500 years since the death of the genius from Urbino, Raphael

The prince of artists and a mortal God

Raphael – Uffizi Florence


Raffaello Sanzio, was an Italian painter and architect who was born to a wealthy family on the 6thof April 1483 at Urbino, a beautiful town of the Marche region, in Italy.

His father, Giovanni Santi, was a famous artist and trained him as a painter. After spending his entire childhood in his father’s workshop, Raphael, at the age of 8, was sent to work with the famous painter Perugino, born Pietro Vannucci. When his father died, in 1494, Raphael was already considered Perugino’s assistant. He was only 37 years old when he died of a high fever on the 6thof April, 1520. 

His work is admired for the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur, for his amazing perspectives which give the impression that the viewer is part of the represented scene, and his ability in rendering the emotional expressions of the figures he painted.

He is considered to be one of the Holy Trinity of great masters of the Italian High Renaissance, together with Michelangelo and Leonardo.

When Urbino was ruled by Duke Federico da Montefeltro, the town became one of the most important cultural centres in the Italian peninsula. The Duke himself encouraged the arts and Raphael was stimulated by the vitality of this little city of central Italy. He had the opportunity to meet very important and famous artists, among which Pinturicchio, born Bernardino di Betto, and the well-known Perugino who was also his master in Perugia.

The Virgin and Cherubs from a fragment of an altarpiece in Naples, Capodimonte Museum

His first work was an altarpiece depicting Saint Nicola da Tolentino for the Baronci’s Chapel in Saint Augustine’s church in Città di Castello, but his artwork was damaged by an earthquake in 1789 and now the only remaining fragments of it are preserved in different collections around the world. A fragment of the Baronci’s altarpiece, which is representing God the Eternal Father and Our Lady with the Cherubs, is at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples.

God the Eternal Father at Capodimonte Museum, Naples

In 1504 Raphael was invited by Pinturicchio to draw frescoes in the Piccolomini Library, a stunning hall containing a book collection, located off the north aisle of the Cathedral of Siena, in Tuscany. The frescoes represent episodes of the life of Cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, archbishop of Siena who became later Pope Pius III. The hall is truly a masterpiece.

Raphael garnered a reputation as one of the most prolific artists and he soon became a magister. In 1504 he decided to move to Florence where he was influenced by the most notable artists of his time like Masaccio, Michelangelo and Leonardo who were working at that time in the beautiful town of Florence.

Raphael, who was also an architect, after looking properly at his masters’ works for inspiration, soon integrated his own style with composition where the use of perspectives and bright colors gave an original touch to the artwork. In his composition he decided to dispose the figures in a more natural and sweetness way compared to those of other artists.

Divino amore, Capodimonte Museum in Naples

Raphael was inspired by the methods used by Leonardo in building a Madonna with child and Saint Anne, known as the Divino Amore (Divine Love) in a simple and intimate way, creating a pyramid composition where figures seem to form a single unit in contrast with the rest of the painting, using colors to deepen the contrast between the figures on the foreground and the background shading softly.

His figures seem to be raised to a sublime level as the colors he uses confer a sentiment of serenity and stillness to the entire work. Raphael became very well-known for his chiaroscuso technic and for his sfumato, the art of shading. From Michelangelo he learned a lot about the human body and its precise anatomy but, thanks also to his studies of ancient statuary, he represented his figures more calmly than those expressed by his master.

In 1508 Raphael moved to Rome thanks to the interests of Pope Julius II and the architect Donato Bramante who had noted him. In Rome Raphael became very famous not only for his ability to create amazing artworks but also for his personal charm, his love for women and their requests so that he was soon known as “the prince of painters”.

He was engaged in important works in the Vatican papal apartments at the time when Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel. Raphael was supposed to fresco the Stanza della Segnatura for Pope Julius II and he had to interpret and represent the Roman Catholic church through the canons of the Neoplatonic philosophy.

