After Giorgione and Savoldo, and Fra Bartolommeo, the project Brescia: Works from great museums – the Rinascimento concludes with this third ambitious ‘episode’, with which – having set out from Venice and paid a visit to Florence – we arrive in Umbria, in Città di Castello, where young Raphael (just seventeen years old but already qualified as a “magister”) painted during 1500 and 1501 his first recorded work, the altarpiece with Saint Nicholas from Tolentino for the chapel of merchant Andrea Baronci in the church of Sant’Agostino.
The story of this great painting is a troubled one: on 30th September 1789 an earthquake devastated the upper Tiber Valley. Among other disasters, it caused the collapse of the church which for nearly three centuries had contained this work by Raphael; the altar dedicated to Saint Nicholas lay in ruins and the altarpiece suffered severe disfigurement and structural damage. The Augustinian fathers, wishing to recover funds, sold the mutilated painting to Pope Pius VI on the condition that they could keep a copy, the execution of which was entrusted to the artist Ermenegildo Costantini. In Rome what remained of the work was sawn into a number of pieces (those that had best survived the earthquake) but the pontiff did not enjoy these portions of young Raphael’s masterpiece for long: in 1798 Napoleon’s soldiers arrived and the various parts of what had been the Baronci Altarpiece took different paths and were dispersed.
Today, thanks to our exhibition, the four surviving fragments that have so far reappeared (perhaps in the future there will be more…) from Brescia, from the Louvre and from the Naples Museum of Capodimonte, are reunited, together with Costantini’s copy (particularly useful for reimagining the appearance of the original complete work) and a wonderful preparatory drawing of the Baronci Altarpiece from the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille. The occasion of this extraordinary reassembly has served as an opportunity to conduct new studies, investigations and research regarding the training, activities and style of the young Raphael (first introductory essay), on the painting’s adventures (second text in the catalogue), and on the artistic tastes of collector Paolo Tosio – and indeed in Brescia during the first half of the 19th century, when classicism was dominant and the ‘cult’ of Raphael strongly present (themes discussed in the last essay).
The small bequest that Rinascimento would like to make is this: we set out to throw a spotlight on the importance of the Tosio Martinengo Gallery and its masterpieces, but it was also decided to involve scholars and specialists in new research – regarding iconography, attribution, style and technique, collection history and artistic tastes – and to transmit to as wide a public as possible an understanding of these specialized activities. Because art and culture are – and should always be, indeed more so – everyone’s heritage, an essential component of our identity and inheritance, to enjoy and to pass on.