If it was Leonardo da Vinci who transformed the painting of faces and skin, it was surely Raphael who accomplished the same for clothing and fabrics. During the final decade of his life, he painted a succession of portraits which stand today as examples of what can be achieved in oils.
Raphael’s magnificent Portrait of a Cardinal from 1510-11 is notable not only for the lifelike modelling of flesh, but for its attention to the surface textures of the fabrics, something the artist had developed since his early days with Perugino. Three quite distinct fabrics are shown in the cardinal’s choir dress: the soft matte surface of the biretta (hat), the subtly patterned sheen of his mozzatta (cape), shown in the detail below with the luxuriant folds of his white rochet (vestment).
This Portrait of Pope Julius II was probably painted slightly later, in 1511, when it’s thought to have been donated to the church of S Marcello in Rome. There is a copy in Florence, but it’s now generally accepted that this version in London is Raphael’s original. Modelling of surface textures encompasses a wider range, including the polished metals of the chair, but isn’t quite as breathtaking as those in the cardinal’s portrait above. This is also a remarkably familiar and informal image, with the Pope sat not on his throne dressed in pontifical robes, but on a more everyday sede camerale and in working rig, as if in an audience.
The detail below shows the range of surface effects, and the wonderful fine pleating in his vestment which is so different from the sculptural approach still popular just a few decades before.
Of all Raphael’s tondo Madonnas, it’s his Madonna della Sedia (Madonna of the Chair) from 1513-14 which is my favourite. It shows a thoroughly real and natural mother with two infants, every surface texture rendered as in life.
As Raphael had painted his previous pontifical patron, so some time between 1517-19 he painted this Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi Rossi. The three figures are grouped closely together and in rich colour. The Pope sits not on a throne, but more informally, a magnificent illuminated book (thought to be the ‘Hamilton’ Bible from about 1350) open in front of him and a magnifying glass in his left hand. Every surface texture is lifelike, from the polished metal sphere on the back of the chair with its carefully projected reflection, to the hair and fur, as shown in the detail below.
After Raphael’s untimely death, innovation in the depiction of fabrics moved to Venice, where Jacopo Bassano introduced a more painterly approach.
Although most of Bassano’s paintings appear finished to Florentine standards, and at first sight his The Way to Calvary (c 1544-5) appears no exception, some are delightfully painterly when examined more closely.
What appear from a distance to be meticulously detailed fabrics turn out to be rich in marks left by the brush. These are most abundant in the coarse petticoat seen billowing in the lower right, and in the sheen on the satin of the woman’s left arm, as well as the white sheet which she holds up.
This approach was also successful for Veronese. Famed for his rich colours, he was known for his bravura and brisk, painterly brushwork.
Veronese’s Judith and Holofernes from about 1580 makes no attempt to conceal the scumbled highlights of its fabrics.
This detail shows how extensive and free Veronese was in making his marks, although they’re largely confined to fabrics, with flesh being painted more smoothly.
During the sixteenth century, Raphael first showed how meticulous attention to detail of surface textures resulted in lifelike appearance of clothing and fabrics. Then the Venetian School, and Veronese in particular, demonstrated that freer brushwork is every bit as effective.
Anne Hollander (2002), Fabric of Vision, Dress and Drapery in Painting, National Gallery and Yale UP. ISBN 1 85709 907 9.