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Raphael Sanzio – The ride of the Italian High Renaissance

Baldassare Castiglione (1515), one of Raphael's most famous portraits, has influenced many distinguished painters such as Titian and Rembrandt.

Passions, Volume 22, 2008


One of the three great masters of High Renaissance, together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Italian painter and architect Rafaello Sanzio (Santi) or better known as Raphael, was born April 1483 to Giovanni Santi and Màgia di Battista Ciarla, in the small city of Urbino. Even from a young age Raphael showed an artist talent that far exceeded that of his father, and in time, he even surpassed his teacher Pietro Perugino.


During the short span of his lifetime, he painted some of the most awe-inspiring, beautiful, and influential works of art. It is said of Raphael that he incorporated the works of other great artists into his own, continuously evolving through his entire career.


The budding Talent


As a child, Raphael spent eleven years of his childhood in Urbino, where he learned the basics of painting and art from his father Giovanni, who was then a court painter to the Duke. His mother Màgia died when he was eight, and his father followed three years later. It is uncertain when he went to Perugia in Umbria, but several scholars place it in 1495. However, it is certain that he became a student and assistant of the great Umbrian master Pietro Perugino for ten to eleven years. From Perugino Raphael learned the subtle intricacies of playing with shadows and light, and became skilled at giving an artwork depth and perspective.


Between 1498 and 1500, Perugino was working on the frescoes in the Perugian Collegio del Cambio, which gave Raphael an opportunity to acquire extensive professional knowledge. Perugino, famed for, his calmly exquisite style, had a great influence on Raphael's art. Perugino's Giving of the Keys to St. Peter (1481) for the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican Palace in Rome, inspired Raphael's first major work, the brilliant Marriage of the Virgin. Raphael's painting revealed his budding talent in depth and perspective, where the beautifully drawn background complements the people standing in the foreground. Realistically drawn with constant movement and action; the people appear vibrantly alive. And even though Perugino's influence can be seen in the painting, it was already clear that Raphael's sensibilities was different from his teacher's.


Mercurial rise to fame


It was in Florence that Raphael made a name for himself as an artist. According to Giorgio Vasari - famous for his biographies of Italian artists – Raphael followed Perugian painter Bernardino Pinturicchio to Siena. He was then drawn to F1orence by accounts of the work that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were undertaking in the city. By 1504, there was no doubt that Raphael had arrived in Florence. Vasari records that Raphael not only studied the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo, he also studied "the old things of Masaccio", a pioneer of the naturalism.


Many of Raphael's works from 1505 to 1507, especially his series of Madonnas including Madonna of the Goldfinch (1505), Madonna of the Meadow (1505), Esterházy Madonna (1505 -1507), La Belle Jardiniere (1507) are marked by Leonardo's strong influence. The artwork which had particularly caught Raphael’s attention was Leonardo's Madonna and Child with St. Anne for the intimacy and simplicity of setting apparent in the piece, a style uncommon in the 15th century.  Additionally, Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch was probably influenced by Leonardo's The Virgin of the Rocks, as the faces and figures for both paintings are similar. An interesting irony Vasari recorded for these depictions of quiet faith is the notion that Raphael was an atheist who painted what was acceptable during those times, and not what he felt was the truth. Raphael was also indisputably an appreciator of feminine beauty, and was not noted to have been a “ladies man".


During his time there, Raphael also learned the Florentine method of building up his composition in depth with pyramidical figure masses where figures are grouped as a single unit but retains its own individuality and shape. Here, his work in Florence is distinguished by a new unity of composition and suppression of unnecessary details. Also, he was influenced by Leonardo's chiaroscuro (strong contrast between light and dark) and sfumato (use of extremely fine, soft shading instead of lines to delineate forms and features). However, he exceeded Leonardo through the creation, of new figure types with roundly gentle faces that reveal an uncomplicated, inspiringly sweet perfection and tranquility.


His last commission before he left for Rome was the Deposition of Christ (1508), and in this painting, he explored the expressive possibilities of Michelangelo’s talent at portraying human anatomy. However, Raphael's art differs from the dark intensity and excitement in the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo as his works depict a sweetness and harmony unlike theirs.

   The School of Athens (1510 - 1511) is generally regarded as one of Raphael's best masterpieces, due to the masterful play of depth and perspective, the illision of motion and the interaction between people. It is also one of the four frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura.

