Raphael - The Renaissance Master

Submitted by HedonisticHiking on 4 Sep 2020

2020 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the Renaissance master Raphael, and major exhibitions in both Rome and London had been planned to celebrate his life and work. Coronavirus caused a delay to the exhibition in Rome's Scuderie del Quirinale Gallery and London's National Gallery has pushed forward its exhibit to Spring 2022. Raphael, along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, is considered one of greatest painters of the High Renaissance period in Italy, a time which raised the status of artists from craftsmen to celebrities. The rich and powerful vied to commission their works and gloried in their reputations as wise and discerning patrons of the arts.

Raphael was born Raffaello Sanzio in 1483 in the city of Urbino, a cultural and artistic hothouse at the end of the 15th century.  His father was employed there as a painter in the court of the Duke of Montefeltro, and taught his young son basic painting techniques. His father died when he was only 11 years old but his prodigious talent had already been noticed. He was invited by master painter Pietro Perugino to become his apprentice and during these years he began to develop his own unique style.  

In 1504 he moved to Florence in Tuscany and was profoundly influenced by the work he saw there of, amongst others, Leonardo and Michelangelo. By closely studying the details of their work, Raphael developed in his series of Madonnas an even more intricate and expressive personal style than in his earlier paintings. 

In 1508 Raphael was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II and tasked with completing a fresco cycle in the Vatican's Stanza della Segnatura. This work, including the famous School of Athens fresco, was to become one of the most highly-regarded compositions of the Italian High Renaissance.  The Pope was so delighted with his painting that he commissioned Raphael to decorate further rooms, the Stanza di Eliodoro and the Stanza dell'Incendio del Borgo among them.   

He was not just a prolific painter, but also a gifted architect.  In 1514 Pope Leo X appointed Raphael as his chief architect following the death of Donato Bramante. He designed not only religious buildings, including revisions of St Peter's Basilica, but worked on villas for private patrons such as Agostino Chigi, the wealthy Sienese papal banker.  In 1515 he was given the role of Surveyor of the city of Rome, charged with preserving Roman antiquities.  He also designed the cartoons (full-size preparatory designs) for ten monumental tapestries to be hung on the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel, a commission which demonstrated Raphael's ability to work across different media.

Raphael's death in 1520, on the day of his 37th birthday, was sudden and unexpected. Some attribute his untimely death to his hedonistic lifestyle but there is no doubt that his loss sent shockwaves through Italy and was keenly felt by all knew him and all who revered his work. His funeral mass was held in the Vatican, and his unfinished commission "The Transfiguration" was placed on his coffin stand.  As was his wish, Raphael's body was buried in the Pantheon, the monument of ancient Rome that he most admired.

Giorgio Vasari, the famous 16th century biographer of the celebrated artists of his time had this to say about Raphael:  "With wonderful indulgence and generosity heaven sometimes showers upon a single person from its rich and inexhaustible treasures all the favours and precious gifts that are usually shared, over the years, among a great many people."

Whilst the Scuderie del Quirinale was closed to the public, the gallery made an excellent short film, exploring the rooms of the exhibition, which you can view here on YouTube.  Raphael's paintings are exhibited in many of the most famous museums in Italy, France, Spain and the UK, and some of his works are also displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.