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Raphael, Renaissance Superstar, Celebrated in Mega Show, “Raffaello 1520-1483”

Three years in the planning, the show was opened with much fanfare by Sergio Mattarella, the President of Italy and will run till June 2 in the Quirinal.

President Sergio Mattarella with his daughter Laura at the Scuderie del Quirinale, on the occasion of the opening of the exhibit on Raffaello. (Photo by Francesco Ammendola - Ufficio per la Stampa e la Comunicazione della Presidenza della Repubblica)

On loan from 55 different private collections and museums, never before have so many works by Raphael been displayed in a single exhibition. Architect, draughtsman, painter, poet and archaeologist who died of mysterious causes at the young age of 37, who knows what he might have accomplished had he lived Leonardo’s 67 or Michelangelo’s 89 years.

With over 70,000 advance tickets sales from all over the world and, so far, no cancellations in spite of coronavirus, the mega-show three years in the planning “Raffaello 1520-1483” was opened with appropriate fanfare yesterday by Sergio Mattarella, the President of Italy. To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of the “divin pictor” or “dio mortale” as his contemporary artist-biographer Giorgio Vasari called Raphael, it’s on in the Quirinal’s Scuderie till June 2.

On display are 240 works of art; 120 of them–including the Tapestry of The Sacrifice of Lystra– based on his designs and his letter to the Medici-born Pope Leo X (reign 1513-21) about the importance of preserving Rome’s antiquities, are by Raphael himself. Twenty-seven of these are paintings.

Never before have so many works by Raphael been displayed in a single exhibition. They are on loan from 55 different private collections and museums: The Louvre, London’s National Gallery and Royal Collection HM Elizabeth II, Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza and Prado, Washington D.C.’s National Gallery, The Metropolitan, Florence’s Palazzo Pitti, Rome’s Palazzo Barberini and Villa Borghese, to name just a few. Several are returning to Rome for the first time since their creation there.

The most generous lender is the Uffizi in Florence with 49 works of art, mostly drawings.  “Only ten of the Museum’s 21 Raphael canvases, since 2018 on display in ‘a room of their own’ with works by Michelangelo and Leonardo, have been loaned, but visitors who have seen “Raffaello” will receive a 33% discount on the entrance fee to the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti and vice versa,”  the German art historian Eike Schmidt, the Director of the Uffizi since 2015, announced at last week’s press conference at the Ministry of Culture.

La Fornarina by Raffaello. Photo:

One Uffizi loan is Raphael’s realistic Portrait of Pope Leo X with Two Cardinals (c.1517). Commissioned by the Pope himself and painted in Rome, it was a wedding present for his nephew Lorenzo, the Duke of Urbino who fathered Catherine who became Queen of France, and so ended up in the Uffizi.  The cardinal on the left is the Pope’s nephew, Giuliano de’ Medici (future Pope Clement VII); the other is Cardinal Luigi de’ Rossi a maternal cousin.  It was especially restored for “Raffaello” at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in FlorenceThe other Uffizi paintings by Raphael are his “San Giovanni Battista”, “La Velata”, perhaps a portrait of Raphael’s great love Margherita Luti; a portrait of Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi de Bibbienna (1470-1520), a patron of Raphael, a close advisor to Pope Leo X and the uncle of Raphael’s official but not beloved fiancée; “Ezekiel’s Vision”, “Madonna del Granduca” and “Madonna dell’Impannata”, a portrait of Tommaso Inghirami, A Young Man with an Apple, and one of his two self-portraits here, which is the logo of the exhibition.

Best-known for his madonnas: three, all painted in Rome, are returning for the first time: Washington’s d’Alba (c. 1510), Capodimonte’s (Naples) of Divine Love (c. 1516), and the Prado’s of the Rose (1518-20). Also famous for his realistic portraits, the most famous of which is on loan from Rome’s Palazzo Barberini and depicts, according to Vasari although with no evidence, his beloved mistress, Margherita Luti, known as “La Fornarina” because her father was a baker.

