Arts: Traces of greatness

The Raphael cartoons, now back on public view at the V&A, present a lost world of ideals. See them and marvel. By Andrew Graham-Dixon
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The Independent Culture
"Cartoons are made thus," says Giorgio Vasari in The Lives of the Artists. "Sheets of paper, I mean square sheets, are fastened together with paste of flour and water cooked on the fire. They are then attached to the wall by this paste, which is spread two fingers' breadth all round on the side next to the wall, and are damped all over by sprinkling cold water on them. In this moist state they are stretched so that the creases are smoothed out in the drying. Then when they are dry the artist proceeds..."

Last Saturday the Raphael cartoons - once described with characteristic gusto by the 19th-century painter and polemicist Benjamin Robert Haydon as the greatest paintings in the world - were put back on public display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. These reputedly fragile works on paper have spent more than four years in the obscurity of the conservation department. The customary heated debate about the role of the art restorer in the late 20th century seems, however, unlikely to ensue. This is because, apart from a few small running repairs, the paintings have not actually been restored. They have merely been monitored. Various diagnostic techniques have been employed. X-rays have been taken which prove, among other things, that Raphael did indeed, as Vasari suggested, paint the cartoons in an upright position rather than - as some had hypothesised - crouching over them like Jackson Pollock at work on an Action Painting. But no major operation has been deemed necessary and the condition of the pictures has been declared stable.

Four years may seem, to some, rather a long time to have taken to arrive at such thoroughly unsensational conclusions. During that period, several small changes have also been made to the room in which the works are displayed. This reportedly cost pounds 2m, but visitors who have paid the now obligatory entry fee to the museum may wonder why quite such a large sum of money was necessary for the "refurbishment". The unpleasant dark lino which lends so much of the V&A the depressing atmosphere of a hospital has been removed from the floor of the Raphael Cartoon Court. The lighting, additionally, has been somewhat improved; although the effect of this has been rather undone by the breathtakingly misguided decision of Alan Borg, the V&As director, to move the museum's huge, extremely busy and somewhat naive early 15th-century Spanish altarpiece away from the foot of the library staircase and into this room.

The conjunction of that work with Raphael's solemn, lucid narrative paintings, created a hundred years later in the incalculably different intellectual, religious and aesthetic climate of Renaissance Rome, is extremely distracting. It is also unfortunate that the opportunity should not have been taken to remove the cartoons from the heavy gilt frames into which they were inappropriately put in the 18th century. It is a pity, too, that they have not been hung lower, so that Raphael's life-size figures would seem, much more dramatically, to occupy a world continuous with our own (an effect the painter certainly intended). And it is a shame that the glass long considered necessary to to protect them from dust could not have been replaced with the non-reflective variety. But it is at least reassuring to know that Raphael's great works of art should have been so carefully looked after in the purely physical sense; and that they should have received, after such a long deliberation, such a remarkably clean bill of health. Few masterpieces of High Renaissance painting can have lived much more precarious lives than theirs.

A cartoon was in essence a preparatory sketch on a grand scale, made to be translated into another medium. In the case of cartoons for fresco, the method of transfer - squaring up the image and pricking it on to the wall - was a process which left the cartoon itself relatively intact. But because the Raphael cartoons were commissioned as a set of designs for tapestry, they were systematically dismembered almost as soon as they were finished.

They were originally commissioned in 1515 by the cultured, epicurean and somewhat overweight Medici Pope, Leo X, who may be seen lurking bulkily, his brow furrowed with emotion and awe, in the shadows to the left of St Paul Preaching at Athens. By 1517, that and all the other cartoons had been sent from Rome to Brussels to be turned into tapestries by the ingenious Pieter van Aelst - and he, following the customary practice of his workshop, had each painting carefully sliced into a series of long vertical strips to be divided among his team of weavers. The tapestries thus made were hung on the walls of the Sistine Chapel (Raphael was conscious that his designs would be compared with Michelangelo's paintings on the ceiling, although today the tapestries are hung elsewhere in the Vatican Museum, obscuring the spirit of rivalry in which they were conceived). Meanwhile, somewhat unusually for the time, the cartoons were preserved - partly because of the importance of the commission, partly because of Raphael's great celebrity, and partly because the Renaissance had produced not only a new breed of artist but also a new breed of art collector, avid for any and all works from the hands of genius.

Raphael himself certainly hoped that the cartoons would enjoy this relatively novel form of afterlife available to sketches, drawings, designs and other forms of preparatory work. He finished the cartoons with more care, and he coloured them much more fully and subtly, than was strictly required by the weavers. The depiction of water and sky in The Miraculous Draught of Fishes is itself miraculous. By minutely varying the concentration of blue azurite in his painting medium, Raphael conveyed effects of light, distance and its reflection, on a grand scale yet with the delicacy of a watercolour - the picture startlingly anticipates the aerial perspectives of Turner.

During the 16th and early 17th centuries the cartoons passed through various hands until, in 1623, the seven which survive today (three more have gone missing over the centuries) were bought by Charles I for the relatively modest sum of pounds 300. Charles apparently bought them solely to have his own set of Raphael tapestries made up by the Mortlake workshop but he seems not to have considered putting the cartoons themselves back together. In the immediate aftermath of the English Civil War they are said to have been kept, still in pieces, in a number of wooden boxes in the Banqueting Hall. Cromwell overlooked them, Charles II was indifferent to them, and it was only during the reign of William III that they were, finally, reassembled and put on display in a purpose-built gallery, designed by Christopher Wren, at Hampton Court. During the second half of the 18th century they were again allowed to fall into obscurity by a monarch who did not care much for painting, but their status, if not their physical condition, was by then secure, as John Wilkes demonstrated in a brilliant speech addressed to the House of Commons in 1777. While "the English nation" was once "admitted to the rapturous enjoyment of their beauties", Wilkes complained, the cartoons "are now perishing in a late baronet's smoky house at the end of a great smoky town... Can there be, Sir, a greater mortification to any English gentleman of taste, than to be thus deprived of feasting his delighted view with what he most desired, and had always considered as the pride of our island, as an invaluable national treasure, as a common blessing, not as private property?"

