Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Raphael's Pope Julius II ... and Not Raphael's Pope Julius II

Photo: National Gallery
The painting above in London's National Gallery is generally regarded as the original of Raphael's Portrait of Pope Julius II, one of the most powerful and innovative renaissance portraits.  The Staedel in Frankfurt recently acquired another version, which they claim to be partly by Raphael (and studio).  It was widely reported at the time, but the media notices were mostly brief and uncritical of the attribution.  Bloggers Hasan Niyazi and Bendor Grosvenor provided more useful commentary.  I saw the Staedel's acquisition in Frankfurt recently, and I wasn't impressed.  It's a mediocre painting.  I've since made a close comparison with the NG version, and consulted the NG's dossier and other documentation on the painting.  My analysis of the shortcomings of the Frankfurt version is followed below by some comments on the London version.

The less skilful artistry in the Frankfurt version is immediately apparent if we look at the gilt finials on the chair.  The NG version is superbly impastoed, with a range of subtle effects that have been used to identify a precise location in the Papal apartments, based on the reflection of windows.  Artist Samuel Palmer was possibly discussing the NG version when he wrote of a painting on display at Burlington House (where it may have been on loan), "I think the Pope Julius, II which hangs aloft, is a genuine Raffaelle; if a duplicate, yet unmistakably of his own handiwork. The tassels for the chair are impastoed like Rembrandt. I have seen it close, and once began a copy of it" (photocopy in the NG Archive from the Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer, 1 Jan 1871 to Leonard Rowe Valpy).

The Frankfurt version is strikingly crude, with thick undifferentiated lines indicating reflected light: 

Photo: MS
Photo: MS

Turning to the hands, which Bendor Grosvenor noted as weak, look at how the little finger continues along a different line after the ring: 

Photo: MS
The grey mark may indicate bad restoration, but even giving it the benefit of the doubt, the stones in the rings are notably simpler than those in the NG version, with cruder reflections.  Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny note that, "Julius was keenly interested in the petrological enhancement of the Maiestas Papilis" (Raphael, Yale 1983: 158 - a lovely turn of phrase) and the sumptious depiction of his rings in the NG's painting is far more impressive than Frankfurt's.

The Pope's left hand is just as bad; the ring finger and little finger seem disembodied, not attached to the same hand as the other fingers: 

Photo: MS

The anatomy here is just wrong, implying an impossibly wide knuckle.  Raphael wasn't consistently perfect, and we should be cautious of leaping to conclusion from occasional errors.  The hands on some of Raphael's early predellas are a bit crude, and even in the late and brilliant drawing of Saint Peter and Saint John in the Ashmolean there is a major error in Saint John's right index finger.  But the mistakes in the Frankfurt painting are just too serious and too conspicuous to be plausible in a painting in which Raphael was personally involved.  When we step back from the details to look at the craftsmanship of the whole our perception of weakness is reinforced.

In the NG version the face is modelled, whereas the Frankfurt version (below) has a hard outline.  You can see clearly a shadow to the right of the profile that could be a pentimento, but the shadowy line is very crude and shouldn't be taken as evidence of a Raphael. The NG version is one of the most 'painterly' of Raphaels.  Cecil Gould writes that "when he painted the Julius portrait Raphael seems to have been exploring new techniques, and to have been moving, fairly tentatively on his standards, from a draughtsmanly way of painting towards a more painterly one." (Cecil Gould Raphael's Portrait of Pope Julius II London: National Gallery 1970 p. 11)  The hard modelling of the Frankfurt version indicates a copyist who drew an outline and then coloured it in. 

Photo: MS
The painting was often copied, and the National Gallery's dossier has details of numerous versions, including one in Berlin that is better than Frankfurt's.  The two most widely discussed versions are one in the Uffizi and one in the Pitti; Three Pipe Problem discusses their histories.  The best evidence for Raphael's involvement in the Frankfurt version is from technical examination revealing certain changes made to the composition.  But that doesn't prove that the changes were made by Raphael.  From the visual evidence I cannot accept this as being even partly by Raphael.   But enough of the copies; I have a few more observations on the real thing.

