Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 23, 2002
Jürg Meyer zur Capellen Raphael, The Paintings, Volume 1: The Beginnings in Umbria and Florence, ca. 1500–1508 Landshut: Arcos Verlag, 2000. 328 pp.; 32 color ills.; 193 b/w ills. Cloth (3935339003)

Jürg Meyer zur Capellen’s Raphael is the first of three volumes slated for publication by the Raphael Project in Münster and Würzburg. The purpose of this volume, as well as the other projected ones, is to provide an up-to-date catalogue raisonné of Raphael’s paintings that incorporates the publications and the technical information learned about the painter’s oeuvre since the appearance of Luitpold Dussler’s critical catalogue raisonné of 1966 (revised 1971). According to the author, the book “is designed for readers with some general background knowledge, particularly for students of art history and others with an interest, professional or private, in Italian Renaissance painting” (11). Its three sections include an Introduction outlining the state of the literature on Raphael, a narrative essay explaining the painter’s stylistic development, and a catalogue of his paintings ca. 1500-08. The book is copiously illustrated and a Select Bibliography offers resources for further research. Much of this review will be devoted to the synthetic essay in the second section because of the author’s decision to focus his discussion on Raphael’s drawings in order “to avoid repetition” with the catalogue entries that comprise most of the book (15).

In the Introduction, the author asserts that the bibliographies published after the 1983 quincentenary of Raphael’s birth only partially fill the need for a complete bibliography to supplement Dussler’s. He goes on to list recent museum and exhibition catalogues, monographs, and dissertations, yet by largely citing publications from the 1990s, he overlooks some useful catalogues and monographs published in the previous decade, such as Raphael before Rome, edited by James Beck (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1986), and Raphael by Nicholas Penny and Roger Jones (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983). Nor does he consider dissertations other than the two German theses by Christoph Wagner (1999) and Rudolf Freihart Hiller von Gaertringen (1999).

Section 2, “The Young Raphael,” explores the artist’s evolution from an immature painter around 1500 to one who had achieved an independent personal style by about 1508. Here, in condensed form, Meyer zur Cappellen reiterates some of the proposals published in his earlier book on the painter, Raphael in Florence (London: Azimuth Editions, 1996). In particular, he discusses Raphael’s drawings, especially those not directly connected with known paintings, to clarify “some major evolutionary tendencies” (15) in the painter’s early work. Divided into three parts, the narrative essay examines the painter’s Umbrian (1500-04) and Florentine (1504-08) periods and then considers the early portraits.

The parts of Section 2 that define Raphael’s oeuvre during the Umbrian and Florentine phases of his career employ formal analysis to compare Raphael’s drawings and paintings with works by established masters, especially, as one would expect, those of Pietro Perugino and Leonardo da Vinci. In “Umbrian Beginnings,” the author tackles Raphael’s virtually undocumented artistic training, one of the most vexing issues confronting scholars of his early career. Whereas much current scholarly opinion favors an apprenticeship with Perugino after the death of Giovanni Santi in 1494, Meyer zur Capellen proposes training with a local master in Urbino, which he contends not only accounts for the absence of documents about the young painter, but also for the fact that Raphael’s earliest documented painting, the Nicholas of Tolentino Altarpiece of 1500-01, was commissioned in Città di Castello. He does not discern the effect of Perugino’s style on Raphael’s work to any significant degree until about 1503, preferring instead the influence of Signorelli, who had worked in Città di Castello during the 1490s and whose Saint Sebastian Altarpiece Raphael copied (as confirmed by a drawing). It is only later, in two altarpieces ordered for patrons in Città di Castello, the London Gavarni Crucifixion (ca. 1503-04) and the Brera Sposalizio (dated 1504), as well as in the Coronation Altarpiece for the Oddi family of Perugia (ca. 1503-04, now in the Vatican Pinacoteca), that he sees Raphael’s strong engagement with Perugino’s works. Raphael also “begins to establish a workshop rivaling Perugino’s” (25) in these years, though Meyer zur Capellen hints rather than states that the location of this bottega was Perugia. The author accepts Vasari’s statement that Raphael provided Pinturicchio with modelli for the frescoes of the Piccolomini Library at this time (the original contract is dated 1502). According to Meyer zur Capellen, these drawings demonstrate an interest in the “secular subjects” that predict the istoria of Raphael’s mature Roman production. By 1504-05, a “transitional period” exemplified by the New York Colonna Altarpiece, Raphael’s paintings are seen to combine his knowledge of Signorelli, Perugino, and Pinturicchio with a new awareness of Florentine painters like Fra Bartolommeo.