The School of Athens, Apostolic Palace, Vatican

The “School of Athens,” one of the frescoes embellishing one of the walls of Raffaello’s Rooms in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, is one of the largest works of his career and one of the most beautiful allegories with a lot of figures just moving towards and around two very important philosophers, Aristotle and Plato, walking in the middle of the picture. The scene seems to take place in a basilica, decorated with marble statues. It resembles S. Peter’s Basilica created by Donato Bramante in Rome. The representation of the classical philosophers, recognizable through their iconography, is so realistic that the figures seem to be moving inside a real space and the viewer seems to be part of it. Raphael was a lover of archaelogy and the influence of the study of Greek-Roman sculptures is noted in the drawing of human bodies of this extraordinary work. According to experts the three major master artists are also depicted in this work. In fact we can recognize Leonardo’s face in the figure representing Plato, Michelangelo’s face portrayed as Heraclitus leaning on a piece of marble in the bottom centre of the scene and the same Raphel in a self-portriat to the left bottom side of the composition.

The Eliodoro Chambre (Eliodoro’s Room) which was also decorated by Raphael is frescoed with miraculous episodes which occurred in the history of the Christian Church.

While in Rome, Raphael changed his shading technics which showed a richer use of colors and boldness which conferred more energetic movement to the figures.

Alessandro Farnese,
Capodimonte Museum in Naples

He loved Archaeology to such an extent that he created an archaeological map of Rome reporting all the most important spots known at his time. Being the preeminent painter at the Court of the Medici family, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Leo X, born Giovanni dei Medici, Lorenzo il Magnifico’s son, to preserve the ancient marbles and inscriptions of Roman monuments in Rome and to be their caretaker. Raphael distinguished himself in the art of restoration as he preferred to keep the original pieces true instead of substituting them with new reconstructions.

Raphael was later on commissioned by the same pope Leo X to draw 10 tapestries to be used to decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel whose ceiling had been frescoed by Michelangelo. He managed to finish only 7 drawings which were then crafted in Brussels at Pieter van Aelst’s tapestry workshop. He never saw the tapestries in situ as he died before the works were finished.

Pope Leo X also asked Raphael to work together with Bramante at the project of S. Peter’s Basilica and the young architect changed the structure of the church from a radial Greek design to that of a longitudinal Latin design when Bramante died. Raphael was the favourite artist of the Pope who conferred him the title of Groom of the Chamber, a high office at the Papal Court. For his high contribution to the glory of the Catholic Church, Raphael was also designated as knight of the Papal order of the Golden Spur.

Outside the Church Raphael also had as a patron Agostini Chigi. Raphael painted the Galatea, a fresco for the Chigi Farnesina Villa in Rome and he also designed as an architect the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.

He loved women but he fell in love only with Margherita Luti, a baker’s daughter, who was Raphael’s great love and model. He portrayed her in the Fornarina. Although he was in love with Margherita, Raphael was supposed to marry Maria Bibbiena, the niece of Pope Leo’s best friend, Cardinal Bibbiena, but the young lady died before the marriage in 1520.

Disputation of the Holy Sacrament,
Apostolic Palace, Vatican

The last work made by Raphael was the Transfiguration, an altarpiece for the Narbonne Cathedral in France, which was finished by Giulio Romano, Raphael’s assistant, as Raphael fell ill with a high fever and died on the 6thof April 1520, the same day of his birthday and Good Friday. Acccording to Giorgio Vasari, an artist who wrote about Raphael’s life, after painting the face of Jesus Christ in the Transfiguration, Raphael expired taking with him the art of painting.

He had 50 apprentices at the time of his death and this makes his shop the largest one ever.

Large crowds attended Raphael’s funeral which was held at the Vatican. They say it was the largest funeral procession of his time and that 4 cardinals, dressed in purple, carried his body to the grave which is in the Pantheon, next to Maria Bibbiena’s tomb. His grave is embellished with an epitaph written by Pietro Bembo who praised the artist and said that nature herself feared death after Raphael’s demise.

© Maria Sannino, 2020

Informazioni su Dr Maria Sannino

Sono una Guida Turistica, Accompagnatore Turistico ed Interprete Turistico abilitata presso la Regione Campania nelle seguenti lingue: Giapponese, Inglese, Italiano, Spagnolo, Francese e Tedesco. Conduco visite guidate nell'intera regione Campania ed insieme possiamo visitare i luoghi più famosi ma anche quelli più reconditi, e andare alla scoperta di una regione che non smette mai di meravigliare chiunque la visiti. Mi piace in modo particolare l'archeologia ma mi appassionano anche l'arte, sacra o profana, le tradizioni, le bellezze naturalistiche e ovviamente tutte le belle storie e leggende di questa splendida terra, nonché i suoi mille misteri.
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