Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The return of Giotto's Crucifix

The return of Giotto's Crucifix - Forgotten jewel of an age

by Goffredo Silvestri

(Article in La Repubblica, 14th January 2011)

FLORENCE: Formerly in the sacristy for 84 years, this monumental work is now back in the Florentine church for which it was painted in 1310-1315, after a careful 8-year long restoration by the Opificio delle pietre dure (OPD) which has restored the luminosity and brilliance of its colours and glazes, its volumes and its modelling.

Someone should have the patience to write a history of art recounting the crimes of displacement of art works in churches when convenient, to the point of their destruction either through loss or damage. For example Duccio's Maestà, which hung on the high altar of Siena Cathedral until 1506, when it was moved to a wall in the transept. In 1771 the two painted sides of the panel were split into two separate paintings, hung in two separate chapels, while another part hung in the sacristy. Soon afterwards these parts were sold to collectors and foreign museums.

In this particular history of art, one of the foremost places is occupied by the monumental Crucifix by Giotto (4.67m high by 3.60m wide) in the Florentine church of Ognissanti (All Saints). Painted according to historians either in the period 1310-1315 or in the 1320's for the monastic order of the Umiliati who then occupied the church and convent, it was located on the partition wall about four feet high that separated the choir reserved for the clergy from the nave for the faithful. This wall, which also had a central doorway, would have seemed to our eyes like a brutal obstruction, but it must have been spectacular, since the Crucifix was accompanied by four other panels by Giotto mentioned by Ghiberti (who wrote a century after the death of the master): the large (325cm x 204cm) Madonna and Child enthroned among the angels (the famous Madonna of Ognissanti now in the Uffizi), the small (75cm x 178 cm) Dormition of the Virgin in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, the Madonna with the Child in her arms (now lost), and an unknown panel. In addition, the wall was also decorated with frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio (St Jerome in his Study) and Botticelli, who is buried in the Church (St Augustine in his Study).



Between 1564 and 1566 Vasari had the wall demolished (with the  detachment and transfer in one piece of the frescoes to the refectory) and the Ognissanti restructured (like Santa Maria Novella and other churches) in line with the liturgical changes made by the Council of Trent in 1563. The Crucifix was moved to the wall at the side, then to a chapel in the transept which was used as a cloakroom, where, squeezed between two wardrobes, the Crucifix was neglected and abused to the point of physical damage. Finally, it was moved to the sacristy in 1926, when that arm of the transept was converted into a memorial of the First World War. So for the last 84 years Giotto's Crucifix has virtually disappeared, passsed into oblivion even for the faithful. But who recalls that in 2000 Antonio Paolucci, then a conservator, in an "acclaimed concession" loaned the Crucifix to the historic exhibition at the Galleria dell'Accademia, which was the resumé of the "critical appraisal of sixty years of studies and research on Giotto." The Crucifix was billed as "Giotto" in the exhibition conceived and curated by Angelo Tartuferi and Franca Falletti, and as "follower of Giotto" ('Parente di Giotto') in the accompanying volume of critical appraisal.

The loan of the Crucifix had been conditional on its subsequent restoration, and the Opificio delle pietre dure, once work on the earlier (1285-1290) Giotto Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella had finished in 2001, began painstaking work on the Ognissanti Crucifix the following year. And now, after eight years of study, scientific examination, the search for a new method of cleaning, and restoration, once again the Crucifix appears in the church of Ognissanti, in the raised chapel in the left transept, the Cappella dei Caduti (chapel of the fallen), accessed by a small flight of steps. Mounted on a newly designed metal base, it now stands, looking almost relieved to be back, under the ancient Gothic arches, even more so thanks to the lighting system from below and its slight forward inclination (as it used to be on the partition wall). In the Santa Maria Novella, the Giotto Crucifix had been relocated back to its old "more respectable" position in the centre of the nave. Something impossible in the Ognissanti while "preserving all the restructuring work of the sixteenth century and the Baroque period," and in the nave there is no space.

The church of Ognissanti was founded in 1251 by the Umiliati friars, followers of St. Benedict, who, while keeping faith with their Lombard origins, had adopted a fruitful life of production and trade in wool cloth in Florence, whose earnings were used for works of charity. Unfortunately, when the Umiliati were replaced in 1561 by the Minor Observant Franciscans, their archives were destroyed or dispersed. But the great works of art remained: in the Chapel of the Vespucci family, two frescoes by Ghirlandaio, the principal illustratore of the age of Lorenzo the Magnificent: the Madonna of Mercy and the Pietà, in the sacristy the Crucifixion fresco by Taddeo Gaddi, and in the refectory the fresco of the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio and, as mentioned above, the frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Botticelli from the partition wall.

There were three directors of the OPD during the period of restoration (Cristina Acidini, Bruno Santi and Isabella Lapi Ballerini), while the work itself was overseen throughout by Marco Ciatti (head of the restoration laboratory for paintings on panel and canvas) and Cecilia Frosinini (head of the fresco division, which had already begun a diagnostic examination, "with significant results," of another work, "completely" Giotto's, the cycle in the Peruzzi chapel). Ciatti also edited the book L'officina di Giotto (Giotto's Workshop, 252p, published by Edifir, in the valuable series Problemi di conservazione e restauro) which includes both technical details of the restoration and critical perspectives...

Video report (in Italian) by the OPD on the return of the Giotto Crucifix to the church of Ognissanti:


In the Crucifix (painted in egg tempera), Christ is represented as Christus patiens, suffering, about to expire. The tension in the muscles of the arms is treated with delicacy, but the ashen colour is so imprinted in the flesh that it is a "true body", of a sculptural consistency that suggests it was modelled from life. The tips of the fingers are of "purest white", and the lips flushed. The body hangs on a more intimate Cross, the 'heart' of the triumphant Cross painted with gilded bands; at its centre an overflowing mosaic of starred crosses, squares and ellipses. The 'beams' of the Cross are painted in "bright, but deep and intense blue," the precious lapis lazuli inlaid with greater or lesser amounts of lead white, as in the sloping pedestal to which Christ's feet are pinned (by a single nail). The blue is crossed by thin red lines, cinnabar blood with more purplish glazes. On the forehead are a few drops of "pure red lacquer."

