Raphael: 500 years of beauty.

Today marks a very special anniversary in the history of humankind. Today is the anniversary of both the birth and the death of perhaps one of the greatest artists in our history. 500 years ago today, he would breathe his last breath, and his name became eternal and his art, immemorial. He was the literal incarnation of the High Renaissance. His name was Raphael.

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, also known as Raphael, was born on 6th April 1483, in the small central Italian city of Urbino. His father, Giovanni Santi, was a court painter to the Duke, Federico da Montefeltro, one of Italy’s Renaissance princes. His father was also a poet to the Duke and the young Raphael was raised in this special environment, coming into contact with the art of the early masters of the Italian and Northern Renaissance - he also became close to various interesting visitors to the court, such as Cardinal Pietro Bembo, one of the greatest humanists of the time. Raphael himself did not receive a full education, and yet his upbringing proved successful - he could read Latin and knew of Philosophy and Theology. He lost his mother Màgia in 1491 and his father in 1494 - he was thus an orphan by age eleven. His formal guardian became Bartolomeo, his paternal uncle and also a priest. According to the great Renaissance chronicler Giorgio Vasari, he had already shown artistic capabilities by his teenage years, with a self-portrait showing exactly that.

Also, according to Vasari, his father placed him in the workshop of renowned Umbrian master Pietro Perugino. Perugino’s fame was already established by then, he had even been commissioned to execute various frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. His influence was clear in Raphael’s early work, Vasari claimed that it was impossible to distinguish between the hands of either artists at this stage. Raphael’s style was extremely graceful and gentle and despite the time going by, this would remain a trademark of his work. The two artists used both similar styles and techniques up to this period. In about the year 1500, Raphael was considered a “master” and therefore fully trained.

Raphael’s first commission was the Baronci altarpiece for the church of San Nicola da Tolentino in Città di Castello, with scenes representing the life of the saint. The altarpiece was commissioned in 1500 and completed the following year. In the following years, he worked on more commissions from other churches in the area, such as the Mond Crucifixion, now at the National Gallery in London, heavily influenced by Perugino, with the traditional iconography with the Virgin and Saint John and the Angels collecting water and blood from the pierced side of Jesus. Again, the Wedding of the Virgin, now at the Brera Gallery in Milan, where we first see the master experimenting the sense of Renaissance perspective. In Perugia, he worked on the Oddi Altarpiece, a beautiful set of panels representing the Coronation of the Virgin and other scenes from the life of Mary. During this period he also probably visited Florence, where he learnt how to use the fresco technique. In 1502, he visited Siena, where he met and worked with another pupil of Perugino, Bernardino Pinturicchio. During these years, Raphael also worked on a series of fine cabinet paintings, private devotional commissions meant for private use, among them is a beautiful depiction of Saint Michael slaying the dragon.

Raphael generally led a nomadic life, working in various parts of central Italy. He spent particularly a good deal of time in Florence, from about the year 1504, this was considered to be his “Florentine period”. In 1504, Raphael was recommended to the Gonfaloniere of Florence by the mother of the next Duke of Urbino. He would spend his time in Florence, studying and learning from the great masters.

As he was quick to assimilate the influence of Perugino, he was just as quick in grasping the Florentine style, while keeping his own style. Among those who greatly influenced Raphael were both Fra Bartolomeo and Leonardo da Vinci, who had returned to the city between 1500 and 1506. Raphael’s composition became more dynamic and complex, they became somewhat more realistic and malleable. Portraits and compositions by Leonardo inspired Raphael’s, an example of this is his own Saint Catherine of Alexandria. He develops his own “sfumato” style, to give subtlety to the the color of the flesh, and movement of clothing, although he maintains Perugino’s clear light in his paintings. Another beautiful portrait from this time is probably the beautiful one depicting Pope Alexander VI’s lover, Giulia Farnese (and Pope Paul III’s sister), with a unicorn. 

