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“Study for the Three Graces”, c.1517-18, © The Royal Collection Trust, HM Queen Elizabeth II

Since the beginning of the 16th century Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael have been  jostling for the title of the greatest artist of them all. Each of the great Renaissance triumvirate, sometimes joined by Titian, has always had his adherents. Today, the real arm-wrestling for pre-eminence is between Michelangelo and Leonardo, but until the beginning of the 19th century there was clear daylight between the artists and it was Raphael who stood above the others.

He was the exemplar invoked by Joshua Reynolds when delivering his Discourses to the students of the Royal Academy. If Britain was to develop a native school then it should follow the example of Raphael, he said, because of “the propriety, beauty, and majesty of his characters, his judicious contrivance of his composition, correctness of drawing, purity of taste, and the skilful accommodation of other men’s conceptions to his own purpose”. Raphael was the painter who did everything right: he combined the antique with real human form without going off on scientific and humanist tangents like Leonardo or sacrificing demeanour for expressiveness as did Michelangelo. Raphael’s art, said Reynolds, was characterised by its “simple, grave, and majestic dignity”.

It is precisely this harmony and balance that left Raphael seeming rather anodyne in the post-Romantic world, which prefers the quirks of his peers because they snag the mind and promise greater psychological depth: his work can seem too smoothly beautiful. Another reason was that at the time of his death in 1520, aged only 37, he had a large workshop, the biggest perhaps of any Renaissance artist, with as many as 50 apprentices and established masters working from and therefore diluting his designs.

What even the most accomplished of them, such as Giulio Romano, could not do, however, was match the quality of his preternatural draughtsmanship. It is his drawings, the purest aspect of his work, that is the subject of a wonderful exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford. The museum owns 50 of his drawings, the largest group in the world, and these are joined by 70 more from around the world to form the most important show of his graphic work for decades.

The drawings range in period from his apprenticeship in Urbino, through his four years in Florence from 1504 to 1508 where he learnt from Michelangelo and Leonardo, to Rome where he was the papal favourite and painted his most important works, such as the Vatican Stanze. They show too his breadth of technique, encompassing charcoal, chalk, ink and the fiendishly difficult but delicate technique of metalpoint. Some drawings are the models for completed works, others never made it to fruition, and many bear the tiny holes or stylus indentations that were used by his assistants to transfer the designs for copying, painting or making into the prints that spread his fame. Apart from one landscape sketch, one drapery study and one head of a horse, the remaining 117 drawings all show the human head or figure.
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