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Don’t Take Our Raphael!

The first time I met Nicholas Penny, around ten years ago, the first thing I asked him was, “Are you the man who discovered the Raphael?” “I’m glad you remembered that,” said Penny. “That was almost a year ago and people are already beginning to forget.” But it is the kind of story that sticks in the mind, and if, like me, you are bedeviled by fantasies of discovering overlooked masterpieces, why then it is the kind of story about which you want to learn more. Penny found the Raphael in a corridor in Alnwick Castle, the seat of the Duke of Northumberland. It was not, as it soon became in the retelling, a darkened corridor. Nor was it in the attic. It was a reasonably well-lit corridor near the private breakfast room on the piano nobile of the castle.

Penny, who was then Clore Curator of Renaissance Art at the National Gallery in London (he is now Curator of Sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington), had been visiting Alnwick in order to study the paintings. He had been treated well—wined and dined, put up for the night, allowed to examine everything that interested him—and was in a good mood. After lunch on the second day, he felt, on rising from the table, a sense that he ought, perhaps, to do something to show his appreciation. He had indeed been lucky. Other informants tell me that the food at Alnwick Castle was always notoriously foul, even by the standards of the English country house—so foul that the family themselves could never wait to get away from the table.

He stood up, with the vague sense that there might be some pleasant, polite gesture he might make. He strolled out into the corridor and he paused in front of a picture. It was in a very well carved nineteenth-century gilt boxwood frame. Along the top of the frame was its title, Madonna dei Garofani (the Madonna of the Carnations, or Pinks). On the base was the name of the artist, “Raphael.” Penny (who had coauthored a book on Raphael1 ) paused and thought: “That must have been a very expensive frame to make.” And this thought, which for most of us would have been inconsequential, led on to other thoughts.

I ought here to explain that Penny is an expert on frames, as on many aspects of the decorative arts. For the National Gallery in London he has written a pocket guide on the subject.2 The other day in New York he astonished a dealer friend of mine by identifying, on the basis of its frame, the collection a painting had once belonged to. What impressed my friend was the fact that they were not even in the same room as the painting in question—it was something Penny had glimpsed in the distance. And this was only one of many fruitful observations made in a short visit.

Penny looked at the frame on the “Raphael” and thought it must have been expensive, and if it had been expensive that might well mean that the painting had once been highly valued. And if it had once been highly valued, it would be worth asking why. The composition of the picture, in which the Madonna holds a bunch of pinks in one hand, while the Child, on a cushion on her lap, examines two more of the flowers, was well known to Penny through its numerous copies—it was one of Raphael’s popular works, long thought missing. And yet this version seemed of high quality. What is more, there was a visible pentimento, an artist’s correction, in the little landscape at the back. Penny suggested that it might be a good idea to send the picture to the National Gallery for further study.

It arrived in London, carefully packed in white tissue paper, in a clear plastic carrier bag, without its frame—a small fruitwood panel of 11.4 by 9.1 inches. Jill Dunkerton, who unwrapped it in the conservation department, can still remember the moment vividly, since she had been told to expect not a Raphael but only a rather interesting painting. Yet when she placed the panel on a stand, under a good light, its quality was immediately obvious. Furthermore, when the work was examined with a vidicon machine, it was revealed to have a vigorous and beautiful underdrawing—not typical of all of Raphael’s underdrawings, but well comparable to some, such as that of the painting in Washington known as The Small Cowper Madonna.

Experts were brought in, and those who were not immediately convinced by the quality of the painting itself were soon converted by the sight of the underdrawing. Penny attributed it to Raphael and, in the ten years since its publication, this attribution seems never to have received any serious, scholarly challenge. This does not mean that there are no connoisseurs who deny the authenticity of the painting—there are indeed some. But the overwhelming consensus has been in favor of Penny’s attribution. And this degree of unanimity is hardly to be counted on in the world of the art historian. (That is one reason why the Getty Museum in Los Angeles purchased the picture from the duke for some $50 million.)

At the very least, Penny’s original surmise proved correct: the painting had, at the time the frame was made for it, been highly valued, for it had been bought as a Raphael, in Rome in 1853, as part of the Camuccini Collection. The purchaser was the fourth Duke of Northumberland, who spent 125,000 Roman scudi (£27,589 8s 6d) on what was the last great bulk purchase for export of Italian paintings: seventy-four of them, including Bellini’s Feast of the Gods (now in Washington). The Raphael was valued at £2,500, the most expensive item in the collection. And it was described by Gustav Waagen in 1854 with notable enthusiasm: “Of all the numerous specimens of the picture I have seen, none appear to me so well entitled to be attributed to [Raphael’s] hand as this.”3 Yet within six years it had been declared a copy.

