Raphael: The shock of the old

The National Gallery has drawn together an extraordinary collection of works by Raphael. Louise Jury examines his appeal 500 years after his death and profiles the precocious artist who won fame at such a young age
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He died nearly 500 years ago, but the outstanding talent of Raphael still has the power to draw millions to art galleries around the world.

He died nearly 500 years ago, but the outstanding talent of Raphael still has the power to draw millions to art galleries around the world.

Yesterday, the National Gallery announced that it is to stage the first major exhibition of works outside Italy by the artist known as Raffaello di Giovanni Santi, comprising 100 drawings and paintings.

Described by experts as one of the "most comprehensive" exhibitions of the artist's paintings and drawings, it will include many pieces never seen in Britain.

After five years of negotiations with curators across the world, precious pieces from museums including the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Vatican will be hung in the gallery in Trafalgar Square alongside the nine paintings already owned by the gallery.

The highlight will be the The Madonna of the Pinks , whose controversial £22m acquisition by the National Gallery last year happened long after plans for the show began.

The exhibition is expected to rival the success of the National's recent exhibition successes with Titian and El Greco. It will chart Raphael's journey from middle-class affluence in the court in the town of Urbino in Le Marche to a life of fame and fortune in the heart of establishment Rome.

Carol Plazzotta, the curator and co-author of a book accompanying the exhibition, said: "It really is the story of a precociously talented young artist and his dramatic rise to fame. He's an extraordinarily romantic figure. He is to art as Mozart was to music."

Yet she admitted yesterday that there had been many times in recent years when she had wondered whether it would be possible to secure the works needed to tell his extraordinary story.

Many works in the exhibition have never been seen in Britain. Among the most significant loans are the newly cleaned Alba Madonna , from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Conestabile Madonna from the Hermitage, St Petersburg, the Louvre's Saint George and Saint Michael and a self-portrait from the Uffizi in Florence.

Two processional banners from Italy, which are believed to be the earliest known Raphael designs, have never been lent anywhere before.

"It has been quite a challenge getting these things, because everywhere we go we're asking for the crown jewels. That's why it's been a long time in the playing," Ms Plazzotta said.

The National Gallery already owns nine Raphael paintings, including The Madonna of the Pinks . Other paintings in the show were once held in Britain before they were sold by their wealthy owners in the 19th century.

Aristocrats on grand tours of Europe during the 18th century fell in love with Raphael's work and began collecting voraciously. But, in the 19th century, many of the paintings were sold abroad to collectors in Russia and wealthy industrial barons in the US.

The Resurrection of Christ and The Agony in the Garden are both works that were once in Britain and are now in the exhibition.

It will also feature a large number of Britain's holdings of Raphael drawings on loan from the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum and the Royal Collection.

Ms Plazzotta said: "This is the first exhibition to represent Raphael so comprehensively, in terms of drawings and paintings, outside Italy."

Now, the National is confidently predicting scholars will pour in from around the world as the scale and fragility of the works mean the show cannot tour anywhere else afterwards.

"A monographic Raphael show, particularly one devoted to the transition from the artist's fresh early style to the assured classicism of his Roman maturity, is long overdue in this country," Ms Plazzotta said.

"Its aim is to reintroduce the public to an extraordinarily versatile artist, whose facility and unparalleled grasp of design revolutionised the art of painting."

"We look foward to queues around the block," said Charles Saumarez Smith, the director of the National Gallery.

The exhibition, entitled, Raphael - From Urbino to Rome, charts the dramatic rise of Raphael (1483-1520) and the flowering of his talent under the patronage of Pope Julius II. It runs from 20 October to 16 January. There will be an admission charge.

A womanising charmer who lived fast and died young

His precocious skill helped him create beauty so exquisite it appeared heaven-sent, but had the great painter Raphael been alive today, his hedonistic lifestyle would have generated as many headlines as his outstanding art.