Perhaps the greatest work from this period was the Deposition of Christ, originally commissioned for the Baglioni Family in Perugia and now at the Borghese Gallery in Rome, where it has been since 1608, when Cardinal Scipione Borghese deemed it to be too beautiful not to have it stolen for himself. It is an astonishing masterpiece, its sense of realism is astounding, thanks to the plasticity of the composition and the fluidity of the movements. Three men are carrying the body of Christ up a few steps to the sepulchre on the left, a grieving Mary Magdalene is holding his hand, accompanying him to the tomb. On the right is a group of women holding the fainting body of the Virgin, now only a mother grieving the brutal death of her beloved son. A passerby on the right, reunites the two scenes, looking at the whole scene with a sense of respectful and yet stoic shock. In the background is the Golgotha, the bucolic scene is remindful of a central Italian landscape, in true Renaissance style. This artwork was partly inspired by Michelangelo’s work, in particular the Tondo Doni, in Florence, Michelangelo began to despise Raphael, 8 years his junior, very soon. When he came to Rome, he was enraged Bramante, Raphael’s uncle, took him to see the Sistine Chapel at night, without Michelangelo’s permission.

Indeed, in 1508, Raphael moved to Rome, where he resided for the rest of his life. He was invited there by Pope Julius II Della Rovere, at the suggestion of his uncle, papal architect Donato Bramante, then working on the project of the new St. Peter’s. Raphael immediately received the astonishing commission of the decoration of the Pope’s private library at the Vatican Palace. This was the greatest commission he had received so far, in Florence itself he had only painted one altarpiece.

The first of the “Stanze” to be painted was the Stanza della Segnatura, it remains probably Raphael’s greatest masterpiece, and it contains a beautiful contrast between the greatest sciences of the Renaissance, Theology and Philosophy, on one corner is the Parnassus, with the gods of antiquity looking upon the two scenes and feasting in the true spirit of Humanism. The two scenes are of course, the School of Athens, the absolute embodiment of the Renaissance spirit. The scene is set in a spectacular classical building reminiscing of the shape of an ancient basilica, modelled around the Renaissance ideals of a perfect sense of perspective. In the scene are all the great minds of the ancient world disputing their understanding of the world, among them are of course the great three: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the latter two in the center at the top of the staircase, maintaining their privileged position and their importance in later Christian theology. Heraclitus, the only one in Renaissance clothes, is of course Michelangelo, alluding to his terrible sense of style. Archimedes instead, on the right, is modelled after Bramante, a small self-portrait of Raphael is seen on the right. 

Opposite this, is the great scene of the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, a stunning scene centered around a richly decorated altar with a monstrance that holds the blessed sacrament, whose power comes directly from above, as seen in a glorious representation of the Holy Trinity. In the scene is the whole Church militant, the Church in heaven, with the saints and angels, and the Church on earth, with the great Popes and Doctors, celebrating that God made manifest throughout history in the bread and wine. On the right is a small portrait of Dante admiring the scene, he had been the only human to have seen both realities in a lifetime… this is a Renaissance triumph of Church propaganda. Raphael finally completed the remaining set of rooms, also decorated with grand scenes, such as the Fire of Borgo, recalling to a miracle happening in 847, when the area surrounding the Vatican was involved in a fire that ceased only when Pope Leo IV invoked divine assistance. Another great masterpiece is the Liberation of Saint Peter, it is probably the earliest use of the chiaroscuro technique in such a realistic manner. It seems as if the scene is actually happening in the room at this time, because of the amazing use of light and darkness. The death of Julius II in 1513 did not stop the work, Pope Leo X De Medici, who became a supporter of Raphael, also commissioned him to continue the work. His “Stanze” are considered to be among the supreme works of the High Renaissance. They achieve the ultimate level of Renaissance “sprezzatura”, a concealed, effortless nonchalance that conceals the refined artistic genius.

After Bramante’s death in 1614, Raphael became the official architect looking after St. Peter’s. During this time he designed several other buildings, as he had a brief yet fruitful experience as an architect. During these years, Raphael became friends with a Tuscan banker, Agostino Chigi, for whom he worked on various occasions. Perhaps, his greatest work as an architect was the erection of the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, a stunning masterpiece of Renaissance architecture centered around those ideals of linear perspective and symmetry that characterized that Humanistic style. It was built in the shape of a Greek temple with a circular dome, decorated with mosaics he designed himself, with God the Father in the center of the dome. 

In 1514, Agostino Chigi also commissioned him to execute a large fresco in his other chapel at Santa Maria della Pace, a great scene representing the four sibyls of antiquity, among them Tiburtine one, thought of having announced the coming of Christ to Emperor Augustus. 

