The Afterlife of Raphael's Paintings by Cathleen Hoeniger (Cambridge University Press) Raphael is one of the rare artists who have never gone out of fashion. Acclaimed during his lifetime, he was imitated by contemporaries and served as a model for painters through the nineteenth century. Because of the artist's renown, his works have continuously been subject to care, conservation, and restoration. In The Afterlife of Raphael's Paintings, Cathleen Hoeniger, Associate Professor of Art History at Queen's University, focuses on the legacy of Raphael's art: the historical trajectory or afterlife of the paintings themselves.
What happened to his panel-paintings and frescoes in the centuries after his death in 1520? Some were lost altogether; others were severely damaged in natural disasters; and many were affected by uncontrolled climactic conditions, by travel from one place to another, and by the not always cautious and careful hands of restorers. The appreciation of Raphael was expressed and the restoration of his works debated in contemporary treatises of the day, which provide a backdrop for probing the fortune of his paintings.
As Hoeniger describes in the first chapter, by now, many of Raphael's paintings have outlived him by close to five hundred years. They have perpetuated the artist's fame by carrying in their pictorial compositions and painted brushwork the evidence of Raphael's exceptional ability. The paintings have acted as a lens through which the artist has been interpreted. It is to this afterlife of Raphael the afterlife enabled by the survival of his paintings that the title of The Afterlife of Raphael's Paintings refers.
In the decades and centuries after his death, Raphael's paintings experienced journeys: they were moved, damaged, restored, and many were displayed in different locations for new audiences. Hoenigers emphasis is on certain particularly interesting periods during those voyages. Even though Raphael's images had a lasting effect on myriad viewers, they are somewhat ephemeral creative acts. At the most reductive level, the paintings were made up of applications`of organic and inorganic color mixtures to impermanent and potentially unstable foundations of wood and gesso or stone and lime plaster. In the centuries following his death, Raphael's reputation remained at a constant high and even increased in the estimation of wealthy collectors`and academic writers. Yet the paintings on which so much of his fame experienced pronounced deterioration and some were lost altogether amidst the trauma of natural disasters and the events of political upheavals.
The paintings underwent different kinds of physical changes that resulted in their being considered in need of restoration. More than one example is discussed in which a painting was severely damaged in a natural disaster. A rich amount of evidence`is presented in The Afterlife of Raphael's Paintings to show that several of Raphael's works suffered from serious structural problems. Most often the culprit was the environment of the building in which the painting was housed. Natural aging was also a principal factor in deterioration. Although many of Raphael's paintings deteriorated in situ, sometimes the movement of a work from its original location, and its journey over land and by sea, exacerbated the situation. Changes of an artistic nature were wrought to the surface of Raphael's paintings for a number of reasons. There are many documents in which critics lament the incompetence of restorers, who have changed the look of works by Raphael through excessive and tasteless repainting. In addition, the appearance of his works was affected by tried-and-true preservation methods. Protective varnish coatings deteriorated over time, and glue films, employed for centuries to remedy the problem of flaking paint, became greyish and caught particles of dirt on the surface of the painting. Those attentive to the paintings remarked on the discoloration caused by the aging of varnish films. Occasionally, viewers also mentioned, with dampened enthusiasm, that an image had been disfigured by the accumulation of dirt.
Because Raphael's paintings suffered from different forms of deterioration, the scope of the treatments varied widely. The history of each painting was also affected by the preservation methods of each era, and those techniques developed in remarkable ways over the course of five centuries. When the records of restoration to Raphael's paintings are surveyed, predictably one finds that many relate to the routine cleaning and revarnishing of the surface. Yet there are also accounts of structural interventions to stabilize the supports and paint layers. Among these are dramatic descriptions of the transfer of paint layers from their original wood supports to new canvas backings. With the advent of photography in the late nineteenth century, restoration campaigns began to be visually documented.
Every time a restorer was commissioned to treat a painting by Raphael, the painting was delivered in a damaged, dirty, darkened, or repainted state. Whether under the instruction of a patron or in consultation with a curatorial committee, a treatment was chosen. The circumstances affecting the decision would have included the condition of the painting, the approaches of the day, the value of the image, and how it was to be displayed. Those restorers trusted to work on paintings by Raphael understood well the theory and practice of their generation, and they either adopted current methods or reacted against them to perform improved treatments.