“La Velata” by Raffaello. Photo:

However, “Raffaello 1520-1483” concentrates on the artist’s love of antiquity and of Rome, to which he owes his fame.  These inverted dates are intentional-a flashback of sorts. At the time of his death at only age 37 on Good Friday, Raphael, at the height of his fame, was already a cult figure in Rome. He was venerated and it was commonly believed that his death on Good Friday was not a coincidence, but the will of God.  He had requested to be buried in the Pantheon, the temple to all the ancient gods before becoming a church and the ancient monument he loved most.  Hence the exhibition begins with two paintings of his tragic premature death: “Raphael’s Funeral” by Piero Vanni (1845-1905) and “Homage Paid to Raphael on his Deathbed” by Pierre-Nalesque Bergeret (1782-1863).

Next comes a reproduction of his tomb showing his epitaph.  It was written by his friend Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), a Venetian scholar and humanist, who had first met Raphael at the court of Urbino. The Latin text reads: “Here lies the great Raphael, by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

The centerpiece of Room Two–not to mention the exhibition’s raison d’être–is Raphael’s letter written with courtier, diplomat, soldier, author of The Book of the Courtier Baldassarre Castiglione (1478-1529) in 1519 to Pope Leo X about the importance of preserving the glory of ancient Rome so that contemporary Rome could once again be the center of the world and of culture.  Hence the rest of the exhibition concerns the direct influence of ancient Roman art on Raphael’s creations. Clearly some of the ancient sculptures on display inspired the figures in his paintings, like the head of Isis and Santa Cecilia or Antinous and Jonah.

Porrtait of Baldassare Castiglione by Raffaello. Photo:

On display in Rooms 2 and 3 are Raphael’s portrait of Leo X, his mesmerizing portrait of Castiglione, and his self-portrait with a friend, both on loan from the Louvre as well as many recently-excavated ancient altars and stela, for Pope Leo X had put Raphael in charge of collecting ancient artifacts in the hopes of rebuilding a modern Rome as glorious as Imperial Rome.  Also here are Raphael’s drawings of ancient sculptures and monuments, in particular the Pantheon, his compass and topical surveys of the ancient fora by the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546).

Generally speaking, the ten rooms of “Raffaello 1520-1483” follow a retrospective chronological order. The highlights in Rooms 4 and 5 are his religious works; Room 6 his portraits; Room 7 his architectural drawings; and Rooms 8-10 his pre-Rome works. The earliest, an ink drawing of a hand holding a pen and a face, dates to 1497-9.

The 544-page catalog with 464 colored photographs, published by Skira in Italian and in English editions, costs 46 euros.

Rome is the perfect location for a mega-show about Raphael because, as I wrote in my article “Commemorating Raphael’s Death: after 500 Years Vasari’s ‘Dio mortale’ Lives On“, published on last October 30 in La Voce di New York, many of his greatest works are frescoes and thus not transportable– not to mention the ancient ruins that he so loved.  Therefore after visits to “Raffaello 1520-1483”, his frescoed Rooms, paintings, and Loggia in the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s, you should wander in the various fora and Nero’s Golden House on the Oppian Hill; pay him homage at his grave in the Pantheon; admire his architecture in the Chigi funerary Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo and in the Church of Sant’Eligio degli Orefici. Additionally, his Sybil fresco in a chapel of the church Santa Maria della Pace and his Prophet Isaiah in the Basilica of Sant’Agostino, both near Piazza Navona and especially his many frescoes in Villa Farnesina in Trastevere.  

President Sergio Mattarella with his daughter Laura at the Scuderie del Quirinale,on the occasion of the opening of the exhibit on Raffaello. (Photo Francesco Ammendola/

While in that area, you can stop for refreshment at the restaurant Romolo, Via di Porta Settimiana 8.  It’s the site of his love trysts with “La Fornarina”. To learn more about this genius who never married, his loves, and his life in Rome, read Vasari’s biography and enjoy the historical novels, The Ruby Ring by Diane Haeger   and newly published Il Fermaglio di Perla: La Grazia di Raffaello by Antonio Forcellino.

After this full-immersion experience one can’t help but wonder what this architect, draughtsman, painter, poet, archeologist, who died of mysterious causes (most likely exhaustion or syphilis) might have accomplished had he lived Leonardo’s 67 or Michelangelo’s 89 years.








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