Book review: Raphael: The Drawings

Art historian and blogger Nigel Ip reviews the Ashmolean Museum's exhibition catalogue, Raphael: The Drawings and is impressed by how the book's accessible approach, detailed descriptions and beautiful reproductions allow readers to enjoy the ingenuity of Raphael in all its delicate glory.

Raphael: The Drawings (by Catherine Whistler and Ben Thomas, with Achim Gnann and Angelamaria Aceto) is the companion book to the exhibition held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1 June – 3 September 2017.

‘For the artist, drawing is discovery’, wrote the late art critic John Berger. Although many drawings in Renaissance Italy were made solely as preparation for paintings, sculptures, and frescoes, they always held special importance in the artists’ workshops and the teaching of new assistants. Catherine Whistler, the Ashmolean Museum’s Keeper of Western Art and co-curator of the recent Raphael: The Drawings exhibition with Ben Thomas of the University of Kent, calls them ‘a threshold between the interior life of the artist and the external world’. This exhibition gathers together 120 fully-autograph Raphael drawings – the largest gathering of his drawings since 1983 – and seeks to present them as exploratory worlds in themselves that can still ‘speak’ to present-day viewers.

Raphael: The Drawings - the exhibition catalogue for the show at the Ashmolean

Comprising of four thematic essays and fully-illustrated catalogue entries, Raphael: The Drawings delves into the inherently, expressive brilliance of the artist’s drawings. Throughout his career, Raphael absorbed and assimilated the formal styles of the best artists of his time. His early activity in Città di Castello and Perugia saw him mimic and supersede the colourful and graceful works of Pietro Perugino. In Florence, he learnt the power of Leonardo da Vinci’s playful Madonna and Child compositions. And in Rome, he took on Michelangelo’s monumental figures and imbued his own art with the clarity and authority of antique sculpture. None of this would have been possible without his constant experimentation with new forms and stretching the limits of his inventions.

Angelamaria Aceto opens with a chronology of Raphael’s career before providing a concise introduction to the processes and materials used for his drawings. His early works show a preference for black chalk and metalpoint, a medium explored in recent years by the British Museum’s Drawing in Silver and Gold exhibition and typically used for careful, intricate drawings. Raphael stretched this medium’s role by employing it for rough sketches as well, such as in a sheet of studies of standing figures relating to Pintoricchio’s frescoes in the Piccolomini Library at Siena Cathedral. He also used a blind stylus for the same purpose throughout his life, whereby indentations in the paper are created instead of visible lines.

Raphael: The Drawings - the exhibition catalogue for the Ashmolean show

Eventually, the freedom of pen and ink became more suited to his spurious bouts of experimentation during his so-called Florentine years, jotting down ideas from his imagination and rearranging them on the page. The precision and boldness of the ink lines made it particularly useful for clarifying forms and details, such as in the study of skeletal forms and female heads for the Borghese Entombment (1507). In addition, the ink allowed Raphael to create washes for quick indications of tone, for example, in a study for the Madonna of the Meadow (1505).

Finally, Raphael was encapsulated by the sensational vibrancy of red chalk in Rome, enabling him to render figures with incredible sensitivity and care, such as the famous drawing of Three Standing Men (1515) sent to Albrecht Dürer upon the German artist’s request. He was always conscious of the best ways to utilise his materials, employing them when they were best suited to certain kinds of drawings and creative processes, and actively stretching their expressive potential.

These insights into the artist’s processes are the subject of discussion in Whistler’s aptly-named essay ‘Raphael’s Hands’ where she perfectly summarises the act of drawing as calling on ‘memory, observation and imagination, with a coherence of hand and mind as materials are shaped into visible forms.’ The Renaissance had a huge preoccupation with ‘the artist’s hand’, with the phrase literally embedded in every commissioning contract of the period. When Dürer received Raphael’s drawing, he inscribed on it: ‘1515 / Raphael of Urbino, who was esteemed by the pope, made this nude image and sent it to Albrecht Dürer in Nuremberg to display his hand.’