The Cross terminates in quatrefoils with gold backgrounds. To the left is Mary, prematurely aged, a pained expression in her characteristic slanted eyes, all wrapped up in a blue mantle that serves as a protection and almost as a hiding-place, again painted with lapis lazuli whose blue becomes more luminous when depicting the volume of her hands and covered arms. On the right is St John the Evangelist, in a pink mantle over a blue robe also painted with lapis lazuli and lead white. From his eyes a stream of tears descend, and from his mantle emerge his "most beautiful tightly joined hands", clasped so as not to explode in a gesture of despair. The preparatory drawing "shows through the thin layer of colour." The cheeks of the Virgin and of St John, the 'Mourners', show a flush caused by tears, achieved by multiple applications of cinnabar. Above is the Blessing Christ in pink robe and blue mantle, on which is mounted a large book with a red cover. Probably during the damaging period in the transept chapel of Ognissanti, the Crucifix has lost the edges of the golden quatrefoils of the 'Mourners' (remade for the exhibition of 1937 and retained in the modern restoration). Most importantly, it has lost the lower part of the Cross, just below Christ's pierced and bleeding feet, where it is probable that Giotto repeated his invention in the Crucifix of Santa Maria Novella, the rock of Golgotha with the skull of the first man to represent humanity.

Before the current restoration, the colours of the Crucifix were "extremely dim and dark" due to a layer of "very dull and greyish" surface material, negating the volumes and the modelling, the "refined decoration and detail". The test results showed an "unusual" overlay consisting of a vegetable-based gum (like apricot) and calcium oxalate, from a previous cleaning intended to "varnish" the work. Its main detrimental effect was due to its having collected dirt, fine particles of air pollution, and the soot from candles. Conversely, it maintained a layer of "very thin and old paint" on the surface. With the restoration has come a transformation from an object seen through a dirty curtain to a brightness and brilliance of the golds, the blues and the "textures"; the rivulets of blood, the details of the Christ, the contours of his chest and groin, the tense bands of muscles in his arms and legs, the strands of his hair and beard, his eyelashes. Also the glazes: not a complete innovation (neither for Giotto nor for other artists like Perugino or Pinturicchio), but nonetheless it is of great interest that Giotto in the Ognissanti work used them more extensively compared to that in the Santa Maria Novella; glazing in Christ's halo (which is painted in relief); glazed paste and painted glazes (even in minute plant motifs), and gold in imitation of precious stones and enamels, in cabochon style or pyramid shapes; in blue, green, white and reddish-white colours; in the frame red and blue glazing alternating with pale green; at the centre of the three beams a large glass-coloured painted and gilded glaze (only one survives). The scientific examination revealed residues of lead foil around the glazes, "perfectly reflective", resembling those in the halo of Christ the Judge in the panel in the Scrovegni chapel.

From the technical point of view the biggest "hitch" was to develop an "innovative" method of cleaning everything (not the traditional solvents which previous "heavy abrasions" indicated would have been disastrous), but "water-based systems" a much slower technique and used with a new type of laser. The Crucifix is in fact an "extremely delicate" painting, built up "with very thin layers of colour" and a preparatory base "extremely sensitive" to moisture, perhaps "because of a small amount of glue used as an adhesive binding for the chalk." The examination uncovered some interesting details: Giotto changed the size and position of the halo (which was lowered and reduced in size) affecting  the "entire figure" of the Christ. The head would have been "much higher" than in any other of Giotto's Crucifixes. The strips of parchment and (probably used) linen, spread out over the panel as "shock absorbers" to "restrict" the natural movements of the wood under the preparatory layers and the painting itself. One of the "indicators of the care and refinement of execution" of the Crucifix is the different techniques used in painting the Blessing Christ relative to the other figures. Here the depiction of the flesh is "more compact and denser." Ciatti indicates that this is typical of Giotto (as found in the Santa Maria Novella Crucifix), the "juxtaposition of areas of meticulous and subtle brushwork and other features strongly marked by large brushstrokes, almost brusque like in some of the folds of the Virgin's mantle."


When it comes to Giotto (or other great masters) there is always a lurking doubt as to the attribution of a work, in whole or in part. Always remember - recommends Ciatti - that in the Middle Ages a work created according to the modern mind, the creation of "an individual artist, the unique and unrepeatable product of his hand and creative genius, is unimaginable." Mediaeval artistic production is "collective in nature", constructed with numerous, often specialised, collaborators, especially in the studio of a highly successful artist like Giotto, working on many commissions from major clients in different cities. The term 'studio' should not be "synonymous with inauthenticity." On the one hand "the great innovative drive and the continuing transformation of modes of expression, due to which Giotto is never repetitive nor equal to himself from one work to another, can only be traced to his own ingenuity and creativity"; on the other hand "the direct participation of a large group of collaborators" was inevitable. In the book, Arturo Carlo Quintavalle notes that in the Ognissanti Crucifix it is not simply the lobed panels at the extremities which are innovative, but "rather the emphasis on the pathos of the story", the "emotional tension" of the 'Mourners'. And the body of Christ is portrayed in "a much more analytical fashion" than the Christ of Santa Maria Novella. All these aspects can only be down to the inventiveness of Giotto. After the restoration "the primary result" is the hand of Giotto "inevitably in collaboration with his studio."

For Cristina Acidini, currently director of the Florentine art historical heritage and its complex of museums, the Crucifix (of an "unquestionable beauty of painted material"), carries after its restoration the onerous weight of a Giotto attribution in its arms, and carries it with dignity." Giorgio Bonsanti sees in the Crucifix a "slight decrease in technical quality" compared to the Crucifixes of Santa Maria Novella, Rimini and Padua... For Bonsanti the expressions of Mary and St John are a "kind of grimace." "Definitely a very intense and impressive effect," but not the universal representation of suffering charactistic of other figures painted by Giotto. The Ognissanti Crucifix is a "product, however great, of the studio of Giotto," due to the "tendency" defined as 'Follower of Giotto', as invented by Giovanni Previtali. This would have been a personality with "recognisably similar stylistic characteristics" to those of Giotto. For Ciatti the Blessing Christ must "really be the result of the hand of an assistant who either completed or began the work" in the absence of the master, with a technique similar to that used previously by Giotto, "who in the meantime had already changed." But Ciatti confirms the doubts about this 'follower' that would have accompanied the master, "almost from the beginning, for decades." A solution that does not satisfy the vast majority of critics.

