I've recently been down in London attending exhibitions and symposia.
One exhibition that I was determined to see was the Raphael show at the V&A which unites the artist's gouache cartoons with four of the tapestries from the Vatican. Commissioned by the Medici pope, Leo X, the cartoons were used by Flemish weavers to create the tapestries, probably for both acoustical and propaganda purposes in the Sistine Chapel. The tapestries were first displayed in the Sistine Chapel in 1519, and there have been subsequent reconstructions in later years, notably 1983. The current unification of cartoons and tapestries is bathed in modern papal splendor since Pope Benedict XVI has granted their temporary removal from the Vatican for this spectacle.
The thing that struck me about this exhibition was the different media on show. Not only do you get to see the famous Raphael cartoons- hanging in their usual place in the cavernous room allocated for their display in the V & A- but you see four large tapestries, a batch of drawings for the commission from the Louvre and Windsor, the diary of Pope Leo X's master of ceremonies, Paris de Grassis, as well as a beautifully illustrated choir book owned by Leo, a serious connoisseur of music. Last and perhaps least, the exhibition has a model of the Sistine Chapel open to the viewer. Although they've baulked at recreating in miniature the paintings of the chapel, they have reproduced the rood screen and the cosmati paving on the floor of the model. It's a weird feeling to see the Sistine without the glory of its painting though, even if it is a scaled down model.
Mention should also be made of the detached tapestry borders; these contain Medici motifs such as the famous pala, or medicine pills signifying members of the family, putti or little children, and figures symbolizing the hours and the seasons. It's a rare pleasure to see this combination of aesthetic abandonment and iconographic complexity.
It remains to be seen what exposure the exhibition will get when the Pope flies in on the 16th of September, but judging by the crowds in the V&A, the public are lapping it up. About six weeks ago, I saw the public's thirst for art in the British Museum where visitors enjoyed a treasure house of renaissance old master drawings. There's that eagerness here as visitors pour over selected drawings by Raphael's pupils such as Penni, Ugo di Carpi and Giovanni di Udine, as well as the master himself, which they are now able to compare directly with the cartoons, presiding high above them on the walls.
There's a handy, inexpensive catalogue that goes with the exhibition. With essays by the director of the V&A, Mark Evans and others, it's a great souvenir with nearly everything in the exhibition illustrated. Being a Raphael nut I had to buy it- yet another volume on my bowing Raphael shelf.
Christ's Charge to Peter, Vatican Tapestry, 1519.
Workshop of Petrus Alamire, choir book, Vatican
Raphael, study for Christ's Charge to Peter, Louvre, about 1515.