What causes a painting to fall from favor, as this one did so soon after its arrival in Alnwick? What causes these relegations to lower leagues, these sudden and capricious disparagements? Chance must play a large part in it, as it seems to have done in this case. I recently spent a weekend in the company of some of the leading Raphael scholars, who were discussing the early work of the master. What struck me on several occasions was their readiness to go back to early sources—not just the earliest sources but also nineteenth-century historians and critics—to go back to them, to be sure, for their errors, but to go back to them also for their insights.

It is not the case (or it does not seem to be) that art history makes a definite, irreversible progress uniformly on all fronts. An observation made in 1840, disprized in 1870, and neglected ever since may turn out to suggest the solution to a problem. The great scholars from before the age of photography, who traveled around the European collections with nothing more than their notebooks and their memories to help them in their comparisons, may have been better trained in the art of observation than the modern student with a photo archive at his fingertips. They worked, after all, mainly by examining original works of art.

And then it appears that it is not wise to assume that all the archives have been ransacked for the light that they can shed on Raphael. Key dates can still be found on documents. Key inscriptions may turn out to have been overlooked, or mistranscribed, or misinterpreted. It happens with Raphael, just as it happens with the works of other artists, that a single piece of evidence, or a single misapprehension, can skew the whole of our understanding. An inaccuracy in the reporting of a certain cardinal’s birth date, the fact that an inventory number has disappeared beneath a layer of grime, apprehensiveness over the doubting of a certain grand painting’s authenticity—any one of these, let alone a number of these in combination, can wreck a whole chain of reasoning. “I paused before [the Raphael],” Penny wrote, “chiefly because I am interested in picture frames as well as pictures and in the history of error as well as in the history of art.”4

Astonishing discoveries can be made in the most obvious of places. It is only a generation ago that Penny’s predecessor at Trafalgar Square, Cecil Gould, stood with Konrad Oberhuber in front of the National Gallery’s portrait of Pope Julius II, then usually believed to be a copy of a Raphael, and as a result of their conversations decided to make a complete X-ray mosaic of the painting. This research led to other inquiries which enabled Gould to prove that the National Gallery’s version of the portrait was the original, which once belonged, with another Raphael painting of the Madonna, to the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. In this church the two paintings were so revered that they were only shown to the public on certain feast days.

Then along came a papal favorite, Cardinal Sfondrati, one of those sinister cardinals who seem to have stepped out of the poems of Robert Browning. In 1591 he confiscated the two great works for his own collection, leaving an insulting 100 scudi offering for the church. And so began a process by which this portrait, which was once said to have been so true to life that it caused fear in those who saw it, fell into obscurity. It passed from collection to collection. First, the identity of the sitter was forgotten. Then the presumption of its inferiority took hold, as another version of the portrait, in the Uffizi, was preferred.5

One door opens. One door closes. One masterpiece lights up. One comes crashing off the wall. One man writes: Dear Diary, today I discovered a Raphael. Another: Dear Diary, I am not sure how Mr. Getty is going to take this…

I mentioned that there were two Raphaels in Santa Maria del Popolo, whisked away by the feared and detested Cardinal Sfondrati, to the anger of all Rome. One was the papal portrait. The other was a composition known as The Madonna of Loreto—another of those Madonnas much admired and copied over the years. A generation ago one could have been forgiven for thinking that both of them had found their way, by different routes, to the National Gallery in London, for, as Gould wrote, the version of The Madonna of Loreto “which has the best claim to being original is that at present on loan to the National Gallery from Art Properties Inc., by courtesy of Mr. J. Paul Getty.” But a few years after writing this, by the same method of reasoning that established the National Gallery’s portrait, Gould was able to show that the picture that hung in the church was now in the Musée Condé at Chantilly. Getty’s Raphael was relegated to second league.

  1. 1

    Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny, Raphael (Yale University Press, 1983).

  2. 2

    Nicholas Penny, Frames (London: National Gallery, 1997).

  3. 3

    Cited in Nicholas Penny, “Raphael’s Madonna dei Garofani Rediscovered,” Burlington Magazine, February 1992, p. 80.

  4. 4

    The Lost Madonna,” The Independent Magazine, February 8, 1992, p. 46.

  5. 5

    Cecil Gould, “Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Julius II: The Re-emergence of the Original” (London: National Gallery, 1970).

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