Beyond the artistic evaluation, Ciatti cites the care with which Giotto, nothing short of an "astute businessman", supervised the economic aspect of his business, and says that he would never have favoured an "internal competition". It was against Giotto's interests to give the opportunity of exposure to someone of value to him, allowing him to nurture a reputation he might have profited from outside of his studio. The at least twenty-year-long relations that Giotto maintained with the Umiliati was not only an artistic one. A document dated September 1312, quoted by Alessandro Cecchi, reveals that the master was trading in "woolen" goods and charging "an exorbitant price (unum telarium francigenum)." Further documents attest to his relations with Vespignano Vicchio, since he visited the Mugello to buy land and houses. And the coins found beside the body of the painter in his grave under the floor of the old Duomo in Florence (a few yards from the tomb of Brunelleschi), serve to confirm the age of Giotto (about seventy) in January 1337, but also indicate his love of money to "to the point of usury." His teeth were his "tax return," worn down as could have been only those of someone who regularly ate "lots of meat, cooked meat above all," which "only those who had money" could afford.

Pictures of the restoration process in La Repubblica

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Vivat Leo! Music for a Medici Pope

Vivat Leo! Music for a Medici Pope
Cappella Pratensis
directed by Joshua Rifkin
Label: Challenge Classics
Release date:15th Nov 2010

Dutch vocal ensemble Cappella Pratensis perform works by Franco-Flemish composers from the Medici Codex (1518), a collection of sacred motets belonging to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, composed of music for use by the private chapel of Pope Leo X.

Track listing:
Silva, A: Gaude felix Florentia
Willaert: Virgo gloriosa; Saluto te, sancta Virgo Maria
de la Fage: Videns dominus civitatem desolatam
Mouton, J: Nesciens Mater; Per lignum salvi; Exalta regina Gallie
Despres: La Déploration de Johannes Ockeghem; Miserere mei, Deus
Silva, A: Omnis pulchritudo Domini
Festa, C: Inviolata, integra et casta es

Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael, 1483-1520)
Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi
Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence

Extracts from the sleeve notes by Joshua Rifkin:

Godiamo ci il Papato, poichè Dio ci l’ha dato.
‘Let us enjoy the papacy, since God has given it to us’ – –thus, according to a contemporary report, Giovanni de’ Medici, the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, on becoming pope in March 1513. Enjoy it he did. In the eight years of his reign, Leo X, as Giovanni now became known, lived extravagantly, holding banquet after banquet, hunt after hunt, and sometimes parading a white elephant through Rome. His costly enthusiasms extracted their price, of course; within two years of taking the throne, he had turned a handsome surplus left him by his predecessor into a deficit, and before long he had to raise funds by such dubious tricks as selling indulgences on a grand scale – provoking what would eventually become the Reformation. Yet Leo did not exhaust the papal treasury on frivolous things alone. A man of extensive humanistic learning, he supported notable scholars and poets, including Pietro Bembo; commissioned major works from Raphael; and initiated significant building projects. Above all, Leo loved music. He knew it from the inside, possessing sufficient technical knowledge to compose in five voices. He staffed the papal choir – the body responsible for music at liturgical services – with some of the most eminent singers and composers of his day, and he maintained a private body of musicians that similarly included several highly prized singers, composers, and instrumentalists. His awareness of musical developments extended well beyond Rome, moreover; he particularly admired the French royal maestro di cappella Jean Mouton, the most influential composer of the day, whom Leo had occasion to meet in 1515 and named to a highly honorific church position.

Report from Brabant TV on the recording sessions including short interview (in English) with Joshua Rifkin:


Much of the music heard at Leo’s court has vanished. We don’t know what his lutenists performed, nor can we retrieve the improvisations of his wind players. But we have an impressive record of the sophisticated polyphony sung around him: several manuscripts and printed books produced at his court or in its immediate orbit preserve works of both his own composers and others favoured by him and his musicians. A particularly vivid image of Leo’s musical world comes from the so-called Medici Codex, a collection of 53 motets possibly meant at first for Leo’s private use but ultimately presented to his nephew Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, as Lorenzo returned with his new bride, the French princess Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, to Italy in the late summer of 1518. With the exception of the first and last pieces, all the music on this recording comes from the Medici Codex.

Johannes de La Fage (fl. 1516), Videns dominus civitatem desolatam, à 4


In or about June 1516, a Ferrarese emissary in Rome wrote to tell Cardinal Ippolito d’Este of ‘a contrabass, the best in Italy’, who had recently arrived in Rome with a French cardinal ‘who has departed and has left him here, ill’: ‘it is someone called La Fage … and according to the pope’s judgment he is a great man’. No further trace of La Fage survives, except his music – including, as if to confirm Leo’s high regard, two four-voice motets in the Medici Codex. Videns dominus, very likely a prayer against the plague, certainly belongs among the most expressive pieces of the era, deftly blending homophony and imitative writing to portray the anguish of a ruler confronting a scene of desolation.

Jean Mouton (1459-1522), Exalta regina Gallie, à 4


Jean Mouton led the French royal chapel  when Leo X and Francis I met at Bologna in December 1515. At the time, he stood at the height of his career. His ascent, however, makes a puzzling story. From 1478 to the end of the fifteenth century, he held a number of what look like minor positions in northern France; yet only a few years into the new century, he became the first musician at the royal court, serving as maestro di cappella to Queen Anne of Brittany, King Louis XII, and, after Louis’s death, Francis I. His works, meanwhile, spread throughout all of western Europe, becoming an example for an entire generation of composers. Leo’s admiration for Mouton clearly transcended any political boundaries: Exalta regina Gallie, which the composer wrote to celebrate the French victory at Marignano, survives nowhere but in the Medici Codex.