Perhaps, his greatest masterpiece for Chigi, was the great decoration of his Villa Farnesina in the Trastevere. This was probably at the height of Raphael’s artistic achievement, he decorated the loggia of the Villa with frescoes representing the secular myths of Cupid and Psyche, as a sign of the Renaissance love for classical themes - these works almost announce the coming of the Mannerist style in Rome. His greatest work here in the villa though is probably the Triumph of Galatea. It represents the Greek myth of Galatea, a nereid who had fallen in love with a peasant, who was latter killed by the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, her lover. This ethereal scene represents her apotheosis. It is located in what was originally the room of games. 

Raphael like many of his contemporaries was very much inspired by the classical revival that Humanistic thinking brought to the Renaissance, and he was very much interested in the development of the archeological studies that were being developed at the time. In his later years, inspired by the finding of the Domus Aurea, he developed a style of painting which was inspired by the grotesque decorations that were found in the old palace of Nero and which would later characterize most of the Roman Mannerist School. Examples of these can be found in his frescoes at the Villa Madama or the Raphael Loggias in the Vatican.

Raphael was also one of the finest draftsmen of the time, hundreds of his drawings survive to this day, as he would carefully executed them before starting any work. The most amazing set of them comes from the design of the School of Athens and it shows how much effort and detail he put into the anatomy of the figures, almost acting like God the Father in the creation of his figures, starting from the very bone and muscle that make up most of our bodies, but then giving them that touch of beauty that was his trademark.

It is not right to think Raphael was not the only major artist to have worked in the Sistine Chapel. One of the most important commissions he received was a set of Cartoons, the Raphael Cartoons at the Victoria & Albert Museum, for a set of tapestries representing the lives of Saints Peter and Paul. The tapestries were meant to decorate the Sistine Chapel and for the anniversary of the artists’ death this year, they were indeed moved there. Raphael’s later work was unique indeed, his last works departed from his traditional style and spaced onto a Roman Mannerist-like Proto-Baroque style, the Prophet Isaiah in Sant’Agostino and the Sistine Madonna are examples of this.

His last work was possibly one of the most renowned pieces of Western art in history. Raphael’s Transfiguration, executed in Rome by Raphael between 1518 and 1520 predates its time. Its enormous proportions are the consequence of its commission as it was intended to be decorating the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica. The artwork is divided in two main sections and it is the first time that Matthew’s Transfiguration and the Healing of the Possessed Boy are iconographically depicted together. The Transfiguration scene shows Christ glowing in white with the prophets Moses and Elijah, with Peter, John and James witnessing the scene, while the remaining apostles witness the possessed child. In the background, on the right there is a hint of sunset light, showing what time of the day it is. The use of light in this work is especially creative and varied, and it reunites effectively two scenes, the figures are incredibly emotional, the work is still graceful but definitely in the most mature style of the High Renaissance Raphael. This work is an absolute masterpiece of static yet strong movement of anatomically perfect figures, the drawings of this altarpiece are a masterpiece per se. Vasari defined this work as Raphael’s “most celebrated, most beautiful and most divine work”. It is not only a powerful depiction of the Savior of the world made manifest, in heaven and on earth. It is a testament to the divine genius of Raphael himself.

From 1517 until his death, he lived at the Palazzo Caprini, at the corner of the Piazza Scossacavalli, near the Vatican. He is said to have had many affairs, including “La Fornarina”, Margherita Luti, the daughter of a baker, he painted her in a beautiful portrait now at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. He was also made a “Groom of the Chamber” of the Pope and a knight of the Papal Order of the Golden Spur. 

According to Vasari, Raphael eventually had a workshop of over fifty pupils, many of whom became great artists in their own right. Among them were Giulio Romano, Perin del Vaga, Polidoro da Caravaggio and others who became leaders in the Roman late-Renaissance and Mannerist scene, inspiring the arts of the Eternal City for the generations to come, with many churches and palazzos still existing being decorated by them. How not to remember Raphael’s legacy, an enduring legacy that encompassed the great Renaissance revival of the 19th century with the Nazarene and Pre-Raphaelite movements in Germany and Britain, heavily inspired by the arts of the great master.
Raphael died 500 years ago, on Good Friday, 6th April 1520, on his 37th birthday, after a short illness. He is said to have died beneath his last great work, the Transfiguration. Under his request, he was buried in the greatest temple of antiquity, the Pantheon. His funeral was said to be extremely grand, with large crowds and cardinals dressed in purple carrying his body. Even the Princes of the Church, would bow to the master, because beauty comes from God. The Pope himself kissed his hand upon arrival. There, on his marble sarcophagus, an inscription by Pietro Bembo reads: “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying feared herself to die”.


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