Self Portrait of Raphael.
Italian High Renaissance artist Raphael died on this day 6th April 1520. It was strangely enough on his 37th birthday. His untimely death was mourned throughout Europe, in particular, in Rome itself. (He was struck down by a fever in Rome and was buried in the Pantheon.) Art Historian and biographer Giovanni Vasari said that his death ‘plunged into grief the entire papal court’. Raphael during his most successful period working at the Vatican, shared a close relationship with two popes, in particular, Pope Leo X, who seemed to adore him.
Raphael was the son of a successful Italian painter named Giovanni Santi. He was born in the Italian city of Urbino in 1483, where his father worked as a court painter for the Duke of Urbino. His talents as an artist were very obvious early on and encouraged by his father. In time, after the death of his father (Raphael was 11 when his father died), he would surpass his father in talent to become a very in demand artist of the day.
His career was broken into three distinct periods- Umbria, Florence and Rome. In Umbria, he worked on various religious paintings for churches and portraits for members of the Duke of Urbino’s court. His first recorded commission was the Baronci Altarpiece completed by 1501. Unfortunately, today only fragments of it exist after an earthquake, in 1789, severely damaged it.
Raphael’s The Mond Crucifixion was influenced by the style and technique of Perugino. Circa 1502-3.
An early Urbino period painting of St. George and the Dragon 1504.
His early period of work was also greatly influenced by one of Italy’s finest artists, Pietro Perugino. Raphael had this amazing ability to learn from great artists, like Perugino, and then incorporate it into his own style. Very much like his own father, he too, completely surpassed Perugino as an artist. This is best illustrated by comparing Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, with that of Perugino’s painting of the same name.
By the age of twenty one, he seemed to have outgrown the surroundings of Umbria, and longed for a new challenge. He arrived in Florence with a letter of recommendation that sent him into a new creative period. Many of his most celebrated paintings in this period were of the Virgin and Child.
The Bridgewater Madonna by Raphael during his Florence years. Circa 1507.
In 1508, he was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II, to work alongside great artists including Michelangelo. The two men argued often, as Michelangelo, it seemed was jealous of Raphael’s success. Michelangelo also accused Raphael of stealing his ideas. (There is a famous story of how Raphael persuaded a friend to let him in see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling prior to its official opening, infuriating Michelangelo.) It wasn’t the first time he was accused of copying other artists. During his time in Florence, Raphael spent time studying Leonardo da Vinci’s work. There, he was one of the first to respond to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa by painting a strikingly similar portrait of his own Maddalena Doni.
Raphael didn’t copy or plagiarize Michelangelo or Leonardo, but was fascinated and inspired by their work. However, it has to be said that, Raphael was clearly influenced by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
In assimilating many of the ideas inspired by artists like Michelangelo, he simply went from strength to strength developing a distinct style that has today stood the test of time. His Rome period, in particular, marked the beginnings of his maturity as a brilliant artist. The Stanza della Segnatura, which contains The School of Athens is regarded arguably as his greatest masterpiece.
The school of Athens 1509-10 is Raphael’s gathering of philosophers, mathematicians and brilliant minds of the ancient world. In the centre of the fresco is Plato and Aristotle.
This blog will revisit Raphael again some time in the future. One of my personal favourite Raphael paintings is that of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. But for now its goodbye. Though, I would like to leave the reader with one question. If not for his unexpectedly death, is it feasibly to think that Raphael may have outstripped Michelangelo or Leonardo, as the greatest master ever ? I am sure art critics have thoroughly argued this point. But what do you think ?