Raphael 1483 – 1520

Raphael, was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. His work is admired for its clarity of form, ease of composition, and visual achievement of the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur.

Raphael was born in the small but artistically significant central Italian city of Urbino in the Marche region. His mother Màgia died in 1491 when Raphael was eight, followed on August 1, 1494 by his father, who had already remarried. Raphael was thus orphaned at eleven; his formal guardian became his only paternal uncle Bartolomeo, a priest, who subsequently engaged in litigation with his stepmother.

Raphael led a “nomadic” life, working in various centres in Northern Italy, but spent a good deal of time in Florence, perhaps from about 1504. Although there is traditional reference to a “Florentine period” of about 1504–8, he was possibly never a continuous resident there.

As earlier with Perugino and others, Raphael was able to assimilate the influence of Florentine art, whilst keeping his own developing style. Frescos in Perugia of about 1505 show a new monumental quality in the figures which may represent the influence of Fra Bartolomeo, who Vasari says was a friend of Raphael. But the most striking influence in the work of these years is Leonardo da Vinci, who returned to the city from 1500 to 1506.

Leonardo was more than thirty years older than Raphael, but Michelangelo, who was in Rome for this period, was just eight years his senior. Michelangelo already disliked Leonardo, and in Rome came to dislike Raphael even more, attributing conspiracies against him to the younger man.

By the end of 1508, Raphael had moved to Rome, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was invited by the new Pope Julius II, perhaps at the suggestion of his architect Donato Bramante, then engaged on St. Peter’s Basilica, who came from just outside Urbino and was distantly related to Raphael. Unlike Michelangelo, who had been kept lingering in Rome for several months after his first summons, Raphael was immediately commissioned by Julius to fresco what was intended to become the Pope’s private library at the Vatican Palace.

Raphael was clearly influenced by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in the course of painting the room. Vasari said Bramante let him in secretly. The first section was completed in 1511 and the reaction of other artists to the daunting force of Michelangelo was the dominating question in Italian art for the following few decades. Raphael, who had already shown his gift for absorbing influences into his own personal style, rose to the challenge perhaps better than any other artist.

One of his most important papal commissions was the Raphael Cartoons (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum), a series of 10 cartoons, of which seven survive, for tapestries with scenes of the lives of Saint Paul and Saint Peter, for the Sistine Chapel. The cartoons were sent to Brussels to be woven in the workshop of Pier van Aelst. It is possible that Raphael saw the finished series before his death—they were probably completed in 1520.

Raphael painted several of his works on wood support but he also used canvas and he was known to employ drying oils such as linseed or walnut oils. His palette was rich and he used almost all of the then available pigments such as ultramarine, lead-tin-yellow, carmine, vermilion, madder lake, Verdigris and ochre’s. In several of his paintings  he even employed the rare brazil wood lake, metallic powdered gold and even less known metallic powdered bismuth.

Raphael was one of the finest draftsmen in the history of Western art, and used drawings extensively to plan his compositions. According to a near-contemporary, when beginning to plan a composition, he would lay out a large number of stock drawings of his on the floor, and begin to draw “rapidly”, borrowing figures from here and there. When a final composition was achieved, scaled-up full-size cartoons were often made, which were then pricked with a pin and “pounced” with a bag of soot to leave dotted lines on the surface as a guide. He also made unusually extensive use, on both paper and plaster, of a “blind stylus”, scratching lines which leave only an indentation, but no mark.

Raphael’s premature death on Good Friday (April 6, 1520), which was possibly his 37th birthday, was due to unclear causes, with several possibilities raised by historians. Whatever the cause, in his acute illness, which lasted fifteen days, Raphael was composed enough to confess his sins, receive the last rites, and to put his affairs in order. He dictated his will, in which he left sufficient funds for his mistress’s care, entrusted to his loyal servant Baviera, and left most of his studio contents to Giulio Romano and Penni. At his request, Raphael was buried in the Pantheon.

His funeral was extremely grand, attended by large crowds. The inscription in his marble sarcophagus, an elegiac distich written by Pietro Bembo, reads: “Ille hic est Rafael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori”, meaning: “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

 

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