(b. 1483, Urbino, d. 1520, Roma)


Self-portrait in Florence

Raffaello Sanzio (or Santi, Raphael in English) was an Italian Renaissance painter, architect and designer. His work along with that of his older contemporaries Leonardo and Michelangelo defined the High Renaissance style in central Italy. His father, Giovanni Santi, was a painter at the court of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, and doubtless taught Raphael the rudiments of technique. Giovanni was an educated man of letters and was well aware of the contemporary artists of the day. His preferences seem to have been Mantegna, Leonardo, Signorelli, Giovanni Bellini and Pietro Perugino, but he was also impressed by the Flemish artists Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. He died when his son was 11 years old. Raphael's mother supposedly cared for her infant son herself rather than sending him out to a wet nurse, and the close relationship with his parents was invoked by contemporaries as the reason for his sweet disposition. Sweet he may have been, but he was also talented to an extraordinary extent, with ambitions to match.

Early career in Umbria

In his early career Raphael worked in various places in Umbria and Tuscany. From 1504 to 1508 he worked much in Florence, and this is usually referred to as his Florentine period, although he never took up permanent residence in the city.

Although Vasari's account of Raphael becoming a pupil of Perugino before his father's death is probably a fiction, he unquestionably worked in some capacity in the older artist's studio during his youth. Perugino was at this period one of the most admired and influential painters working in Italy, and Raphael's familiarity with Perugino's manner, both in style and technique, is evident from the altarpieces he painted for churches in his native Umbria, such as the Crucifixion (c. 1503; National Gallery, London), the Coronation of the Virgin (c. 1503; Pinacoteca, Vatican). The early paintings include many of Perugino's characteristic mannerisms — the slender physique of the figures whose grace is exaggerated by their often balletic poses; the sweetness of the facial expressions; and the formalized landscape backgrounds populated by trees with impossibly slender trunks. That he soon completely outstripped Perugino is best seen by comparing Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin (1504; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan) with Perugino's painting of the same subject (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen). The two compositions are closely similar in many ways, but Raphael far surpasses Perugino in lucidity and grace.

Raphael was clearly a prodigy, as is shown by the request by Pinturicchio, then one of the leading artists in Italy, for Raphael to supply detailed compositional drawings, of which two survive (1502-03; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Pierpont Morgan Library, New York), for frescoes in the Piccolomini Library in Siena.

Florentine period

Despite his success as a painter of altarpieces and of smaller courtly paintings, such as the Knight's Dream (c. 1504; National Gallery, London) and the St Michael and the Dragon (c. 1504; Musée du Louvre, Paris), Raphael clearly felt the need to leave Umbria in order to widen his experience of contemporary painting. Armed with a letter of recommendation dated October 1504 from the Duke's sister-in-law Giovanna della Rovere to Piero Soderini, the ruler of Florence, he probably arrived in the city soon afterwards.

To the Florentine period belong many of his most celebrated depictions of the Virgin and Child. In these and his paintings of the Holy Family he showed his developing mastery of composition and expression. In the paintings of the Virgin and Child he experimented with new compositional forms and figural motifs. In the Madonna del Prato (1506; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and La Belle Jardinière (c. 1507; Musée du Louvre, Paris) Raphael employs a pyramidal structure derived from Leonardo, while in the Bridgewater Madonna (c. 1507; on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) the diagonal movement of the Christ Child is inspired by Michelangelo's sculpted figure in his Taddei Tondo (1505-06; Royal Academy of Arts, London). The spiraling movement and the sophisticated psychological interplay between the figures in Raphael's Canigiani Holy Family (c. 1507; Alte Pinakothek, Munich) display his new-found command of the modern Florentine style; at least in compositions of relative simplicity.

In this period Raphael completed three large altarpieces, the Ansidei Madonna, the Baglioni Altarpiece, both commissioned for Perugian clients, and the Madonna del Baldacchino for a chapel in Santo Spirito, a Florentine church. One of his final paintings of the Florentine period is the magnificent Saint Catherine now in the National Gallery in London. Raphael painted also a few portraits in Florence, the best documented of which are those of Agnolo Doni and Maddalena Doni (1507-08; Palazzo Pitti, Florence).

