Exhibition Review

Raffaello incontra Raffaello. Il Ritratto di giovane del Museo Thyssen Bornemisza e la Fornarina

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome, 3 November 2011 – 29 January 2012

Reviewed by Monique-Louise Webber

Fig. 2. Raphael, 'La Fornarina', 1520. Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Aptly described as a ‘piccola mostra’ or ‘little exhibition’ in the wall text, Raffaello Incontra Raffaello, at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome (closed 29 January) invites reflection upon the nature of Raphael’s portraiture, and our response to it, through the comparison of two works. These are Portrait of a Young Man (c.1515) (Fig. 1), which has been attributed jointly to Raphael and an unknown assistant, and La Fornarina (1520) (Fig. 2). The juxtaposition of these works—the former owned by the Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, Madrid and the latter by the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica—was made possible by the temporary exchange of Tintoretto’s Christ and the Woman Taken into Adultery (c.1550) for the Portrait of a Young Man.

The identity of the sitters of the two portraits is a theme taken up in the wall texts, in the catalogue, and by the Italian press in its generally favourable commentary on the exhibition. The interpretations proffered by the exhibition are that the Portrait of a Young Man depicts a young noble, most likely Pier Luigi Farnese (1503–47); and that the La Fornarina (The Baker’s Daughter) depicts a baker’s daughter mentioned by Vasari. That she was Raphael’s mistress is the traditional view. The identification of the male sitter derives from a sixteenth-century century inventory that records a portrait of Pier Luigi that fits well enough the Portrait of a Young Man, and from physiognomic comparisons with later portraits. Identification of the sitter of La Fornarina with Raphael’s mistress is implied by the tenderness with which Raphael has portrayed his model, and by her armband, which bears Raphael’s signature. Raphael rarely signed his paintings, so when he did his signatures appear to indicate his attachment to particular objects, people or themes. From La Fornarina we receive that crucial insight into the relationship between artist and model. The signature invites us to probe into its significance for Raphael.

By focusing solely upon these two works, the Raffaello Incontra Raffaello exhibition encourages an exploration of the characteristics of Raphael’s portraiture. It is Raphael’s ability to create a veristic image of his sitter while evoking the essence of their character that makes his portraiture so arresting. This was recognised by his contemporaries: Giorgio Vasari praised Raphael for his ability to portray his subjects ‘so realistically that they seem to be alive’, and for imbuing them with an ‘animated expression’. This verism can of course be perceived when Raphael’s works are viewed in reproduction. Yet it is only when in the presence of his paintings that one truly appreciates the careful, affectionate touch of Raphael’s brush.

The three-quarter profile (much favoured in the Renaissance), and the sideward gaze of both works, are typical of Raphael’s portraiture. The Fornarina is distinguished by the warmth and humour of her eyes: she does not evade, challenge, or meet the portraitist’s gaze as do so many Renaissance sitters. She is amused by what she is looking at—first Raphael, and now us. To be sure, whether the Fornarina represents Raphael’s mistress is not proven. But it is clear from Raphael’s affectionate rendering of both the woman’s physicality and her personality that there was more than a passing acquaintance between painter and sitter.

It has been claimed that the sitter of the Fornarina is represented as Venus, as she possesses the accoutrements of myrtle, pearls and the Venus pudica pose that would identify her as such to a Renaissance audience. Yet the sitter’s expression makes it impossible for us to see her as Venus: she is too lively, too much an individual. We are looking at a model dressed as Venus, rather than a believable representation of a goddess. Raphael’s portraiture had long offered insights into his sitters’ characters. His Portrait of Pietro Bembo (c.1504) (Fig. 3) was painted only a few years after the period when Raphael’s work was almost indistinguishable from that of Perugino, whose preoccupation with generalised type made him incapable of portraiture. But Raphael has portrayed the humanist looking quietly pleased with himself behind his calm gaze. Although the work’s status as a portrait informs us that we ought to focus upon the sitter’s expression, the way all the elements of the painting are painted with the same degree of detail directs us to attend to them equally. By the time he painted the Fornarina and the Portrait of a Young Man, however, Raphael was employing a hierarchy of detail to direct our attention to his sitters’ expressions. This is most evident in the garments of the Portrait of a Young Man. An almost unbelievably realistic treatment of fabric is a characteristic of Raphael’s mature portraits, above all in La Donna Velata (1516) (Fig. 4). The silk and linen of Portrait of a Young Man are equally accurate, but there is a progression from the sketchy depiction of the silk cloak at the bottom of the composition to the exquisite detail of the linen ruffle of the young man’s shirt closer to his head. This intricacy is mirrored by the delicate curls that frame the young man’s face. Hence the viewer’s gaze is pulled towards the sitter’s face, and to an awareness of his presence.

Such hierarchies of attention are also present, although less insistently, in La Fornarina. In contrast to the painstakingly rendered detail of the pleated silk that encircles and frames her head, the drapery across the woman’s lap appears to be only blocked in. The beauty of an exhibition of so limited a scope as Raffaello Incontra Raffaello is that it directs us to attend to such features in other works by Raphael of the same period that are not in the exhibition. And this is what an exhibition ought to be: a catalyst for the discovery and elaboration of new ideas.

Comparison and reflection are also facilitated by the exhibition’s design. Rome is a city in which lavishly decorated rooms can cause the viewer to be overcome by an impression of fabulous excess, especially if accustomed to art displayed in the ‘white cube’. Raffaello Incontra Raffaello occupies a small corner room in Palazzo Barberini, with white walls and little decoration. This is not to say that there is no sense of occasion in the approach, which takes the visitor through a long enfilade of crimson-walled rooms. Hung at eye level on walls otherwise devoid of ornamentation, the paintings are set against simple stands that re-frame them within a wide crimson surround that continues the colour of the galleries passed through to reach the exhibition. In this way the exhibition is both connected to the rest of the Palazzo Barberini, and distinguished within it. The viewer is compelled to turn from one portrait to the other, appreciating them both individually and as complementary works. The unobtrusive situation of gives it a secluded air. The size of the room might have caused problems with overcrowding, but when I saw it the exhibition was not very busy, and there was little signage to draw attention to it. The result was a display unusual in its ability to prompt reflection on the works displayed. Experience of the exhibition is consequently both intellectual and emotional, a welcome pause in the whirlwind of art that assaults the senses in a trip to Rome.

© Monique-Louise Webber 2012

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