Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, also known as, 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 noticed very early on and subsequently encouraged by his father. In time, he would surpass his father in talent, and later his mentor, Pietro Perugino, to become arguably the most demand artist of the day.
If not for his unexpectedly death, on his 37th birthday, in 1520, it is feasibly to think that Raphael may have truly surpassed his contemporaries and famous rivals Michelangelo or Leonardo, as the greatest master ever? It’s a bold statement and I am sure art critics have thoroughly argued this point to death. What do I think? Well, he didn’t attain is status as the most celebrated painter in Rome, in the first two decades of the 16th century, by simply bewitching his audience. Then again, I’d imagine people wept at the sight of his painstaking painted subjects and felt warm excitement in how he used a flurry of colours.
Resurrection of Christ (1499-1502).
Raphael’s career during the Italian High Renaissance 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.
However, we are still fortunate enough to have one of Raphael’s earliest preserved oil paintings, which today resides in the São Paulo Museum of Art, in Brazil. Two things instantly grab your attention in regards to this wonderful representation of Christ’s ‘Victory Over Death’. The first is Raphael’s use of striking colours, and the second is illustrated through, Raphael’s understanding of how to use complex geometry, to achieve volume and depth. Raphael’s deliberate placing of Christ’s feet, directly in the centre of the composition, above the rectangle formed by the four guards, I believe is the key to this brilliant painting.
The Mond Crucifixion (1502-3).
I’ve chosen Raphael’s The Mond Cruxifixion to highlight one of his early compositions that was greatly influenced in style and technique by his teacher and mentor, Pietro Perugino. That said, although Raphael imitates and borrows heavily from Perugino, Raphael to his credit I believe also differs to Perugino, especially in how he uses form and space.
In this composition, originally the altarpiece in the church of San Domenico, Città di Castello, Raphael deliberately places Christ’s feet, a lot like his earlier Resurrection of Christ, directly in the centre of the composition, above the foreground formed this time around, by the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist on each side of Christ’s cross, and a kneeling Saint Jerome and Mary Magdalene. The delicately complex similarities between the Resurrection of Christ and The Mond Crucifixion are stunning. It shows the peculiar emphasis Raphael at times liked to place on geometry.
Marriage of the Virgin (1504).
His early period of work, as already mentioned, was greatly influenced by one of Italy’s finest artists, Pietro Perugino. Raphael had this amazing ability to absorb and learn from the great artists of the day, like Perugino, and then incorporate it into his own style. This is best illustrated by comparing Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, with that of Perugino’s painting of the same name. The consensus among art historian is that Raphael’s version is superior to that of his mentor, particularly the subtle details of the marriage party and its formal landscape and architectural components.
Art Historian and biographer Giovanni Vasari best sums up Rapahel’s composition by saying that, “In this work there is a temple drawn in perspective with such evident care that it is marvellous to behold the difficulty of the problems which he has there set himself to solve.”
Portrait of Maddalena Doni (1506).
In 1508, Raphael was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II, to work alongside a stable of great artists which included Michelangelo. But the two men argued often because it seemed that Michelangelo was jealous of Raphael’s success. Michelangelo also occasionally accused Raphael of stealing his ideas. Though it wasn’t the first time he was accused of copying celebrated artists works. During his stint in Florence, Raphael spent a lot 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. Importantly, while they appear similar, there are still enough differences, such as the detail of Maddalena Doni’s clothes and jewellery, to make Raphael’s portrait uniquely interesting.
The Bridgewater Madonna (1507).
By the age of twenty-one, Raphael 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.
His obsession with painting the Virgin and Child, despite the repetitive themes and dogma, where for instance the infant Christ is naked and Mary wears the traditional red tunic and blue cloak, yielded some of art history’s most assorted and creative compositions.
One of my favourite Raphael Madonna compositions from his late Florence period is The Bridgewater Madonna. Unlike many of Raphael’s other Madonnas of this period, he chose to set the Virgin and Child against a dark background, instead of a landscape, which not only heightened the glorious colours of Mary’s attire (The red stands for the sacrificial blood of Christ and blue denotes that she is the Queen of Heaven), but also the skin tones of the youthful Mary and baby Jesus.
The School of Athens (1509-11).
Raphael has often been accused of copying or plagiarising the work of his contemporaries, which included both Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. But this isn’t true. Like all great artists he was a keen student always striving to improve himself. His drive also conceivably came from his inquisitive fascination as to what his brilliant comtemporaries were up to. (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, completely infuriating Michelangelo.) That said, Raphael was clearly influenced by much of what his contemporaries did, including Michelangelo’s awe-inspiring Sistine Chapel.
In assimilating many of the ideas inspired by artists like Michelangelo, he went from strength to strength developing a distinct artistic style. His Rome period, in particular, marked the beginnings of his maturity as a brilliant artist.
The Stanza della Segnatura, in Rome, which contains The School of Athens is regarded arguably one of Raphael’s greatest masterpiece. This worldly, yet spiritual painting serves to remind us of many of the greatest western thinkers of the ancient world from Aristotle and Ptolemy to Plato and Euclid. Interestingly, Raphael unashamedly included himself in the scene as bystander. (He is the individual wearing a black beret on the far right of the painting.) Many have sought to decipher its meaning, but I like to think it serves to act as one of Raphael’s most flamboyant signatures. In the past he had cleverly worked his initials or signature into other paintings. Two examples of this are found in the cornice of the temple in the Marriage of the Virgin and at the foot of the cross of The Mond Crucifixion.