The next part of Section 2, “Raphael in Florence,” continues to explore the painter’s stylistic progress. While he notes the social connections among the merchants (Taddei, Nasi, Canigiani, and Doni) who ordered the paintings of the Madonna and Child that dominate Raphael’s production from 1504 to 1508, and argues for an overlapping rather than a linear chronology of these works, Meyer zur Capellen’s emphasis remains on Raphael’s stylistic transformation from Umbrian to Florentine. Perugino, Signorelli, and Pinturicchio now drop out of the picture as the author seeks to expand the discussion beyond the traditional surveys of Raphael’s religious paintings by studying his figural drawings of such secular subject matter as warriors and battles. These drawings, he argues, which range from standard preparatory studies of pose and composition to interpretive pensieri, confirm the importance of Leonardo da Vinci’s work, and to a lesser extent, that of Fra Bartolommeo, during this highly experimental period. Michelangelo receives less attention (mostly Raphael’s copy of the Saint Matthew), although the author repeatedly refers to Raphael’s dialogue with Leonardo’s and Michelangelo’s unfinished battle paintings for the Great Council Hall of the Palazzo della Signoria. The drawings executed around the time of the Baglioni Entombment for Perugia manifest Raphael’s “progress from what one may term ‘Umbrian proclivities’ toward a creative freedom and assurance that by about 1508 enabled Raphael to start competing with Michelangelo and Leonardo” (51).

The concluding part of this section, “The Portraits,” includes “only those portraits that can be integrated into the artist’s overall artistic development…and related to his graphic work” (51). The author consequently sees a consistency in Raphael’s progress as a portraitist “that mirrors [his] artistic evolution as a draughtsman and painter of multi-figure compositions” (58). The attribution, dating, and stylistic development of Raphael’s drawn and painted portraits thus take precedence over the requirements of specific commissions, such as the sitter’s social rank and local traditions of representation. The author’s proposed dates rely on the assumption that portraits influenced by Umbrian models must be earlier than those patterned after Florentine portrayals. Perhaps because Leonardo’s Mona Lisa supercedes Perugino’s Francesco delle Opere as a paradigm, Raphael’s portrait of Maddalena Strozzi receives unusual attention and praise in comparison to the picture of her husband Angelo Doni.

The author’s decision to emphasize Raphael’s drawings in the narrative essay produces uneven results, at least in part because he sometimes treats the drawings as if they were substitutes for paintings. This is unfortunate, because a more nuanced analysis of the materials, formal elements, and stylistic conventions of these drawings may have offered fresh insights into Raphael’s relationships with Signorelli and Perugino. Similarly, a fuller examination of the functions of Raphael’s compositional sketches, figure studies, and cartoons could have shed light on his workshop practices at the start of his professional career. The number of preparatory drawings and cartoons by Raphael, the versions of his drawings by assistants, and the contemporary copies of both his paintings and drawings intimate that Raphael’s Florentine workshop, like his later Roman one, relied strongly on collaboration.

It is unlikely that many scholars will be persuaded by the author’s arguments about Raphael’s training, and few will agree that an “intensive dialogue” with Perugino’s works does not appear in Raphael’s paintings until about 1503. (Indeed, the author himself discerns strong Peruginesque qualities in the Madonna and Child panels that he dates to 1500-1503 in the catalogue.) The notion of the student of genius surpassing his teacher, also frequently encountered in studies of Leonardo and Verrocchio, is appropriate when one examines Perugino’s and Raphael’s careers in their entirety, but is it applicable to the period ca. 1500-08? A clarification of Perugino’s “idiom” and “artistic principles,” as well as a more comprehensive explanation of the two artists’ approaches to drawing and composition than offered here, are needed to convince this reader. The lack of comparative illustrations compounds this problem; in fact, the absence of reproductions of works by artists other than Raphael in a study that emphasizes style is likely to frustrate the intended audience of students and general readers. Even scholars familiar with Perugino’s, Signorelli’s, and Leonardo’s paintings and drawings cannot carefully judge the author’s stylistic arguments without consulting photographs from several other sources.

The forty-seven entries acknowledged as autograph in the catalogue of Raphael’s early paintings in Section 3 of this volume include: provenance; a brief description of the painting and its subject matter; its condition and restorations; a history of its attributions; a formal analysis; and a suggested date. The small reconstructions that head some of the entries for dismantled altarpieces are useful, and the lists of preparatory studies and copies (paintings, drawings, and prints) associated with the paintings at the ends of the entries are welcome additions. Nevertheless, a fuller discussion of the x-ray and infrared photographs illustrated in the volume would enable readers unfamiliar with these technologies to understand the importance of what is shown. Most of the entries in the first part are generally accepted as autograph works; however, several of the twenty-two rejected attributions in the second part of the catalogue, especially the exclusion of the portraits of Emilia Pia and Elisabetta Gonzaga from Raphael’s oeuvre, are likely to be debated by Raphael scholars. In general, Meyer zur Capellen’s volume is a traditional catalogue raisonné that employs visual analysis to trace the sequence of Raphael’s stylistic development. Within these parameters it offers a useful starting point for students interested in the artist’s early works.

Jeryldene M. Wood
Associate Professor Emerita of Art History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign