Superb exhibition of rare Raphael drawings

For drawing enthusiasts, nothing can surpass, and only a few things can equal, a Raphael exhibition - especially if it includes choice examples of that High Renaissance master's work and at least a half-dozen or so of his very finest pieces. That and considerably more is exactly what one will find at the Pierpont Morgan Library here over the next few days as America's first major loan exhibition of the drawings of Raphael and his immediate circle winds up.

Of the show's 91 works on paper, 41 are by Raphael, 7 are possibly by him, and the remaining 43 are by outstanding members of his school. They were selected by J.A. Gere, a former Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, and were borrowed from various distinguished British and American collections. Those by Raphael document virtually every important phase of his career, and range from rough and tentative studies to highly finished preparatory drawings for easel and fresco paintings as well as for tapestries.

Highlights include two studies for the ``Madonna of the Meadow''; the earliest surviving study for the ``Dispute,'' Raphael's first major commission in Rome; drawings related to the famous tapestries commissioned by Pope Leo X in the Sistine Chapel; a study for an apostle in his ``Transfiguration''; and a sensitive metalpoint drawing of ``Venus.''

But that, to say the least, is only the beginning. Walking around the fair-sized room devoted to Raphael's drawings (his followers' works are shown in a nearby corridor), one encounters so much first-rate draftsmanship that one has a difficult time singling out exceptional pieces. But even in this company, his magnificent ``Back View of a Nude Man Sitting on a Stone'' does stand out, as indeed do ``Three Reclining Nude Men,'' ``A Nude Woman Kneeling, With Her Left Arm Raised,'' ``A Sibyl,'' and the very sketchy ``Four Studies of a Young Man Holding a Halberd.''

Of the doubtfuls,'' I was most impressed by ``Head of Pope Leo X,'' a black chalk drawing I've known only in reproduction until now. I was delighted finally to see it in actuality. It's been attributed at various times to Michelangelo, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Giulio Romano, as well as to Raphael, but no matter who made it, it remains one of the world's most powerful portrait studies.

In almost any other exhibition, the drawings by the five members of Raphael's school might easily have stolen the show, and even here they present a very good account of themselves. Polidoro da Caravaggio, Giovanni Francesco Penni, Baldassare Peruzzi, Giulio Romano, and Perino del Vaga were all excellent artists in their own right, and their various sketches and studies here prove it.

The major emphasis, of course, is on the master himself, and he acquits himself magnificently. It's quite mind-boggling, in fact, to realize how many great drawings are assembled in one medium-sized gallery. No wonder the exhibition required a decade of planning and four full years preparation.

At the Pierpont Morgan Library, 29 E. 36th St., through Jan. 3.

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