Raphael: life and works
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (April 6 or March 28, 1483 – April 6, 1520), known as Raphael, was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. His work is admired for its clarity of form, ease of composition, and visual achievement of the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he forms the traditional trinity of great masters of that period.
Raphael was enormously productive, running an unusually large workshop and, despite his death at 37, leaving a large body of work. Many of his works are found in the Vatican Palace, where the frescoed Raphael Rooms were the central, and the largest, work of his career. The best known work is The School of Athens in the Vatican Stanza della Segnatura. After his early years in Rome much of his work was executed by his workshop from his drawings, with considerable loss of quality. He was extremely influential in his lifetime, though outside Rome his work was mostly known from his collaborative printmaking.
After his death, the influence of his great rival Michelangelo was more widespread until the 18th and 19th centuries, when Raphael’s more serene and harmonious qualities were again regarded as the highest models. His career falls naturally into three phases and three styles, first described by Giorgio Vasari: his early years in Umbria, then a period of about four years (1504–1508) absorbing the artistic traditions of Florence, followed by his last hectic and triumphant twelve years in Rome, working for two Popes and their close associates.
Raffaelo (Raphael) son of the painter Giovanni Santi and his wife Magia Ciarla was born on the 28th March or the 6th April 1483. His father Giovanni Santi was a competent painter and was highly regarded in Urbino, a province that housed one of the most glittering courts in Italy.
Giovanni was an educated man of letters and was well aware of the contemporary artists of the day.
His preferences seem to have been Mantegna, Leonardo, Signorelli, Giovanni Bellini and Pietro Perugino, but he was also impressed by the artists Jan van Eyke and Rogier van der Weyden from the Netherlands.
This provided the young Raffaelo with quite a privileged upbringing within the culture of the Umbrian court.
It seems that his life was destined to progress smoothly from childhood through to fame, considerable wealth, and adulation from his contemporaries and patrons. Not for Raphael the image of an artist working in squalor, begging for handouts for food and materials, he was blessed from the beginning!
However, Raphael’s mother dies in 1491 when he is 8 years old. His father Giovanni dies three years later when he is still only eleven!
Before his death Giovanni manages to place his son as an apprentice in the workshop of Pietro Perugino. Perugino was highly successful and his paintings realised high profit margins for himself and for his Perugian dealers. Although Raphael very quickly freed himself from the painting style of his master, he followed Perugino’s method of constructing paintings all of his life.
Perugino and his workshop had a firm grip on the market in Perugia, so in 1500 Raphael, now a master at the young age of seventeen, secured commissions in neighbouring Citta di Castello. It is here that he produces his earliest acknowledged work, a processional banner, now surviving in very poor condition. It would seem that Raphael secured a certain amount of financial independence at a tender age.
The Umbrian cities and courts provided a source of wealthy potential clients for the young artist. Raphael had started to produce quality work at a very early age and there is no doubt that he could have secured a lucrative career for himself within these circles.
Raphael in Florence
Raphael’s move to Florence in 1504 was fuelled by his hunger to learn more from the acknowledged greats of Florentine art. Leonardo da Vinci was at the height of his fame and had returned to the city from Milan in 1500 and Raphael copied figures by Leonardo and Michelangelo who had both studied the anatomy of the human body.
In Florence Raphael completed three large altarpieces, The Ansidei Madonna, The Baglioni altarpiece, both commissioned for Perugian clients, and The Madonna del Baldacchino for a chapel in Santo Spirito, a Florentine church. One of his final paintings of the Florentine period is the magnificent Saint Catherine now in the National Gallery in London. Raphael was able to continue with his own developing style whilst absorbing the influences of Florentine art.
Raphael in Rome
In Renaissance times the Vatican in Rome held much more influence than the state within a state that we know today, it was the hub of the city. Raphael literally arrived on the scene in 1508, the same year that Michelangelo began work in the Sistine Chapel.
At the age of 25 he found a patron, Pope Julius II, and was given the task of decorating rooms in the pope’s private apartments. The Stanza also known as the Raphael rooms, are located on the upper floor of the Vatican palace. The rooms already contained works by Piero Della Francesca, Perugino and Luca Signorelli, but the Pope decided that these works would have to be sacrificed to accommodate the young artist’s frescoes.
