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Conestabile Madonna by Rafael in St Petersburg, what to admire in your Russian tour

Among the most beautiful must-see places in your Russia country tour St Petersburg ranks first. Moreover it’s the most European city in Russia by atmosphere and architecture. 

The Hermitage museum is the jem in the museums’ necklace of the city. Among hundreds of its halls, you shouldn’t miss one with the works of one of the most famous Italian painters, Raphael Santi.

What do Raphael Santi and Russia have in common? Not so much if we regard Russian history and a life story of the painter synchronously.

In 1504, Raphael came to Florence to learn from the experience of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci; in Moscow and Novgorod, at the instigation of Abbot Joseph Volotsky, heretics were burned. In 1514, Raphael was working at the Sistine Madonna and lead the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, and the father of the unborn Ivan the Terrible, Vasily III conquered Smolensk from the Grand Dutchess of Lithuania. 

In 1520, Raphael died at the age of 37 — and Ryazan and Pskov were officially connected to Moscow. These lands will not be up to Raphael for more than two centuries although architects from Italy have already worked on the renovation of the Kremlin cathedrals during his lifetime.

But when the great Italian got to a distant country in XVIII century, Russia fell in love with him recklessly and, it seems, forever.  The veneration of Raphael not only as an artist, but also as an architect began in Russia much later than in other European countries. It can be said that Raphael fully “settled” in Russia together with the enlightened Empress Catherine II.

In the late 1780s – early 1790s, Giacomo Quarenghi, an Italian architect from Bergamo built a stone gallery in the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage museum). Catherine II decided to decorate it from with removable murals made in Italy according to drawings by Raphael from floor to ceiling. And moreover the gallery itself, with some digressions, reproduces the famous loggias of Raphael in the Pope Palace in the Vatican, Rome.

The Russian Empress was also interested in Raphael’s easel painting. Back in 1772, the first paintings by Raphael appeared in Russia were “St. George and the Dragon” and “The Holy Family”, otherwise called “Madonna with Beardless Joseph”.

Since the era of Catherine II, the acquisition of works of world art has become a matter of national importance for Russia. The fact that Raphael’s painting is a royal gift, during the artist’s lifetime, the French king Francis I, the dukes of Urbino and successive popes readily agreed. 

Three and a half centuries have passed — and the Russian Tsar Alexander II has proved this fact for another time.

He bought a small “Madonna” of Raphael from the Italian count Giovanni Carlo della Staffa Conestabile, an archaeologist and collector from Perugia, as a gift to his wife, Empress Maria Alexandrovna.

This story of Russian tsars presenting Raphael’s works to their loved ones was not the first.

For example, mother of Alexander I Alexandra Feodorovna also asked her husband  Emperor Nicholas I to present  Raphael’s famous “Madonna Alba” to hang in her office. 

Nikolai answered shortly and firmly: “It will be too much!” But since he was not used to ignore his wife’s asks, Fyodor Bruni, a Russian painter made a copy of “Madonna Alba” especially for her. It is now in the Mikhailovsky Palace in St Petersburg and at least partially compensated for the pain of losing the original.

The “Conestabile Madonna” chosen by Alexander II, was incomparably more modest even in size: if the diameter of the “Alba”, which was distinguished by royal proportions, was 94.5 cm, then the “Conestabile ” was 5 times smaller, only 18 cm.

However, this small picture cost Russia a lot of effort. The Empress really wanted to have it, and Count Stroganov was sent to Perugia. The owner, Count Conestabile, demanded 400 thousand francs for his Raphael. The bidding was crazy, but Stroganov managed to bring the initial price 4 times down. Then Conestabile put forward a tricky condition: if the municipality of Perugia agreed to pay these 100 thousand, the painting would remain in Italy. There was no free money in the budget of the city, and the Russians got this masterpiece. But in order to take it out of Italy, it was necessary to deliver the painting for examination to Florence. The Council of Ministers has been looking for a long time for a way to keep the painting in the country, but after diplomatic pressure from Russia, agreed the painting to leave Italy.  This cultural loss resulted in community tension and the press was outraged. Count Conestabile was forced to write an exculpatory note, and later a law was passed prohibiting the export of cultural property from Italy. 

