I agree with you, Don Basilio. The over-lifesize figures are a little awkward. Although some of the colours have faded in the cartoons, they are generally still in surprisingly good condition. They are, however, hung far too high and disrupted by reflections in the V&A's Raphael Gallery. In the exhibition, the four Vatican tapestries have been raised six feet off the ground, although they were designed by Raphael to brush the floor of the Sistine Chapel. To hang them floating in the air denies us the chance to see the artworks in all their glory. Nor are they terribly well lit. The Raphael cartoons came to England from Brussels in 1623 when the future Charles I bought them for the Royal Tapestry Manufactory at Mortlake. The Mortlake tapestry on display is less gaudy, more baroque, although the colours may have faded more in this particular tapestry. Writing in 'The Evening Standard
', the art critic Brian Sewell argues that the Vatican tapestries are ' ... travesties of Raphael’s intentions and we should heave a sigh of relief when these extravagant things return to Rome.
Paradoxically, Raphael's depiction of the apostles as universally handsome and noble has become increasingly controversial. In the 16th century, they rivalled Michelangelo's ceiling as the most famous and influential designs of the Renaissance, and were well-known to all artists of the Renaissance and Baroque. Admiration of them reached its highest pitch in the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were described as 'the Parthenon sculptures of modern art
'. Raphael knew that the final product of his work would be produced by craftsmen rendering his design in another medium; his efforts are therefore entirely concentrated on strong compositions and broad effects, rather than felicitous handling or detail, some of which is decidedly awkward. It was partly this that made the designs so effective in reduced print versions. Nevertheless, I rather like animal imagery in 'The Miraculous Draught of Fishes
The Raphael of the cartoons was revered by the Carracci, but the period of their greatest influence began with Nicolas Poussin, who borrowed heavily from them and 'indeed exaggerated Raphael's style - or rather concentrated it, for he was working on a much smaller scale
'. According to Lord Clark of 'Civilisation
', the convention by which the great events of biblical or secular history could only be enacted by magnificent physical specimens, an element of the grand manner, ' ... deadened our sense of truth, even our sense of moral responsibility; and led, as we now see, to a hideous reaction.
' Whatever, the cartoons remain the touchstone of one approach to history painting, although the Raphael whose influence the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to reject was perhaps above all the Raphael of these cartoons. If anyone wants to investigate the history and production of Raphael’s celebrated tapestries further, there is a V&A study day on Friday 15 October which, alas, I cannot make.http://www.vam.ac.uk/activ_events/courses/courses/study_days_seminars/study_days/index.html
I commend this free exhibition of Raphael's cartoons and tapestries at the V&A to everyone reading R3OK until 17:00 on Sunday 17 October 2010. If you cannot make it in person, here are the four Sistine tapestries online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8967000/8967219.stm