LONDON — The news sent tremors through Italy and the European continent: On April 6, 1520, Raphael — painter, draughtsman, architect, archaeologist and all-around genius — died suddenly at the age of 37.
He had developed a fever a week or so earlier, which the 16th-century artist and author Giorgio Vasari, in his “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,” attributed to too much bedroom activity. Raphael “continued to divert himself beyond measure with the pleasures of love,” wrote Vasari. “Having on one occasion indulged in more than his usual excess, he returned to his house in a violent fever,” and was “imprudently bled” by the doctors.
Five centuries after that untimely death, the National Gallery in London is paying tribute to the great Renaissance artist in a blockbuster exhibition originally planned for 2020 (the anniversary year) and postponed by the pandemic.
Ninety objects, 29 of them paintings, are on display, illustrating the complete range of Raphael’s talents, including his designs for sculptures, tapestries, prints and the decorative arts. One of the drawings on view is a new discovery — a 1512-13 study for a small Holy Family scene that the curators decided had been created by Raphael, not his workshop.
“Raphael was the most famous artist in Rome, and one of the most famous artists in Europe when he died, and he was turned into a legend immediately,” said Matthias Wivel, one of the show’s three curators. “He is part of the DNA of the Western visual tradition, the center of the canon.”
Plans for the anniversary were initiated around 2015 by the National Gallery. Its director, Gabriele Finaldi, said Raphael was well represented in British collections: at the National Gallery itself (which owns 10 Raphael paintings), the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the National Galleries of Scotland. The show was scheduled to open in fall 2020, hot on the heels of the world’s largest-ever Raphael exhibition at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale. That show opened in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic; closed after three days; and reopened that June with severely restricted visitor numbers (groups of six allowed in every five minutes).
By then, the National Gallery had postponed its own show and was facing its own virus woes. The museum experienced three closure periods, so visitor numbers were, according to Dr. Finaldi, “very dramatically” down.
The “Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael” opened in April and ends on July 31.
“We have been through such turmoil,” Dr. Finaldi said. “Raphael is a welcome antidote, particularly because his world is a world of harmony and peaceful forms.”
Raphael was born in the central Italian city of Urbino. His mother died when he was 8, and his father, a painter at the court of the dukes of Urbino, passed away when Raphael was 11. The boy was raised by his uncle, a priest, and he drew and painted in the family workshop from a young age. So gifted was he that he received his first known commission at the age of 17. From then on, Raphael was constantly on the move, going to the towns and cities where his patrons and commissions took him.
The National Gallery exhibit may not have every Raphael masterpiece in existence, but it has quite a few. It includes loans from the Louvre, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Prado Museum, the Uffizi Galleries and the Vatican Museums, according to the National Gallery website.
The exhibition is a broadly chronological and visual illustration of the Renaissance master’s life and times. It opens with several of his early altarpieces and representations of the Madonna: immaculately rendered pictures with celestial blue backgrounds that heighten the sense of holiness and purity exuded by the subjects.
In real life, Dr. Wivel, the curator, said, Raphael’s preoccupations were decidedly more earthly. He was “charismatic and constantly surrounded by people,” but also “very ambitious” and somewhat hubristic. At the unusually young age of 23, he produced a self-portrait that hangs in the show. It pictures him with longish hair and a dark cap, casting a sideways glance at the viewer. Even more unusually, while still in his 30s, the artist spent a large sum of money securing a marble tomb inside the Pantheon in Rome, where he is buried.
Raphael’s charm and networking abilities allowed him to clinch one of the most important artistic commissions of all time: the frescoes in the Stanze della Segnatura, four rooms in the papal apartments, near the Sistine Chapel. While he worked on site, Raphael became known for “taking ideas from Michelangelo and using them without his permission,” much to the elder master’s annoyance, Dr. Wivel said.
He was also promiscuous, as evidenced by the showstopping portraits of women in the final section of the exhibition — chiefly “La Fornarina” (1519-20), on loan from Rome: a bare-breasted brunette wearing a striped turban and an armband on which Raphael has marked his name in capital letters. She is “assumed to be a private likeness of a lover of his,” reads the wall text.
Raphael enjoyed superstar status for more than three centuries after his death (the exact cause of which remains unknown, notwithstanding Vasari’s bedroom theory).
Until the mid-19th century, Raphael was “considered like Shakespeare is in literature,” and “acknowledged as the greatest painter of all time,” said Christian Kleinbub, author of a 2011 book on Raphael and a professor of Italian Renaissance art at the Ohio State University.
In the 19th century, a clique of British painters, poets and critics led by the critic John Ruskin rebelled against the idealization of Raphael as the embodiment of a “very classicizing, very rational” style, Dr. Kleinbub said. The pre-Raphaelites argued that his style was not an accurate representation, and their criticism led to Raphael’s fall from art-historical grace.
Ironically for someone so mindful of posterity, Raphael’s legacy also suffered posthumously because there is little direct documentation about his life: Most of his writings were lost, unlike those of Leonardo da Vinci, for example, whose writings have helped cement his legacy as a genius of the Renaissance.
“I do think the paintings have always charmed us regardless,” Dr. Kleinbub added, noting that the pair of bored angels on the bottom edge of the Sistine Madonna are still a popular “campus poster choice.”
He said scholars in the last few decades have started to “look beyond the Raphael of porcelain figurines” and focus on less-examined aspects of his oeuvre, such as the portraits, “which are not as idealized, are more lifelike,” and “seem to have individuality,” suggesting an inner world in the way that Leonardo’s portraits do.
When you consider those portraits, which were “just as famous, and sometimes more famous, in his own time,” Dr. Kleinbub said, “you actually have it all.”