On View: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael around 1500

The National Gallery in London is hosting an exhibition,  “Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael around 1500.“  It opened on 1 September 2017, and closes on 28 January 2018. 

Curators drew seven works from the permanent collection to display with Michelangelo Buonarroti’s (1475-1564) Taddei Tondo (1504-1505), which is on loan from London’s Royal Academy of Art. The tondo is the only example of the artist’s sculptural work in the United Kingdom, and for this exhibition, the sculpture ties the displayed works together to form a comprehensive art historical narrative. Along with the works of  Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Raphael (1483-1520), curators show the close relationship of Renaissance artistry and highlight how these masters learned from one another, yet developed distinct styles. The combined achievement and the artistic relationships between the three great Renaissance masters was crucial to the development of High Renaissance style, and the exhibition provides visitors with the opportunity to see how the artists invented and reinterpreted painting and sculpture.

The display begins with Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks (1506-1508). The choice to display the figures in a pyramidal structure was fundamental to Raphael’s interpretation of the same subject matter, as seen in his Madonnas.  The following work is a cartoon known as The Burlington House Cartoon (c.1499-1500), which is similar to a 1501 drawing Leonardo displayed in Florence. Michelangelo viewed this drawing, and in turn, he derived inspiration from Leonardo’s cartoon and reinterpreted the figures. Michelangelo altered the configuration of figures and added movement, expressiveness, and emotion within his Taddei Tondo, thus, further building upon Leonardo’s naturalism. The tondo exemplifies Michelangelo’s ability to interpret, absorb, and reject aspects of Leonardo’s style.

Michelangelo represents active figures in his tondo. The Infant Saint John the Baptist is to the left of a baptismal bowl. The Baptist child holds a goldfinch out to the Christ child who is squirming on his mother’s lap. Michelangelo depicted the Christ child reaching towards the Virgin, shying away from the fluttering bird, a symbol of his future Passion. The tondo’s name comes from Taddeo Taddei, his Florentine patron. Michelangelo worked on the tondo from 1504 to 1505, most likely in Florence; however,  in 1505, he left Florence and transferred to Rome to work on the commission of Pope Julius II’s tomb.  Important to consider is that Vasari, in Lives, noted that Michelangelo often left works unfinished due to his intellectual frustrations. The National Gallery holds two of Michelangelo’s unfinished paintings, The Manchester Madonna (c. 1497) and The Entombment (about 1500–1501. Both works show underdrawings, which provide insight into Michelangelo’s methodology. Together with Leonardo’s Burlington House Cartoon, curators illustrate how the great masters drafted their paintings. 

Raphael was also living in Florence at the turn of the quattrocento, and at this time he saw Leonardo and Michelangelo’s  artwork. The juxtaposition of Raphael’s work exemplifies his ability to synthesize the styles of Leonardo and Michelangelo, yet add a uniquely harmonious quality to his artwork. Raphael executed a drawing of Michelangelo’s tondo and, while they were rivals, sought inspiration in Michelangelo’s works. His 1507 Saint Catherine has the serene qualities of his famous Madonna paintings, yet has stylistic qualities of Leonardo’s Leda and the Swan, now lost.  Displayed prominently on the wall is Raphael’s Ansidei Madonna (1505). The altarpiece hangs high on the wall as it was intended to be viewed for devotion.  The following painting is a small private devotional painting, The Madonna of the Pinks (c.1506-1507). Raphael based this work on Leonardo’s Benois Madonna, in the collection of the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.

Together the eight artworks, from the turn of the sixteenth-century show how Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael interpreted each other’s art and created their unique styles. The exhibition also highlights how sculpture and painting evolve together; artists can interpret painting through sculpture and vice versa.  

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