As a painting by Raphael passed from the hands of one restorer to the next, the journey was conditioned by the way the artist was seen by each generation in turn. It is to the intimate connection between the restoration and the reception of Raphael's art that The Afterlife of Raphael's Paintings focuses on.
In the conclusion to The Afterlife of Raphael's Paintings Hoeniger notes that every important and comprehensive study of Raphael's corpus placed most weight on Raphael's commissions from the popes and their circle in Rome and dwelt with greatest seriousness on the Vatican Palace frescoes and the Roman altarpieces. For Raphael's most famous paintings, marked changes in approach have not featured as strongly. Instead, the very traditional desire to view his works in as close as possible to their original appearance has driven their reception history. The theme of the original beauty of Raphael's art lingered and continued to dominate the viewing of Raphael, in spite of the deteriorating condition of many of the most valued paintings. The power of the written word and the nostalgia for the golden age of Italian Renaissance art served to perpetuate a timeless, quasi-divine image of Raphael and his art. The Afterlife of Raphael's Paintings considers the lasting effect of the writings of Vasari, Bellori, and many others. These highly articulate men of letters used their facility with descriptive language and their knowledge of artistic and literary precedents to illuminate Raphael's paintings. Raphael's art was interpreted for those who could view the originals in situ, and the freshness of the coloring was evoked for many absent spectators, who had to rely on printed reproductions.
Some of the case studies in The Afterlife of Raphael's Paintings also draw attention to the role played by avaricious political leaders and wealthy collectors, who negotiated at great length and paid fortunes to have paintings by Raphael brought to their own households and museums. In these changed surroundings, patrons and the intellectuals in their midst typically were anxious to have Raphael's paintings restored to their former glory. More recently, art historians of the twentieth century have continued to invest in the recreation of Raphael's pristinely beautiful and intact paintings. Scholars of Raphael have been concerned with reconstructing the original architectural and religious contexts for Raphael's paintings and with investigating the biographical details of his patrons. Such research has enabled a more vivid appreciation of the circumstances in which his paintings originally functioned.
In a manner closely parallel to the writers and scholars who for centuries have emphasized the immense importance of Raphael's originals, numerous curators and restorers of princely collections and national institutions have responded to the continuing desire for vibrant and complete works by Raphael. In exhibition spaces, such as the rooms of the Louvre Palace that were opened as the Musee Napoleon in 1803, paintings by Raphael have been carefully and consciously put on display. Very often, as in Paris during the Napoleonic period, restoration was carried out as a prerequisite for exhibition. On many occasions, as The Afterlife of Raphael's Paintings has shown, restorers were praised for the fresh appearance of a painting by Raphael and for the seamless nature of their repainting. Similarly, criticism of a restorer's work typically arose because the painting by Raphael showed signs of deterioration or because the brushwork of the restorer betrayed the damaged state of the picture. To perpetuate the treasured image of Raphael's perfection, the blemishes characteristic of any material object of great age were downplayed and even rendered invisible.
However, the material and historical reality, as The Afterlife of Raphael's Paintings shows, is startlingly different. And, for many of Raphael's works, the fabric of the painting continues to carry physical evidence of historical events and restoration treatments that happened long ago. Numerous historical and restoration events, however, failed to mark the paintings in the long run. The knowledge of important interventions, which changed, at least to a limited degree, the appearance of Raphael's paintings, has survived in the literary record rather than in the fabric of the paintings themselves.
Even though the evidence of damage and repair often remains hidden, what actually happened to the paintings is as important for an understanding of the reception of Raphael as what was written about his art. The Afterlife of Raphael's Paintings charts the journeys experienced by a large number of Raphael's paintings from the sixteenth century until the present day. This volume fills a gap in the scholarship by exploring how the reception of Raphael can be investigated through the physical history of his painted works and in doing so shows that these eventful passages are worthy of remembering.
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