Raphael started work first on the middle chamber, the Stanza della Segnatura, containing the pope’s library. This room contains some of the artists best known works including, The School of Athens, Parnassus, and The Disputation of the Sacrament.
In the second Stanza room, the Stanza d’Eliodoro, he completed four frescoes, again commissioned by Julius II. These paintings; The Mass at Bolsena, The Release of St Peter, The Expulsion of Heliodorus, and The Repulse of Attila are groundbreaking in the artist’s use of light and composition.
As Raphael was working in the Stanza, Michelangelo was absorbed in his painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. A fierce rivalry ensued between these two artistic giants and Michelangelo went so far as to accuse his young rival of conspiring to poison him. Raphael has included a weeping Michelangelo as Heraclitus in his School of Athens, a parody of Michelangelo’s style.
A new patron and a new Pope
The amount of work produced by Raphael is remarkable when you consider his untimely death at the age of 37. He produced a wealth of paintings including several Madonna’s, portraits and altarpieces, all in addition to his Vatican efforts.
His only mythological work, Gatalea, was painted for the Tiber villa of Agostino Chigi, another of his great patrons. Chigi was a Sienese banker and commissioned work on his private chapel located in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, also designed by Raphael. The work was completed more than a century later by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini.
Raphael had not finished his work in the Stanza d’Eliodoro, when in 1513 Pope Julius II dies and on the 11th March Giovanni de Medici is elected and takes the name of Leo X.
The artist’s rise to fame and fortune continued under the patronage of the new pope, in fact the commissions under Leo became ever more demanding. Raphael was now very successful and had an extensive workshop of about fifty pupils and associates and, due to his vast workload, his assistants increasingly completed works following the artist’s designs. Some of the later works in the Stanze have been painted by his assistants and pupils.
In 1514 Raphael finished his work in the Stanza d’Eliodoro and paints his Fire in the Borgo in the Stanza dell Incendio. This is the only work that Raphael is believed to have had some involvement in the actual execution of the painting. All the remaining work in the Stanza dell Incendio was completed by his workshop.
Raphael’s upbringing in the court at Umbria had honed his personal skills, he was well mannered and a favorite of the papal regime. Bramante had overseen plans for the rebuilding of St Peter’s under the patronage of Julius II. He recommended Raphael for the post of chief architect and, despite the artist’s limited experience, Leo X appointed him architect of St Peter’s on April 1st 1514.
In 1515/16 he designs cartoons for a series of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. The theme was the acts of St Peter and St Paul. The tapestries were to hang below the early frescoes on the chapel walls. These cartoons, ten in all, were painted by Raphael himself as a mirror image reversed in the weaving process. The weaving took place in Brussels and in 1519 A total of seven tapestries arrived in Rome and were hung in the Sistine Chapel.
In 1517 he begins the decoration of the Vatican Loggias and the Loggia di Psiche in Chigi’s Tiber Villa.
Raphael’s Loggias were grand in their design and conception. The architecture, fresco decoration and stucco relief’s caused a sensation, recreating the decorative splendor of antiquity that was so much admired at the time of The Renaissance.
Love and Death
Raphael never married but is said to have many lovers. Chief among these is Margherita Luti who was his mistress throughout his life in the papal court. He was engaged to Cardinal Medici Bibbiena’s niece, Maria Bibbiena, but this seems to have been at the request of the cardinal rather than any real enthusiasm on the part of the artist.
Vasari states that Raphael’s death was due to a night of sexual encounters with his mistress Margherita Luti, (how Vasari would have knowledge of this encounter is unclear), after which he contracted an acute illness lasting fifteen days.
Raphael died on the 6th of April 1520 at the age of 37 and was buried the next day in the Pantheon.
He was a famous, wealthy and popular renaissance personality and his funeral was very well attended attracting large crowds. His compositions were referred to extensively when training successive generations of artists.
Raphael became, along with Michelangelo and Leonardo, one of the three greatest masters of the High Renaissance.
In 1504, Raphael left his apprenticeship with Perugino and moved to Florence, where he was heavily influenced by the works of the Italian painters Fra Bartolommeo, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Masaccio. To Raphael, these innovative artists had achieved a whole new level of depth in their composition. By closely studying the details of their work, Raphael managed to develop an even more intricate and expressive personal style than was evident in his earlier paintings.