The Roman period


The last twelve years of his short life that Raphael spent in Rome were years of feverish activity and successive commissions. Toward the end of 1508 at the age of 24, he was called to the Vatican by Pope Julius II at the suggestion of architect Donato Bramante. In the beginning, Raphael was an unknown painter. However, he soon became a favourite with the Pope and the papal court, and in time became so popular that he was called "the prince of painters". He was commissioned to execute frescoes in a four medium-sized rooms of the Vatican papal apartments. In order for Raphael to paint the stanzas the Pope ordered old frescoes to be washed away from the Vatican walls.


Although Raphael made many stanzas he painted only one by hand, the Stanza della Segnatura. There was a stanza for each of the four walls, and each symbolised a topic represented with a painting: theology, poetry, philosophy and law. He began in early 1509, and finished in late 1511, and completed the Disputation of the Sacrament, The Parnassus, The Cardinal Virtues and one of his most famous works, The School of Athens. The reason for the masterpiece's fame is because of Raphael's use of depth and perspective, the illusion of motion and the interaction between people. However, unlike the title implies, The School of Athens is not a school but a gathering of philosophers and scientists.


The painting depicts the foremost intellectuals of the Grecian world, especially Plato and Aristotle, who stand at the centre of the artwork. Though he portrays famous thinkers of the past, he superimposes portraits of his contemporaries in the composition. For instance, in place of Plato, the portrait is that of Leonardo, and Michelangelo is drawn as leaning against a block in the foreground (Heraclitus). During this time, Michelangelo had been forced against his will to execute the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. A well-known legend suggests that Raphael snuck into the Sistine Chapel while the painting of its ceiling was in progress. After he had been inspired by the energy and action in Michelangelo's compositions, he added Michelangelo into the fresco.


Raphael also included himself in The School of Athens in a less significant area as he stares out at the viewer from a group of scholars crowded together at the far right edge. In the other three stanzas he would sketch and his pupils would paint whatever he sketched under his supervision. While he was at work in the Stanza della Segnatura, Raphael was also commissioned for his first architectural work to design the church of Sant' Eligio degli Orefici.


Loss of a great master


The death of Pope Julius II did not interrupt the work on the four rooms, as he was succeeded by a member of the Medici family, Pope Leo X, with whom Raphael also got on very well. Pope Leo X was a great patron of the arts, and as such continued to commission Raphael. Under Pope Leo, Raphael executed a series of Vatican tapestry cartoons depicting scenes from Act of the Apostles, The Triumph of Galatea and a portrait of Raphael’s friend Count Baldassare Castiglione.


Possibly the most famous portrait done by Raphael, Baldassare Castiglione (1515) is shown posing in a similar way to that of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. It is a very significant piece, as it influenced distinguished painters as Titian and Rembrandt. Raphael’s final works are some of his most powerful religious paintings, as in the case of The Sistine Madonna, his last image of the heavenly mother. Much more supernatural in nature than his previous artworks, the Virgin Mary stands on the clouds surrounded by musing angels.


Tragically, unlike Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael’s life ended early and he died of fever at the youthful age of 38 on Good Friday. The official reason for his death was the contraction of high fever due to overwork. However, Vasari records that Raphael’s premature death was caused by a night of excessive sex with his mistress Margherita Luti, of whom he had painted a portrait and named La Fornarina, after which he fell into a fever which lasted for fifteen days.


Whatever the reason, Raphael had enough time to put his affairs in order. He dictated his will and entrusted it to his loyal servant Baviera, in which he left sufficient funds for his mistress and most of his studio contents to his best pupil Guilio Romano and Penni. Raphael died by his unfinished painting. The Transfiguration of Christ, which was afterwards completed by Romano. His funeral mass was celebrated in the Vatican and as he had requested, his body was buried in the Roman Pantheon.


His death marked the end of the Italian High Renaissance and the beginning of a transitional period called Mannerism. Despite Raphael's early death, he was extremely productive and a large body of his work remains, especially in the Vatican. One can only wonder what heights Raphael would have achieved had he lived a longer life, and what other beautiful works he would have executed. 


However, life may be short but great art lives on forever. The pure genius of Raphael has transcended the barrier between life and death to be forever immortalised in his masterpieces so that generations to come will stop at a Raphael artwork, l suck in their breath in awe, and whisper softly, "I stand before the legend that is Raphael.”


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