Updated: Jun 13, 2022
April 6, 2020 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael (1483-1520), Renaissance artist extraordinaire. Italy planned grand exhibits to pay tribute, but the Covid-19 pandemic shifted the celebrations from Roman museums to on line. Perhaps today he is not as famous as his Renaissance contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, however, he was unsurpassed (along with Michelangelo) in sixteenth century Rome.
Raphael, Ceiling from Stanza della Segnatura, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1509-11.
A refined social climber, Raffaello Sanzio lived big and died suddenly at 37 years old in his prime. His death shocked Rome. Michelangelo, not a fan of competition, didn’t shed many, if any, tears at his death. Raphael came to Rome as a somewhat unknown prodigy in his early twenties. Raphael quickly became a favorite of the popes and rich families. He was cultured and cut a dashing figure, and fancied himself not as an artisan but as an aristocrat. At least that is how he marketed himself and it worked.
Self- Portrait (in a black cap), Stanza della Segnatura, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1509-11. Philosophy, also known as the School of Athens.
Raphael was a virtuoso at multi-figured narrative compositions, use of color, and conveying an ideal human and natural world, all very pleasing and easy on the eyes. Born in Urbino, he worked in oil painting as well as fresco. Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael all overlapped with art commissions in Florence during their careers. They were aware of each other and borrowed from each other. While Leonardo’s muted soft style impacted Raphael, Michelangelo’s sculptural approach to the human body helped Raphael give a three- dimensional quality to figures.
Raphael and Michelangelo were contemporaries and became fierce competitors in Rome.
Rome was the hot art scene with plenty of papal money for commissions. Michelangelo and Raphael both worked at the Vatican within a stone’s throw of each other at the same time. Michelangelo was painting the Sistine ceiling (1508-12) and Raphael was frescoing the Pope Julius II’s Stanza della Segnatura and other papal rooms, which he completed in 1511. Known as the Stanze, the rooms, these frescoes elevated his position in Rome to premier artist for the papacy and elite.
Raphael, Portrait of Bindo Altoviti, c. 1515, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Digital image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Raphael painted many religious Madonna and child images; however, his portraits were exquisite renderings with subtle psychological insights into the popes, cardinals, and the ruling families. His Portrait of Bindo Altoviti (c. 1515), an aristocrat from a prominent Florentine banking family, represents a refined and sensual young man. Bindo was an influential papal banker with connections to rich and powerful families. Leonardo’s influence from his portraits is evident in the sitter’s pose and half turn toward the viewer. His gaze is directed somewhere beyond the viewer over his shoulder. Bindo is casual yet sophisticated. He is about 24 years old in the portrait and commissioned it for himself.
Painting wasn’t Raphael’s only talent. He was made chief architect of St. Peter’s in Rome, much to Michelangelo’s consternation. The early sixteenth century was a time of great re-discovery of Roman ruins, including Nero’s lavishly decorated Domus Aurea with fine examples of Roman fresco painting. Raphael was also put in charge of creating a census of Roman antiquities and buildings. Many objects were stolen and buildings destroyed at the time. Artists and their patrons were keen on Roman and Greek artifacts and cherished them, building large private collections. Raphael greatly admired Greco Roman heritage. He put in place a good system for recording the prized objects and buildings.
Raphael, Scenes from Stanza della Segnatura and Stanza di Eliodoro, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1509-11.
Pope Leo X continued the decorative program for the Sistine Chapel and commissioned Raphael to create ten large tapestries to be hung on the side walls. Although the tapestries were made in tapestry headquarters of Brussels, they were competed according to Raphael’s drawings and specifications. They were extremely expensive to make. The figures are more than life size. The papacy was bankrupt when Leo died and they were pawned off. They were briefly reunited in the Sistine Chapel to honor Raphael’s 500th death year.
Resurrection of Christ, tapestry from the workshop of Pieter van Aelst, based on Raphael's workshop cartoon. 1524-31. New School tapestries, Gallery of Tapestries, Vatican, Rome. An unusual aspect of the wall-hanging gives the illusion that Christ’s eyes follow you as you walk by the tapestry.
Raphael was a good project manager, ran a large shop with many assistants, and handled many projects simultaneously. Over 400 of his drawings remain today and he was an expert draughtsperson. His style was collaborative with his assistants and he was not secretive about sharing his work and acting as mentor. In addition to having good business sense, he seems to have been an agreeable person who got along with very difficult popes. He also never lacked for romantic relationships.
The Last Painting
Successful and with no lack of work for the long term, Raphael bought land in Rome with the intent on creating a grand palazzo for himself. He had earned it. But it never happened; he died two weeks later. He had many projects in process, all which ground to a halt on Good Friday, 1520. He had been sick with a high fever only for a few days when he passed. Rumor was that he had engaged in too much love making, causing exhaustion. The shock that was felt in Rome, the papacy, and surrounding art community was profound. He arrived in Rome just over ten years earlier as a newbie artist without much of a resume and died with the status of a prince.
Raphael, Transfiguration, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1520
Ironically his Transfiguration (1518-20) was not only his religious masterpiece but also his last painting. A cleaning revealed it was nearly finished when he died except for the rock on the lower right corner, two deacons in the upper left distance, some details of the possessed child, and foot of Elias. This is an unusual subject matter not often depicted in Italian religious art. The composition is split into two with the upper section depicting Christ in glory between the prophets Elijah and Moses and the lower section with the apostles and a possessed child.
The setting is Mount Tabor where Jesus, in the company of three apostles, began to radiate light in glory. The two old testament prophets appeared beside him. A voice was heard, calling him “son.” The apostles react in awe, and then in belief. Afterward the transfiguration, Jesus cures the possessed boy. The theological importance emphasizes the duality of Jesus’ human and divine existence.
Following his death, the Transfiguration was processed with his remains through the streets of Rome to his resting place in the Pantheon. Large crowds gathered as cardinals carried his body to the burial site. It is fitting he was buried in a Roman temple converted to a Christian church.
More on Raphael
An English subtitled video narrated by a former director of the Vatican Museums highlights Raphael’s Vatican Stanze.
An informative visually interactive website compiling all of Raphael’s paintings worldwide.
A short Vatican News video of the Sistine Chapel with Raphael’s tapestries hung in place on the sidewalls to commemorate his death
Hall, Marcia, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Raphael. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Hartt, Frederick and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art. Seventh edition. Prentice Hall, 2011.
Paoletti, John T. and Gary M. Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy. Fourth edition. Laurence King, 2011.
Talvacchia, Bette. Raphael. Phaidon, 2007.