From 1504 through 1507, Raphael produced a series of “Madonnas,” which extrapolated on Leonardo da Vinci’s works. Raphael’s experimentation with this theme culminated in 1507 with his painting, La belle jardinière. That same year, Raphael created his most ambitious work in Florence, the Entombment, which was evocative of the ideas that Michelangelo had recently expressed in his Battle of Cascina.
Raphael moved to Rome in 1508 to paint in the Vatican “Stanze” (“Room”), under Pope Julius II’s patronage. From 1509 to 1511, Raphael toiled over what was to become one of the Italian High Renaissance’s most highly regarded fresco cycles, those located in the Vatican’s Stanza della Segnatura (“Room of the Signatura”). The Stanza della Segnatura series of frescos include The Triumph of Religion and The School of Athens. In the fresco cycle, Raphael expressed the humanistic philosophy that he had learned in the Urbino court as a boy.
In the years to come, Raphael painted an additional fresco cycle for the Vatican, located in the Stanza d’Eliodoro (“Room of Heliodorus”), featuring The Expulsion of Heliodorus, The Miracle of Bolsena, The Repulse of Attila from Rome and The Liberation of Saint Peter. During this same time, the ambitious painter produced a successful series of “Madonna” paintings in his own art studio. The famed Madonna of the Chair and Sistine Madonna were among them.
By 1514, Raphael had achieved fame for his work at the Vatican and was able to hire a crew of assistants to help him finish painting frescoes in the Stanza dell’Incendio, freeing him up to focus on other projects. While Raphael continued to accept commissions — including portraits of popes Julius II and Leo X — and his largest painting on canvas, The Transfiguration (commissioned in 1517), he had by this time begun to work on architecture. After architect Donato Bramante died in 1514, the pope hired Raphael as his chief architect. Under this appointment, Raphael created the design for a chapel in Sant’ Eligio degli Orefici. He also designed Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo Chapel and an area within Saint Peter’s new basilica.
Raphael’s architectural work was not limited to religious buildings. It also extended to designing palaces. Raphael’s architecture honored the classical sensibilities of his predecessor, Donato Bramante, and incorporated his use of ornamental details. Such details would come to define the architectural style of the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods.
Death and Legacy
On April 6, 1520, Raphael’s 37th birthday, he died suddenly and unexpectedly of mysterious causes in Rome, Italy. He had been working on his largest painting on canvas, The Transfiguration (commissioned in 1517), at the time of his death. When his funeral mass was held at the Vatican, Raphael’s unfinished Transfiguration was placed on his coffin stand. Raphael’s body was interred at the Pantheon in Rome, Italy.
Following his death, Raphael’s movement toward Mannerism influenced painting styles in Italy’s advancing Baroque period. Celebrated for the balanced and harmonious compositions of his “Madonnas,” portraits, frescoes and architecture, Raphael continues to be widely regarded as the leading artistic figure of Italian High Renaissance classicism.
1. His father was the court painter to the Duke of Urbino
Born on April 6, 1483, in Urbino, Italy, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino was the only child of Giovanni Santi and his wife Magia di Battista Ciarla. His father was court painter to Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino. He gave his son his first instructions in painting. Raphael’s mother died in 1491 when Raphael was 8 and three years later his father’s death left him an orphan at the age of 11. His father had remarried so he had a stepmother with whom he lived but his formal guardian was his only paternal uncle Bartolomeo, a priest.
2. Raphael’s first documented work is the Baronci Altarpiece
As Federico da Montefeltro encouraged development of fine arts, Urbino had become a center of culture by the time of Raphael’s birth. The cultural vitality of the city was a stimulant for early development of Raphael’s talent and due to his father’s position he came in contact with several important artists of the time. Raphael’s prodigious talent is evident from the fact that in 1500, while still in his teens, he was described as a ‘master’ and commissioned to help paint the Baronci Altarpiece for a church in Castello, a town near Urbino. Completed by September 13, 1502, it is Raphael’s first documented work.
3. His early works were influenced by his master Pietro Perugino
Raphael started working in the city of Perugia around the year 1500. In Perugia, Raphael became a pupil of Pietro Perugino, who was among the leading painters of Italy. From Perugino he acquired extensive professional knowledge. Perugino’s influence is apparent in the early works of Raphael. However these paintings still had several unique characteristics which distinguish them from his master’s works. Raphael’s developing style is apparent in The Marriage of the Virgin, the painting in which he surpasses his master.
