A great art historical controversy has engulfed Italian academia and the press, surrounding the authenticity of a piece traditionally attributed to Raphael, The Vision of Ezekiel.
Recorded as being part of the Medici collection since 1589, it was initially housed at the Uffizi. After Napoleonic forces plundered Italy, this small panel was spirited away to Paris in 1799, not returned to Florence until 1816. It is now part of the collection at the Palatine Gallery at the Palazzo Pitti.
There are in fact differing accounts in Italian art historical sources related to the original date of this work. It was established as first belonging to the Ercolani family of Bologna, prior to it being ceded to the Medici collection. Vasari states that it was created after 1514, whereas Malvasia, a 17th Century art historian from Bologna cites it as being created previous to this. There is mention of a transaction between Raphael and the Ercolani in 1510, though it was for a small amount of money, inconsistent with a Raphael commission at any time after 1510. Some authors have suggested this was a form of down payment, but others argue against this, stating that such payments were not typical for a small piece. Some monographs also float the possibility of this being a work completed by Raphael pupil Giulio Romano, hence dating it at a period after Raphael's death in 1520. The evidence these scholars have based their detailed speculations on is less discernable.
Another contribution to the widely published date of this piece refers to Raphael's exposure to Michelangelo's Sistine frescoes, and his own involvement in executing the frescoes for the Stanza della Segnatura at the Vatican. Hence, as a result the date often ascribed to this piece is c.1518. Until further evidence comes to light however, this date can be described as speculative at best.
Creation of the Sun, Moon and plants from the Sistine cycle - a stylistic antecedent?
Fast forward to 2011 - in an article published in L'Espresso, art historian Roberto De Feo submits that the Pitti Raphael may be a copy. This conclusion was reached following a three year investigation by De Feo into known copies of this work. The sensationalist manner this news has been presented in Italy has caused great contention, where journalists and some academics are somewhat less cautious when it comes to reining in emotions, as opposed to trying to uncover evidence.
Subsequent to the L'Espresso piece, many notable figures in Italian art history and Raphael studies have chimed in. A wonderful summary of the Italian press' coverage of this drama is presented at storie dell'arte, posted by Serena D'Italia. I would also like to thank storie dell'arte contributor Sergio Momesso for his assistance in helping me navigate this story to present it here in English.
Whilst observing the antics of the Italian press and some less-reserved academics is amusing from a distance, it does little to shed light on what the main focus of these articles should be - the exact nature of the documentary, stylistic and scientific data on the Pitti piece in comparison to other known versions. Looking through my own growing library on technical documents pertaining to Raphael studies, there is little mention of the Pitti Ezekiel piece, which seems to have gone largely unassailed as an authentic Raphael. Doubt seems to have first crept in with Crowe and Cavalcaselle's late 19th Century opus on Raphael, with the Romano involvement later suggested by Rosenberg and Gronau in the early 20th Century.
It was surprising to note this story had not made an impact in the English language art press, particularly after Nicholas Penny, curator of the National Gallery London - the man behind the re-discovery of the Madonna of The Pinks weighed in recently, stating he was aware of existing copies, but has little doubt that the Pitti version is by Raphael's hand. Knowing the contested state of evidence for The Pinks, one can only surmise Penny is again asking the public to bank on his uncanny skills at Raphael divination, rather than outlining the nature of the evidence pertaining to the pieces in question.
What can be stated categorically is that the contents of De Feo's investigation, and the documents scrutinised within are not publicly available. Many scholars commenting on the issue have not read De Feo's piece, and are merely responding to the immense hype Italian media has generated. Until this evidence is made available, anyone commenting on it is exercising little more than personal opinion, as opposed to applying an analytical process.
Putting aside the debate of the authenticity of the Pitti piece, it is important to stop and describe the beauty and theme of this work. The balance of the composition was very much admired by Vasari, and even the most casual observer can see parallels with Michelangelo's Sistine figures of God, similarly clothed in billowing pink drapery 'in the manner of Jove' as described by contemporaries. The great fiery background is taken straight from the Old Testament:
From the Book of The Prophet Ezekiel 1:44 And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.
Of great interest is that he is sitting on a throne of symbolic creatures. This was also in Ezekiel's vision, as described in Old Testament. It was a later writer, St Jerome that established these animals as representatives of the Gospel authors - a tradition that was to filter into art from the Early Christian Period, through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Matthew was represented as a man with wings, Mark a lion, Luke an ox and John as an eagle.
From the Book of The Prophet Ezekiel 1: 10-11
10 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.
11 Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.
It is fascinating to note Ezekiel himself is quite diminutive in this image, shown receiving his vision on the lower left hand corner. This great disparity in scale is quiet unique, and shows Raphael's openness to ideas being introduced not only by Michelangelo but elements of Venetian and Flemish painting, such as the use of landscape details to add to the allegory, rather than merely provide a backdrop to an image.
As far as the ongoing controversy surrounding the Ezekiel piece, until De Feo's work is published, there is little value in joining in the heated debate. Further details revealed in the Italian or academic presses will be presented here as they are made available.
Crowe, J.A., Cavalcaselle, G.B. Raphael: His Life and Works. J Murray. London. 1882–5
Perini, G., Cerno, T. Ma la scoperta c'e. L'Espresso 19 May 2011 link courtesy storie dell'arte
Raffaello/i - Commedia all'italiana intorno alla Visione di Ezechiele di Palazzo Pitti. Posted by Serena D'Italia. 17 May 2011. storie dell'arte link
Salmi, M (ed.) The Complete Works of Raphael. Reynal and Company. New York. 1969. pp. 136-137