But the “Madonna Conestabile” has already become a «tourist» and left her native land. Her tour program to Russia was already set and the destination point was defined also, St Petersburg, Winter Palace. That is how Russia got another piece of Raphael!

Upon the painting arrived to St Petersburg the leading critic Vladimir Stasov burst into a loud journalistic groaning in the main capital’s newspar “Vedomosti” on November 27, 1871. He wrote about the “Madonna” as if it was a suffering human being:

«Raphael’s Madonna had now not only to leave the dear and familiar company of old acquaintances and friends, not only to move from the warm southern lands to the north, to the country of thick fur coats and fur hats (and what Italian would not find such a relocation murderous?), but also to endure a difficult, painful operation… Oh, if only the picture could talk! How she would beat her forehead against the wall in despair and cry and complain in the old Italian language of the time of Pope Leo X.”

Stasov mentioned about a «difficult and painful operation» the painting endured. What exactly did he mean?

The frightening operation that “Madonna” immediately underwent upon arrival in cold Russia was the transfer from wood to canvas. This operation was difficult and risky. But main Russian restorers in XIX century shared the opinion that “ancient paintings painted on wood and brought from foreign lands, especially from Italy, are mostly subjected to significant damage from the influence of indoor air artificially heated for eight months of the year” and the translation from wood to canvas, on the contrary, helps to preserve paintings. Such transfers were made en masse. This prejudice of those restorers was controversial because we know that many of Raphael’s paintings have survived on the wood to this day without shifting to the canvas.

When the painting was transferred to canvas, it was discovered that at first Madonna was holding not a book, but a pomegranate, a symbol of shed blood and Christ’s sacrifice.

Raphael was only 21 when he painted this Madonna. Depiction of the Madonna became the main theme of Raphael’s entire work, and received an unsurpassed, perfect embodiment. May be this theme became his main one because he lost his mom when he was 9.

He was still very young when he wrote his “Madonna Conestabile “, only 21. The same year, 1504 when he did this painting he moved to Florence and later to Rome where his genius burst to the maximum extent.

In this painting Raphael acted as a master of the Early Renaissance, and as a storyteller who is afraid to miss the slightest detail of the narrative. The artist’s youth and timidity of style, barely noticeable self-doubt and all the signs of approaching maturity give this first of Raphael’s Madonnas a very special charm.

Raphael placed a figure of a young woman, covered with a blue scarf is placed in a circle exactly inscribed in a square. 

She holds a book in her right hand, clutches her little son to her with her left hand and they look at the book together.

The Madonna and Сhild are felt united because they are connected by the motif of the prayer book, which Mary holds in her hand and which the little Christ looks at. The bowed head of the Madonna, the cloak gently falling over the shoulders, the Baby’s head, the golden outlines of the halos – all these smooth outlines, the whole rhythm of these rounded lines find a natural completion in the round frame of the picture.

The tondo (circle) form turns out to be intrinsically necessary; it holds together the figurative unity of figures and landscape and gives the whole scene a particularly harmonious character. 

The Madonna and Child are depicted against the background of a landscape, a calm ridge of hills, verdant plains, thin slender trees, clear waters of a lake, a high blue sky on which patterns of branches loom. The image of the young Madonna is, touchingly pure, thoughtful and gentle, somehow surprisingly consonant with this image of spring awakening nature. It is full of transparency and silence.

In “Madonna Conestabile”, the work of a very young master, we may feel a lyrical charm and some special charm of sincerity. In this masterpiece of the early period of his art we distinguish specific features of Raphael’s pictorial style like rhythm, grace, melodiousness of lines, harmony of images.

Rafael died in 1520, at the age of 37. 500 years later, the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg invited its guests to celebrate the genius of the Italian artist by visiting the exhibition “Raphael’s Line”. More than 300 works of different painters of ХVI – XXI centuries were presented, whose art was greatly influenced by him. 

The exhibition was held in the main building of the Hermitage until March 28, 2020.  «Madonna Conestabile» was also presented at the exhibition, and may be the time Raphael depicted her with a Child was also March, but 1504. 

Thus the circle of Madonna Conestabile “tour” was made complete and perfect as Rafael’s art.

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