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Raphael tapestries and designs reunited in London

'Unique occasion', Vatican museums chief says of V&A show

08 October, 17:20
Raphael tapestries and designs reunited in London (ANSA) - London, October 8 - Four tapestries by Raphael have been reunited with the Renaissance master's original designs for the first time in nearly 500 years for an exhibition in London.

The tapestries are displayed alongside seven of Raphael's beautiful cartoons, in an event hailed by organizers as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The tapestries, on loan from the Vatican, are considered too fragile for a second outing, while the cartoons are now too delicate to leave the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), where the exhibition is being staged. "This is a unique, one-off and unforgettable occasion," Vatican Museums Director Antonio Paolucci told ANSA.

"It has long been the dream of every art historian to see the cartoons and the tapestries alongside one another and it is indeed marvellous (...) to see how tapestry subtly alters the form and colours".

The V&A's Raphael expert Mark Evans described the event as a dream come true. "When the Vatican telephoned us in February offering to provide the tapestries for an exhibition, I couldn't believe it" he said. "I'd always thought that logistic difficulties and a lack of political support would have made it impossible". The museum's generosity was prompted by Pope Benedict XVI's landmark visit to the United Kingdom last month, which the Vatican was keen to celebrate in style. Although now safely in the Vatican's possession, the tapestries' history has not been straightforward. They were originally commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 to cover the lower walls of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. Raphael and his assistants finished the full-scale paintings, which depict the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, in a year, after which the cartoons were sent to Brussels, Europe's heart of tapestry production. There they were cut into strips, to allow several sections to be worked on at once by different weavers, and the outlines of all the main figures were pricked with needles to transfer the image onto the cloth. As a result, although the outlines correspond precisely, the figures are all in reverse, as the weavers worked on the back of the cloth. They also added their own flourishes, such as elaborate leafwork, and changed some of the colours.

By the time the first seven tapestries were complete in December 1519, when they went on display in the Sistine Chapel, their bright colours and copious gold and silver threadwork had carried them some distance from the originals. Until now, the weavers were the only people to ever see the cartoons and the tapestries side-by-side. After the tapestries were transported to Rome, the designs remained in Brussels, where they were later used to produce other hangings, including one also on show in London. The cartoons were eventually taken to the UK, where they ended up in the Royal Collection. They have been on permanent loan to the V&A since 1865.

The tapestries themselves were not completed until 1521, and were immediately pawned off to pay for the pope's funeral. They were later bought back to the Vatican but were plundered on two future occasions before eventually finding their way home. The exhibition at the V&A is running until October 17.

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