Raphael in Rome

In 1508 he was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II, and he was to remain in the city serving successive popes until his death. His first commission was the decoration of the Stanza della Segnatura, a room located on the upper floor of the Vatican palace and almost certainly used by the Pope as a library. This room and the other rooms of the papal apartments already contained works by Piero della Francesca, Perugino and Luca Signorelli, but the Pope decided that these works would have to be sacrificed to accommodate the young artist's frescoes.

The Stanza della Segnatura contains some of the artists best known works including the School of Athens, the Parnassus, and the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. The function of the room is reflected in the subjects of the ceiling frescoes — Theology, Poetry, Philosophy, and Justice, which correspond to the classification of books according to the faculties. In the frescoes Raphael shows a genius for finding simple pictorial means to convey these complex abstract concepts. In the most celebrated of all the frescoes, the School of Athens, a group of philosophers with Plato and Aristotle at the centre are shown beneath a majestic vaulted building which probably reflects Bramante's plan for St Peter's. The brooding figure of the philosopher inserted in the foreground of the composition is the first evidence of Raphael's study of Michelangelo's recently unveiled Sistine Chapel ceiling. The various preparatory drawings related to the Disputa, the first fresco to be painted, show Raphael's painstaking process in establishing a harmonious composition, in which the mass of figures is divided into smaller groups linked by gesture and pose. Two large lunettes over the windows represent Parnassus and Jurisprudence.

The Stanza della Segnatura frescoes were completed by 1512 and soon after he began work on the Stanza di Eliodoro which was completed in two years. Divine intervention on behalf of the Church was the theme of this room: the Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, the Mass of Bolsena, the Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila, and the Liberation of St Peter. These subjects gave Raphael greater scope for dynamic composition and movement, and the influence of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, completed in 1512, is noticeable. Compositional unity is achieved in Raphael's Expulsion of Heliodorus by the balance of emotional and expressive contrasts. The differences between the two rooms is marked, as the dramatic nature of the two principal frescoes, the Expulsion of Heliodorus and the Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila, demanded scenes of tumultuous action. Pope Julius did not live to see their completion, and the features of Leo X are substituted for those of his belligerent predecessor in the Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila. These frescoes and the Liberation of St Peter, a brilliant display of the dramatic possibilities of unusual light sources, witness the beginnings in Raphael's work of expansion away from the dignity and purity of the School of Athens.

Pope Leo X continued the programme of decoration and the Stanza dell'Incendio di Borgo was painted between 1514 and 1517. The pressure of Raphael's growing number of commissions meant that much of the work is painted by studio hands following his designs. In the finest of the scenes, the Fire in the Borgo, after which the room is named, the flames are a minor element of the composition but the devastation is registered through the varying emotions of the fleeing crowd in the foreground. Preparation for part of the decoration of the largest of the suite of rooms, the Sala di Costantino, was already in hand on Raphael's death, and the frescoes were painted largely by Giulio Romano guided, at least in part, by drawings by the master.

Other papal projects included the design of ten tapestries with scenes from the Acts of the Apostles to hang in the Sistine Chapel. The tapestries were woven in Brussels from cartoons of which seven survive (1515-16; Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Sensitive to the pictorial limitations of tapestry, Raphael took care that the expressions and gestures of the figures in the compositions are bold and direct. The cartoons themselves are visually something of a disappointment largely because they are mostly the work of Raphael's well-organized and highly productive workshop. This included young artists of talent like Giulio Romano, Giovan Francesco Penni, Perino del Vaga, and decorative specialists such as Giovanni da Udine, to whom Raphael entrusted the execution under his supervision, and in some cases part of the design, of major projects, such as Leo X's Loggia in the Vatican Palace (1518-19) which was decorated with all'antica stucco and painted ornament, and Old Testament scenes in the vault.

