five essential books on the italian old masters

“Raphael was one of the greatest draughtsmen who ever lived, and his drawings are certainly more varied – and arguably more compelling – than his paintings”

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Celebrations marking 500 years since the death of Raphael in 1520, aged just 37, have been derailed somewhat by the pandemic. But what are a few months and a few years after half a millennium? The Scuderie del Quirinale blockbuster which depicted the old master’s life in reverse chronology was a hit in 2020 and now the National Gallery in London has received plenty of praise for its current investigation (through July 31). But where to start with such a revered artist? To help you out, art historian David Ekserdjian, who co-curated the National Gallery exhibition, has selected five must-read books.

Raphael The Madonna of the Roses (“The Madonna dei Garofani”) (c. 1506-07) © The National Gallery, London

Raphael (1983) by Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny

“At least in the usual sense, art history is not a competitive sport, and Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny were in their thirties when they wrote this page-turner of a monograph to coincide with the fifth centenary of Raphaël’s birth. Fate has very different destinies in store for them: Jones will not die until three years later, while in 1991, Penny discovers the talent of the artist Madonna of the Roses and later became the director of the National Gallery, where he now resides.

Raphaël’s drawings with a complete catalog (1983) by Paul Joannides

Raphaël’s drawings with a complete catalog (1983) by Paul Joannides

“Raphael was one of the greatest draughtsmen who ever lived, and his drawings are certainly more varied – and arguably more compelling – than his paintings. Nearly 500 sheets by him, a number of which are double-sided, survive , and Paul Joannides’ catalog is the only complete one in English.Besides the necessarily telegraphic entries on each of them, 48 are featured and entitled to full-page reproductions accompanied by thoughtful and often eloquent commentary.

Raphael in Early Modern Sources 1483-1602 (2003) by John Shearman

“No one would think of reading the 1,706 pages of these two powerful volumes, which means they are decidedly more to consult than to read, but that does not mean that they do not belong on this list. John Shearman was widely revered – and very slightly feared – as the supreme authority on Raphael, and this extraordinary compilation was his final gift to the artist he loved above all else.

Raphael The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (“The Madonna of Alba”) (c. 1509-11) Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington

Raphael: From Urbino to Rome (2004) by Hugo Chapman, Tom Henry and Carol Plazzotta

“As one of the authors of the catalog for the current Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery, I know all too well the potential weaknesses of the genre, but it seemed crazy to exclude it from this survey. The main reason this one gets my vote is because its holy trinity of scholars know what they’re talking about and strike an exemplary balance between careful focus and a broad overview.

Raphael and the Antique (2020) by Claudia La Malfa

“Raphael was terrifically productive, and some believe he died of overwork as opposed to too much horizontal activity. So it makes a lot of sense to explore this absolutely crucial if sometimes somewhat overlooked aspect of his art in close-up instead to try and gobble it all up, especially if you succeed with as much aplomb as Claudia La Malfa.”

RaphaelNational Gallery, London, until July 31

RaphaelDavid Ekserdjian and Tom Henry, National Gallery Company Ltd, 328pp, £30 (hb)