Costanzo Festa (c.1490-1545), Inviolata, integra et casta es, à 8


Costanzo Festa, the only native Italian among the major composers of his generation, joined the papal choir in 1517; of his prior whereabouts, we know only that he had visited Ferrara in 1514 and 1516, and would appear to have spent some time in the service of a noble family on the island of Ischia off Naples. Festa evidently came from Piedmont, a significant crossroads of French and Italian culture, and he unmistakably took Mouton as his principal model. The Medici Codex contains several of his works, as do some of the large choirbooks made for the papal singers during Leo’s reign: Inviolata, integra et casta es comes from one of these, in a copy made by one of the scribes who wrote the Medici Codex. An eight-voice quadruple canon, it follows the example of Mouton’s Nesciens mater; the five-voice Inviolata of Josquin, also part of the Leonine repertory, seems to lurk in the background as well. Festa lays out the three sections of the motet as a set of canons that grow increasingly close in pitch and time: at the octave, separated by four breves; at the fifth, at an interval of three breves; and for the final apogee, at the fourth and a distance of only one breve. For most of the first two sections, the two four-voice groups remain separate from one another; but in the last, the tight overlap produces an almost continuous eight-part texture in which the top voices of each group call back and forth to each other in a fashion that seems almost to anticipate Monteverdi.

Listen to further extracts from Vivat Leo! on the Cappella Pratensis website

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

A Festival of Music in Venice

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
Martin Randall Travel, the leading cultural holiday specialists, are offering a sumptuous 6 day package holiday in Venice from 13th to 18th March 2011, to include seven private concerts in some of the most spectacular concert venues in the Serenissima, performed by internationally acclaimed ensembles. Admission to the concerts is exclusive to those who take the package which includes a choice of eight different four- or five-star hotels, flights from the UK, talks about the music, receptions and dinners. There are also several optional walks and visits led by art historians to choose from.

Concert programme:

1. Imago Virginis
performed by Odhecaton
directed by Paolo da Col

This programme of Franco-Flemish composers is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and includes music by Josquin Des Prés, Johannes Ockeghem, Jean Mouton and Nicolas Gombert.

Venue: Santa Maria dei Miracoli (houses works by Tullio Lombardo, Alessandro Vittoria, Vincenzo dalle Destre, Lattanzio da Rimini, etc.)
Interior, Santa Maria dei Miracoli

2. Songs of Venice
performed by Christopher Maltman with Malcolm Martineau

This selection of songs about or inspired by Venice provides a radical change of sound world to the rest of the festival with songs by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Fauré and Hahn.

Venue: Palazzo Pisani Moretta (works by Giambattista Tiepolo, Gaspare Diziani, Giuseppe Angeli, etc.)
Sala del Guarana, Palazzo Pisani Moretta

3. Monteverdi: L’Incoronazione di Poppea (highlights)
performed by La Venexiana
Soloists: Roberta Mameli, Martina Belli, Valentina Coladonato, Claudio Cavina, Alberto Allegrezza

A concert performance of highlights from Monteverdi's operatic masterpiece first performed in Venice in 1643

Venue: Ateneo Veneto (works by Tintoretto, Veronese, Palma il Giovane, Pietro Longhi etc.)
Aula Magna, Ateneo Veneto

4. From Venice to Naples
performed by I Sonatori della Gioiosa Marca
directed by Giorgio Fava

This programme of sonatas and concertos traces a musical route through the Italian late Baroque from Venice to Naples and includes works by Vivaldi, Giovanni Reali, Francesco Mancini, Francesco Durante and Domenico Sarri.

Venue: Palazzo Zenobio (works by Tiepolo, Dorigny, Lazzarini, etc.)
Hall of Mirrors, Palazzo Zenobio

5. Music for the orphanages
performed by Iestyn Davies - countertenor
with Accademia Bizantina
directed by Ottavio Dantone

A concert of sacred music including Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus (RV608) and Porpora’s Salve Regina.

Venue: Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (works by Titian, Giovanni Bellini, Donatello, Tullio Lombardo, Jacopo Sansovino, Paolo Veneziano,Vivarini, etc.)
High Altar with Titian's Assumption of the Virgin
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

6. Vivaldi: Catone in Utica
performed by La Serenissima
directed by Adrian Chandler
Soloists to include Mhairi Lawson, Sally Bruce-Payne and Hilary Summers

A concert performance of Vivaldi's opera Catone in Utica (RV 705), first performed at the Teatro Filarmonico, Verona, in 1737.

Venue: Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista (works by Tintoretto, Tiepolo, etc.)
Interior, Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista

7. Music for San Rocco
performed by The Gabrieli Consort & Players
directed by Paul McCreesh

A spectacular reconstruction of a concert given at the Scuola di San Rocco, on 16th August 1608 to celebrate the feastday of its patron saint with canzonas, motets and sonatas by the confraternity’s Maestro di Capella, Giovanni Gabrieli.

Venue: Scuola Grande di San Rocco (works by Tintoretto, Titian, Palma il Giovane, etc.)
Sala Superiore, Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Full details of the package including concerts, venues, accommodation options and optional extras on the Martin Randall website
Podcast (MP3) by Roderick Swanston and Martin Randall previewing the festival
Thomas Coryat's description of a concert in San Rocco as mentioned by Roderick Swanston was featured in this earlier post

Monday, 10 January 2011

Simone Kermes - Angels and Demons

A concert from the Villa Medici, Rome
given as part of the Villa Aperta Festival, Rome, August 2009

Simone Kermes, soprano
Le Musiche Nove
directed by Claudio Osele

Programme:
01. Antonio Vivaldi - L'Olimpiade - Siam navi all'onde algenti
02. Riccardo Broschi - La Merope - Sinfonia
03. George Friedrich Handel - Giulio Cesare - Se pieta di me non senti (omitted due to copyright restrictions)
04. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - L'Olimpiade - Tu me da me dividi
05. Johann Adolf Hasse - Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra - Sinfonia
06. Antonio Vivaldi - Griselda - Agitata da due venti
07. Domenico Gallo - Follia in sol minore
08. Leonardo Leo - Il Demetrio - Manca sollecita
09. Leonardo Vinci - Artaserse - Fra cento affanni e cento
10. Nicola Porpora - Lucio Papirio - Morte amara
11. Johann Adolf Hasse - Viriate - Come nave in mezzo all'onde
12. Henry Purcell - Dido and Aeneas - When I am laid in earth

Build your own custom video playlist at embedr.com

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Maurice-Quentin de la Tour, the laughing author

Maurice-Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788), Self-portrait pointing
Private collection
(extracts from an article on pileface)

Who was Maurice-Quentin de la Tour? Louis Fourcaud, in 1908, described him as a "reprimander" (morigéneur); Diderot in his Salons of 1763 and 1767, as "an odd man, but a good man", "an honest and true man." He is said to have dabbled in poetry, politics, metaphysics and theology, and even in astronomy. In a letter of 1753, Miss Prevost called him an ardent champion of Italian music (like Rousseau). He is said to have have learned Latin at age fifty-five (Diderot, Salon of 1769). He described himself, in a letter of 1770, as "always busy with all kinds of achievements, and consequently with the happiness of mankind," ready to "forget himself like an atom in the space of the universe" but convinced that the desire for immortality is "inside ourselves, united with the love of truth, justice and charity", and a believer in divine providence.

