Raphael Sanzio (1483 – 1520)

Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael form the great triumvirate of artists who inaugurated the monumental style of the historical moment known as the High Renaissance.

Raphael Sanzio (Urbino, 1483 – Rome, 1520) was the youngest and technically and stylistically the least imaginative of the three, but thanks to his unique gifts of assimilation he forged a style that was admired for four centuries and long provided models of ideal forms for religious art and models of narrative action for history painters.

Raphael Sanzio
Portrait of Raphael Sanzio

Probably no other artist has been more admired and copied by successive generations.

Even in the 19th century, when among the German Nazarenes and the English Pre-Raphaelites there was a reaction in favor of their 15th century predecessors, especially Fra Angelico, Raphael’s works continued to be a source of inspiration and guidance for painters such as Ingres and many other representatives of academic art.

Raphael was considered to have achieved the perfect fusion of line and color, of feeling and action, of nature and the ideal, of essence and the particular, in such a perfect balance that made him the great representative of classicism in painting.

Biography of Raphael Sanzio

If the name of Raphael is associated with that of Da Vinci and Michelangelo, it is due to the judgment of posterity rather than to the influence they exerted on the young prodigy.

For the supporters of classicism, Raphael embodies the ideal of balanced and serene art that humanizes and materializes the pictorial solutions of the Quattrocento, perfected by Leonardo and Michelangelo. His «madonnas» are particularly admirable.

The delicacy of the stroke, the nuanced chromatic range and the serene luminosity of his landscapes enhance the unreal and radiant beauty of his female characters. He was one of the most outstanding Renaissance painters of his time.

Pinturas Renacentistas - La Bella Jardinera

He was born on April 5, 1483 in Urbino. His father was the most prominent artist in the city, and, although a mediocre painter, he was also a courtier and poet, his patron being Federico de Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino and one of the great figures of the Italian Renaissance.

This experience helps to understand why Raphael always felt at ease in the courts and among the great families of nobility and business.

To that atmosphere, at once refined and simple, of a court that his friend Balthasar of Castiglione described as a model of Renaissance Europe, Raphael probably owes something of that friendliness that was to win him the favor of his patrons, other artists and his pupils.

Little documentation of the period

We have no documents of the time that tell us about his apprenticeship, but Vasari states that his father had taken him to Perugia, where he worked as an apprentice with Pietro Perugino, who had gained professional prestige in Rome, where the richest and most cultured ecclesiastical patrons were to be found.

Unlike Florentine artists, who generally found sufficient clients and patrons in their wealthy, art-loving city, Raphael, like other artists from smaller centers (e.g. Piero della Francesca), in his early years was forced to lead an itinerant life in search of commissions.

In 1505 he himself stated that he had been to Perugia, Assisi, Gubbio, Siena, Florence, Rome, his native Urbino and Venice. Raphael died of a fever on April 6, 1520, and was buried in the Pantheon in Rome.

In 1509, thanks to the fame he had achieved, he was called to Rome to the service of Pope Julius II. Raphael had not yet demonstrated his mastery of frescoes when this pontiff commissioned him to decorate the new rooms of the Vatican.

The mastery in the execution of iconographic themes, whether religious, humanist or mythological, the natural arrangement of the forms in a complex space and the care given to the characterization of the figures represented the beginning of a new era in art.

Cuadros Renacentistas - La Disputa del Sacramento
The Disputation of the Sacrament – Raphael

The magnitude of the works commissioned by the Vatican forced him to delegate a large part of the work to disciples trained in his workshop. These collaborators contributed greatly to the diffusion of Raphael’s style by reproducing the master’s models. His influence was perpetuated by them.

Raphael’s style

Flemish Influence

The change in taste that determined the direction of Raphael’s art was the growing preference, on the part of late fifteenth-century patrons, for a style in which «dolcezza» or sweetness was the dominant sentiment.

In accordance with this style, even the types of Christ, the Virgin and the saints are softened and sweetened; the severity of the fifteenth-century Christs, with their implication of a divine nature united to a human nature, is subjected to the mitigating action of a softened idealism.

The landscape, which now, under Flemish influence, constitutes a useful background for all kinds of religious paintings, loses all its harshness and becomes a harmony of delicate greens.

We will miss a fundamental key to Raphael’s art if we forget that his time destined him to be first and foremost an artist at the service of religion.

Virgins and altarpieces were the works he began to work on as a young man, and when he died he was still painting Virgins and altarpieces at the request of his patrons. His main secular works were portraits, but on the whole he executed few works of this genre.

The most important exceptions are the profane frescoes of the Signatura, the mythological frescoes with which he decorated the Roman villa – today known as the Farnesina, of the Sienese banker Chigi, one of his most important patrons – and the Loggias of the Vatican.

Such was the perfection of his style that even in his time his works were admired more for the beauty of composition and form than for conveying deep thoughts or violent passions.

Raphael and the High Renaissance

As such, Raphael’s works were characteristic of the High Renaissance, a time when admiration for art was so widespread that even within the religious realm artists used their own vocabulary of form, and enjoyed a freedom to concentrate on creation and on solving problems of composition and representation, a freedom against which the Counter-Reformation, decades later, was to initiate a strong reaction.

Nevertheless, the religious sensibility of many believers has always found in Raphael the perfect and unattainable realization of their ideal of heavenly beauty; for example, in the delicacy of his Virgins or in his tenderly human representations of the Child Jesus.

In modeling the body, Raphael achieved a perfection in the flesh tones and in the transitions within them that made Vasari exclaim, not once but several times, that what Raphael paints looks like «living flesh» and not something created with skillful brushstrokes.

Although he never fully adopted Leonardo’s «sfumatto,» he mastered the art of softening contours with shadows so naturally that, in Vasari’s words, it seems that his figures are really flesh and blood.

He also tried his hand at architecture, designed goldsmith works and organized the engraving of his drawings. He designed the stables at Villa Chigi, his chapel at Santa Maria della Pace and, after his appointment as architect of St. Peter’s in 1512, he worked for the basilica. He also designed several private palaces.

Paintings and works by Raphael Sanzio