4. Leonardo Da Vinci’s art had the greatest influence on his Florentine period works
From around 1504 to 1508, Raphael worked in various centers in Northern Italy, majorly in Florence. Florence opened new artistic horizons for Raphael and he studied the works of masters of the High Renaissance, majorly those of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Fra Bartolommeo. It was Da Vinci’s art that had the greatest influence on Raphael’s works of the Florentine period. Among other things, Raphael used techniques pioneered by Leonardo, like chiaroscuro (strong contrast between light and dark), and sfumato (fine shading to produce soft, imperceptible transitions between colors and tones).
5. Raphael’s greatest work is his fresco sequence in the Raphael Rooms in Papal Palace
Towards the end of 1508, Raphael was called by Pope Julius II to Rome to paint a cycle of frescoes in a suite of rooms in the Vatican papal apartments. The resulting grand fresco sequence is now regarded a quintessential masterpiece of the High Renaissance. The four rooms frescoed by Raphael are famous as “Raphael Rooms” or “Stanze” and the most famous among them is Stanza della Segnatura (“Room of the Signatura”). It contains four grand paintings which epitomize Philosophy, Poetry, Theology and Law. The School of Athens, which represents Philosophy, is considered Raphael’s greatest masterpiece.
6. By 1517 he became the most important artist in Rome
While working on Stanza della Segnatura, Raphael was given the task to design Sant’Eligio degli Orefici, a church in Rome. This was his first architectural project. For a brief period, Raphael became the leading architect in Rome and in 1514, he was asked to design the famous St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. However most of his work on the church was modified or demolished after his death. In 1517, Raphael was appointed commissioner of antiquities of Rome, making him in charge of all of the papacy’s artistic projects in the city, whether involving architecture, painting, decoration or preservation of antiquities.
7. Raphael’s most well-known romantic relationship was with Margherita Luti
Raphael’s sweet disposition is well known and throughout his life he mixed effortlessly in the highest of circles. He had a good relationship with Pope Julius II and, after the death of Julius in 1513, an even closer relationship with his successor Pope Leo X. Raphael was affectionate towards the ladies and is said to have had many affairs. His most famous love interest is Margherita Luti, also known as La Fornarina or “the baker’s daughter”. The story of their love has become “the archetypal artist-model relationship of Western tradition”. Two famous Raphael portraits depicting Luti are La Fornarina and La donna velata.
8. It is said that Raphael’s death was caused due to excessive sex
Raphael died on his 37th birthday on Good Friday, April 6, 1520. He never married. He did have an engagement with Maria Bibbiena in 1514 but was not too enthusiastic towards marrying her. The reason for Raphael’s death is not known with certainty. According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, Raphael’s premature death was caused due to a night of excessive sex with Luti after which he fell into a fever. He posits that Raphael didn’t tell the doctors of the cause and was hence given wrong medicine leading to his death. Raphael’s funeral was extremely grand and was attended by a large crowd. His famous painting Transfiguration was placed at the head of the bier, and his body was buried in the Pantheon in Rome.
9. Raphael was involved in a bitter rivalry with Michelangelo
Raphael had a bitter rivalry with Michelangelo. They competed for patrons and their works were compared by their contemporaries as well as the public. Due to his more amiable disposition Raphael was more favored of the two and by 1513 he was scooping up all the best commissions. Raphael became perhaps the most popular painter of the Renaissance and was even called “the prince of painters.” However due to Raphael’s untimely death, Michelangelo’s influence became more widespread. He even declared: “Everything he (Raphael) knew in art he learnt from me.”
10. In 18th and 19th century, Raphael was considered the greatest Renaissance painter
Raphael’s art is known for sweetness and clarity of form, serenity, harmony, perfection and visual brilliance. Along with Leonardo and Michelangelo, he forms the trinity of great Renaissance masters. Though Raphael was influenced by both, his idealized aesthetically pleasing depictions differed from their dark intensity. For a period between late 17th and late 19th centuries, Raphael’s works were revered more than any other artist and he was regarded as the best model for history painting. Though Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s fame has surpassed his since then, Raphael is still considered among the greatest artists in history.
Time is a vindictive bandit to steal the beauty of our former selves. We are left with sagging, rippled flesh and burning gums with empty sockets.