Current news reports are that the Galleria at the Villa Borghese in Rome has been without air conditioning for two months now, and if you know anything about art, then you know this is a bad, bad thing. The Borghese is filled with priceless works of art, from painters like Caravaggio and Titian, to masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque sculpture. Bernini’s iconic “Apollo and Daphne” for example, in which Daphne is starting to metamorphose into a tree just as the young god Apollo catches up with her, is one of the prizes of the collection.
Another of the very great treasures in the Borghese’s now-threatened collection is a painting by Raphael dating from around 1507, “The Deposition of Christ”. In it, the painter shows the dead body of Jesus being taken from Golgotha to the tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea, accompanied by several figures, including the Blessed Virgin, St. John, St. Mary Magdalene, and others. What the viewer may not know however, is that the young man with the long, wavy hair standing in the center foreground of the picture and helping to carry the body of Christ on a linen shroud, is the reason this altarpiece was painted in the first place.
Grifonetto Baglioni was a member of a wealthy and powerful clan in Perugia, the region of Italy which Raphael hailed from. Grifonetto and some other members of the family decided to try to murder four of their senior relatives on the night of July 3, 1500, as they arrived for a family wedding the next day, in order to try to take control of the family for themselves. No doubt Don Corleone or Tony Soprano would have understood the impulse.
In the midst of the slaughter, the head of the Baglioni managed to escape, and thereafter targeted Grifonetto for revenge. The young man fled to the home of his mother Atalanta, asking her to hide him, but she refused. Feeling remorse about this, she later went after him, only to see him cut down by assassins in the middle of the town’s piazza. She managed to persuade him to repent of what he had done and to forgive his attackers before he died. In guilt and grief, she commissioned this altarpiece from Raphael to hang over her son’s tomb in the church of San Francesco al Prato, using her son as the model for one of the two young men helping to hold the body of Jesus.
A friend asked yesterday, when news of the Borghese air conditioner fiasco was making the rounds on social media, how paintings like this managed to survive so long without air conditioning. The answer is, largely: pure luck. Altarpieces like this were never to be hung on thin plaster and lathe walls or be exposed to the outside air. Rather, they were designed for churches, whose super-thick walls and permanently shut windows allowing in minimal direct sunlight would have limited light exposure, maintaining a fairly cool, constant temperature. Once such paintings are no longer in situ, i.e. the place they were designed to be, and they are exposed to greater fluctuations in the levels of light, temperature, and humidity, they often start to develop problems such as cracking, fading, flaking, mold, and so on. That is now what the “Deposition” may be facing, unless it is given a reprieve very soon.
Raphael’s “Deposition” is not only a great painting, and an important one for understanding his career as an artist. It is also a powerful image of suffering, on the part of Christ, His Mother, and the Disciples, as well as on the part of the family who commissioned it. Let us hope the Borghese receives the funding it needs to repair its air conditioners soon, so that future generations will be able to admire, reflect upon, and learn from this glorious piece of Italian art.