Brief Biography of a Famous and Influential Artist 8: Raphael

Portrait of Raphael

Raphael's Self Portrait Sketch as a Teen

RAPHAEL (1483-1520)

Born: Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino on April 6, 1483 in Urbino, Marche, Italy

Died: April 6, 1520 [age 37] in Rome, Italy

Most Famous Works: The School of Athens, Christ Supported by Two Angels, and The Parnassus

Raphael was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance movement who was celebrated for the perfection and grace of his drawings and paintings. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he forms the traditional trinity of great masters from that period.

Raphael's The School of Athens

Raphael was born in the small but artistically significant Central Italian city of Urbino in the Marche region, where his father Giovanni Santi was court painter to the Duke. His mother Màgia died in 1491 when Raphael was eight, followed on August 1, 1494 by his father, who had already remarried. Orphaned at eleven, Raphael’s formal guardian became his only paternal uncle Bartolomeo, a priest, who subsequently engaged in litigation with his stepmother. He probably continued to live with his stepmother when not living as an apprentice with a master. He had already shown talent, according to Giorgio Vasari, who tells that Raphael had been “a great help to his father”. A brilliant self-portrait drawing from his teenage years shows his precocious talent. His father’s workshop continued and, probably together with his stepmother, Raphael evidently played a part in managing it from a very early age.

After receiving early instruction from his father, the painter Giovanni Santi, Rafael continued the family tradition. One of his earliest works was the Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints, and Angels (c. 1502-1503), now in the National Gallery of London. This work is noted for beautiful symmetry (with the Cross at the center) and medieval elements (the human faces of the sun and the moon on either side of the Cross’s highest point). Raphael was chosen for other important works for popes and wealthy art patrons.

In his short life, Raphael spent years in Umbria and Florence and an important period in Rome working for two popes.

Christ Supported by Two Angels by Raphael Sanzio

 Under Pope Julius II, several important works were completed in the Vatican, including his own private library in the Apostolic Palace. Julius’ library includes two surviving frescoes by Raphael—Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (c.1508-1509) and School of Athens. These works show two key aspects of the Renaissance. In Disputation, Raphael portrays the important body of the Catholic Church in Heaven and on Earth.

On the opposite wall, the School of Athens includes the giants of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, in a traditional Greek setting. This fresco also depicts the Renaissance humanist fascination with Classical philosophy, including the principles of truth and reason and the Pope’s library themes of poetry, law, philosophy, and theology. When Julius died, he was followed by Pope Leo X, who changed the purpose of the private library to a study where he could officially sign papal documents. The study was then referred to as the Stanza della Segnatura.

Raphael’s premature death on Good Friday (April 6, 1520) (his 37th birthday), was caused by a night of excessive love-making with Margherita Luti, his mistress, after which he fell into a fever and, not telling his doctors that this was its cause, was given the wrong cure, which killed him. Vasari also says that Raphael had also been born on a Good Friday, which in 1483 fell on March 28.

Raphael's The Parnassus

Whatever the cause, in his acute illness, which lasted fifteen days, Raphael was composed enough to receive the last rites, and to put his affairs in order. He dictated his will, in which he left sufficient funds for his mistress’s care, entrusted to his loyal servant Baviera, and left most of his studio contents to Giulio Romano and Penni. At his request, Raphael was buried in the Pantheon. His funeral was extremely grand, attended by large crowds. The inscription in his marble sarcophagus, an elegiac distich written by Pietro Bembo, reads: “Ille hic est Raffael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori.” Meaning: “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

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