Raphael - Biography and Legacy

Italian Painter, Printmaker, and Architect

Born: April 6, 1483 - Urbino
Died: April 6, 1520 - Rome

Biography of Raphael


Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, was born on April 6, 1483 to Giovanni Santi di Pietro and Magia di Battista di Nicola Ciarla, who came from wealthy merchant families from Urbino and Colbordolo in the Marche Region. At the time, Urbino was a flourishing cultural center, and Raphael's father worked as a painter for Federigo da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, where he was the head of a well-known studio. Raphael was the only child of three to survive infancy. His mother died in 1491 when Raphael was nine years old, and his father remarried to Bernardina, the daughter of a goldsmith, the following year.

His father provided Raphael's early training as a painter. According to his biographer Giorgio Vasari in his influential book, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), his father also arranged for Raphael to be placed in the studio of Italian Renaissance painter Pietro Perugino when he was eight years old. While we don't know with any certainty when this apprenticeship began, we do know he was working as an assistant in Perugino's studio the year of his father's death in 1494.

Upon Giovanni's death, Raphael inherited his father's studio and Giovanni's brother was appointed Raphael's legal guardian. His uncle took over the management of the studio, with Raphael continuing to work in his father's workshop.

Early Training and Work

Although Raphael went on to receive training in Urbino from a court painter named Timoteo Viti, it was Perugino who is recognized as Raphael's first significant artistic influence. When he was only 17 years old, his profound talent as a painter coupled with the completion of his apprenticeship gained him recognition as a true master. Such was his ability at the time that it was impossible to distinguish between the hand of Perugino or Raphael both in style and technique.

Angel, fragment of the Baronci Altarpiece, (1500), Oil on Panel, Pinacoteca Civica Tosio Martinengo, Brescia, Italy

It was in 1500 that Raphael received his first commission; an altarpiece dedicated to St. Nicholas of Tolentino. The altarpiece was for Andrea Baronci's chapel in the church of St Agostino in Città di Castello, a town not far from Urbino. Although a joint commission with Evangelista da Pian di Meleto, a friend and contemporary of his father, Raphael was recorded as the "Master." Sadly, the altarpiece was damaged during an earthquake in 1789, and today only fragments remain, dispersed in various collections around the world.

Important commissions followed, including the Coronation of the Virgin (1502) for the altar of the Oddi family chapel in the Church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia. He also created his most important piece of this time, The Marriage of the Virgin in 1504, which was inspired by Perugino's painting Christ Delivering the Keys to St Peter (1482).

In 1504, Raphael moved to Siena, invited by the painter Pinturicchio to prepare drawings for the frescos in the Libreria Piccolomini. From there he went on to Florence, the thriving center of the Italian Renaissance, where he stayed for the next four years. It was during this time that he would meet his two prime rivals Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo; the three would become known as the primary trio of great masters from that period, although Raphael was remarkably younger.

It was in Florence that Fra Bartolomeo persuaded Raphael to give up the delicate graceful style of Perugino in favor of a more grandiose style. His main artistic influence became Leonardo da Vinci, in particular his composition, use of gesture to create dialogue, his innovative techniques of chiaroscuro and sfumato. Using this inspiration, Raphael began to formulate his own style which was quickly garnering awe and reverence for its ease of composition, clarity of form, and visual achievement, all stunning contributions to the Neoplatonic ideals of human grandeur and the Renaissance motivations toward depicting beauty.

La Belle Jardinière (1507), Oil on Wood, Louvre, Paris

During this time Raphael painted a number of Madonnas, which embodied much of Leonardo's experimentation with realism and composition. The most famous example of which was his painting La belle jardinière in 1507. Later that year, his The Entombment would show references to Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina of 1504. It was this ability to learn from other artists and develop the knowledge into a signature style of his own that is said to have infuriated Michelangelo, leading the tempestuous artist to accuse Raphael of plagiarism.

Mature Period

Based on a recommendation by Donato Bramante, the first architect to rebuild St Peter's Basilica in Rome, Pope Julius II invited Raphael to Rome. It would become his adopted home for the next 12 years. There he worked for both Pope Julius II and his successor Pope Leo X, the son of Lorenzo de' Medici, and it was during this time that he gained the epithet "Prince of Painters."

In 1508, while Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Raphael started work on redecorating Pope Julius II's apartments at the Vatican. This was his most important commission to date and established him as the pre-eminent painter in the Court of the Medici. Although he worked on the frescos for the next five years, he left completion of the commission to his assistants based on his drawings (except for some notable exceptions).

It was during this time that Raphael met the banker Agostino Chigi, who became one his most important patrons outside the church. The most famous commission he received from Chigi was for the fresco of Galatea in his Villa Farnesina in Rome, designed by the architect Baldassarre Peruzzi.

Chigi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo

Raphael also received his first architectural commission from Agostino Chigi, which was the design of the Chigi Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in 1513. He also went on to work with Bramante on the architectural design of the church of St Eligio degli Orefici in Rome. It was these architectural projects which secured him the position of Architectural Commissioner of the new St Peter's Basilica following Bramante's death in 1514.

1514 was also the year Raphael became engaged to Maria Bibbiena, Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi Bibbiena's niece. The Cardinal was a life-long friend and patron and held a position of considerable power at the Medici Court. He was protected by Pope Julius II during his papacy as well as being a long-time friend of Giovanni de' Medici, who later became Pope Leo X. Raphael is said to have accepted the engagement under duress, as he was already smitten by a baker's daughter, Margherita Luti, who was his mistress and model. Largely written out of Raphael's biography because of the general interest in his infatuation with Margherita Luti, it is known that Maria Bibbiena died of an unknown illness in 1520 before the marriage could take place.

