Raphael (1483-1520 CE), full name Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, was an Italian painter and architect who is regarded as one of the greatest of Renaissance artists alongside Michelangelo (1475-1564 CE) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519 CE). Raphael’s works are celebrated for their harmonious composition and vibrant colouring, with The Marriage of the Virgin painting and The School of Athens fresco in the Vatican being considered among his greatest triumphs. In his short life, the artist created a huge catalogue of masterpieces in the media of oil painting, fresco and architecture, while a number of his creations were also converted into tapestries. In his later works, Raphael was a pioneer of the new artistic style called Mannerism where unnatural elegance replaced the Classical-inspired and ordered grandeur of the High Renaissance.
With very few details of the artist’s life known and no certain surviving portrait, future generations have been obliged to know Raphael by his works alone. Fortunately, it is through those works and records of commissions and letters that we are able to follow his dazzling career from one city to another as he established himself as one of the most loved and influential of all Renaissance artists.
Raphael was born in Urbino in the Marche region of Italy in 1483 CE. His father was Giovanni Santi (d. 1494 CE), a painter of not much renown at the court of Urbino. It is likely the young man learnt from his father and then from the Urbino artist Timoteo Viti. Raphael then worked in Perugia from 1499 CE under the tutelage of the celebrated artist Pietro Perugino (c. 1450-1523 CE) whose work included frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Perugino was often interested in creating a sense of space in his works and this approach would be adopted by his pupil, best seen in his The Marriage of the Virgin painting (see below), completed around 1504 CE.
Move to Florence
Raphael moved on to Florence sometime in 1504 CE, and over the next four years, he made himself familiar with the works of the great artists of the period such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. In an insight into the sometimes fraught relations between Renaissance artists, Michelangelo had little time for Raphael and accused him of stealing his ideas from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is perhaps true that Raphael began to incorporate a certain classical monumentality in his work and to attempt figures with more dramatic and complex poses, all hallmarks of Michelangelo’s work. Another strong influence came from the painter Fra Bartolommeo (c. 1472-1517 CE) who was also a Dominican monk and believed in the importance of religious art. It was at this time that Raphael produced such works as the Ansidei Madonna, La Madonna del Granduca, the Madonna del Prato, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and The Entombment of Christ (see below).
Rome: The Great Fresco Painter
The artist ultimately settled in Rome from 1508 CE, and there he began one of his most famous works, the frescoes of the Stanze (papal apartments) in the Vatican Palace. Commissioned by Pope Julius II (r. 1503-1513 CE) and completed in 1511 CE, the most celebrated section today is The School of Athens (see below) which shows all the major philosophers, astronomers, and mathematicians of the ancient world. Julius must have been pleased with the results as he commissioned Raphael to paint more frescoes in the palace between 1511 and 1514 CE. One of the most admired sections of these is the Mass of Bolsena with its bright colours. Now well-established as a leading artist of the Renaissance, Raphael was in great demand. He drew sketches for the Sistine Chapel tapestries and, from 1511-13 CE, he painted a series of frescoes with a mythological theme in Rome’s Villa Farnesina (ex-Villa Chigi). One of these frescoes, the Galatea, has as its subject the nymph of that name and illustrates perfectly Raphael’s preoccupation with showing nature as ordered and geometrically harmonious, as the historian E. F. Price here summarises:
Galatea’s head is at the apex of a triangle. The horizon divides the picture space into two equal parts, locked together in a musical harmony by intersecting circles; the three flying amours outline the circumference of the upper circle; the figures around Galatea mark the lower circumference of the other. In the centre of rational nature is a beautiful human being. (104)
Portraiture & Architectural Projects
Raphael was by no means limited to wall spaces, though, and his paintings of this period include the Sistine Madonna (c. 1512 CE). The artist continued to attract commissions, especially for portraits and these include his influential and intimate rendering of Pope Julius II of c. 1512 CE (now in London’s National Gallery) and one of the courtier Baldassare Castiglione (c. 1514 CE) which is now in the Louvre, Paris (see below). Raphael even combined two portraits in one with his Beazzano and Navagero, now in the Doria Gallery in Rome. The La Fornarina (The Baker Woman), painted c. 1518 CE, is thought by some historians to show the woman Raphael was himself romantically involved with, an idea suggested by the artist’s signature on the arm bracelet she wears. The painting is now in the National Gallery of Rome.
Like many other great Renaissance men, Raphael often turned his hand to architecture. In 1514 CE the artist was even called upon to draw plans for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a project that eventually drew in a large number of noted Renaissance artists. This was the beginning of a profitable relationship with Pope Leo X (r. 1513-1521 CE) who regarded Raphael as the greatest living artist. The pair’s good relationship perhaps explains the commonly noted but erroneous idea that Raphael was appointed the Vatican City’s prestigious post of Superintendent of Antiquities. Other buildings to receive his attention included the Villa Madama (never completed), the Chigi Chapel, and the Saint Eligio degli Orefici church, all in Rome. From 1517 CE, Raphael himself lived in a classic Renaissance building, Rome’s Palazzo Caprini, informally known as the ‘House of Raphael’. Raphael’s final architectural project was the Palazzo Bronconio dell’Aquila (now destroyed) whose rich exterior decoration and deliberate mix-up of the conventional and functional arrangements of columns, niches, and pediments, would be one of the first indicators of the new style of Mannerism.