The Antoine-Lecuyer Museum in St Quentin:


La Tour by the Goncourt brothers:
"... La Tour painted his portraits in pastel. The irritability of his nerves, the delicacy of his health forced him to abandon the practice of oil painting. By focusing on this kind of painting with coloured pencils, where he found his genius, he followed his times. He conformed to this fashion that seemed to revive and renew in France during the eighteenth century the French taste for pencil drawing in the sixteenth. And who knows whether he was influenced in his vocation by the sojourn in Paris of la Rosalba in 1720 and in 1721? La Tour was able to witness this triumph of pastel, this fortune in pencil by the Venetian, who was visited by the Regent, sought out by the great and the good, snowed under with commissions and money, sollicited, begged for a portrait by Parabère and the de Pries, the greatest ladies of the court, taken with the charm of her art, which gave women an indescribably light vapourous life, a breath of likeness in floral colours. However it was, La Tour soon benefited from the craze for pastels created by la Rosalba. "He took little time with his portraits," said Mariette, "not tiring out his models at all; he made good likenesses, he was cheap. His press was good. He became the commonplace painter."

Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757), Portrait of Antoine Watteau
Museo Civico Luigi Bailo, Treviso
About this time, some portraits he had made for the Boullongne family were noticed by Louis de Boulogne, the principal painter to the King, who discovered in them, behind their casual execution, the innate gift that makes verisimilitude natural to the hand of a portraitist; he wanted to see La Tour; he encouraged him, promising him a future if he wished to work. And was it not the voice of Boulogne, amid the unanimous praise given to a finished portrait of the young painter, who gave him this stern advice: "Draw, young man, keep on drawing"? Grand words that saved La Tour from the trade. Renouncing profit and easy success, he did not paint for two years, withdrew and immersed himself in the study of drawing; and from these two years spent in searching, and the years of effort that followed, advised and guided by the friendship of Largillière and Restout, emerged the great draughtsman, the greatest, strongest and most profound of the entire French school, the draughtsman-physiognomist; he emerged a brand new pastellist, acceding to power, to strength, to all the energy of expression, with his tender and caressing pencils, intended only, it seems, to express the pulp of the fruit, the smoothness of the skin, the "featheriness" of the clothing of his time; he emerged a creator in pastel, who, in this feminine art addressed to women, in the drawings of la Rosalba, in this painting of floating coquetry, half-fixed, volatile, like the powder of grace, draws out and erects a male art, expansive and serious, a painting of such intensity of expression, such contours and such an illusion of life, that his painting manages to threaten, to disturb all the other painting, and for a time the doors of the Academy closed in fear of the art of the Master."

- Jules and Edmond Goncourt, La Tour

La Tour, Study for Portrait of Voltaire
Musée Antoine-Lecuyer, St Quentin
"La Tour had not yet been accepted by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and consequently had not even had any works exhibited at the Salon, when he was approached by Voltaire in 1735 to paint his portrait. This particularly prestigious commission, given the renown of the sitter, constituted an extraordinary opportunity to promote his name, and he seized it masterfully. As he reveals in his correspondence, Voltaire first posed for the artist in April of that year. It seems that the pastellist first made at least two preparatory pastels, of which one subsequently belonged to Emile then Jules Strauss, and is now kept in the National Museum in Stockholm, and the other acquired by the Antoine Lecuyer Museum in 1995. In the first, the face of the author of The Henriade and Zaire is drawn facing the viewer, venturing a smile that makes him purse his lips, and fills his eyes with malice. In the second, the philosopher is drawn in three-quarter view, slightly turned to the right. It is this more dynamic pose that was finally chosen.

Now lost, the final work was a half-length portrait to the waist, the torso facing right, holding a book in his left hand, his face challenging his admirer. Even before receiving this portrait, in April 1736 Voltaire asked his friend the Abbé Moussinot to make two fair copies. The first was to be executed with great care in order to serve as a prototype for all those that would be painted subsequently. To this end, Voltaire had hoped it would be retouched by La Tour himself and that it would serve primarily as a model for a miniature to be mounted in a ring. These are now various copies, such as the one painted in pastel kept at the Château de Ferney and the one painted in oil belonging to the Antoine Lecuyer Museum, which, according to tradition, was given by Voltaire to Madame de Champbonin in 1737, or the engravings that were made at the end of 1735, which enable us to know the original composition. When the autograph pastel by La Tour reached Cirey in November 1736, it did not have the desired effect on its commissioner. Indeed, on 17th November Voltaire wrote to the Abbé Moussinot that he would have preferred it "a little denser and with more vivid colours." Covered in white and lightly embellished with pink, the study in the museum in St Quentin had certainly been scrupulously reproduced in the final work, to the point of rather disappointing the artist's first famous patron."

- Xavier Salmon, Le voleur d'âmes, Maurice Quentin La Tour, Artlys, Versailles, 2004.

Portraits by La Tour - Slideshow:


Antoine Lecuyer Museum website
Works by La Tour at the Louvre Museum

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Cleopatra - Natalie Dessay sings Handel

Handel: Cleopatra
Arias from Giulio Cesare
Natalie Dessay (soprano)
with Sonia Prina (alto)
Le Concert d’Astrée
directed by Emmanuelle Haïm

Label: Virgin Classics
Release date: 10th Jan 2011

Track listing:
Overture from Giulio Cesare
Tutto puo` donna vezzosa
V' adoro, pupille
Venere bella
Vuo dar vita
Piangerò la sorte mia
Troppo crudeli siete
Se pietà di me non senti
Da tempeste il legno infranto
Caro! Bella! Più amabile beltà

At the Paris Opéra in early 2011, Natalie Dessay will take on a new starring role: Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, now the most popular of all the composer’s stage works. The many facets of the Egyptian queen – captured by Shakespeare in the phrase “infinite variety” – are depicted in a sequence of contrasting arias, both lyrical and brilliant, making the character a superb showcase for the French soprano’s talents as a singing actress.

