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Extraordinary painting of the great Renaissance artist Raphael reaches Latvia and Baltic States

An early painting by the prolific# Renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael, was exhibited in Riga during March and April as a gift from the Marche region in Italy on the occasion of Latvia’s centennial celebration and an expression of the strong bonds existing between Italy and Latvia. 

Peter Aufreiter, Director of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marchein the Italian city of Urbino, whose collection contains works by some of most famous artists in history, stated on this historic occasion during the official presentation of Raphael’s painting Saint Catherine of Alexandria at the Art Museum Riga Bourse that “rarely, very rarely do the paintings of Raphael in fact leave Italy to be exhibited in other nations.” 

Aufreiter, an Austrian, previously held the position of Head of Department Exhibition Management and Loans at the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna before moving to Italy as part of a sweeping and drastic overhaul of the leadership positions in Italy’s leading cultural institutions in 2015 in a major effort to shake up its ailing cultural institutions. Aufrieter’s strategy has been to render the city of Urbino the principal art capital in Italy. Urbino has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998 and is notable for its remarkable historical legacy of independent Renaissance culture. The city is dominated by the Ducal Palace, described as a ‘city in the shape of a palace’, and one of the most important monuments in the country. 

In appreciation of the work’s loan to Latvia, Dr. Daiga Upeniece, Director of the Art Museum Riga Bourse said, “The Art Museum Riga Bourse expresses its gratitude to the Embassy of Italy in Riga and the Marche region for such an unexpected and pleasant offer because we’re quite aware that the artworks by Raphael travel rarely and every such occasion is special.” 

 “One of the positive outcomes of this project is that we’ve also gained new friends in the National Gallery of the Marche. We’re happy that the director of the National Gallery of the Marche, Peter Aufreiter opened the exhibition with the lecture ‘Raphael and Urbino, the cradle of Italian Renaissance’, said Upeniece. 

It was however the Italian Ambassador to Latvia Sebastiano Fulci who was instrumental in securing the exhibition. Fulci, who’as worked tirelessly towards strengthening Italian-Latvian relations, including providing substantial support to one of the major fashion events in the Baltic States, Riga Fashion Week, beamed with pride at the achievement of bringing as he noted to The Baltic Times, “one of the greatest and most influential painters of all time to Latvia in a historic first for Latvia and the Baltic States.” 

And it was a truly worthwhile, almost 500-year, wait. A rare opportunity to view Raphael’s artistic work, works which the great art historian EH Gombrich stated “give us a glimpse into a world more serene and harmonious than our own.” 

Raphael, who is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 15th and 16th centuries, depicted the supreme ideal of the Renaissance period, and had a great influence on the course of Western European art. He’s one of the trinity of the world’s great renaissance masters, which also included Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. 

As Raphael’s work in Riga testified, his art never fails to engage the viewer’s imagination. Whether, as art historian Bette Talvacchia has noted, through the mesmerising, graceful beauty of his Madonnas, the perfection of his classicising forms or inescapable pull of his narrative scenes.

The painting on loan, an oil on panel measuring 39cm by 15cm, which was originally part of a triptych made between the years 1500 and 1503, has become a cultural ambassador for Urbino, the Marche region and Italy throughout the world. The painting was repurchased by Italy only in 1990 after ending up on the antiques market in 1955 following the dispersion of the great Florentine collection of Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, was martyred in the early fourth century at the hands of the pagan emperor Maxentius. According to her hagiography, she was both a princess and a noted scholar who became a Christian at around the age of 14, converted hundreds of people to Christianity and who was martyred around the age of 18. More than 1,100 after her martyrdom, Joan of Arc identified Catherine as one of the saints who appeared to her.

Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria is estimated to be worth millions, and the work’s exhibition in Riga was only possible with the assurance of additional security arrangements being made and put in place at the gallery. The insurance, as Fulci stated, “was quite expensive,” with the Italian Embassy partially covering costs along with the National Gallery of the Marche and the Latvian National Museum of Art.

In 2020, the city of Urbino and the rest of the world celebrate the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death, who his contemporaries used to call ‘divine’ during his lifetime.

Fulci further announced in connection with the exhibition that airBaltic in cooperation with TezTour Latvia will open a new route from Riga to the city of Ancona in the Marche region, from Jun. to Sep. 2018 to encourage tourism and business between the Marche region and Latvia. 

The Baltic Times has also learnt that the office of the Italian President Sergio Mattarella is planning a possible visit of the Italian president to Latvia in Jul. 2018, although no formal announcement has been made. 

“As you know, the formation of an Italian Government after the elections hasn’t happened yet, and there are still no indications that an agreement between the political parties involved will be reached before July,” Fulci informed The Baltic Times. 

“There’s therefore a risk of a postponement of the visit. In case it will be confirmed it will be the first visit of an Italian President to this country since 2004. It’s therefore normal, after 14 years, that the visit takes place, but it will last only one day since he’ll also be visiting Tallinn and Vilnius in the following days.”

‘‘The programme is still being discussed with the Latvian Presidency of the Republic, but I suppose it will include a visit to the 163 Italian soldiers stationed at the Adazi base in the framework of NATO EFP, and the main purpose is obviously to discuss the evolution of bilateral relations from a political, economic and cultural point of view. Foreign policy topics including the future of the EUand security issues will probably also be dealt with during the meetings,” Fulci said.

In relation to Italian-Latvian bilateral trade relations according to the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, Latvian exports to Italy in 2017 reached €180 million (a 24.3 percent increase compared to 2016) and Latvian imports from Italy reached €458 million (a 18.9% increase). 

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