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Things That Have Interested Me

Picture Perfect

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
23 June 2007

At the beginning of the week, I dropped in on Christie's in London to look at the amazing Raphael portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici it is due to sell on July 5. This is something I have made a minor mission of encouraging others to do: to take the opportunity that the auction houses offer, to see great works of art, free of charge or obligation, as they pass between private hands, or as they proceed on their way to wealthy museums in far-off countries.

I am not sure I have ever managed to persuade a single timid soul to pass through the doors of Sotheby's or Christie's for the first time, but what's the worst that can happen to you? These establishments are only glorified shops after all, and the parts you are visiting are their public spaces. It is true that some of the accents you encounter are on the far side of fruity, but so what? There is no rigid dress code. One of the wealthiest collectors I have met habitually wears a baseball cap back to front.

One great thing about the sale-rooms that you will never find elsewhere is that the paintings come unsorted, in haphazard juxtapositions, in frightful frames sometimes, or unframed and in conditions varying from dreadful to superb. This puts you on your mettle. Unlike in a gallery, there is very little to guide your expectations or your taste. You can of course consult the catalogue, online before you go, or in one of the display copies hanging in the rooms. The lower estimate tells you very roughly what the owner of the work of art is prepared to part with it for. But this has no relation to what it is worth in aesthetic terms. Learning about art and learning about the market are two quite distinct things.

I found the Raphael hanging in the foyer beside a Sisley and opposite a Hoppner. A polite guard stood in discreet attendance. Very few people were stopping to look at it because the rooms were in a hubbub of preparations for that evening's sale (the one at which a Monet fetched almost £18m). Over the internal address system one could hear an auctioneer practising taking bids, running up an imaginary lot to £50m. The type of women Yeats was attracted to in his fantasies, what he referred to as "tall dames" ("Tall dames go walking in grass-green Avalon"), were sorting out folders of tickets for the invited bidders.

The Raphael had a look that seemed to mock all of this. The sitter, Lorenzo de' Medici, was not Lorenzo the Magnificent, but his grandson, Lorenzo II de' Medici, the Duke of Urbino. He and his uncle Giuliano, the Duke of Nemours, are represented by Michelangelo as the two seated figures in the New Sacristy in Florence. They look respectively wise and commanding (Giuliano) and pensive and melancholic (Lorenzo), the way Michelangelo depicted them for their tombs. Michelangelo took the view that it didn't matter what they actually looked like, as everyone would have forgotten that in a few years anyway.

Raphael painted both of them as well. Giuliano's portrait is known only through a copy (at the Metropolitan museum in New York). He became Duke of Nemours through marriage into the French royal family - a key moment in the pretensions of the Medici dynasty - but soon succumbed to TB. His nephew Lorenzo became Duke of Urbino, the histories tell us, through the "base machinations" of a Medici pope, Leo X, who simply deposed the existing duke. The idea of both of these dukedoms was to impose on the republican-minded Florentines the ducal nature of these (reportedly worthless) Medici individuals. A Florentine dukedom would have been politically out of the question.

Everyone dies of lovemaking in this story. Lorenzo was contracted in marriage to Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne, a cousin of François I, and the portrait at Christie's was sent from Rome to the French court as part of the negotiations, along with other paintings by Raphael. Clearly it was successful. Madeleine married Lorenzo but died soon after bearing him Catherine de' Medici. Lorenzo himself did not have long to live, and died either as a result of his health being undermined by the campaign to usurp the dukedom of Urbino, or as a result of venereal disease caught during his betrothal trip to Paris. Raphael died in 1520, a couple of years after completing this portrait, and, if you believe Vasari on this point, too much sex was the cause of it. Or rather, he failed to warn the doctors that he had been indulging in excessive intercourse, and they inadvertently bled him to death.

Raphael would have made the painting after a portrait sketch, which does not survive. He had every reason to fear and respect this dangerous sitter, who had once been given refuge, as a child, in Raphael's native Urbino, and who had returned as a young man to depose the family to whom he owed his safety. And he had every reason, although the commission was executed in a hurry, to want to impress the French court.

The face, striking as it is, has apparently suffered over the years, and those who are considering buying the portrait will be examining its areas of repaint most critically. What remains amazing is the costume of the duke, the detailed and realistic rendition of the fur, the contrasting lawn shirt and the red and yellow brocade, with its highlighting in gold and pink. Perhaps the urgency of the commission inspired the bravura of the execution. The brushstrokes establishing the glitter of the cloth are particularly bold. With every application of paint, Raphael seems to be saying: "This is what I mean by this! And this is what I mean by that!"

Raphael has been supremely famous for so long, it is surprising that new discoveries can be made about his work. This portrait was reinstated as an original in 1971. Having been in private hands, it is one of the least known of his major works. The lower estimate is £10m. On June 30 it goes on view officially, until July 5. The viewing times are on the website. It's something to think about.

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