Promotional video for Cleopatra from Virgin Classics:


Conducting the impressive cast and the period-instrument orchestra Le Concert d'Astrée at the Opéra – and on this new recording of excerpts from Giulio Cesare – is Emmanuelle Haïm, who first collaborated with Dessay in the late 1990s; both artists were involved in a Paris production of Handel’s Alcina, Haïm as répétiteur (for William Christie) and Dessay in the sparkling role of Morgana. Since then, the two have developed a close working relationship which has produced a number of Virgin Classics recordings, including several works by Handel: cantatas (in a collection called Delirio), the Dixit Dominus and the oratorio Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, a recording which left the French magazine Diapason “looking forward to Emmanuelle Haïm’s next exciting Handelian adventure”.

Dessay describes Haïm as the metteur en scène – the stage director – for her voice, while Haïm describes Dessay’s voice as “an exceptional instrument which can take on a thousand forms ... Its virtuosity and flexibility make you forget all the difficulties presented by the music.” Haïm goes on to say that: “Handel is the composer for the voice. He demands special qualities that Natalie possesses: an ability to create colours, to embody words in song and to let the imagination speak.”

Promotional video for Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, released by Virgin Classics in 2007:


Reviewing Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, Le Monde de la Musique observed that “the virtuosity and rich palette of Le Concert d’Astrée enable Emanuelle Haïm to match the colours and tempo to the emotion expressed”, while the New York Times wrote that: “Ms. Haïm directs the superb Baroque orchestra Le Concert d'Astrée in a fleet, immaculate performance that dances among airy, profound and sensuous moods. The excellent quartet of singers is led by the radiant, bright voice of the soprano Natalie Dessay, whose rapturous Bellezza traverses innocence, defiance and penitence by way of some impressively agile coloratura. Tu del ciel ministro eletto, her spare, haunting final aria with plaintive violin accompaniment, is glorious.” In Britain, the The Sunday Times found that “Natalie Dessay dazzles in Beauty’s arias – she is gorgeous in the sublime penitential concluding number … With Haïm conducting with élan, this is the best available version of this glorious score.”

Promotional video for Bach Cantatas, released by Virgin Classics in 2009:


Outstanding soprano Natalie Dessay and conductor Emmanuelle Haïm have come to a great understanding with their numerous Handel recordings, especially Delirio (Handel Cantatas), which sealed their musical companionship and paved the way for numerous recording projects on Virgin Classics. After their recent recording of Bach’s Magnificat and Handel’s Dixit Dominus, Natalie Dessay and Emmanuelle Haïm present their first all-Bach recital.

The programme features three of Bach’s superb Cantatas, including the great Ich habe genug, in Bach’s own arrangement for soprano, BWV 82a. The other two Cantatas are two of only four sacred cantatas that Bach wrote for solo soprano: Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Praise God in All Lands) is one of Bach's best known cantatas, with an important part for solo trumpet, here performed by young British musician Neil Brough. Both the soprano part, which calls for a high C in the first and last movements, and the solo trumpet part, which at times trades melodic lines with the soprano on an equal basis, are extremely virtuosic. The third cantata Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (My Heart Swims in Blood) is one of the earliest cantatas Bach composed – its vocal part is technically demanding and contains challenges which Natalie Dessay meets with the highest artistry.

A complete performance of Se pietà di me non senti from Giulio Cesare:


For comparison, here are two alternative versions of this aria, sung by Simone Kermes and Maria Bayo respectively (audio only).

Friday, 7 January 2011

Rome and Antiquity - Reality and Vision in the 18th Century

Orsay Minerva, 2nd century AD
(marble replaced late 18th century)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Rome and Antiquity. Reality and vision in the 18th century
Palazzo Sciarra, Rome
30th November 2010 - 6th March 2011

The Fondazione Roma, chaired by Prof. Emmanuele Francesco Maria Emanuele, is turning the spotlight on ancient art once more, with an extraordinary new event dedicated to the rediscovery of classical antiquity in Rome in the eighteenth century. curated by Carolina Brook and Valter Curzi, the exhibition gathers works of art and archaeological finds which highlight the key factor behind Rome’s rise to international renown in the eighteenth century, namely the rediscovery of classical Antiquity: a model for the arts, learning and style that spread throughout Europe. Promoted by the Fondazione Roma, the exhibition Roma e l’Antico. Realtà e visione nel ’700 (Rome and Antiquity. Reality and vision in the 18th century) has been organised in conjunction with Arthemisia group and springs from a partnership with the Capitoline Museums, the Vatican Museums and the Accademia Nazionale di San Luca.

The exhibition features an extraordinary nucleus of 140 works, including sculptures, paintings and sophisticated pieces of decorative art, and sees the involvement of important museums in Italy and abroad: as well as Rome’s most important museums, the National Galleries of Parma, Turin and Florence, the Canova Museum in Possagno, the Prado Museum, the Royal Palace and Archaeological Museum in Madrid, the Louvre, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Dresden’s Museum of Archaeology, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Royal Academies of London and Madrid.

Anton Rafael Mengs (1728-1779), Apollo and the Muses on Mount Parnassus
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Divided into seven sections, the exhibition explores the appeal of eighteenth century Rome and its extraordinarily cosmopolitan character: a city of monuments and magnificent ruins, interest in its historical past grew during the eighteenth century due to the archaeological digs which increasingly brought significant finds to light. The exhibition opens with a selection of vedute of ancient Rome and a group of capriccio paintings.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1780), Architectural capriccio
Private collection

The second section examines the great season of Roman archaeological digs in the eighteenth century which gave rise to the discipline of archaeology. The major works present in this section include the Capitoline Flora and Eros, the former found in Tivoli in 1744 and the latter from the important collection belonging to Ippolito d’Este, the Herm of Pericles from the Vatican Museums, the inspiration for a famous sonnet by Vincenzo Monti, and the valuable series of watercolour etchings illustrating the colourful wall paintings of the Domus at Villa Negroni and the Domus Aurea, now lost. The interiors of the latter can be admired in the video featuring the virtual reconstruction of this lavish residence.

