A Quiet Time for Tapestries
By Hilary Bockham
Tapestries? Hmmm. Aren't those the dim and dowdy things ravaged by time that no one but an academic drudge could like? Think again...and don't follow the hoards of Vatican visitors who, on their arrival at the top of the long escalator, skip ahead the first sign to the Sistine Chapel.
Do yourself a big favor — turn right and go into the Pinacoteca, the Vatican's picture gallery. Contrast the early stiff and instructional mediaeval paintings with Giotto's work from the early 14th century, which invites you for the first time in art history to really step inside the scene and imagine how it might feel. Or have a look at the only Leonardo in Rome. And how could you miss wild man Caravaggio's groundbreaking and deeply shocking new realism of the early 1600s?
Nestled right there in the middle of all these gorgeous rooms is a wonderfully cool, dark and intimate place devoted to Raphael and his sumptuous tapestries. The Acts of the Apostles, showing seven of the original 10 scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul, were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 to hang on the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. They were, in some part, his attempt to match the glory that his predecessor Julius ll had achieved in his commission of Michelangelo's fabled ceiling fresco. There is no more barbed spur than rivalry, and by bolding marrying of High Renaissance aesthetics (Raphael's design) with finely skilled Belgian workmanship (in the tapestry weaving itself), he wasted no opportunity to get himself into the picture.
Five of the tapestries have — as the underlying border — scenes from Leo's own life before he became pope. This comes as little surprise, for this was the Pope who said soon after his election, "God has given us the papacy. Let us enjoy it." Within a single year, he had spent not only all the savings of his predecessor but also the revenues of Vatican under his own reign and indebted his successor.
With the precious silk threads so heavily embellished with pure gold and silver, the chapel would have seemed to shimmer in the early 16th century. Although the ceiling today takes center stage, at that time it was the tapestries that dominated the decoration. According to the master of ceremonies at the Chapel, general opinion held that there was nothing more beautiful in the world. They were seen to be the finest ambassadors of High Italian Renaissance style.
Considered by many the "Golden Boy of the Renaissance," Raphael was at the height of his career when he took the commission. Summoned to Rome by Julius ll in 1508, he had been placed in charge of the fresco decorations of the new papal apartments of the Vatican. He had recently become one of the architects of the new St Peter's basilica and was supervisor of excavation and reuse of ancient materials in Rome. It was during this time, after he'd had a sneak preview of Michelangelo's stunning new work in the Sistine Chapel, that he too began incorporating into his work heroic figures in dramatic movement with dynamic style.
His original designs for the tapestries — or cartoons as they are known — soon became highly prized in their own right. Collectors bought them for vast sums of money. The Prince of Wales (later to become Charles I of England) finally secured seven, which are now on display in London's Victoria & Albert Museum. Since the tapestries were made from behind, the images that we see on them are the mirror images of the cartoon originals. According to Vatican records, 30 workers took about 18 months to complete each one (certainly working more than 40 hours per week).
Perhaps partly because one gets so few chances to linger undisturbed by the crowds in front of such artistic masterpieces in the Vatican, I spend a lot of time in the climate-controlled room of the Pinacoteca where the tapestries now rest. Wondrous details catch my eye, such as the hedgerow that appears towards the top right-hand side of the Charge to Peter, touching Jesus' halo and skimming across the top of the disciples' haloes too. It does not appear in Raphael's original design, but was added by the workers in Peter van Aelst's Brussels workshop to establish a dividing line between the most skilled craftsmen — who worked on faces and figures — and the less experienced ones, who could only be trusted to carry out the landscape.
As viewers, we are no longer immediately tuned to appreciate the lost art of tapestries. But if we allow ourselves the chance to linger further, we begin to discern astonishing details: the fishermen's reflections in the water and the deep water fish that they've netted; the piece of silver that still proudly gleams, highlighting the three-dimensional trompe l'oeil design at the bottom of Paul's Road to Damascus; the photographic toes of the disciples, who watch Peter receive the keys to heaven; and the exquisitely produced rough blanket, ironically edged in childish blanket stitch in which Peter kneels before Jesus in his white and gold.
These glorious things have had a bit of a checkered past. Stolen and touted around town by mercenary soldiers during the sack of Rome in 1527, the tapestries were returned via a negotiation in 1540 by Julius lll. (The versions that were returned were depleted by the loss of an unknown number of border elements.) They were stolen again when Napoleon used Rome as his own personal antique shop in 1798, but they were brought back by Pious Vll, who purchased them from a Genoese art dealer in 1808. Their official condition is generally rated as "moderate" and yet they still defiantly glow.
Since the Pinacoteca was added to the Vatican museums in 1932, they have had an appropriately peaceful and forgiving environment, allowing us to learn to admire them anew. And whilst I can't sing their praises enough, I must confess, I'm actually very glad that so many people swing to the left as they hit the top of that escalator. (Resulting in fewer "oops, I thought I'd turned the flash off" moments.) In this quiet uncluttered space, you can feel almost alone with what are surely among the shiniest jewels in the crown of the Vatican art collection.
A former art teacher, Hilary Bockham has spent the last ten years designing major European art exhibitions of both contemporary and historical art. She has been a visiting lecturer at several UK design colleges and now lives in Rome, where she is a docent for Context Rome.