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Pier Soderini (1452-1522) was in charge of the Florentine government in a turbulent time, politically speaking. But a shimmering time as Arts were involved. Masterpieces were at every corner and you could bump into geniuses at every turn, say Leonardo and Michelangelo. And Raffaello was on his way. He introduced himself to the “Gonfaloniere” with a letter of recommendation of 1 October 1504, given in Urbino By Giovanna Feltria, the powerful widow of Giovanni Della Rovere, related to Pope Sisto IV. Soderini didn’ t make much of it  and the young painter had to find private patrons while watching the two great artist competing  to decorate Salone dei 500 in Palazzo Vecchio.

Raffaello ( 1483—1520) was born in Urbino, the intellectually sophisticated city-state, where Perugino was the painting star. Raffaello was a smart and talented boy, he soon became the older painter’s assistant and promptly assimilated his style and technique. He was very quick to learn, that is why the ambitious “apprentice”moved to Florence to learn more. Actually Florence was his springboard to his shining everlasting glory in Rome, until his death in 1520.

500 years later, The National Gallery was ready to assemble the most complete exhibition on the astonishing achievements of Raffaello, whose drawings and “Stanze “ in Vatican went head-to-head with Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. “Raphael” exhibition ( 9 April--31 July) has been delayed because of covid, but will open on April 9 2022 with great expectations and international glamour

The top museums in the world and prestigious private collections,  with significant contribution of the Queen, have lent what is possible to move to London, paving the red carpet for the “enfant prodige” of Italian Renaissance. The blockbuster  exhibition at the National Gallery provides an overview of his work, from the early painting in Urbino, to the Florentine period, to the Roman apotheosis. As a painter, draughtsman, architect, designer, archaeologist, Raffaello is here explored in every aspect of his multimedia activity, including poetry, and loans from around the world are gathered in London, testifying his pivotal role in the history of Western Art.

Vasari describes him an “universal Artist” for the mastery he developed in printmaking, decorative art and tapestry design as well as his architecture and archaeological work as surveyors of ancient Rome.  Famous is his descent with ropes into the mysterious darkness of the ruins of Domus Aurea, together with Michelangelo. There was no love lost between Raffaello and Michelangelo , who considered the “urbinate” a shameless upstart, a complacent fop, a pet of popes.

Actually, Raffaello was charming: he knew how to curry favor and was definitely more gracious or diplomatic than the grumpy and stubborn Florentine artist. And he was very good at his job. But he climbed the stairs of fame and fortunes thanks to the competition with two Florentine geniuses  and the Florentine artistic environment. Florence was his test bench, where he got in touch with Antonio da Sangallo, Andrea Sansovino, Ridofo del Ghirlandaio, Baccio D’Agnolo to name a few. And where he studied Donatello and Masaccio and was witness of the production of the two giants  Leonardo and Michelangelo. In the meanwhile, he painted Madonnas.

He felt a bit snubbed by Florence: during his stay in town (1504-1508) he had only to finish works commissioned before, such as the Ansidei Madonna, the Madonna of the Pink, the Terranuova Madonna, present  in the London Exhibition. Commissioned by rich Florentine families , Raffaello painted little masterpieces such as La Belle Jardiniere, Madonna del Cardellino, Madonna del Belvedere, Madonna of the Palm, where influences from Leonardo are recognizable, or Madonna Bridgewater,  recalling Michelangelo ‘s Tondo Taddei .

Canigiani, Nasi, Tempi and other well established Florentines had their sacred painting by the young artist, but no everlasting outstanding patron came in the clear. Taddeo Taddei, clever merchant with a soft spot for Arts and keen eye for Art investments, hosted and cherished  Raffaello, who said “ I am  obliged to Taddei than to any man alive.”  Not only for being his honored guest in Palazzo Taddei at No 10 Via de Ginori, but also for introducing him to more and more clients. For Taddei he painted the wonderful Madonna Belvedere, supervising Jesus and St John playing in a countryside environment reminding Leonardo’s background. For his powerful friends he painted for instance the stunning portraits of Agnolo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi to celebrate their wedding. Raffaello enjoyed therefore growing credit among the high and mighty, but he did not find easy to gain public commissions in Florence.

So it is not surprising that he quickly sized the opportunity for a change of panorama. Roma was calling and Raffaello left abruptly in summer 1508 leaving unfinished the Madonna del Baldacchino, commissioned by the Dei family for their chapel in S Spirito. Sienese banker Agostino Chigi paved his way into the Vatican which transformed his status as an artist, cherished by Giulio II and Leone X .

His Roman years saw him applying his talents widely, rocketing his career to the stars:  The exhibition benefits from loans from Louvre, Uffizi, Prado , Hermitage, Musei Vaticani,  just showing innovative and creative progress in a large range of astonishing works which confirm the National Gallery up to its fame of organizing excellent exhibitions. The Florentine Madonnas brought him good luck. Among so many impressive masterpieces, one of my favourite remains the Madonna Tempi, lent by the Munich Pinakotheck( because was bought from the Tempi family by Ludwig of Baviera in 1829) One of the simplest but most affecting images of the Virgin with baby Jesus, it may remind the Donatello’s Verona Madonna, but Raffaello has infused  sweet and easy grace in this intimate embrace of Mother and Child, with their faces tenderly touching, inspiring a deep and gentle tenderness, confirming his great pictorial imagination and poetic magic hand.


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