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Reviewed by:
  • Raphael
  • Marcia B. Hall
Bette Talvacchia . Raphael.New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2007. 240 pp. index. illus. map. gloss. chron. bibl. $39.95. ISBN:978–0–7148–4786–3.

This monograph launches a new series on the Old Masters by Phaidon, which will be something to look forward to if subsequent volumes match this one in quality of text and presentation. The eye-popping illustrations will send all of us who teach rushing to our scanners to replace our existing images. Although the book is evidently designed and priced to appeal to a broad audience, the scholar will find much to mull over in the text.

With an adroit hand and many anecdotes, Bette Talvacchia balances setting the stage with discussion of the works. She traces the career of the painter from provincial Urbino through his rise to chief painter at the papal court of Julius II [End Page 889] and Leo X, whose ambition was nothing less than to make the Vatican the capital of the Christian world and heir to the Rome of Julius Caesar and Augustus. An artist with lesser skill as an organizer and manager, with less energy and inspiration, would have failed to keep pace with the spiraling demands of his patrons. Talvacchia's Raphael is not just the sweet, gentle courtier bequeathed to us from sixteenth-century sources. He is aggressively competitive, a toughminded businessman who understood, for example, the potential profits to be made from a partnership with the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi to sell and disseminate his inventions.

Because Raphael is one of the best-studied artists not just of the Renaissance but of any period, his work can be examined with an eye to more probing questions than it would be possible to pose in the case of a less documented artist. With over 400 drawings surviving there is opportunity, exploited brilliantly by the author, to reconstruct his working method. In addition, unusually extensive study of Raphael's works has been done in the laboratory, allowing us to see beneath the surface and giving even greater insight into his procedure, and permitting us to track his practice over time and compare works executed simultaneously.

Talvacchia's most important contribution is to explicate with new understanding Raphael's working process, which, she says, was collaborative from the start of his career. A concern with the workings of the workshop runs through the whole book. As she intends to show by titling a chapter "A Revolutionary Configuration," Raphael "rethought the workshop structure, turning it into an operation that functioned with linked sequences instead of by a pre-established master plan" (190). Talvacchia explains that the Renaissance viewer valued the concetto above all else. In contrast, modern connoisseurs privileged the hand of the artist in the execution above all else. Raphael was a conceptual genius who developed his idea through multiple stages of drawings. Where he revolutionized the traditional procedure was in granting to his associates and assistants opportunities to develop the concetto during its gestation, under his supervision, and then in making them responsible for much or all of its final execution, again under his supervision. It was by means of this "managerial approach" that Raphael was able to keep numerous complex projects going simultaneously, and he excelled at matching the task to the talent of a particular assistant. Talvacchia points out that Raphael created a kind of school for teaching young artists: it then became the model for the academies, especially the French Academy because "the basic tenets of his approach were eminently communicable through instruction" (189). Connoisseurs have not properly understood Raphael's working procedure, and as a result have denigrated some of his works where the workshop execution is evident. An example is the Cupid and Psyche fresco cycle at the Villa Farnesina, which has been dismissed as a workshop product. As Talvacchia notes, "What we know about Raphael's organizational structure denies the validity of such an approach" (198). The recent restoration has shown that the frescoes were prepared with the scrupulous care that is characteristic of Raphael's procedure, although they have suffered significant losses, especially to the blues, in the intervening centuries. [End Page 890]



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pp. 889-891
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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