Flora, 2nd century AD
Musei Capitolini, Rome

The topics of restoration, falsification and art dealing, of much interest to collectors in the day, are explored in the third section, which features the extraordinary Minerva d’Orsay from the Louvre, the result of restoration additions in white marble onto an extremely rare archaeological find in golden onyx. The latter, together with the 2nd century A.D. sculptures from the Prado (Head of Serapis and Bust of Hercules) and Dresden (Bust of Marcus Aurelius and Lemnian Athena), highlight how the aristocratic Roman collections dispersed, with the consequent diaspora of works abroad. On the occasion of the exhibition these masterpieces are making an exceptional return to Italy after more than two centuries.

Apollo with Lyre, 2nd century AD
Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican City

The subsequent section documents the work of two of the most famous Roman workshops, those of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and explores their trading activities for the first time. The exhibition features two extraordinary marble vases by the latter, who was primarily known as an etcher, made by assembling the fragments of ancient artefacts that he assiduously collected. As for Cavaceppi, the section presents a little-known group of terracotta pieces copied from famous classical works, illustrating the wealth of designs available to be reproduced in his workshop.

Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The fifth section illustrates artistic training in the city and the spread of the Roman educational model, as the rest of Europe began to acknowledge the prime importance of classical antiquity.

Luigi Valadier, Dessert service for Carlos IV (1778)
Museo Arqueologico y Palacio Real, Madrid

One specific section looks at style and interior décor, featuring the stunning Dessert Service created by Luigi Valadier in 1778 and subsequently purchased by King Carlos IV of Spain. This incredible piece is both priceless and unique: a three metre long centrepiece in antique marble and semi-precious stones decorated with reproductions of classical buildings that the famed Roman sculptor and goldsmith dreamt up for an exceptionally wealthy clientele.

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Male nude study or Hector
Musée Fabre, Montpellier

The last section of the exhibition gathers a selection of paintings and sculptures by the most famous artists who looked to classical antiquity for inspiration. Antonio Canova, significantly acknowledged in his time as the greatest “emulator of Phidias”, closes the exhibition, with two masterpieces: Venus and Adonis from the Possagno Gypsotheque, and the Winged Cupid from the Hermitage.

Antonio Canova (1757-1822), Winged Cupid
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The exhibition also features a highly original and atmospheric virtual reconstruction of the lost interiors of the Domus Aurea, designed by Stefano Borghini and Raffaele Carlani. Modern virtual technology has been used to bring historic drawings and watercolour etchings of this ancient artwork to life, giving us the chance to relive the vision that would have greeted eighteenth century observers. Visitors to the exhibition will thus be able to experience this fascinating spectacle of frescoes, stuccoes and mosaics and fully enter into the enthralling atmosphere of the rediscovery of antiquity.

Fondazione Roma official exhibition page
Exhibition page of sponsor Arthemisia Group

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Chardin - The Painter of Silence

The Soap bubble
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Chardin: the painter of silence
Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara
17th October 2010 - 30th January 2011
Prado Museum, Madrid
28th February - 28th May 2011

The Palazzo dei Diamanti celebrates one of the most extraordinary artists of all time, Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), with the first monographic exhibition ever organised in Italy. The result of collaboration between Ferrara Arte and the Prado Museum in Madrid, and curated by Pierre Rosenberg, the world's leading expert on the artist, the show covers the whole career of this protagonist of eighteenth century art who, with his innovative painting technique and anti-conformity with regard to traditional academic rules, was able to elevate everyday domestic objects and the gestures of ordinary people to the subject of artistic expression.
Fifty-two masterpieces from some of the world's leading public and private collections will provide an unrepeatable opportunity to encounter this remarkable poet of everyday life who has been loved and admired by many of the greatest modern painters, such as Cézanne, Matisse and Morandi.
Basket of plums, bottle, glass of water and cucumbers
Frick Collection, New York
Chardin was one of the most original artists of his time. From a young age, he refused to follow the traditional paths of instruction through the academies and was one of the few young artists at the time not to make the Grand Tour in Italy. Furthermore, of all genres of painting, he avoided exactly those that in France at the time would have guaranteed status and fortune to the artist: the painting of historical or mythological subjects. Nonetheless, in 1728, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, to which Chardin had applied by submitting his first striking still lifes, recognized his talent and admitted him to their ranks as a "painter skilled in animals and fruits". Although he painted still lives, which were considered a minor genre and therefore no guarantee of success, Chardin soon became well known within the competitive Parisian scene.

Girl with Shuttlecock
Private collection
Over the next decade, he broadened his subject matter to include the human figure, with remarkable success. While eighteenth century France was busily engrossed in the luxurious life of the court and its fêtes galantes, fashioning a lifestyle from the ephemeral, Chardin was describing another reality. A contemplative and careful painter, he created the least "Parisian" canvases of the century by painting silence: a silence which pervaded both his still lives, picturing common domestic utensils arranged on rustic tables, and his interiors, in which the domestic servants and the offspring of the French bourgeoisie are shown thoughtfully going about their daily activities. Ornamental embellishment was banished, the pictures became poems to daily life, sensitively portraying humble people and transforming them into the key figures of their time. This period gave rise to such masterpieces as The Cellar Boy, The Governess and The Young Draughtsman in addition to the touching pictures of children at play, such as The Soap Bubble, Girl with Shuttlecock or Child with a Top. In each of these works, through an astonishing technical ability based on the correlations between tone and colour and the variations in the effects of light, the artist manages to convey to the observer his emotional response to his subjects.

A Vase of Flowers
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
Even when he returned to painting still life, Chardin continued to paint in this spirit, creating masterpieces like Bouquet of Carnations, Tuberoses and Sweet Peas, on loan from Edinburgh, about which Charles Sterling, one of the great art historians of the previous century, wrote: "Alongside Poussin and Claude Lorrain, Chardin is the one who has had the greatest influence on modern painting. Certain researches of Manet and Cézanne are inconceivable without Chardin. It would be hard to imagine anything more ‘advanced' in the way of layout and pictorial handling than the Edinburgh's Vase of Flowers. It stands out above anything of the kind painted by Delacroix, Millet, Courbet, Degas and the Impressionists. Only in Cézanne and in post-Cézannian painting can we hope to find so much power in so much simplicity."

