RAPHAEL and DURER - CULTURAL EXCHANGE in the 16th century
David Handforth recently went to an exhibition of Raphael drawings at the Ashmolean Art Museum in Oxford and saw this red-chalk drawing by Raphael. The drawing was said to have been given as a gift to Durer, with an inscription by Durer written on it. Handforth wondered why Raphael would have sent such a drawing to Durer, and that thought intrigued me as well.
Some searching turned up a description by Vasari in his Lives, and
two interesting articles, one by Christopher Wood in pdf form on the web and one by Arnold Nesselrath in Master Drawings from 1993.
First what Vasari has to say on the subject:
Per queste e molte altre opere essendo passata la fama di questo nobilissimo artefice insino in Francia ed in Fiandra, Alberto Durero tedesco, pittore mirabilissimo ed intagliatore di rame di bellissime stampe, divenne tributario delle sue opere a Raffaello, e gli mandò la testa d'un suo ritratto condotta da lui a guazzo su una tela di bisso, che da ogni banda mostrava parimente, e senza biacca,lumi trasparenti, se non che con acquerelli di colori era tinta e macchiata, e de' lumi del panno aveva campato i chiari: la quale cosa parve maravigliosa a Raffaello; perchè egli gli mandò molte arte disegnate di man sua, le quali furono carissime ad Alberto.In English (my translation):
The fame of this most noble artist (Raphael) having passed all the way to France and Flanders on account of these and many other works, Albert Durer, German, wonderful painter and copper engraver of beautiful prints, became a promoter of his own works to Raffaello, and he sent him a self-portrait head painted in gouache on a canvas of silk fabric, which from every side showed equally, and without using white lead, transparent light areas, except where it was colored and spotted with watercolors. And by using the lit areas of the cloth, Durer had retained the highlights in the scene, which thing seemed marvelous to Raffaello; so that he(Raphael) sent him (Durer) many pieces of art designed by himself, which were dear to Albert.
According to Vasari, the exchange here was initiated by Durer ("tributario" suggests that.) According to Wood and Nesselrath, Durer was in the habit of trying to meet as many famous artists as he could and he collected works of art by them. Durer tried to contact Mantegna, Schongauer, Giovanni Bellini, and visited Venice in 1505 where he met with Bellini. Durer's gift of a self-portrait to Raphael obtained the desired result. Raphael sent him the red-chalk drawing (now in the Albertina in Vienna) that is the drawing in the Ashmolean show.
In the drawing we see from the back and side two male nude figures standing and a suggestion of the head of a third man.
The man on the far right steps forward on his left leg, right leg back, and he places his left arm akimbo while he points toward something in the distance with his right arm. To the right of this figure on the page of the drawing is an inscription in German written by Albert Durer and dated 1515:
1515 Raphahill de Urbin, der so hoch peim Pobst geacht ist gewest hat der hat dyse nackette Bild gemacht und hat sy dem Albrecht Dürer gen Nornberg geschickt, Im sein hand zu weisen.
A documented preparatory drawing of men by Raphael sent to Durer. Raphael's far right figure in the drawing is then dressed by the artist and painted into the far left scene of his fresco The Battle of Ostia (1514-1517) in the Vatican Stanze:
In the painting the Pope Leo IV (with the portrait head of Leo X,
Raphael's boss) watches the Saracen ships be destroyed in a storm
while members of the Saracen crew are enslaved onshore by papal soldiers. Raphael's left-hand figure points to the battle and also to the Pope.
A preparatory drawing on paper seems a paltry present to send in
return for a painted self-portrait on cloth, one that might have
resembled this one in the Prado by Durer in oil on wood:
or like this one, oil on vellum, in the Louvre, in both of which the highlights of the cloth display Durer's skill in rendering light mentioned by Vasari:
But Raphael's reputation was already established by the job he
was doing for the Pope (and the Pope is mentioned by Durer in
the inscription.) Durer was advertising his own growing artistic
skill and was happy to be in touch with the Italian celebrity in Rome.
Was the Louvre painting on animal skin the self-portrait Durer
sent to Raphael? Where is Durer's self-portrait gift, if not?
In some ways Raphael's gift is an even more precious
artwork than a completed self-portrait. His drawing presents
his ability to convey a living, breathing naked body with red-chalk by itself. His understanding of anatomy is clearest in a preparatory figure than in the finished work. And Raphael's body in the drawing and painting is not alone. His drawing is of three men in conversation about a ninth-century battle between Saracens and Christians. Raphael's artistic exchange has a subtle message about naked humanity as it relates to a Catholic victory over subversion. His right-hand figure points to a distant event as he converses with the two men in his group. Raphael, in sending this image, is pointing to Durer as residing in a foreign country distant from Rome where religious subversion is occurring. Luther's Theses are nailed in 1517, and the Pope for whom Raphael is painting denounces Luther in 1521. While Durer's request is self-serving,
Raphael's artistic reply is also."Mi raccomando," his man seems to be saying.