The hand was symbolically important for experiencing the world and creating knowledge, a concept that is significantly more applicable to the artists who rendered visible the abstract creations and divine beings of Heaven and Hell to the tangible world of God-fearing mortals. Raphael was praised by Giorgio Vasari for harmoniously bringing the arts of painting, colouring, and invention ‘to a stage of completion and perfection that could hardly be hoped for’, and it was all because of his hand.

Raphael : The Drawings - the exhibition catalogue for the show at the Ashmolean

A more theoretical focus underlies the essay by Thomas which connects Raphael’s graphic language with his letters and writings, his knowledge of Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture, contemporary intellectual discourses on art, and his activities as surveyor of the ancient monuments of Rome. Citing passages from the artist’s letter to Pope Leo X, co-authored with the diplomat and author Baldassare Castiglione, the discussion opens up to reveal aspects of a certain ‘idea’ of drawing, one that is presumably grounded in Vitruvius’ emphasis on order, proportion, and the arrangement of the key components of a work ‘in the proper places and the elegance of effect which is due to adjustments appropriate to the character of the work’, thereby giving drawings their expressive qualities.

Achim Gnann from the Albertina, Vienna, concludes this segment by exploring the function of the artist’s drawings within the design process, building upon the work of specialists like John Shearman, Francis Ames-Lewis and Paul Joannides. Raphael’s drawings show a systematic, step-by-step approach to designing his works, leaving nothing to chance in the execution of the final product. Usually starting with summary sketches of compositional ideas, he would eventually explore them in more detail using live models, drapery studies, and ending with fully-detailed modello drawings and so-called ‘auxiliary’ cartoons, as in the case of the Transfiguration drawings (1517-20). Gnann’s essay goes one step further by considering how key features of Raphael’s graphic language helped him explore issues of spatial depth, movement, clarity, and emotional expression between his subjects.

Raphael: The Drawings - the exhibition catalogue for the show at the Ashmolean

Throughout the catalogue, the drawings – organised chronologically and reproduced in full colour – are wondrously described in microscopic detail, allowing the reader to navigate the intricate forms and cursory marks found in the objects themselves. These descriptions are weaved into proposed itineraries which detail how Raphael may have started with one drawing and evolved his compositions across the page into another, sometimes rotating the page or turning it over. Particularly exciting are the anecdotes to the pace and pressure of certain drawings: some are quickly drawn, some are lightly drawn, and sometimes he recharged his pen momentarily. There is a great sense of immediacy in each account as if one were seeing Raphael’s hand at work in real-time.

Occasionally, the smaller drawings have been reproduced in their actual size, as in the case of a tiny study for the head of a young apostle in the Oddi Coronation of the Virgin (1503-04). Elsewhere, both sides of double-sided drawings are shown, giving readers a better sense of how these sheets of paper would have been used and re-used over time. For example, two sheets of studies relating to the Disputa (1508-10) bear unfinished drafts of two sonnets by Raphael, transcribed and translated in the Appendix by Aceto with a brief commentary on the artist’s literary persona as a poet-lover, no doubt inspired by the rhetoric of Petrarch.

Raphael: The Drawings - the exhibition catalogue for the show at the Ashmolean

Whilst nothing can ever compare to seeing these exquisite drawings in the flesh, Raphael: The Drawings is a necessary contribution to the existing art-historical literature on the artist. Rather than following suit with endless layers of historical context, the exclusively visual approach to his drawings is fresh and accessible to the reader. The descriptions are vivid and give a good glimpse of the inherent excitement to be found within these centuries-old graphic records. In reading this catalogue, the reader comes close to discovering what the artist sought to find: an objective ideal reached ‘not by chance, or simply practice, but with true method’.

Nigel Ip is an art historian and founder of the online blog Flâneur of the Arts.