Chardin gained public appreciation of his works beginning with the canvases he exhibited at the Salon from 1737. His pictures were also enthusiastically greeted by the critics, including the great Denis Diderot, who in 1763 publically lauded the realism of the painter's still lifes. Chardin was also much admired by the King of France, Louis XV, to whom the painter gave The Diligent Mother and Saying Grace, receiving in return the sovereign's esteem, and in 1757, the great privilege of residing and working at the Louvre.

Glass of water and coffee-jug
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
Towards 1770, problems with his health caused Chardin to slow down, gradually abandoning painting in oils. However, without losing spirit, the elderly master inaugurated a new season in his art, using the delicacy of pastels to create portraits of extraordinary psychological intensity. With these works, we conclude the long career of this artist, who for all his life conceived of painting as a means of knowing reality, of carefully avoiding anecdotal content, while aiming for a timelessness reflecting the harmonious perfection between form and emotion.

The elevation of humble household utensils and the small daily activities of common people into artistic subject matter and his extraordinary technical skills made Chardin one of the most loved by modern painters such Cézanne, Matisse, Braque, Picasso, Morandi and Paolini, not to mention Vincent Van Gogh, who regarded Chardin "as great as Rembrandt."

The exhibition offers the occasion to retrace the key stages in Chardin's artistic career through a selection of works on loan from museums and private collections throughout the world, most notably, both for the quantity and the quality of the over 10 masterpieces generously lent, for the exceptional support of the Louvre.

Gallery of works on the official exhibition site

Cat with salmon, two mackerels, pestle and mortar
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
The scullery maid
Hunterian Museum, Glasgow

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Landscape discovered in Raphael painting

X-ray discovery may rewrite an important page in the history of art
Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael, 1483-1520), 'Granduca' Madonna
Palazzo Pitti, Florence
(Corriere della Sera, 23rd December 2010):

Could a dark, almost black background surrounding the figures of one of Raphael's most famous paintings, the Granduca Madonna in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, change the story of a painter and the way he is researched? And it is possible that an analysis of the panel recently conducted by the OPD (Opificio delle Pietre Dure) in Florence could give a definitive answer to a question that has divided three generations of art historians between two theories: has the black background always existed, or was it added later? Here is the answer in a few words from Marco Ciatti: "The parts painted over the black background are successive retouchings." Is this an opinion? No, it is a certainty, because the X-ray fluorescence analysis, in practice a radiographic procedure that analyses the chemical components of the pigment, shows that the parts painted over the black background and the background itself are not original, but were added later than the Madonna and Child.
The x-ray image showing the layer of paint beneath the black background surrounding the Madonna and Child (1), with a balustrade behind them (2), a landscape (3), a corniced structure closing the view behind the Madonna (4), and another structure visible on the left (5)
[photo: Corriere della Sera]


But to understand this we need to mention other factors. The Pitti Madonna is one of the last pictures showing Raphael's dialogue with Leonardo da Vinci. What is certain is that in all the Madonnas painted by Raphael in the years around 1505-07 a landscape appears, to mention only the Terranova Madonna in Berlin, the Madonna of the Meadow in Vienna, the Cowper Madonna in the National Gallery in Washington, the Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi and the Belle Jardinière in the Louvre. There is also a drawing in the Uffizi, which is universally recognised as a study for the Granduca Madonna. In this drawing one can see two things: the painter's initial idea was to paint an ovoid picture, later transformed into a rectangular one; also, in the drawing, unique architectural elements to the left and right are clearly marked. So Raphael envisaged the Pitti Madonna within a space constructed to give breadth and depth to the figures. Moreover the recent X-ray, conducted with new techniques, but preceded by another thirty years ago, has helped define the image painted by Raphael: the interior of a room, a window, perhaps a balustrade, and beyond this, to the right, a landscape. The painting was intended to contain architectural structures like in the Madonna in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and moreover Raphael, in this period, also painted portraits in an architectural landscape, such as the Lady with a unicorn in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, and the Portrait of a lady in the Louvre, a strongly Leonardo-esque design with a vast landscape background.

Lady with a unicorn
Galleria Borghese, Rome

Raphael always paints his figures within a space, and immerses them in encircling light, so it is unthinkable that he painted the Granduca Madonna with the edges silhouetted against a black background. Critics, confronted with this issue, have suggested a change of mind by Raphael, which, after the Uffizi project, holds that the painting would originally have had an architectural background which Raphael then erased by superimposing a dark covering. This argument is undermined not only by the drawing in the Uffizi, but also by another 16th century painting  which clearly echoes the Granduca Madonna, and depicts the Virgin before a ledge with a large landscape behind. So, at least until the latter part of the sixteenth century, the architectural features and landscape of the Pitti tableau would have been visible. Taking into account the recent physical analysis of the painting, the black background could be an addition of the seventeenth century; it is certainly previous to its acquisition by the Grand Duke in 1800, when the painting was described as "peeled in some places," since the first copy of the painting, made in 1803, already shows the dark background.

Madonna and Child with St Joseph
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
But what difference does it make whether the Granduca Madonna has behind her an architectural landscape or a black background? The black contours surrounding the image of the Madonna and Child deprive the figures of space and prevent us from understanding the dialogue between Raphael and Leonardo, which culminated between 1505 and 1506. This dialogue necessarily implies an encircling light, an insertion of forms into a space which, for Leonardo, and thus also for Raphael, signified the continuity of creation and a subtle adherence to the 'philosophy of light', in other words Neoplatonic philosophy. Later, around 1506 and even more in 1507, Raphael moves towards Michelangelo, his forms become more distinct, volumes are emphasised. In the Granduca Madonna, even today one senses the presence of a soft encircling light which suffuses the figures, now shut off by the black outline.

So I think the elimination of the dark background is now required, to reveal the original text, but the question remains: what led to the covering up of Raphael's precious text which, as evidenced by the X -rays, still exists? Some marginal damage? And is the panel itself still intact or, as it seems, has it been cropped? In short, the problems are many; it is certain that we are confronted with a discovery that will forever change the image of the Granduca Madonna, diffused in millions of copies and now seen as almost holy. Think about it: we are about to see disappear forever the only known Raphael that was disguised as a Caravaggio!

Arturo Carlo Quintavalle
(translation: A Curran)