A womanising charmer, Raphael lived fast and died young. Even so, he left behind him a body of work that competes with those other great Renaissance masters, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, at whose feet he studied.

Raffaello di Giovanni Santi was born in the cultured surroundings of the court of Urbino, the son of Giovanni Santi, a painter, and Magia di Battista Ciarli, who died when he was only eight. Although the Renaissance writer Giorgio Vasari, Raphael's first biographer, described Santi as an artist "of no great merit", he gave his son his first instruction in painting.

Santi, who was also a poet and chronicler and very much in touch with the advanced artistic ideas which circulated at the court of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, died when his son was just 11.

The young Raphael was no doubt influenced by the hub of artistic activity in Urbino during his youth, which attracted the likes of Piero della Francesca and Leon Battista Alberti.

Research for the new exhibition shows that his father was probably more important to Raphael's early development than previously noted, and arguably much greater than the artist's other early influence, the great Umbrian master, Pietro Perugino, whose workshop Raphael entered after the death of his father.

But Raphael's own style emerged young. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, has a self-portrait he painted at 15. By 17, he was already described as a "master" and winning important commissions including portraits of the powerful women patrons of the city of Perugia whom he charmed.

By 1504, aged 21, he had moved on to Florence where he encountered the great works of Michelangelo and Leonardo, who would become his principal teachers in the city. From Leonardo, he learned how to contrast light and dark, from Michelangelo the beauty of human anatomy.

Between 1505 and 1507 he painted a famous series of Madonnas, which owed much to Leonardo's use of chiaroscuro (light and dark) and sfumato (using shading instead of lines to delineate forms and feature). But he also developed his own style, painting rounder, more gentle faces which conveyed human emotions elevated to sublime perfection. He moved away from the passionate intensity of his teachers towards a calmer, more accessible style.

In 1508, Raphael was called to Rome by Pope Julius II where he made a deep impression on the papal court, and spent the remaining 12 years of his life, acquiring the title "prince of painters" and a reputation the less flamboyant Michelangelo was to envy.

The tall, handsome and intelligent artist earned a fortune under the pope's patronage. He painted a cycle of frescoes in the Vatican papal apartments, nine drawings for which will be seen in this autumn's show. The Stanze, or "rooms", were where Pope Julius himself lived and worked. His decoration of the Stanza della Segnatura, based on the theme of the historical justification of the Catholic Church through neo-platonic philosophy, is considered by some to be his greatest work.

When Bramante, the architect of St Peter's basilica, died, Raphael took over, transforming the plans from a Greek to a Latin design and was eventually put in charge of all the archaeological excavations in Rome. He was a keen student of archaeology and of ancient Greco-Roman sculpture, whose influence is apparent in his paintings of the human figure during the Roman period.

Raphael painted another series of Madonnas in Rome that demonstrated a shift away from his earlier gentleness. They are more energetic, richer in colour and show more technical sophistication. He also became the most important portraitist in Rome, painting Pope Leo X, who commissioned him to design 10 large tapestries for the Sistine Chapel.

These tapestries still hang in the chapel, but seven of the cartoons on which they are based are on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The artist's last masterpiece - left unfinished at his death and completed by his assistant Giulio Romano - is the Transfiguration, an enormous altarpiece which now hangs in the Vatican museum.

His sexual appetite was as prolific as his art and it was claimed his mistress was smuggled on site at one commission to speed up the progress. But he had just agreed to an upwardly mobile marriage with a cardinal's daughter when first she, then he died.

Raphael died on his 37th birthday. Vasari suggested the cause of death was not the fever he had been suffering but "amatory excess". His funeral mass took place at the Vatican and he was buried in the Pantheon.

"This man was born with a prodigious talent who outshone all his contemporaries. In every city he arrived at, he supplanted the masters who were working there and moved on in a very ambitious trajectory," said Ms Plazzotta, the curator of the exhibition at the National Gallery.