Restored Masterpiece by Raphael at the Museo Diocesano Is the Highlight of the Holiday Season

The ‘Predella from the Oddi Altarpiece’ by Renaissance artist Raphael is the 14th ‘Masterpiece for Milan,’ an exhibition project by the Museo Diocesano, we talked about it with the director of the museum, Nadia Righi.

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Scene from the Predella of the Pala Altarpiece.

There are few unmissable events in Milan during the Holiday season, traditions that belong to the month of December as the Panettone and the opening of the season at La Scala. One of these is certainly “Un Capolavoro per Milano (A Masterpiece for Milan)” at the Diocesano Museum which every year presents for the holiday season a painting on loan from prestigious international museums.

By doing so, the museum gives Milanese citizens the chance to admire works of extraordinary artistic importance. Among the names that have been featured in past years there are Caravaggio, Dürer, Antonello da Messina, and Botticelli.

Now in its 14th year, the guest of honor chosen for this edition is Raphael’s “Predella from the Oddi Altarpiece.” The painting, oil on panel, is divided into three sections and each include a different scene from the Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi, and Presentation in the Temple.

We met Nadia Righi, the director of the Museo Diocesano to talk about the project, its long tradition and its future.

This is the 14th edition of  “Un Capolavoro per Milano” a format of the museum which is now part of its identity and which the citizens of Milan look forward to during the holiday season, when did the idea come about and – after all these years – what is the ingredient of the success of this project?

The idea first came about during the inauguration in 2001. It was not just the new permanent collection that was opened on that occasion, but also an exhibition entitled “Notes for an Inauguration. Tribute to a Nascent Museum”, in which the works on show had been chosen by all the directors of Milanese museums, who selected them from their own collections. In addition to these was a work from the Vatican Museums, Caravaggio’s “Deposition”. When he noticed that everyone lingered for ages in front of that unparalleled masterpiece, the Director Paolo Biscottini came up with the idea of enabling that kind of experience to be repeated every year. After a few years when the event had to be put on hold – an interruption caused by a lack of resources and of sponsorship – we revived it in 2016. Since other institutions had also picked up on the idea in the meantime, we found it even more important to ask ourselves why this was happening. So we decided to make a clear proposal of what seemed to us to be the most suitable way to look at a work of art. It calls for a slow approach, an articulated route to be followed before you reach the point where you see the work on show; a route where information can be provided, tools to help people understand, but also a chance to get under the skin of the painting, with evocative installations. Then comes the moment when you come face to face with the masterpiece, wonder about it and stay all the time you need. I believe that this possibility to observe it calmly, accompanied by the hand but then left free to stand in front of the work – each of us for who we are – is what our public really appreciates. 

The Oddi Altarpiece has been restored. Thanks to the restoration, the bright colors of the Annunciation scene has been revealed.

This year is the turn of the predella of Raphael’s Pala Oddi, how did you identify this loan and why?

The Oddi Altarpiece is a very fine work, one to which we have been paying court for many years. Our intention when we show a theme that is closely related to Christmas every year is to tackle it with different nuances.

We thought it would be a good idea to go back to the theme of Raphael, partly because of the tragic atmosphere that hung over the celebrations of his fifth centennial in 2020. We also felt that showing this panel would contribute to an understanding of the enormous impact made by this artist, who managed to reveal all his astounding ability as a painter and his lexicon, whose nature was already so fully sixteenth-century.

To go back to the issue in hand, in this case Raphael depicted three episodes of evangelism that were closely related to the theme of the incarnation and to how people reacted to it. First there is Mary, depicted by Raphael in a beautiful dialogue made up of amazement, questions and freedom, then the tale of the Three Wise Men, who embarked on a long journey because they wanted answers to their questions. Last comes old Simeon, who saw the child Jesus being carried into the Temple in his mother’s arms and recognised the Messiah for whom he had waited for a whole lifetime.

To my mind, these are three important moments that Raphael illustrated with an extraordinary narrative ability and also immense sensitivity in the way he rendered the characters’ facial expressions, so that everyone who stops to observe the painting closely cannot help but be profoundly engaged.

The central scene of the predella is an Adoration of the Magi. Raphael here proposes an unprecedented unified spatiality, thanks to the scaled arrangement of the figures prospectively in space, made effective by the expedient of horses arranged along crisscrossing diagonals, thus emphasizing the vanishing point.

The work has been restored on the occasion of this exhibition, you can tell by the bright colours that have emerged, does it allow a new reading of Raphael’s masterpiece?

The possibility offered by Barbara Jatta to include this work in the packed agenda of projects undertaken by the Vatican Museums’ restoration workshop was certainly a priceless opportunity, one that we accepted with enthusiasm. The maestro Paolo Violini, who had already restored the main section of the Oddi Altarpiece in 2020, had an inkling that some surprises might be in store from this painting, too. Accompanied by in-depth diagnostic investigations, this restoration project revealed the painting’s brilliant colours, enabling us to appreciate the quality of the drawing even in a work that is practically a miniature. Photographs taken in raking light revealed how Raphael used etchings to reproduce the architectures in which he placed his scenes, exactly as he did in the frescoes in the Raphael Rooms in Vatican and in his works on a large scale. All these clues enable us to understand the amount of care he lavished on the predella. In addition, the restoration project also revealed some new information about his technique. We discovered that, while the scenes were painted in oils, the candelabras that separate the sections were painted in tempera, most probably at a later stage, when the altarpiece had already been installed in its frame. Raphael paid incredible attention to these decorative details, too, employing highlighting and making use of the sources of real light that illuminated the work when it was installed in the Chapel of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia, a technique he also used in the main compartment and in the scenes in the predella. The detail of the candelabras was also found to be in relief, just as the wooden frame that has unfortunately been lost must also have been in relief.

The work comes from the Vatican museums and the initiative is a great opportunity for Milanese citizens to see works that are rarely loaned-if you could grant one wish what would be the loaned masterpiece you would like to bring to Milan and from which museum?

Over the years, we have been honoured to work with many important institutions. If you are asking me what my ‘impossible dream’ would be, my answer is Caravaggio’s “Nativity” from the Regional Museum in Messina, although we are well aware that it can never be moved from its location. If you are asking about more feasible dreams… we have been working on them for some time and will soon be making an announcement.

“Un Capolavoro per Milano” is on view at the Museo Diocesano until 29 January.

Jessica Capretti is a frequent contributor to Milano Art Guide since 2021. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan and has worked on several projects including “L’Arc de Triomphe Wrapped” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in Paris. She lives and works in Milan.