Mark Stocker, Curator International Historical Art, shares a Christmas delight with you: Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia, the Palazzo Pitti original and the Whanganui copy…
Michelangelo and Raphael are the Lennon and McCartney of the High Renaissance. Michelangelo – edgy, original and obviously brilliant, Raphael – beautiful, sweeter and keener to please.
It’s like ‘Help’ and ‘Revolution’ vs. ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Michelle’; or indeed David (that ‘Working-class hero’) vs. Madonna of the Meadow (‘Mother Mary comes to me’).
Raphael: a regular guy
We underrate Raphael (and indeed Paul McCartney) at our peril. The Vatican Stanze with their famous School of Athens fresco are a brilliant complement/compliment to the Sistine Chapel Ceiling a few hundred metres away and equally important in art history.
Though we shouldn’t confuse good art with good people as the Victorians sometimes did, Raphael was far more likeable and generous-spirited than Michelangelo – and it shows in his art.
Raphael in ‘Splendour’
Apart from his early Madonnas, you’d be hard put to find a Michelangelo image with which to wish the world a merry Christmas, whereas with Raphael you’re spoiled for choice. In Te Papa’s current exhibition, ‘European Splendour 1500–1800’, we have on display the next best thing to an authentic Raphael, which lends itself perfectly to a seasonal blog. This is a copy of his much-loved painting of c. 1514, the Madonna della Sedia (or Seggiola) which translates as Madonna of the Armchair.
A crème-de-la-crème copy
It makes a highly appropriate entrance to the exhibition: as a 19th-century copy of a 16th-century original, it spans our chosen timeframe perfectly, showing an iconic work that was enduringly popular throughout the period – and still is. It sets the scene for the ‘Sacred splendour’ gallery that follows. It just happens to be a highly refined and capable copy: a perusal of other copies on Google Images reveals some coarsely painted horrors! And it is also an honest copy, made as such, without any artificial aging of pigments or varnish, which forgers favour.
Several visitors to ‘Splendour’ have been momentarily startled, believing that Te Papa has pulled off the loan coup of the century, getting the original from the Palazzo Pitti, Florence (I wish!)
Happily, our hosts claim that nobody has subsequently expressed disappointment when told of its true status and permanent location, probably a tribute to the calibre of the copy.
Copies: the great unknown
I wish I could tell you more about the painting on show; who the artist was, where they were based (almost certainly Italy) or even at what point in the 19th century it dates from. But it could take many weeks to get closer to any answers. The world of the artistic copy is neglected by art historians, dealers and curators alike. Copies are often relegated to ‘decorative art’ status in the saleroom, and ignorance of them remains woeful and wilful.
A loan from Whanganui
While its early provenance (ownership history) is unknown, the Madonna della Sedia copy currently on show at Te Papa was purchased sometime before 1922 by the then recently-established Sarjeant Gallery. We are accordingly grateful to the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui for the loan. The style of the frame, discussed below, suggests it dates from the late 19th century, and it’s perfectly possible that the painting and frame are contemporaneous.
The lovely world of Raphael’s Madonnas
So, what of the place of Raphael’s Madonnas, and this one in particular, in the canon of art history? His biographer David Thompson observes: ‘The Madonna in art inhabits a border-territory which is part sacred, part secular. She can be an icon or an idealised mistress. Beauty is essential to her, and the Madonna painter searches for his image somewhere between the claims of religion, art and fashions in femininity’.
A brilliant adapter
Of course, the Madonna was a well-established theme in the early 16th century. Raphael brilliantly adapts earlier examples to the more rigorous idealism and classicism of the High Renaissance, never quite losing sight of the sweet and charming signature style of his teacher Perugino.
Nobler and holier than thou!
Small features, oval faces and neat mouths are all retained, but a greater degree of sensuousness is introduced, especially in the Madonna’s golden braided hair and more prominently bare necks and shoulders.
This reveals not only Raphael’s attraction to and love of women (an emotion totally alien to Michelangelo), but also reflects his Christian piety and propriety. The status of the Madonna, delicately human but nobler and holier than the rest of us, is never in doubt.
Madonnas for the people
Raphael’s renditions of the Christ Child are also convincingly serious yet sweet. They inevitably get less attention than those of his beautiful mother, but they too represent a significant development on the often severely lined and quaint miniature adults of his 15th-century predecessors. Whereas Leonardo da Vinci’s (and still less Michelangelo’s) Madonnas could never really be called sentimental, Raphael’s can. This, together with their piety, explains their ongoing appeal to ordinary people, and perhaps their limited appeal to intellectually snobbish, often non-believing, art historians.