The National Gallery's version was acquired with its founding collection, that of John Julius Angerstein.  It was subsequently demoted to a copy, with a version in the Uffizi regarded as original.  The wall text at the National Gallery states that it was recognised as the original in 1970, but art historians had recognised its quality by at least 1969, when Konrad Oberhuber requested that it be X-rayed. 

My copy of Cecil Gould's pamphlet has a pasted-in article by Tom Davies from the Sunday Times (26 July 1970) reporting that Luciano Berti, director of the Uffizi, stated that it should have been obvious since 1923 that the NG version was the original, and noting that both Conrad (sic) Oberhuber and John Shearman had identified it as the original in the 1960s.  It has the wonderfully supercilious response from Gould: "They were all working on hunches, and you get the wildest hunches in the art world.  Anyway I must insist that we are in charge of the National Gallery and it is not up to outsiders to suggest that we look at one particular painting or another."  This is quite inconsistent with Gould's ready acknowledgement of Konrad Oberhuber's insight (note 25 in Gould's pamphlet), and his additional note that Oskar Fischel had also identified the NG version as the original in private correspondence.

Related drawings
There are two related drawings.  The red chalk sketch in the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth is generally - and I think rightly - regarded as a studio copy (e.g. Jaffe in the catalogue of the Devonshire drawings, Carol Plazzotta in the Raphael: From Urbino to Rome exhibition catalogue - where I saw the original), but considered authentic by Joannides, among others.  A cartoon in the Corsini collection in Rome is not generally considered to be by Raphael, although Beck was sympathetic to the attribution. 

The NG version is generally described as being in excellent condition.  Gould notes that the original bright colours were revealed in restoration, but Jill Dunkerton and Ashok Roy rightly recognise that historic over-cleaning have left the green background much brighter than originally intended.  A careful pencil copy by Henry Bone from 1811 shows fragments of the keys in the background, which had been over-painted by Raphael.  The over-cleaning that revealed these elements must therefore have taken place before 1811, and the over-painting later than that.

Dunkerton's summary of the condition is available on the NG's Raphael Project.  She states that, "there are no major losses but there are many scattered retouchings."  This seems a bit disingenuous, because there are some fairly large areas of restoration visible even to the naked eye, particularly a large patch immediately to the right of the Pope's face.  This area can be seen in the photo taken after cleaning but before restoration. 

The arms of the chair have been substantially lost through over-cleaning, and now lack definition.  Henry Bone's drawing shows them in a rather better state than today, and the Frankfurt version is also clearer.  They seem quite freely to have been reconstructed by the NG following the 1969 cleaning.  The planes were more distinct before cleaning, and even in pictures taken after cleaning and before restoration.

 Dunkerton states that "The areas of flesh painting are in exceptionally good condition, the only significant area of damage being a small vertical scratch in the sitter's forehead", but the NG tends to describe anything better than a total wreck as 'excellent' (it's all comparative, and the NG collection as a whole has suffered especially from several devastating campaigns of aggressively harsh 'cleaning').  The 'small' scratch is actually quite large, as can be seen by the naked eye, and is evident in the after cleaning, before restoration photograph available on the Raphael Project.  Gould notes that a couple of areas of over-paint were removed, from the mouth and cheek.  I think there is some loss of modelling, with rather stark transitions from light to shade.  There are other losses readily apparent, such as one to the left of the eyes.  The middle, ring and little fingers of the Pope's left hand also seem particularly compromised by harsh cleaning, especially at the ends.

One of the most serious and obvious areas of damage caused by the 1969 cleaning is in the Pope's beard, particularly on his left.  You can clearly see whiskers in the pictures taken before cleaning, which were entirely scrubbed away.  It is of course possible that these were later additions, but it's more likely the result of excessively harsh cleaning.  Despite the ravages of time and the NG conservation department, it is still one of the better preserved Raphaels and a powerful, innovative portrait of undoubted authenticity. 

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