Raphael was an Italian painter who was one of the leading artists of the Renaissance. He created many of the most significant paintings of the early 16th century and his art has been extremely influential ever since.
RAPHAEL’S EARLY LIFE
Raphael’s real name was Raffaelo Sanzio. Experts are not entirely sure when he was born, but it was either March 28 or April 6, 1483, in Urbino, central Italy. His father was the artist Giovanni di Santi. Giovanni worked mainly for Francesco Gonzaga, who was a member of the ruling family in Mantua. So Raphael had some experience of court life in his childhood. This meant that he found it easy to get along with the important people he worked for later in his life.
In 1500, Raphael began to work with Perugino, a highly respected artist who was one of the first to paint in oil. Perugino used pure strong colours for the people in his pictures, whom he portrayed with a sweet air of holiness and goodness, in landscapes that seem to glow with pale, shimmering light. This influenced Raphael’s work, but Raphael soon showed that his talent and technique were good enough to rival those of his mentor.
RAPHAEL IN FLORENCE
In 1504, Raphael travelled to Florence for the first time, probably hoping to improve his skills in anatomy and perspective. There, he saw works by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He often visited this important centre of the arts over the next four years. During this time he produced pictures on a range of subjects and moved away from the style of Perugino. He painted Madonnas, showing the Virgin Mary as a beautiful, gentle woman. In another series of pictures he painted the Madonna with Jesus Christ as a baby. Raphael often placed these scenes, which at times also included St John the Baptist, in outdoor settings. Leonardo and Michelangelo had been experimenting with different arrangements of figures and their work influenced Raphael’s compositions.
RAPHAEL’S WORK IN THE VATICAN, ROME
In 1508, Pope Julius II asked Raphael to come to Rome to decorate a series of official rooms in the Vatican. The artist painted frescoes using themes that reflected what each room was used for. For example, the Stanza della Segnatura, the Pope’s library and private office, was decorated with pictures illustrating different sides of the human spirit: spiritual truth, logic, goodness and beauty. One of the most famous of these frescoes is The School of Athens, which shows Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle grouped together in a grand Classical building.
Raphael also made a series of preparatory drawings (known as “cartoons”) as designs for tapestries to be hung in the Vatican’s famous Sistine Chapel. These sketches showed events in the lives of St Peter and St Paul, and had a big influence on the work of later artists.
Raphael had other artistic talents. In 1512 he began to work as an architect. Donato Bramante, the architect in charge of rebuilding St Peter’s Basilica, the huge cathedral-like building in the Vatican, died in 1514 and Raphael was chosen to replace him.
Raphael was not only employed by the Church. He also painted for private clients. One important patron was a banker called Agostino Chigi, for whom he decorated two chapels, as well as a villa. Raphael’s interiors were partly inspired by the style of the Roman emperor Nero’s ancient palace, which had been recently excavated. The frescoes Raphael painted in the villa were of mythological scenes. They show Galatea—a statue of a beautiful woman brought to life by Venus, the goddess of love, for the sculptor Pygmalion, who had fallen in love with his own creation—as well as Cupid and Psyche, who, according to Roman mythology, fell in love and overcame great obstacles to be together.
PORTRAITS AND ALTARPIECES
During the years he spent in Rome, Raphael also painted memorable portraits. These include Pope Julius II (c. 1511), Pope Leo X and Two Cardinals (c. 1519) and a portrait of the nobleman Baldassare Castiglione (c. 1516). Remarkable for their vivid colours and Raphael’s skill in capturing both the sitter’s likeness and character, these pictures represented a powerful and new kind of image. They inspired many portrait artists in the centuries that followed.
Raphael painted altarpieces throughout his career. Towards the end of his life he executed a number of particularly fine examples, including the famous Sistine Madonna (c. 1513). This magnificent altarpiece shows the Virgin Mary and child in the clouds, above two loveable cherubs.
Unlike several other major artists of the Italian Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Titian, Raphael died at a young age. His death in Rome on April 6, 1520, cut short his successful and productive career.