Raphael: The Drawings
Museums Association
Angelamaria Aceto reveals the hidden methods that Raphael employed in his drawings

The summer exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford brings together 120 stunning drawings by the Renaissance master Raphael (1483-1520).

Underpinned by new research supported by the Leverhulme Trust and led by Catherine Whistler at the Ashmolean and Ben Thomas from the University of Kent, the show highlights the artist’s ambitious and experimental approach to drawing.

Rather than exploring the drawings as steps towards finished works, the exhibition and catalogue emphasise the inherent value of each object. By shifting the focus to the materiality of each sheet, we have highlighted Raphael’s hand at work, while unveiling the expressive power of his drawings.

This required a painstaking scrutiny – no other early modern artist pushed the boundaries of drawing media like Raphael. And although his drawings have been studied by generations of scholars, it is astonishing how much close analysis can still reveal.

Studies relating to Raphael’s fresco, the Disputation over the Most Holy Sacrament (c.1508-10), in the Vatican provided particular insight. In looking at a drapery study for a figure in the Disputation traditionally described as “wash over chalk” it became clear that, on the contrary, chalk was applied over the wash. Raphael inverted the conventional use of the two media.

Chalk was not employed to provide guidelines. Rather he exploited the tactile possibilities of the earthy medium to give sculptural salience to the drapery. His confident hand meant he could approach the paper directly with the unforgiving medium of wash.

Research into the Ashmolean’s collections has benefited from a non-invasive technical investigation of a group of drawings. Modern technologies can help where the human eye fails. Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) has provided a glimpse of the varied use that Raphael made of blind stylus, a technique where he scored the paper with a blunt point that left no visible marks. Paper flattens with time and today these lines can only be detected with a good source of raking light, which explains why they have sometimes gone undetected.

For example, in a study of the Madonna del Cardellino (1506, Madonna of the Goldfinch), RTI revealed the minimal strokes of stylus Raphael used to map the composition of the main group before turning to the pen. What has emerged is the seemingly swift yet layered nature of his drawings.

The catalogue includes hitherto unpublished images of these “invisible” lines, including an angel at the bottom of Coronation of the Virgin (c.1512), a bearded profile of a poet for the Parnassus (c.1510-11) and dense line patterns underneath a pen and ink drawing for the Virgin and Child With the Book (c.1503-04), which revealed a number of changes.

A good piece of research answers many questions but opens more. The investigation will hopefully continue.

Angelamaria Aceto is the Leverhulme research assistant on the Raphael project and exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford

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