It was Queen Victoria who finally responded, some 80 years later, to Wilkes's plea, by placing the cartoons on loan to the South Kensington Museum, now the V&A; and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, still nominally the owner of the pictures, herself, too, has come to regard them as "a common blessing, not as private property" - something she has made clear by declining to contribute to the cost of examining and conserving the paintings, thus graciously allowing the British taxpayer to take full responsibility for them.

The cartoons have come, justly, to be ranked among the Olympian achievements of Western civilisation - a process which reached its apogee in the early 19th century, when Haydon and others came to regard them as the only works of post-classical art worthy of comparison with the Elgin Marbles. But it is, for historical reasons, hard to imagine that they will ever enjoy quite such a high reputation ever again.

At their greatest - in The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, Christ's Charge to Peter, The Death of Ananias and St Paul Preaching at Athens - they perfectly incarnate that classical model of painting which Raphael invented, and which furnished generations of Western painters not only with their dreams and aspirations but with their very language as painters. Indeed, so much has been done with what Raphael invented that the true nature of his achievement must always remain somewhat obscure to those coming to his work, as we must, so late. Clarity of expression is an important part of it. The complex iconographic schemes furnished to Raphael by Leo X and his advisers have engaged the attention of art historians for decades, but the fact remains that the essence of each of Raphael's cartoons - its emotional centre, so to speak - is immediately clear to anyone with eyes and the patience to look. The figures in the cartoons are so expressive of their emotions that they amount to archetypes of human feeling: devotion; awe; authority; shock; vengefulness; righteousness; venality; love. Of course, these emotions had been present in painting before. But never had they been given such formal authority. Never before had they been rendered in such strong, stark, unambiguous terms.

Michelangelo's figures had been invested with the same aura of inevitability, of absolute rightness of execution. But Michelangelo was not fundamentally interested in other people, so for all his assurance and for all the variety of his forms, he always seemed to be animating aspects of his own spirit. Raphael, by contrast, had the dramatist's ability to set himself aside. He understood that because painting is a static art, slight exaggeration of expression or gesture might be necessary to lend a figure true physical eloquence - eloquenza del corpo, as a Renaissance rhetorician might have expressed it. The cartoons are full of finely judged instances of such subtle exaggeration (conversely, the figures that were entrusted to assistants often seem lifeless or histrionically overstated).

Raphael drew on a multitude of sources: the contemporary Roman theatre; memories of the work of artists as various as Giotto and Michelangelo; classical theories of rhetorically enhanced expression, interpreted and amplified by his own contemporaries. Yet in the words of Sir Joshua Reynolds, "His known wealth was so great that he might borrow where he pleased without loss of credit"; and what he created in painting was something quite his own.

Not only was it a pictorial world of unparalleled emotional range, but also one of unparalleled ethical force - a higher version of reality in which every action performed and every emotion gone through seems charged with unusual significance. This quality stems from Raphael's idealisations. His protagonists are anatomically perfect, they wear generalised noble draperies rich in colour, and they are seen to act and feel among buildings of an austere and measured Graeco-Roman architecture. Despite their biblical subject matter, the cartoons, no less than

what is perhaps the greatest of his frescoes for the Stanza della Segnatura, The School of Athens, exemplify the classical aspect of Raphael's imagination. Yet it is for precisely that reason that they may never again be admired as greatly as they once were.

Raphael's classicism is inherently idealistic and therefore it is also inherently demanding - an art which wants us, too, to try to live up to the exacting ethical, spiritual, physical, social and architectural standards which it presents to us. The dominant tradition of painting in the West from Raphael's time onward - a Franco-Italianate tradition of high narrative art, exemplified by the works of Poussin in the 17th century and those of Jacques-Louis David in the 18th - spoke the language of classical idealism which he had invented. Yet we, living in the aftermath of the 19th and 20th centuries' many revolutions in society and culture, and the thorough dismantling of that once mighty tradition, have been taught to feel extremely uncomfortable in front of such painting. The notion of absolute order, or at least of the possibility of such, which is proposed by Raphael's painting, is something that can seem intimidating to us, if not actually fraudulent - a dangerous lie about what we should expect from ourselves and the world.

We are much happier with art that admits and perhaps even consecrates frailty - an art which, like that of Degas, the greatest dismantler of those grand Raphaelesque formulas which had grown academic in his time, is prepared to countenance and even to love weakness and failure, awkwardness and incompleteness. It is natural for us to love Degas, because he more than any other painter of modern life forgives us our inadequacies. But perhaps that is precisely why we should look again and more closely at a painter who, as Raphael does, seems to exemplify the very opposite of our own zeitgeist. His sense of wholeness is now fresh and strange - and a reminder, perhaps, that our cult of the fragment, built on the demolition of tradition and the distrust of all certainties, has itself become another academyn

The Raphael Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, is open Mon 12-5.50pm, Tues to Sun 10am-5.50pm (0171-938 8500). Entry to the V&A is pounds 5 adults, pounds 3 concs