Famous for his Renaissance oil paintings, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael, was born on April 6th, 1483, in Urbino, Italy.
He was the son of Giovanni Santi di Pietro and Magia di Battista di Nicola Ciarla. He spent his early years in the city of Urbino. It was a cultural and creative center with a remarkable historical legacy and the perfect place for aspiring young artists.
Raphael’s father, Giovani Santi, painted for the Duke of Urbino and owned a successful studio in the city's heart. He introduced the young artist to the principles of classical painting and
His father died in 1494 when he was just 11 years old. In an astounding development, the young Raphael took on the management of his father’s art studio. His skill and reputation quickly surpassed his father’s, with local artists and patrons becoming aware of his talent.
In 1550, the artist Perugino encouraged Raphael to visit him in Perugia and become his student. Perugia is a stunning town in the Umbria region of Italy, and while there, Raphael assisted Perugino with his many large-scale commissions. Perugino was influential in his early education, and the apprenticeship lasted four years.
The young Raphael developed his style during this period with his rapid progression apparent in early religious oil paintings such as St Sebastian (1501), Madonna and Child with Book (1502), and The Agony in the Garden (1504).
After Raphael left Perugino’s apprenticeship in 1504, he moved to cosmopolitan Florence. He enjoyed the inspiring work of contemporary masters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Fra Bartolomeo.
Raphael never looked back, and the young artist was astounded by their depth of composition and skill in draftsmanship. He consequently threw himself into studying their technique and developed his own more intricate and expressive personal style.
Building on the work of Leonardo da Vinci in particular, the artist worked on a series of Madonnas. His stylistic progression is apparent through works such as Madonna Solly, Grande Madonna Cowper, and Madonna of the Pinks. His experimentation with this biblical theme led to works such as Madonna of Meadow and Madonna of Goldfinch (1505), demonstrating Raphael’s intense attention to detail, vivid coloring, and endless ability to humanize this iconic subject.
The Duke of Urbino remained an influential patron during this time. Raphael painted an intriguing early work, George and the Dragon (c.1505-6), to celebrate the Duke of Urbino’s Order of the Garter, awarded in 1504 by Henry VII of England. The award reflected the close ties between the two countries which prevailed during the early sixteenth century.
After experimenting with the Madonna theme, Raphael developed Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina in a painting of the entombment. Then, in 1508, he moved to Rome at the invitation of Pope Julius II. From this point onwards, Rome was a home away from home where Raphael toiled over his Vatican commissions, which resulted in a stunning series of frescoes.
Raphael famous paintings of this era include the Triumph of Religion and the famed School of Athens. The latter work touchingly reflects his father’s endeavors in introducing Raphael to humanistic scholarship back in Urbino.
In the following years, Raphael painted many more frescos at the Vatican, employing multiple assistants and apprentices. He also continued experimenting with depictions of the Madonna during this period. The Sistine Madonna (1512) was one such painting. A work of genuinely stunning serenity and beauty, with Mary and the baby Jesus gazing directly from the canvas. They gracefully float amidst clouds, observed by two mischievous putti (cherubs) below.
Popular at this time, renaissance cherub paintings were usually naked chubby male children. Although previously associated with cupid and the passions, by the early sixteenth century, they represented the sacred child, innocence, and the omnipresence of God. A seemingly small detail, Raphael’s curious putti at the bottom of the Sistine Madonna are now among the most reproduced images of all time.
Raphael’s renaissance oil paintings are well known but perhaps less well known because he also worked on architectural commissions. While at the Vatican, he met the banker Agostino Chigi. Chigi later became one of his most important lay patrons. As well as frescos, he tasked Raphael with designing the Chigi Chapel in the Santa Maria del Popolo church in 1513. The following year, Raphael took over from Bramante as the architectural commissioner of the new St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Despite infatuation with a young woman, a baker’s daughter named Margherita Luti, in 1514, Raphael became engaged to Maria Bibbiena. Bibbiena was the niece of an influential cardinal and wealthy patron.
It is likely that Raphael likely agreed to the marriage after some persuasion, although he continued to paint Margherita Luti throughout the period. Nevertheless, Raphael’s passion shines through, immortalizing Luti in La Donna Velata (translating as “the woman with the veil”), c.1516, and La Fornarina (Italian for female baker), c. 1518.
Sadly, Bibbiena died in 1520 before the marriage took place. Raphael may have subsequently married Margherita Luti, but this is unclear and remains speculation. His frescos for Villa Farnesina (commissioned by Chigi) certainly reflect the themes of love and marriage. There is speculation that led some to wonder whether the pair wed in secret. Indeed, the romance, cherubins, and bacchanalian excitement of works such as The Triumph of Galatea (part of the Villa Farnesina commission) underpin Raphael’s romantic infatuation during this period.
Raphael continued to paint frescos and further architectural works throughout the late 1510s. His final painting was The Transfiguration (1516-20). Commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici, it was a massive work on canvas. Destined for the altarpiece at the Narbonne Cathedral in France, it ultimately adorned Raphael’s coffin.
On April 6th, 1520, Raphael died suddenly and unexpectedly after a very short illness. His death coincided with his 37th birthday.
The funeral procession was extensive and spread across Rome, with Raphael’s funeral mass held at the Vatican. One biographer described the “tears of the whole city” at Raphael’s death.
The artist requested burial in the Pantheon, alongside Maria Bibbiena. He also left a substantial amount of money to his beloved Margherita Luti.
Raphael’s move from classical styles to mannerism influenced Baroque art across the continent. His harmonious Madonna compositions continue to inspire religious artists. Along with Da Vinci and Michelangelo, he remains a true master of Renaissance art.
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