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Maymont Mansion has rare Raphael print

December 23, 2018

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Lightning supposedly never strikes twice.

But for the second time in just three years, Richmond resident Federico Colagrande has helped uncover a rare Raphael print hiding in plain sight — this time at the Maymont Mansion — and this print is even more historically significant than the first.

In March, The Times-Dispatch featured Colagrande in a story about a Raphael print — the Madonna di San Sisto — that he discovered in a Louisa County church while attending a funeral there in 2015. The framed print had been hanging in a church hallway for as long as anyone there could remember, though no one knew its origins.

After seeing the story, Maymont officials realized that they, too, had a Madonna di San Sisto print. Like the church, it was simply something that had always been part of the mansion’s collection, hanging in the library on a wall at an angle that wasn’t immediately visible to patrons. Maymont was built in 1893 by James and Sallie Dooley and served as their home until their deaths in 1922 and 1925, respectively.

So why the interest? The prints were made from a plate finished in 1816 by German engraver Friedrich Muller, and based on the original Raphael oil painting commissioned around 1512 for the altar of San Sisto, a church in Piacenza, Italy. (Piacenza happens to be Colagrande’s hometown.) The painting was commissioned by Pope Julius II in honor of his late uncle, Pope Sixtus IV. Represented in the painting are the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, along with two saints, Sixtus and Barbara. There are also two cherubs, the likenesses of which have become familiar icons in modern times. The original painting was sold to a ruler in Saxony in 1754. Today, it resides in a gallery in Dresden, Germany.

Upon inspecting the Maymont print, Colagrande, who’s passion for art history has become a second profession for him, said he quickly determined there are vast differences between the two prints. Namely, the Maymont print is devoid of letters or words; the church’s print reads: “LA MADONNA DI S. SISTO DI RAFAELLO” at the bottom.

Another difference is the lack of halos above the heads of the Madonna and baby Jesus, which are present in the church’s print. Lastly, barely visible to the naked eye are soft scribbles on the bottom corner of the Maymont print, though the letters are backward. They read: “gef. d. 26 Merz. geatzt 24 Jul 1810.”

Faced with all of those things, Colagrande said the Maymont print is likely an early print — a rough draft, of sorts — and, therefore, extremely rare. He said it could be one of only five known “avanti lettera” prints, or prints without lettering, that exist.

“The quality of that — it was amazing,” Colagrande said. “I was really stunned by that.”

Colagrande has spent years researching Muller, though his efforts have become more intense since finding the church print in 2015. Earlier this year, he spent time with experts at two noted Dresden museums, the Kupferstich-Kabinett and Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister. The latter holds the original Raphael painting, and Colagrande joked that meeting the experts there was “like going to Rome and being received by the pope.”

Colagrande has found historical references to the “avanti lettera” prints within 19th-century catalogs, including one from 1869 about works of art bequeathed to Harvard College. In that one, the Maymont print’s characteristics are noted in detail, down to the scribbles in reverse at the bottom.

Ironically, Maymont officials then searched their own catalogs and found the same catalog reference, but with a note scribbled on the side of the page that read: “This is the state sent,” followed by “F.K.” Colagrande said it’s highly possibly the initials are that of noted 19th-century art dealer, Frederick Keppel, meaning that the note could be in reference to the Dooleys’ purchase of the print.

Yet another clue is an article published in 1884 in The Art Amateur magazine, Colagrande said, in which it was noted that “For the proof of Muller’s plate of the Sistine Madonna $1800 was paid.”

Although there’s no concrete proof when it was purchased by the Dooleys, Colagrande said it was likely acquired before 1898. That’s because an 1898 newspaper article about a party thrown at Maymont by Sallie Dooley refers to a “Miller” print, which Maymont officials think was a misspelled reference to the Muller print.

All of the clues, Colagrande said, make Maymont’s print “very precious,” though he said he’s not sure of its actual value.

Dale Wheary, Maymont’s curator and director of Historical Collections & Programs, said learning about all of the treasures within the home has been a decadeslong process, since most of the Dooleys’ officials documents and papers were destroyed after Sallie Dooley’s death. Though the print had always been there, no one delved into its history before now.

“This just builds up the significance of the totality and our understanding of (James) Dooley as a collector,” she said, adding that he “was especially interested in European culture, and ... the motivation to display works of art like this in your home, even though they were copies, it added to the status and bespoke the learning of the family.”

The print has since been moved into another room where it’s more prominently displayed.

“It puts us in the Dooleys’ place and helps us to understand them,” Wheary added. “We don’t have their words, but certain things like this tell a story.”

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com

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