Raphael's Portrait Leo X with Cardinals Giulio De' Medici and Luigi De' Rossi: A Religious Interpretation *

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For twelve years, beginning in 1984, the group portrait Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi (fig. 1) painted by Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520) underwent a thorough cleaning along with ultraviolet-ray, reflectographic, and radiographic studies that revealed not only underlying sketches, but additions and alterations to the original design and important iconographic details. (1) The discovery of new archival materials has helped to date more precisely its production, and has shed new light on the relationships among the figures there depicted. (2) These findings mandate modifications in some interpretations of the painting, suggest new arguments in support of old theories, and offer fresh perspectives on this famous portrait.



Various interpretations of this painting have been offered. Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, in 1885, noted that Leo X's head is turned as if he were "granting an audience." They pointed out that the portrait was painted in the aftermath of the condemnation of the Sienese cardinal Alfonso Petrucci (1478-1517). Cardinal Giulio de' Medici (1478-1534) was there when the humanist and papal domestic secretary Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) read the sentence against Petrucci, and the cardinal's appearance in Raphael's painting bears the "grave and calm" expression of that occasion. (3) Building on these observations, other scholars have recently suggested that the scene represents Leo X and his cousin Giulio de' Medici listening to the sentence of 4 July 1517 that condemned Petrucci to death for plotting to kill the pope. They remain calm, while Luigi de' Rossi (ca. 1471/74-1519), who was raised to the cardinalate three days earlier as a reaction to the conspiracy, looks out at the observer, as if displaying his new robes. (4)

In his survey of Raphael's "state portraits," Konrad Oberhuber (1971) claimed that the portrait of Leo X attempted to combine "the monumentality and grandeur of a papal state portrait with the human intimacy the devotional context required." (5) Although its subject matter is a group of three ecclesiastics, James H. Beck (1974) saw the painting as primarily secular and dynastic in intent, one in a series of state portraits by Raphael that memorialize the appearance and status of members of the Medici family. The objects on the pope's table (a magnifying glass, a bell, and an illuminated manuscript) are personal possessions which the pope collected following his father's advice to acquire "a certain refinement of antique things and beautiful books." (6) Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny (1983) have similarly described the painting as "a dynastic portrait." (7)

Other scholars have denied this characterization. John K. G. Shearman (1992) explicitly stated that a state portrait was a "meaningless category" at the time it was painted. He saw the group portrait as a testimonial to the Medici family's rise to the highest rank in the Church and as a representation of the pope "as protagonist of the life of the mind," as well as "a memorial to the perceived enduring role of the Medici as men of peace and men of culture." (8) Arnold Nesselrath (1999) also rejects the categorization of "official state portrait," insisting instead that the work is "obviously a private family picture." (9) Sherr (1983) suggested that the painting was commissioned by Leo X so that his effigy would be present at the banquet celebrating the wedding of Lorenzo de' Medici (1492-1519) and Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne (I 502-19), which was an event scheduled for 8 September 1518 in Florence and which he personally could not attend. According to a report of Alfonsina Orsini de' Medici (d. 1520), Lorenzo's mother, her son placed the portrait above the middle of the banquet table next to where his bride sat, thus allowing his papal uncle and cardinal cousins to be symbolically present at the festivities. (10) Sheryl E. …