Complex negotiations for National Gallery's Raphael show

Fragility of panels has made museums reluctant to lend

The Raphael exhibition which opens at the National Gallery on 20 October has involved unusually complex loan negotiations. The artist’s paintings are nearly all on panel, which poses conservation difficulties, and they are so important that owners are reluctant to part with them. This means that Raphael is a particularly difficult artist for a monographic show and the London exhibition is described by curator Carol Plazzotta as “the most comprehensive ever held outside Italy.”

One of the triumphs is the promised loan of the “Conestabile Madonna” from the Hermitage. Over the last few years there have been problems between the Russian and British governments over legal safeguards against seizure of works of art. Titian’s “St Sebastian” was due to come to the National Gallery in 2003, but at the last minute it failed to arrive. It is expected that these difficulties will be overcome for the “Conestabile Madonna”, but the painting’s arrival will nevertheless be greeted with relief.

Another of the more complicated loans was the “Resurrection” from the Museu de Arte in São Paulo. This has never been exhibited in a monographic show, and the extent of Raphael’s hand on the work has been much disputed. Ms Plazzotta recently flew out to Brazil to inspect the picture, and after examining the work and the underdrawing she became convinced it was the real thing. Similarly, the damaged (but important) “Processional cross” at Milan’s Poldi Pezzoli Museum has been questioned, but again has not been shown in a monographic exhibition. In London it will be “attributed” to Raphael.

The “Bridgewater Madonna” is coming from the National Gallery of Scotland, where it is on long-term loan from the Duke of Sutherland. The Duke rarely allows his paintings to travel, so this is a coup, although some visitors will miss his “Holy Family with a palm tree”.

One of the problems which emerged after planning for the London exhibition was well underway was a smaller Raphael show, entitled “Grace and Beauty” which was held at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris in 2001-2. The museum is run by the French Senate, and high-level political contacts secured a number of major loans from Italian galleries. This naturally made it more difficult for the National Gallery when approaching these collections. For instance, Bergamo’s Accademia Carrara had lent its “Saint Sebastian” to Paris, and was understandably reluctant to lend it again, although it did ultimately agree to the National Gallery request.

Inevitably there are some works which got away. Four years ago Brescia’s Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo informally agreed to lend its “Head of an angel”. This is Raphael’s earliest work, painted in about 1500 when he was 17. The loan has since fallen through, on the grounds that the painting is now too important for Brescia’s displays for it to be sent abroad.

London is the only venue for “Raphael: from Urbino to Rome” (until 16 January), because the National Gallery’s works are mainly large altarpieces which cannot travel and securing loans would have been much more difficult for two venues.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Complex negotiations for Raphael show'