"Raphael at the Metropolitan: The 'Colonna Altarpiece'" the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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"Raphael at the Metropolitan: The 'Colonna Altarpiece'" The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. August 30, 2006-December 16, 2006

Quick. What other prominent Italian Renaissance artist, besides Raphael, has enjoyed the posthumous privilege of having his name anglicized? The answer, of course, is Titian. But then are Tiziano and Raffaello so much more difficult to pronounce in English than Donatello ... or Ghirlandajo? And yet there is a reason. Not only did the Venetian and the Marchigian define and transform the subsequent course of European art, they came to occupy a central place in the artistic consciousness of England and its people. Ever since the seventeenth century, both painters have been avidly studied, revered, and very successfully collected in England, and both have recently been commemorated in London by large, comprehensive, and lavishly installed monographic exhibitions. Of the nearly ninety paintings and drawings by Raphael that were gathered for the great show held at the National Gallery at the end of 2004, almost half were from English collections. These works, some of capital importance and many seen together for the first time, illustrated the astonishing breadth of accomplishment attained by this genius during an equally astonishing and prolific career lasting barely two decades. Needless to say, the parallel with Mozart has all too often been cited.

There is, however, one phase of Raphael's art that can never be adequately represented, certainly not beyond the walls of the Vatican in Rome. It comprises the years between 1510 and 1515, the period the artist was at work decorating in fresco the Stanze for Popes Julius II and Leo X. This is the grand, heroic phase of his career. Raphael's figurative language at this moment is characterized by an unsurpassed monumentality and yet tempered by a restraint and equilibrium that has, ever since, come to define terms such as "classical" and "High Renaissance."

The London exhibition, however, was particularly rich in works dating from the years between 1500 and 1506. It was during this period that Raphael traveled extensively beyond his native Urbino, coming in contact, and perhaps collaborating, with artists such as Pinturicchio and Signorelli, but principally with Perugino who was, at this time, the most sought-after and successful painter in Central Italy. The precise relationship between the older artist and his much younger "apprentice" is still the subject of conjecture. There is little doubt, however, that at least some of Raphael's securely datable "early" works such as the Mond Crucifixion (1503) and the Brera Marriage of the Virgin (1504) are brilliant paraphrases not only of Perugino's compositions, but also of his style.

Probably the single most significant example from this pivotal moment of Raphael's artistic development was, in fact, not present in London: it is the so-called "Colonna Altarpiece" representing The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John and Four Saints. This large panel, together with a crowning lunette representing God the Father Flanked by Two Angels and one of the elements of the predella, has been part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collections since 1916. The main panel and lunette were bequeathed in that year by the museum's great benefactor J. Pierpont Morgan while the single element of the predella, representing The Agony in the Garden, only rejoined the altarpiece in 1932 via another New York private collection.

Perhaps sensing that, in the wake of the London exhibition, a thorough reexamination of the Colonna Altarpiece might be appropriate, the curators of the Metropolitan, and in particular Linda Wolk Simon, have drawn together not only the remaining four elements that originally composed the predella, but also a considerable number of other paintings and drawings, some by Raphael himself, and others by contemporaries from whom he clearly drew inspiration.

The principal focus of the Metropolitan exhibition is, understandably, the altarpiece and its constituent elements. …