Margherita Luti, immortalized in Raphael's portrait La Fornarina (1518-19), was the great love of his life. So much so that Vasari notes when Raphael was commissioned to decorate the Villa Farnesina for Agostino Chigi, his heart was not in his work due to his preoccupation with her. Chigi had to arrange for the two lovers to meet in secret throughout the commission. The themes of love and marriage chosen by Raphael for the Villa has led to speculation that the two might have been secretly married.

Late Period

In 1517, Pope Leo X appointed Raphael commissioner of antiquities in Rome, a role of overseeing the restoration of antiquities. Raphael set about fulfilling this responsibility by drawing up an archaeological map of Rome. His restoration methods differed from the approach of earlier restorers by his insistence on keeping pieces true to their original form rather than the creative reconstructions favored by other architects of the time.

The Pope also commissioned Raphael to design ten tapestries to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Raphael managed to complete seven cartoons (full sized preparatory drawings), which were sent to be woven in the workshop of Flemish weaver Pieter Coecke van Aelst. They were hung in the chapel shortly before Raphael's death.

In his later years, Raphael lived in the Palazzo Caprini, a palace designed by Bramante. During this period, he was lauded with honors including the prestigious title Groom of the Chamber, a high office at the Papal Court. He was also appointed as Knight of the Papal Order of the Golden Spur for his contribution to the glory of the Catholic Church.

He also worked on a large number of architectural projects, which included the Palazzo di Jacobo da Brescia, a magnificent palace for Pope Leo's doctor. And on the Villa Madama, a country retreat for Cardinal Giulio de' Medici who later became Pope Clement VII, which remained unfinished at his death. The last painting he was working on at the time of his death was The Transfiguration (1520), also commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, which was intended to be for a large altarpiece for Narbonne Cathedral in France.

By the time he died, Raphael is said to have had a workshop of over fifty apprentices, which was larger than any other painter at the time.

Raphael died in Rome on Good Friday, April 6, 1520 when he was only 37 years old. He died after a short illness during which he was able to put his affairs in order and receive his last rites (the last prayers given to Catholics before death). In keeping with local custom his body lay in state at his home, which was followed by one of the largest funeral processions of his time, ending at the Vatican where his funeral mass was held. As noted by the French biographer Quatremère de Quincy in his History of Raphael of 1824, "The true grandeur of the procession was that immense concourse of friends, of pupils, of artists, of renowned writers, of personages of every rank, who accompanied him, amidst the tears of the whole city; for the grief was general and the Pope's Court shared in it."

In his will Raphael asked to be buried in the Pantheon in Rome next to Maria Bibbiena. His tomb bears the inscription written by Pietro Bembo, a scholar who later became a Cardinal, "Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die."

Although it is known he left a large amount of money to his beloved Margherita Luti, not much is known of what became of her. There is however a record of a woman calling herself "Margherita Luti, a widow", who entered the convent of St. Appollonia a few months after his death.

Much speculation surrounds Raphael's premature death primarily due to Vasari's reference of his death being caused by the "excesses of love." Vasari also wrote, "he was a very amorous person, delighting much in women, and ever ready to serve them." Although these reasons are firmly lodged in the public imagination, the cause of death of this consummate painter remains unconfirmed.

In an April 7, 1520 letter from Pandolfo Pico to Isabella d'Este, a great patron of the arts, he prophesized Raphael's death as being that of a "good man who has finished his first life, but his second life of Fame will be eternal."

Gentlemanly, well-mannered with an inborn confidence to move in courtly circles, the talent to imaginatively interpret both secular and religious commissions, and the consummate concentration and dedication to perfection have all contributed to Raphael's reputation as one who reached the pinnacle of what a master artist could be.

The Legacy of Raphael

Self-portrait, (circa 1544), Oil on Panel, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

As Vasari stated, "possessors of such rare and numerous gifts as were seen in Rafaello da Urbino, are not merely men, but mortal gods."

Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy in London, hoped students of the school would be inspired by the "divine spark of Raphael's genius" directing them to copy the great artist's drawings as part of their studies.

As art historian Neal Ascherson commented, "19th century ideas of European civilization imagined art as an evolutionary process which would culminate in perfection, Raphael seemed to embody perfection."

In direct opposition of this perfection, the famous art historian John Ruskin would champion a different approach in the 19th century, giving birth to the rejection of the Renaissance ideals of human grandeur and its importance as part of an artist's education. As Ruskin explained, "execution was looked for rather than thought, and beauty rather than veracity." This rebellion moved the academic teaching of art away from the philosophies where Raphael was held to be the ideal, and led to the formation of the group of painters called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the 1840's. The founding members of the society, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti believed that the only way to find a new direction in art was to go back to medieval and Early Renaissance art which preceded the painterly techniques and artistic interpretation epitomized by Raphael and the art of the High Renaissance.

Despite the direction modern art eventually took, Raphael continues to be revered for taking the practice of painting to the pinnacle of technical achievement, which subsequent generations would use as the ideal to aspire to. Those who have paid homage to this most extraordinary of artists in their own work are a legendary roster including Albrecht Dürer, Titian, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Raphael has remained consistently fixed in our imagination since the early 16th century, despite the increasing historical distance that conspires to numb our understanding of the Renaissance world.

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Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Raphael Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 22 Jun 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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