So high was the demand for Raphael’s work that he created a large workshop where ongoing works were supervised and sometimes even finished by assistants such as one of his former pupils, Giulio Romano (c. 1499-1546 CE), himself a noted painter and architect. This policy of the great but overworked artist has certainly kept art historians busy ever since. Raphael also took a keen interest in the preservation of art and pleaded with the Popes to do more to protect Rome’s rich inheritance from antiquity. Raphael also planned to create a detailed map of all Rome’s ancient sites, but this never came to fruition.
Never resting from his work, Raphael’s final years in Rome saw him produce such masterpieces as the paintings St. Cecilia and the celebration of motherly love that is The Madonna della Sedia, created around 1514 CE and which now resides in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. When he died after a short illness on Good Friday 1520 CE, the artist was, along with several other unfinished projects, still working on the Transfiguration, commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (later Pope Clement VII, r. 1523-1534 CE) for the cathedral of Narbonne in France. Like many of Raphael’s later works, the Transfiguration was finished off by an assistant in his workshop, most likely by Giulio Romano. When completed, the Transfiguration was placed above the artist’s tomb in Rome’s Pantheon.
Raphael’s work was greatly appreciated during his own lifetime, and very soon pieces found themselves in private collections, especially in France. The artist’s fame spread far and wide thanks to engravings made of his masterpieces, especially those made by Marcantonio Raimondi (d. c. 1534 CE), which artists elsewhere, particularly in the Netherlands, could then study. Records of the master’s work were already appreciated as significant in the development of Western art by such noted figures as Albrecht Durer (1471-1528 CE), amongst others, who offered to swap a portfolio of his own sketches to acquire representations of Raphael’s. In particular, detailed drawings were made of Raphael’s Vatican frescoes and distributed for those unable to admire them in person while his Acts of the Apostles was copied so that the imagery could be reproduced in Belgian tapestries.
The monumentality, bold movements of figures, the carefully created illusion of space and the harmony of composition in Raphael's work were all studied and copied, greatly influencing painters, especially the Flemish masters, thereafter. Some modern art critics have found his work too sentimental for their taste but such was Raphael’s contribution to Western art that for many historians his death has long been one of the markers which indicates the end of the High Renaissance.
The Marriage of the Virgin
Completed c. 1504 CE, the Marriage of the Virgin is an oil painting on a wood panel measuring 117 x 118 centimetres (46 x 46.5 inches). Showing the moment of exchanging rings at the marriage of Mary and Joseph, it perfectly displays Raphael’s strong interest in placing figures harmoniously within a defined perspective. The viewer's eye is drawn irresistibly towards the central and open doorway of the church in the background by the converging lines of the paving and steps in the middle ground. The church is as precisely drawn as in an architectural plan and its dome symmetrically opposes the suggestive semicircular arrangement of figures in the foreground. Pleased with his work, the artist has put his name and the year above the central arch of the church. The painting now resides in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.
The Entombment of Christ
The Entombment of Christ (aka The Deposition or simply The Entombment) was commissioned by Atalanta Baglione of Perugia in order to commemorate the death of her son Grifonetto. The scene depicted has a group of figures around the central corpse of Jesus Christ just after it was taken down from the cross. Mary Magdalene leans over Jesus while the other figures are so arranged to create a movement away from the central figures. The torsion of Jesus’ body and the tangibly strained muscles of the two men holding it give a sense of participation in a scene that is ongoing. The whole scene is a nod to a Roman sarcophagus relief depicting the death of Meleager whose mother, appropriately enough, was called Atalanta. Another connection between the two life-stories is that both Meleager and Grifonetto were killed in an act of vengeance by their relatives. The work is painted on a wooden panel and was completed in 1507 CE; it now resides in the Galleria Borghese of Rome.
The famed courtier, diplomat and author Baldassare Castiglione commissioned Raphael to paint his portrait c. 1514 CE and the result is one of the artist's most celebrated works of this genre. The oil on canvas captures the well-known character of Baldassare, as here described by the art historian J. T. Paoletti:
Castiglione quietly but intensely looks out at the viewer through silver blue eyes, his utter composure and self-confidence manifest in his firmly clasped hands as he turns gently on axis to respond to the viewer’s presence. As was courtly fashion in the sixteenth century, he wears subdued but luxurious black velvet, silvered fur, and white silk. Nothing - not a chair nor a window nor an inscription distracts from his spotlit visage, an understated, sophisticated, and intelligent ideal. (414-5)
The School of Athens
The 1511 CE School of Athens fresco is in the Stanze della Segnatura of the Vatican Palace in Rome (used as a library at that time) and measures 5.79 metres (19 ft.) in height. Raphael has painted the entire room in such a way as to give the illusion of distance but the walls are all flat in reality. The School fresco is dominated by the central figures of Plato and Aristotle, the former holding a copy of his Timaeus and pointing up to the heavens while the latter holds his Ethics and points downwards, each gesture indicating the thinker’s focus of philosophical enquiry. The whole scene contains just about every important thinker from antiquity, seemingly involved in a debate on the nature of the universe from man’s perspective, although some figures, like Pythagoras and Archimedes, furiously scribble notes. Even Raphael himself is present, the young man looking directly at the viewer next to the figure of Ptolemy who holds a globe.
It is significant that the opposite wall of the room has Raphael’s Disputa, another larger fresco panel but this time showing the central figure of God attended by angels and flanked by saints, all of whom hover over a group of prominent theologians involved in a similar scene of debate as the philosophers find themselves in. The two frescoes epitomise one of the conundrums of the Renaissance, how to reconcile man’s scientific knowledge, often gained from the work of pagan thinkers, with the Christian faith.