Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino - Raphael

April 6th 1483 – April 6th 1520

Raphael was born in the city of Urbino to Giovanni Santi di Pietro and Magia di Battista di Nicola Ciarla, both of whom came from wealthy merchant families. Urbino was a celebrated  centre for the arts at this time and Giovanni Santi was court painter to its duke in addition to being head of his own studio. Growing up in the court environment Raphael learned the necessary manners and social skills that were to allow him to mix seamlessly with wealthy and influential patrons in the future.

One of three children, Raphael was the only one to survive infancy. By the time he was eleven Raphael had been orphaned and his father’s brother, a priest named Bartolomeo, became his formal guardian. Being the sole heir, Raphael inherited his father’s studio in which he had often worked and played as a small child. He continued working as an apprentice for the Italian Renaissance painter Pietro Perugino whilst Bartolemeo initially took over the management of the studio. By the age of seventeen however, Raphael had completed his apprenticeship, was running his own studio and was already acknowledged as a true master of his art. 

Some historians believe that Raphael furthered his knowledge by receiving further training from the man who was appointed court painter in Giovanni’s stead, Timoteo Viti. Although this can’t be established for certain, it is certain that the two were good friends. 

In the same year that he completed his apprenticeship Raphael received his first commission, an altarpiece dedicated to St. Nicholas of Tolentino. More important commissions followed.

In 1504 Raphael moved to Sienna and then to Florence where he lived for the next four years and where he met his two greatest rivals, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. By far the youngest of the three they would become known as the three greatest maestri of that period. It was in Florence that Raphael’s work began to move away from the simplistic influence of Perugino in favour of the more imposing style favoured by Da Vinci, but such was Raphael’s mastery that he was able to absorb the influences of Florentine art whilst developing his own discrete style. During this time Raphael produced several madonnas, but it was his capacity to learn from other masters that led the notoriously irascible Michelangelo to accuse him of plagiarism, and of plotting to discredit him.

In 1508 Raphael moved to Rome and lived there for the remainder of his life. Upon his arrival he was commissioned by Pope Julius II to fresco his private apartments and library at the Vatican Palace, his largest and most important commission to date. In response Raphael produced one of the most lauded fresco cycles of the Italian High Renaissance, the Stanza della Segnatura. The room in its entirety is regarded as the highlight of his career and his greatest masterpiece. After this huge success he was asked to paint a further three rooms. The walls and ceilings of these three rooms were covered with his stunning paintings, though he increasingly drew up detailed plans and left the work of the actual painting to the large team of skilled artists he had trained in his studio.  This commission established Raphael as the most renowned painter at the Court of the Medici. 

By the time he died, Raphael is believed to have had more than fifty apprentices working for him, an accepted practice of the time, and this enabled him to accept bigger commissions. Because of this he and his workshop were hugely productive but many of his later works are more distinguished by their design than their execution suggesting that ‘from the workshop of Raphael’ would be a better description of their origins. Unlike Michelangelo who was known to have a somewhat turbulent relationship with both his patrons and his apprentices, Raphael’s workshop ran along much smoother and happier lines.

The Pope also commissioned Raphael to create ten tapestries to hang on the walls of the completed Sistine Chapel. Raphael managed to complete seven of the intricate designs which he sent to be made in the studio of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a renowned Flemish weaver. He lived just long enough to see them hung in place.

Like many of his peers Raphael had also received training in architectural design; he received his first commission in this field from Agostino Chigi in 1513 for the design of the Chigi Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. It was this and other projects which secured him the position of Architectural Commissioner, or chief architect of the new St Peter's Basilica following the death of Bramante the following year. 

Raphael’s architectural skills were not limited to designing churches, he was also in demand to design and construct palaces. His plans incorporated the classical awareness of Donato Bramante and made great use of ornamental details, the latter coming to delineate the architectural style of the late Renaissance and subsequent early Baroque periods.

Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi Bibbiena was a life-long friend and patron of Raphael and was immensely influential at the Medici court; in 1514 it was his wish that his niece Maria Bibbiena and Raphael become betrothed. Judging by the length of the engagement Raphael was not over enthusiastic about the match but felt obliged to acquiesce as he was only too aware of the pressures that the cardinal could bring to bear upon his reputation, career and livelihood. Fortunately for Raphael, Maria conveniently died from an unknown illness in 1520 before the wedding could take place.

It was well known that Raphael had a long - term relationship with Margherita Luti, a baker’s daughter who was both his mistress and his model. Immortalised in Raphael's portrait ‘La Fornarina’, Margherita was the great love of his life and he was besotted with her, even though he was known to have had many affairs. There was even supposition at the time, and since, that the couple had secretly married, perhaps another reason why Raphael’s betrothal to Maria had taken so long. 

In 1517, Pope Leo X appointed Raphael commissioner of antiquities in Rome with control over everything that was excavated both within the city and within a mile outside of its walls. Prior to this many ancient monuments were being pilfered for readily- available dressed building stone but upon his appointment, a position that he took seriously, Raphael stipulated that all new finds were to be reported to him and no ancient inscriptions were to be effaced. Although Pope Leo wanted to continue using masonry from the ancient ruins for the building of St. Peter’s cathedral, he and Raphael recognised the importance of recording any ancient inscriptions before allowing the materials to be re-used.

From 1517 until his demise Raphael lived in the sumptuous Palazzo Caprini. He was at the absolute height of his fame and was given many high honours in recognition of this including the title ‘Groom of the Chamber’, a title of high esteem, with an income, in the Papal Court. He was also made a ‘Knight of the Papal Order of the Golden Spur’ which was a personal honour for services rendered for the glory of the Catholic Church. This granted him the right to wear, contrary to existing regulations, golden spurs and a golden neck collar. In fact, Raphael lived more like a prince than a painter. Writer, artist and historian Giorgio Vasari claims that Raphael, a deeply religious man, also aspired to becoming a cardinal, a position which was in the Pope’s ability to bestow. Marriage would have been forbidden for him if this had come about, yet another reason why his marriage to Maria Bibbiena was not feasible.

On April 6th 1520 Raphael died after a short illness, he was just thirty - seven years old. Though the exact cause of death is not known there was speculation that he had either received the wrong treatment for an illness or was in the last stage of syphilis, though the latter seems unlikely. Knowing that his death was imminent he lived long enough to dictate his will and receive the all-important last rites. In keeping with local custom, his body lay in state at his home until the day of his funeral.

Raphael was immensely popular and was well loved by many during his lifetime.  As news of his death spread the whole city of Rome went into mourning for him. On the day of his funeral a huge solemn crowd gathered to line the route to the Vatican where his funeral mass was held. According to the journal of Paris de Grassis, Master of ceremonies to Pope Julius II and Pope Leo X,  four cardinals dressed in purple carried his body and the Pope kissed his hand. At the time of his death Raphael had been working on his largest painting on canvas, ‘The Transfiguration’. This unfinished work was placed on his coffin stand during his funeral mass prior to him being conveyed to the Pantheon in Rome where he was interred in a great marble sarcophagus. 

The most important group of his studio drawings were left to his friend Timoteo Viti but he left his mistress Margherita Luti a wealthy woman in her own right. In 1897 a document was discovered showing that Margherita Luti, widowed daughter of Francesco Luti of Siena, retired to the Convent of Santa Apollonia four months after Raphael’s death, where it is believed she lived until the end of her days.

Despite the direction modern art eventually took, Raphael continues to be revered as one of the greatest artists of all time.


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