The Ragusa Pietà and the Cavalieri Crucifixion: the “Lost Michelangelos” are back in Rome

Il Rinascimento a Roma – The Renaissance in Rome: this new exhibition at Palazzo Sciarra opened today and will run until 12 February.  Among other paintings rarely seen side by side – they have come from other museums in Italy, but also from St Petersburg and Vienna – pride of place is taken by the two paintings attributed to Michelangelo that featured in the book by Antonio Forcellino The Lost Michelangelos, published by Polity earlier this year.   I had the pleasure of translating the book – a real pleasure because my specialist subject is early sixteenth-century Italian history, and in particular the Florentine community in Rome and the spiritual upheavals of the years leading up to the Council of Trent.

Corresponding with Antonio Forcellino, who has been present during Lorenza D’Alessandro’s restoration of the Pietà  – now sometimes unappealingly called the Buffalo Pietà: I much prefer the Ragusa Pietà, which I hope will win the day! – I realise that the case for its attribution to the great master is gaining strength by the day.  It is rare indeed in the art world that the archival documentation, the historical reconstruction of events, and the technical analysis of the painting coincide so completely.  What seems even more bizarre is that until the late 19th century (when the painting was taken to America), this painting was recognised by all those who knew of it to be by Michelangelo, but this all changed when the great art historians of the 20th century – scholars of the calibre of Johannes Wilde and others – chose to disregard the archival documentation on the grounds that Vasari had decreed that the master had produced only four panel paintings, or easel paintings.  All this has been extensively written up in scholarly articles by Antonio Forcellino and his sister Maria Forcellino – and the latter has also written extensively on the Cavalieri Crucifixion in Oxford and on Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna e gli spirituali (2009).  However, to no avail: many art historians still rule out the evidence.  Time will tell, but with this exhibition the countdown is now well underway.

The Reunion of a Lifetime: Raphael’s Tapestries and his Cartoons

I’m very excited actually to be seeing this exhibition in a couple of weeks’ time when I go to the V&A. I’ve seen the cartoons before – they are part of the V&A’s permanent collection – but this will be very different.

Raphael himself never saw his cartoons alongside the tapestries because he never visited Brussels while the tapestries were being woven. Indeed no one has probably seen them hanging side by side for some 500 years because the tapestries were sent to Rome – some of them in time to be displayed at the Christmas mass in 1517 –  while the cartoons remained in Brussels until they were acquired by the future Charles I in 1623 and brought to London. This special loan by the Vatican of four the tapestries is truly a once in a lifetime – see it now or never – opportunity!

Mark Evans, the V&A’s senior curator responsible for the exhibition, talks of the possibility of seeing the “vital spark” linking Raphael’s cartoons to the tapestries that were commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X to hang on the low walls of the Sistine Chapel, beneath Michelangelo’s ceiling.

The author of a piece for The Economist‘s Prospero blog writes:

Three of the tapestries were in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Renaissance tapestry show in 2002. In writing about the “Acts of the Apostles” series, the show’s curator (now the museum’s director) Thomas P. Campbell states that “general opinion had it that there was nothing more beautiful in the world.” …  Go. Forget comparisons. Raphael, we know, was a great artist. But so were those weavers. They were terribly paid and he was famous but they did not follow his designs slavishly. They expressed their own aesthetic too. Many unexpected thoughts are provoked by looking from cartoon to tapestry and back. I found myself for the first time thinking about what time of day the miracle of the fishes took place. The cartoon is done in the close moody tones of evening. The men and creatures in the tapestry have been touched by the light of the sun. Pleasure has been doubled, not diminished. What a gift this is.

Tapestry is undoubtedly one of the most glorious art forms of the Renaissance, “the ultimate luxurious decoration” as Mark Evans puts it.  These masterpieces were the work of Pieter van Aelst in Brussels and they are reputed to have cost almost five times as much as Michelangelo’s ceiling.  They are still only brought out on very special occasions to hang below the equally magnificent frescoes of scenes from the life of Christ by Ghirlandaio, Perugino with Pinturicchio, Botticelli, and others.

The restoration of these wonderful tapestries and their loan for the V&A exhibition is being funded by one of the Vatican Museum’s largest benefactors, the hedge fund manager cum philanthropist Michael Hintze, who also financed the Dorothy and Michael Hintze Sculpture Galleries in the same museum.

I’ll write up more when I’ve been to see the exhibition, but when I booked online I was amazed to find that it was free – thanks, Michael Hintze!