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Raphael's Cartoons Never Looked Better

The V&A's new-look gallery - plus fresh digital insights - will transform how we see the tapestries he designed for the Sistine Chapel.

Securing a reputation as Europe’s most successful living artist came at a price. Consider his to-do list at the peak of his career, around 1515. As well as decorating the Vatican Palace, Raphael was hard at work on important altarpieces and architectural projects - and a major commission to provide 10 monumental designs for precious tapestries along the lower side walls of the Sistine Chapel. Phew: no wonder people say that professional demands drove him to an early grave.

Now the spotlight is falling on those vast tapestry designs, seven of which survive. Known as “the Raphael cartoons” (“cartoon” here refers to a full-scale preparatory design, from the Italian cartone, or “big paper”), they have been part of the Royal Collection in Britain since 1623.

Since 1865, however, when Queen Victoria lent them to what is now the V&A, they have been on display in South Kensington. And, as soon as restrictions ease, the V&A will unveil a top-to-bottom refurbishment of Gallery 48A, aka the Raphael Court, an imposing space - replicating almost exactly the dimensions of the Sistine Chapel - where the cartoons, painted in glue tempera over charcoal underdrawing on paper, have hung since 1950.

To herald this, the V&A has released new interactive online content, drawing upon an extensive “recording project” that took place last summer, when the cartoons - four of which measure more than 17ft across - were scanned and photographed, using 3D, infrared and high-resolution colour technology, generating hundreds of gigabytes of information about them for posterity. When the museum reopens, there will be additional digital interpretation via QR codes inside the gallery.

Why are they so special? Well, the survival of monumental Renaissance cartoons, which offer all sorts of insights into an artist’s creative process, is extraordinarily rare. And the fact that these are linked to a prestigious commission for the Sistine Chapel - that holy of holies for Renaissance art, as well as Christendom - only adds to their value.



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