When visitors return to the V&A, chances are they’ll be going to the handbag exhibition, or the one on Alice in Wonderland or Epic Iran. What may escape many of them is that right next to the Bags show is the Raphael Court, where one of the greatest treasures of the High Renaissance in Britain is to be found.
It’s the Raphael Cartoons, seven scenes from the lives of St Peter and Saint Paul commissioned from the artist by Pope Leo X as tapestry designs for the Sistine chapel. Their dedicated space has been redecorated to show them in all their fabulousness. Actually, the project was nicely timed for last year to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death, but the pandemic saw that off, so instead the refurbishment celebrates Raphael, 501 years on.
No matter. The chief aspect of the display is that the walls of the room are now a dark blue – Hague Blue – which works much better as a backdrop for the cartoons than the former light colour. By a happy coincidence the Room is almost exactly the same scale as the Sistine Chapel, where the tapestries based on the cartoons now hang. It’s a terrific space and a painting by Raphael’s master, Perugino, hangs on the far wall, given restoration work last year.
The repainting of the ceiling to pick out the fine architectural detail, the installation of new acoustic panels and more importantly, of much better lighting, has made the display of the work more effective. It is, as Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, observed, “a very special place”.
What’s more there’s new digital access in the Court, via visitors’ smartphones, to information and background to the work, including extraordinary detail from the cartoons which were photographed at high quality when the glass was removed. It highlights often overlooked aspects of the work, in a format that younger visitors expect.
And what a work it is. The cartoons – not the Christian Adams sort, but from the Italian word for large pieces of paper – have been astonishingly preserved, given their journeying over half a millennium. When they were made as tapestry designs, they were probably worked on by Raphael’s assistants, to be made up in a Flemish workshop, and the pinpricks that transferred the pattern onto cloth are still visible. Painted on paper rather than canvas, they have a freshness in the colour which has lasted longer than the dye in the tapestries – one of the tapestry pieces based on one design is on display here, and some colours have faded dramatically.
We don’t normally think of Raphael as designer rather than painter, but in that he really was a Renaissance man. These cartoons are among the most beautiful art to be found in London. What’s more, they’re free.
The V&A reopens on May 19