balanced re-evaluation.

Like Leonardo, Raphael was a many-faceted artist: painter, sublime draughtsman, printmaker, architect, designer and antiquarian. This show gives a complete overview of his short but intense career, including the powerful portraits of Castiglione and Altoviti. It is only sad that we cannot know how he might have responded to Michelangelo’s developing Mannerism.

Donatello (c.1386 - 1466) was born about a century before Raphael. His bronze David has been described as the first major Renaissance sculpture, as well as the first free-standing nude since antiquity. It is usually displayed in the Florence Bargello, its home since 1865 and the stage for the last Donatello show, 80 years ago. That display has been partially recreated.

Works have been assembled from around Italy, including the original marble reliefs from the outside pulpit at Prato. Many, such as the bronzes from the font at Siena, have been moved for the first time from the churches in which he installed them 600 years ago. It makes for a superb array of loans.