News: V&A brings Raphael Cartoons to life at home, ahead of gallery reopening

Today, the V&A unveils a host of new digital content about the Raphael Cartoons for everyone to enjoy from home, ahead of the reopening of the transformed Raphael Court to the public after the latest national lockdown lifts.

Available on the V&A website, the new online offering provides those based both in the UK and abroad an unprecedented level of access to the Raphael Cartoons from afar, which are lent to the V&A from the Royal Collection by Her Majesty The Queen. Through interactive features and in-depth stories, audiences will be able to learn about the extraordinary design and making of the Cartoons and their long 500-year history, exploring the monumental works of art as never before by zooming into ultra-high-resolution photography, infrared imagery, and 3D scans. This pioneering new imagery was captured in 2019 during a high-resolution recording project carried out by Factum Foundation and supported by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, which involved carefully unframing the Cartoons and constructing a scaffold to allow intimate access to the works. This is the first time that audiences have ever been able to explore the masterpieces in such detail.

The Raphael Cartoons are among the greatest treasures of the Renaissance in the UK. Shortly after his election in 1513, Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to create a set of ten full-scale designs for a series of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Palace, illustrating scenes from the lives of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Once complete, the Cartoons – each measuring around 5 metres wide and 3.5 metres high – were sent to the workshop of merchant-weaver Pieter van Aelst in Brussels, which transformed the monumental designs into tapestries. Seven of the Cartoons survive to this day, brought to Britain in the early 17th century by the Prince of Wales, later Charles I. They remained in the Royal Collection and were lent to the South Kensington Museum – now the V&A – by Queen Victoria in 1865 in memory of Prince Albert, and have been on public display in the museum ever since.

Key online features include The Story of the Cartoons, which explores the Cartoons’ commission, production and incredible survival, as well the complex process of translating a Cartoon into a tapestry. It also reveals in-depth details about Raphael’s compositions which translate the Biblical narrative into painterly images with their wealth of characters and complex scenes. Exploring the Cartoons uses the new HD imagery of the Cartoons to enable newcomers and specialists alike to examine the making and design of the Cartoons in more detail by zooming into high-resolution panoramic photography of their painted scenes, infrared imagery showing the charcoal drawing underneath, and 3D scans of their paper surface. Users are able to transition between the layers to see subtle differences between the underdrawing, the paint layer, and the surface texture – from the tiny pinholes that were made to translate the Cartoons into tapestries, to the composite sheets of paper that make up each Cartoon, the creases and tears, and subsequent restoration and repair throughout their lifetime.

This new online content was produced as part of the V&A’s Raphael Project, marking the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death in 2020. At the project’s heart is a landmark renovation of the Raphael Court – home to the Cartoons – and a new interpretive approach in the gallery, which will transform the way museum visitors experience the Cartoons. The refurbished gallery and new interpretation will be unveiled when the museum reopens after the latest national lockdown lifts.

Working with architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and lighting designers Studio ZNA, the Raphael Court has been reconceived to reveal the Cartoons’ extraordinary details and vibrant palette. Acoustic panelling helps to create a more comfortable environment, and bespoke furniture provides opportunities to sit and enjoy the works and the gallery at leisure. State-of-the-art LED lighting has been used to celebrate the extraordinary detail and vitality of the works.

In August 2019, the V&A and Royal Collection Trust worked with Factum Foundation and Momart on a high-resolution recording project, capturing high-resolution 3D data of the surface, and panoramic composite photography to record the colour and gather infra-red data. Each 3D image took over 95 hours to capture with four of Factum’s Lucida 3D Scanners mounted on scaffold towers.

The images captured are crucial for the study and future care of the Cartoons and have also enabled us to greatly enhance the gallery interpretation, in addition to our online content offer, in an unprecedented way. As well as new graphic interpretation in the gallery, this pioneering imagery informs a suite of new digital interactive interpretation which will be available in the gallery on visitors’ mobile devices. Using QR codes to access the interactives, visitors will discover in-depth stories about the creation and history of the Cartoons which bring to life their design, making and incredible survival to the present day. Created by Spiral Productions with the V&A, interactive features and games enable visitors to get up close with the detail of the Cartoons by zooming into the ultra-high-resolution photography, infrared imagery, and 3D scans of the Cartoons. The interactives will highlight the significance and status of the Cartoons and enable visitors to explore the fragile artworks as never before while in their presence. Visitors will discover the Cartoons’ function as full-scale tapestry designs for the Sistine Chapel; uncover the ingenuity of Raphael and his workshop and their design process; and learn about the rescue, life and status of the Cartoons in England, from their arrival in the 17th century up to the present day, still capturing the fascination of visitors.

Dr Ana Debenedetti, Lead Curator of the Raphael Project and Curator of Paintings at the V&A said: “The seven surviving tapestry Cartoons by Raphael comprise a unique Renaissance treasure. At a time when the V&A’s doors are closed, we are delighted to share these incredible works of art with people at home to experience and enjoy, and we look forward to people visiting them in person once again – ready to be unveiled in their refreshed home – when the museum is able to reopen.”

One of the V&A’s largest and most dramatic galleries, The Raphael Court is almost identical in proportion to the Sistine Chapel and was last refurbished from 1992 to 1996. Combined with enhanced interpretation, the new scheme – with its darker colour palette, state-of-the-art lighting, refreshed furniture, new graphics and on-site digital experience – will transform visitors’ viewing experience and their enjoyment of these works of art.

The refurbishment of the Raphael Court is supported by Lydia & Manfred Gorvy, Julia and Hans Rausing, American Express, the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, Sir Michael and Lady Hintze, the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation, the American Friends of the V&A, and many other generous donors.

A new publication, edited by Dr Ana Debenedetti, further contextualises the creation and afterlife of the Cartoons, shedding light on Raphael’s artistic practice and the organisation of his large workshop, the fate of the tapestries made for the Sistine Chapel, and the rediscovery and reception of the Cartoons, especially in Britain.

Photo credit: V&A. Courtesy Royal Collection Trust Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

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