After a longer than anticipated stay in Rome for the exhibition to celebrate 500 years from the death of Raphael, the Uffizi’s masterpiece Portrait of Leo X with Cardinals Luigi de’ Rossi and Giulio de’ Medici is back home. For the occasion, it’s on display at Palazzo Pitti, where there is an exhibition set up to provide information about the complex restoration that it underwent before transport to and display in Rome. The restoration proves “without a doubt,” according to the museum, that the two cardinals behind the Pope are by the hand of the master, and not, as some have proposed, added at a later date.

Santi Raffaello, detto Raffaello Sanzio (Urbino 1483 – Roma 1520)

Ritratto di Leone X con i cardinali Luigi de’ Rossi e Giulio de’ Medici

Gallerie degli Uffizi, Galleria Palatina ed Appartamenti Reali

Inv. 40, Palatina (1912)

Raphael’s Pope Leo X: the painting’s history

This painting has a long historiography, as well as history of restorations, worthy of any masterpiece, and in this case we’re looking at the last panel painting by Raphael, so it’s particularly significant. The Uffizi Galleries backs the origin story proposed by Richard Sherr (1983), who suggests that the painting of Pope Leo X, born Giovanni de’ Medici, was sent to Florence as a “virtual wedding guest” (my words) for the marriage of Leo X’s nephew Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, to Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne. For the occasion, scheduled for September 8, 1518, the painting would have substituted the presence of the Pope. This solid interpretation is based on a letter from the groom’s mother Alfonsina Orsini de’ Medici that says that the painting was hung at the center of the table near the bride and groom. In 2001, Sheryl Reiss added that Alfonsina may have been involved in the commission of this work.

Leo is shown in the company of two cardinals, both of them members of the Medici family – his cousins Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi. Numerous scholars have observed that, as the figure of Leo X alone seems capable of filling the space, and since reflectography analysis has shown that Luigi de’ Rossi’s left hand is painted over and after the papal throne, the figures in the background were added as an afterthought. One such argument, presented in a 2003 article in Renaissance Quarterly by scholar Nelson Minnich, suggests that the painting was originally commissioned for a Roman church in late 1517, and that its function was changed along the way as it became clear that the Pope, and perhaps the other Medici relatives, could not attend the wedding in September 1518. A functional and iconographic change, however, would not necessarily imply a change in hand; Raphael could well have been the sole author. But, if this were the case and the artist had started painting, one would expect that the underdrawing would show the secondary figures superimposed on top of the lines of the architectural background.

I’m of course unable to go through all the documentation related to this painting for the purpose of a blog post, but I thought it was interesting to dip into the argument and expand upon the information provided in the exhibition material in order to provide greater context for the recent conclusions of Eike Schmidt and Marco Ciatti, curators of the Pitti show.

hamilton bible
Cristoforo Orimina, Hamilton Bible, fol. 141v, Book of Paralipomeni, Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Ms 78, E 3

The book in the painting

The Pope appears to have taken a pause from reading the Bible, looking up while he still holds his gold-rimmed magnifying glass near the page. This may be an allusion to his shortsightedness but also to his interest in examining the fine details of the physical book, a work of art in itself that celebrates the pontiff’s sophisticated taste and culture.

The Bible in question, a thick illuminated codex, was identified in 1985 as the Hamilton Bible, now in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin but formerly in the private collection of the Duke of Hamilton. Made in Naples around 1350, it may have been commissioned by Queen Joanna I of the House of Anjou. The illuminations are by Cristoforo Orimina who, with his assistants, ran the most important illuminator’s workshop in Naples and was aware of recent trends in painting including the style of Giotto, the influence of whom is clear in certain details of the work. Scholars have no idea how the book ended up in the hands of the Pope; quite possibly it was brought back to the Vatican from Avignon. It has been proposed that this choice of book implies a pro-French political message for the French-Italian wedding in question.

Detail of the Bible in Raphael's painting

A possible counter argument: due to some slight variations between the painting and the Hamilton Bible, including different uses of lines and the substitution of the Medici coat of arms, one scholar, Francesco Di Teodoro, suggests that Leo X owned a copy of the Hamilton Bible made for him by Lorenzo the Magnificent (Minnich, p. 1022), which would better explain the provenance of the pictured book (i.e. how it ended up in the Pope’s hands in Rome), yet undermine the dynastic iconographic argument.