Throughout the period he was working in the Vatican Raphael also managed to work on other commissions. These included major altarpieces, the earliest of which is the Madonna di Foligno (c. 1512; Pinacoteca, Vatican) painted for the Franciscan church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Venetian elements in the painting, such as the shimmering landscape and a greater subtlety in colouring, may be due to Raphael's contact at this time with Sebastiano del Piombo. The atmospheric handling of chalk and the choice of blue paper in Raphael's study for the Virgin and Child (British Museum, London) are also typically Venetian. In probably the most famous of all his altarpieces, the visionary Sistine Madonna (1513-14; Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), painted for a church in Piacenza, the Virgin and Christ Child appear to be floating forwards out of the painting. The figures of the Virgin and Child appear to be as weightless as the clouds on which they stand while at the same time they convey a strong sense of corporeality. From the same period he painted for a Bolognese church the Santa Cecilia altarpiece (c. 1514; Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna) which introduced an ideal of classical beauty that inspired Emilian artists from Parmigianino to Reni.

Unlike in Florence Raphael seldom had time to paint small devotional works in Rome, but he did manage to execute two - the Madonna Alba (c. 1511; National Gallery of Art, Washington) and the Madonna della Sedia (c. 1514; Palazzo Pitti, Floence). In both works Raphael brilliantly exploits their circular (tondo) format. In the Washington painting the circular form gives impetus to the strong diagonal movement of the Virgin and Child, while in the later painting it tightly encompasses the figures, adding to the sense of tender intimacy.

Raphael worked extensively for the rich Sienese banker Agostino Chigi in both secular and ecclesiastical commissions. The earliest of these is the classicising mythological fresco of Galatea (c. 1511), which was painted for his villa on the banks of the Tiber, now known as the Farnesina. In 1513-14 Raphael painted above the entrance arch of the Chigi chapel in Santa Maria del Pace a fresco with sibyls and prophets. The twisting movement of the sibyls is markedly Michelangelesque, but the figures have an ideal feminine beauty perhaps best appreciated in Raphael's superb red chalk studies (British Museum, London). A year or two later he also supplied designs for sculpture, architecture, and mosaic in Chigi's lavish chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. In 1518 Raphael's workshop decorated the loggia of Chigi's villa with scenes from the life of Cupid and Psyche. Giulio Romano and Giovan Francesco Penni, who were responsible for the figurative parts of the scheme, were such faithful interpreters of Raphael's style that it is hard to establish if they or their master drew the red chalk figure studies related to the loggia.

Raphael's Loggias were grand in their design and conception. The architecture, fresco decoration and stucco reliefs caused a sensation, recreating the decorative splendour of antiquity that was so much admired at the time of the Renaissance.

In portraiture Raphael's development follows the same pattern as in other genres. His earliest portraits closely resemble those of Perugino, whereas in Florence Leonardo's Mona Lisa was a basic influence, as can be seen in the portraits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni. Raphael adapted Leonardo's majestic design as late as 1514 in the portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1514-15; Musée du Louvre, Paris), which, like most of his finest portraits, is of a close friend. Castiglione is portrayed with great psychological subtlety, a gentle, scholarly face perfectly suited to the man, who in The Courtier defined the qualities of the ideal gentleman. Descriptions of Raphael's urbane good humour and courteous behaviour in fact recall the very qualities that Castiglione wished to find in his perfect courtier. Other portraits of this period include Julius II (c. 1512; National Gallery, London), long his patron; Tommaso Inghirami (Palazzo Pitti, Florence); and Pope Leo X with Two Cardinals (1518; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).

