The first thing to say is that, if you search Google for “Raffaello” (known as Raphael in English), the first results you get are about the Ferrero Raffaello chocolate confections, “spherical coconut–almond” Wikipedia specifies.

This says a lot about what our society considers priorities (a hint: what makes money).

Only if you search for “Raffaello Sanzio”, his full – Christian name and surname – appellation, his homonymous sweets disappear from the top results.

And it’s lucky that there’s no “Raffaello” pop group or hit record, otherwise it would have top place in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

The Renaissance master and genius Raphael, sometimes called the “Divine painter”, who served the Roman Church under the pontificates of Julius II and Leo X, was born in Urbino in the Italian region of Marche in 1483, and died in Rome nearly half a millennium ago, on 6 April 1520.

To celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of his death, two exhibitions are held in Rome, one from 5 March to 2 June 2020 in the Scuderie del Quirinale (Quirinal Stables), a museum near the Palazzo Quirinale, official residence of the President of the Italian Republic, on the highest of the seven hills of Rome, with incredible views over the Eternal City.

The other, shorter exhibition has just been held from 17 to 23 February 2020: this both marks the launch of the year of Raphael and is the highlight of this year’s Raphaelesque celebrations in the Vatican.

For the first time ever, all of Raphael’s ten large tapestries illustrating the life of the Holy Apostles and Fathers of the Church Peter and Paul have just been exhibited on the walls of the Sistine Chapel for which they were intended, at eye level, under the ceiling decorated with Michelangelo’s frescoes.

The exceptional exhibition of the series of tapestries of Acts of the Apostles and Gospels, which were intended as in dialogue with the scenes of Genesis painted by Michelangelo, in the Sistine Chapel, the ancient Magna Chapel, puts them in the original location for which they were designed, although this destination, for a series of misfortunes, was never reached by them before.

Commissioned to Raphael by Pope Leo X to decorate the papal chapel in the lower part of the walls, the ten masterpieces, five meters long and four meters high, were made on Raphael’s drawings and preparatory cartoons which then found their sophisticated weaving and were turned into textiles, mixing silk threads and threads gilded with fine gold, in Brussels (Belgium), in the extraordinary workshop of the famous, highly-skilled tapestry maker Pieter van Aelst, between 1515 and 1521.

The tapestries were pledged to pay for the funeral of Pope Leo X in 1521, then bought back a year later for the coronation of Pope Adrian VI.

In 1527 they were stolen during the terrible atrocity known as the Sack of Rome then were returned, and finally stolen a second time during the French occupation of 1798. It was not until 1808 that the tapestries definitively returned to the Vatican.

Only the first seven tapestries, when they arrived in Rome in 1519, were exposed on 26 December 1519 on the occasion of the Mass of St Stephen’s Day in the Sistine Chapel. The master of the papal chapel, Paris de Grassis, noted:

By universal judgment, nothing more beautiful in the world had ever been seen.

Interviewed by the Italian website Artribune, the director of the Vatican Museums Barbara Jatta said:

The Sistine Chapel is always identified with Michelangelo and with the great fifteenth-century artists who frescoed it along the walls, but it is to Raphael that we owe the iconographic, theological and catechetical completion of that universal place with the creation of the tapestries with the stories of St Peter and St Paul, the patron saints of the Eternal City and of the Roman Church, which he inaugurated in the presence of his great client Pope Leo X de Medici on St Stephen’s Day in 1519, a few months before his sudden and premature death.

(Paride de Grassis, quoted in L. von Pastor, Storia dei Papi, IV-1, Roma, 1926, p. 474)

Commissioned and designed shortly after Martin Luther lit the fire of his so-called “Reformation”, Raphael’s masterpiece is homage to the glory of the Church founded by Christ on Peter and his successors: “the gates of Hell will not prevail against her”.

During the recent exhibition in the Sistine Chapel, the precious artefacts have been be affixed to the original sixteenth-century hooks, in the re-enactment of an ancient custom.

A very rare occasion, since the refined cloths of tapestries are usually kept in the Vatican Pinacoteca, in the famous Room VIII also called Raphael’s Hall, where they are exposed in rotation for conservation reasons.

The seven surviving Raphael’s Cartoons are kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (next door to the Brompton Oratory, where I regularly go to Mass, a church which is also a work of beauty).

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