The need for restoration

The restoration began in 2017 and was financed by Lottomatica (the Italian lottery) through the Scuderie del Quirinale. Although Uffizi Director Eike Schmidt mentioned the likelihood of it traveling at a press conference for the beginning of the restoration, when the work was moved post-restoration to Rome, the loan caused the museum’s scientific committee to resign; they had spent months making a list of 24 unmoveable works and this one was number 21, and they contested both the move and the apparent futility of their work. Superintendant Marco Ciatti came forth to vouch for the painting’s perfect condition and ability to travel, a statement backed by the restorers (source).

The need for restoration arose when conservators observed small yet dangerous instances of the original paint layers lifting in a part of the painting that had numerous raised cracks. This paint had been compressed and shattered during earlier attempts at restoration.

On the flesh tones, particularly on the Pope’s face, deteriorated varnish was causing a flattened effect that made it hard to understand the nuanced modelling.

In the background, areas of “blanching” cause the architecture to come forward in the picture plane, inverting perspective levels and reducing the overall effect of the masterpiece.

The restoration

As is usually the case in modern restoration, restorers tried to clean with just water-based methods, but the previous varnishes proved resistant and had to be carefully thinned and removed with gelled emulsions of various pH values. The varnishes had affected the three-dimensionality of the flesh tones, as can be seen in the image of the Pope’s hand.

Restoration of Raphael's portrait of Leo X
Restoration of Raphael's portrait of Leo X

Restoration provided the opportunity to observe Raphael’s painting technique. One thing that becomes apparent is just how thin the layers of paint are; under raking light, the support shows through the canvas in some points. The thin layers of oil paint were applied on thin ground layers of gypsum and animal glue, followed by two layers of a light grey oil-based primer containing white lead and charcoal black. The many shades of red use cinnabar and red lake pigments applied either together or in succession, with suspended, minute, glass particles in the abundant oil.

The painting’s support also required restoration, since the deterioration observed was in fact caused by problems in the support’s crosspieces. I have to say that this part of restoration is always less exciting to me than the painting part, though the structure is the essential base that allows both the artist and the later restorers to work. In this case, a laser scanner was used to calculate the amount of warp that the painting previously had, and this was corrected with temporary pine flexible crosspieces that allowed restorers to observe the panel’s behaviour while moving ahead with work on the painted surface. The final interventions on the structure ensure greater elasticity using adjustable screws.

Restorers have a habit of presenting facts and leaving scholars to do their work when it comes to drawing conclusions, including those related to authenticity, hands and the like. In this case, the possibility of using new technologies (such as “investigation with an optical microscope and scanning microprofilometry”) seems to have provided the most important information, namely, a clear image of an underdrawing in which all three figures can be seen. A freehand preparatory drawing in charcoal defines the figure of the Pope, while the cardinals are outlined with thinner strokes. The architecture is clearly delineated, as are all three figures. I leave you thus with an image of the painting under “Multi-Near Infra Red reflectography at a wavelength of 1650nm” for you to be the judge.

Ritratto di Leone X con i cardinali Luigi de’ Rossi e Giulio de’ Medici

Multi-Near Infra Red reflectography at a wavelength of 1650nm

Observing the restored painting in person, as I had occasion to do at the show in Rome, I can say that the overall effect is much more that of a masterpiece than before. While previously the painting did look somewhat flat, now we can revel in the luscious colour palate, the details of the fabrics, the depth of the background and the incredibly subtle modeling of the faces.

Exhibition Visitor information

Raphael and the Return of the Medici Pope: restoration and discovery

Sala delle Nicchie, Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace

27 October 2020 to 31 January 2021 – EXTENDED to Jan 16 2022!


All images provided by the Uffizi’s press office and used with permission.


Minnich, Nelson H., “Raphael’s Portrait “Leo X with Cardinals Giulio De’ Medici and Luigi De’ Rossi”: A Religious Interpretation.” Renaissance Quarterly 56, no. 4 (2003): 1005-052. Accessed November 1, 2020. doi:10.2307/1261978.

Additional creative fun

For true art history AND crafting geeks I found that you can do a paint by numbers or a kind of cross-stich with plastic bubble bits of this painting!

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