In the portrait of Julius II the Pope is shown half-length seated in a chair diagonal to the picture plane, and this spatial dissociation from the viewer adds to the sense of the sitter's self-absorption. The sensual feel of the contrasting textures of velvet and silk in the Pope's costume is even more of a feature in the sumptuous portrait of Leo X with his nephews. Raphael also painted portraits of his circle of friends: in addition to that of Baldassare Castiglione, the portraits of Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazano (c. 1516; Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome), and the presumed self-portrait with a friend, often called Raphael and his Fencing Master (1518; Musée du Louvre, Paris). These portraits actively engage the viewer's attention either through the intensity of the sitter's gaze, as in the Castiglione, or more directly as with the outstretched pointing hand in the Fencing Master. The sitter of the Donna Velata (c. 1516; Palazzo Pitti, Florence), one of the few Roman-period female portraits, is unknown but the gesture of her hand pointing to her heart would be appropriate for a matrimonial portrait. The Fornarina (c. 1518; Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome), said to be a portrait of Raphael's mistress.

In his last altarpiece, the Transfiguration (1518-20; Pinacoteca, Vatican), originally planned for Narbonne Cathedral and completed by Giulio Romano, he included two contrasting episodes — the transfigured Christ in a blaze of light in the upper section, and in the darkness below the apostles who are unable to cure the possessed boy. The expressive heads and the dark overall tone depend on Leonardo's unfinished Adoration of the Magi (1481; Galleria degli Uffizi, Floence).

Other Works and Accomplishments

Raphael was quick to see the value of engraving in the dissemination of his work, and through his collaboration with the Bolognese reproductive engraver Marcantonio Raimondi his reputation and influence spread throughout Europe. Raphael seems to have mainly given him drawings related to his painted projects, but some of Raimondi's more elaborate plates — for example, the Massacre of the Innocents and Il Morbetto — were probably made from drawings especially intended for the purpose.

So Bramantesque is the architecture of the School of Athens that it seems probable that Raphael was working with Donato Bramante as early as 1509, perhaps in preparation for his succession to the post of capomaestro of the rebuilding of St Peter's after Bramante's death in 1514. During the next six years, however, progress on St Peter's was very slow, and his only contribution seems to have been the projected addition of a nave to Bramante's centrally planned design. Most of his work on St Peter's was altered or demolished after his death and the acceptance of Michelangelo's design, only a few drawings have survived. Having been named (1514) successor to Bramante as chief architect of the Vatican, Raphael also designed a number of churches, palaces, and mansions.

Unable to build a new Rome to rival the old, Pope Leo X instead commissioned Raphael to draw a reconstruction of the ancient city, which the artist undertook together with an investigation of the work of the Roman architectural writer Vitruvius. In this undertaking Fra Giocondo and Angelo Colocci would exert profound influence on the depth of Raphael's architectural insight, already refined by his long association with Bramante, who had been a remarkably insightful interpreter of ancient architecture.

Love and Death

Raphael never married but is said to have many lovers. Chief among these is Margherita Luti who was his mistress throughout his life in the papal court. He was engaged to Cardinal Medici Bibbiena's niece, Maria Bibbiena, but this seems to have been at the request of the cardinal rather than any real enthusiasm on the part of the artist.

Raphael died on the 6th of April 1520 (on his 37th birthday) and was buried the next day in the Pantheon. His funeral was very well attended attracting large crowds. Vasari says that Raphael's early death 'plunged into grief the entire papal court'. He was a popular personality, famous, wealthy, and honoured (Vasari says Pope Leo X, 'who wept bitterly when he died', had intended making him a cardinal), and his influence was widely spread even during his own lifetime through the engravings of Marcantonio Raimondi. His posthumous reputation was even greater, for until the later 19th century he was regarded by almost all critics as the greatest painter who had ever lived — the artist who expressed the basic doctrines of the Christian Church through figures that have a physical beauty worthy of the antique. He became the ideal of all academies (it was against his authority that the Pre-Raphaelites revolted), and today we approach him through a long tradition in which Raphaelesque forms and motifs have been used with a steady diminution of their values. Many lesser artists have imitated him emptily, but he has been a major inspiration to great classical painters such as Annibale Carracci, Poussin, and Ingres.

In the modern era Raphael's past canonical status has counted against him and he has inevitably been compared, often unfavourably, to Leonardo and Michelangelo, whose personalities and artistic expression more readily accord with 20th-century sensibilities.