Ecco la Madonna della Sedia!
The Madonna della Sedia dates from the peak of Raphael’s career, shortly after the Vatican Stanze frescoes. It is the most portrait-like of his Madonnas. The figures of the Madonna, Christ Child and to a lesser degree John the Baptist are pressed up close to us, and are arranged with great skill into the constricting round (tondo) format. Arms, legs and draperies swell and curve towards the spectator. Our hearts go out to the closely-bonded mother and child, who look outwards as if to communicate with us.
There is no questioning Raphael’s intuitive sympathy for the relationship between mother and child, nor indeed his engagement with feminine subjects. Details like the embroidered shawl and elegantly turned chair are beautifully painted in their material textures, as is flesh. Connoisseurs then and now marvel at his balance of colour and design: no-one got it better.
Idealisation versus naturalism
The appeal of the painting is understandable and deserved. But look at it closely and we can see its artificiality, its relative unnaturalism: the Madonna’s pose would be difficult to sustain in real life. How come her sleeve has no rumples, nor her right leg, whereas the drapery over her left leg is full of indentations? Raphael’s subtle idealisation, painting what he believes looks good rather than what is merely naturalistic, helps explain this.
The Uffizi and the Pitti
We recognise it as one of the classics hanging in what, in the 18th century, was the most famous room of art in the world, the Tribuna of the Uffizi in Florence. It is now a kilometer or so away in the Palazzo Pitti, across the river Arno and in its early history there was evidently some to-ing and fro-ing between these locations.
A Victorian tear-jerker
There’s also a heart-rending story about it in Victorian literature. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853), one of the characters is a Mrs Brown, married to a common soldier serving in India. She has lost six of her children in infancy, and is determined to carry her sole surviving baby back to Britain. With tiny Phoebe, she would take ‘a little picture… done by a Catholic foreigner… of the Virgin and the little saviour’.
The ‘picture’ concerned is clearly an engraving of the Madonna della Sedia, the gift of an officer’s wife for whom Mrs Brown had done some washing: ‘And when my body was very weary, and my heart was sick… I took out that picture and looked at it, till I could have thought the mother spoke to me’.
In its warm, domestic humanity, as opposed to the supernatural powers seen in the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the Madonna della Sedia has been of enduring appeal to Protestants and Catholics alike. When I was much younger, I remember reproductions of it featuring in the children’s corners of Anglican churches. Te Papa’s hosts note its ongoing appeal to families and young children. While it is certainly more girly than boyish in its stress on maternal affection, boys are understandably excited by the ‘solid gold’ frame.
Framing the classic
Although the original painting is first recorded in Medici ruler hands in 1589, the current frame dates from just over a century later. It was made for art and music lover Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici when the work was transferred from the Tribuna of the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti. It was designed by Giovanni Battista Foggini and carved by Giovanni Magni.
Framers on the frame
When we compare the frames of the Palazzo Pitti Madonna della Sedia with that of the Sarjeant Gallery, we don’t have to look too hard to notice differences between the two. I asked two frame experts, Detlef Klein (who carried out invaluable conservation treatment on our borrowed item) and Te Papa’s Matthew O’Reilly, for their thoughts here.
Detlef believes that the copy is ‘clearly a late 19th century interpretation of a late 17th century design. The floral motifs and carving is very sharp and exaggerated, deeper and more flamboyant than the original. But otherwise it is a rather cool copy of the early masters’. Matthew concurs: ‘Although the frame of the copy is well made, the original is better without a doubt: tighter, more rigorous in design, and the gold is purer.’
The $64 question
So, how much gold is used? Matthew estimates ‘about 150 gold leaves at 85 x 85 mm. per leaf per frame. But the thickness is roughly .5 micron! So not much gold weight’. There is, moreover, a silver component in the copy, which would mean that 22 carat leaf or a little less was used here. That makes the gold content probably worth about $200 at today’s spot price.
Buon natale a tutti!
But what matters more, surely, is the ‘bling’ factor of the Madonna della Sedia. You can judge a book by its cover and a painting by its frame! Yet the painting within is fascinating, beautiful, moving and significant, as I hope I’ve shown. I’d like to think Raphael himself would smile if he knew it was the subject of this blog, and would join me in wishing you a ‘Buon Natale’, ‘Koa Kirihimete’ and the compliments of the season.
Raphael and the Royal Collection
After reading this blog, Jonathan Marsden, director of the Royal Collection in the UK, kindly sent me this link about one of its treasures. It is a painting by German 19th century artist Johann Michael Wittmer.
Like Father Christmas himself, I want this lovely story to be real and true!