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2020: the year of Raphael

After a 2019 full of exhibitions and cultural events dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci for the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death, with this new year someone else is ready to pick up the baton: 2020 is the 500th anniversary year since the death of Raphael, the indisputable genius of Renaissance art.

Raphael’s Self-portrait – Uffizi Gallery – Florence, Tuscany

Raphael’s Self-portrait – Uffizi Gallery – Florence, Tuscany

One of the greatest artists of all time, Raphael was among the main founders of Mannerism and creator of a strong influence on western art: his style led to the birth of the classicism of the 17th century by Rubens, Velázquez and Caravaggio; he inspired Delacroix and Ingres, the Nazarenes and Pre-Raphaelites movements, conditioning even Manet and Dalí.

Raphael died in 1520, when he was only 37 years old, but he had an intense, fruitful life rich in encounters and full of artistic productions, which is worth retracing.

RAPHAEL'S EARLY LIFE

Raffaello Sanzio was presumably born on 28 March 1483 in Urbino, at that time a vital hub of the Renaissance: the ardent artistic life of the Urbino of that period is crucial for his development as an artist. His father, Giovanni de' Santi is a successful painter at the service of the ducal family and local aristocracy: in his atelier, the young Raphael has the opportunity to learn the first rudiments of drawing and painting. The first work attributed to Raphael, when he is only fifteen, is the fresco Madonna di Casa Santi painted in Casa Santi, Raphael’s birthplace (today the house is a museum open to the public). 

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Marche

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Marche

Again, thanks to his father, Raphael has access to the Ducal Palace of Urbino, where he can personally study the works by Piero della Francesca, Pollaiolo and other artists of his time. In addition to his father’s studio, in these years he has an opportunity to occasionally frequent Pietro Perugino’s studio, in Perugia, where from 1494, the year his father dies, to 1498, he carries out an apprenticeship. Working for the frescoes of the Collegio del Cambio in Perugia, he first encounters into the Grotesque, a painting technique on walls destined to become a crucial part of his iconographic repertoire.

 The Marriage of the Virgin - Pinacoteca di Brera - Milan, Lombardy

The Marriage of the Virgin - Pinacoteca di Brera - Milan, Lombardy

In 1499, only sixteen, he moves to Città di Castello, where he receives his first independent commissions: the banner of the Santissima Trinità (today at the Pinacoteca Comunale of Città di Castello) and the Baronci Altarpiece. In Città di Castello, Raphael leaves behind at least two other remarkable works: the Mond Crucifixion (today in the National Gallery of London), where some signs of development of a style all his own are clearly visible, and The Marriage of the Virgin (today at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan), with its plastic figures and unusual space arrangement already shows a clear detachment from Perugino, considered the concluding work of Raphael’s early life. 

In the meantime, the fame of the young artist from Urbino is spreading all over Umbria: three altarpieces (Colonna Altarpiece, Oddi Altarpiece and an Assumption of the Virgin, later completed by Berto di Giovanni) and some Madonna and Child pieces (Solly Madonna, Diotallevi Madonna, Madonna and Child between Saints Jerome and Francis) still painted according to the typical style of Perugino, but already with an extremely evident expressivity between Madonna and Child, date to this period. 

Around 1503, Raphael moves away from Umbria and Urbino and makes short trips to Florence – where he admires the works by Leonardo for the first time – and Rome, where he first experiences the classical figurative culture. He is invited to Siena by Pinturicchio, whom he cooperates with for the execution of the frescoes of the Libreria Piccolomini.

RAPHAEL IN FLORENCE

 Madonna del Cardellino - Uffizi Gallery- Flocence, Tuscany

Madonna del Cardellino - Uffizi Gallery- Flocence, Tuscany

Raphael is in Siena with Pinturicchio when he learns that Leonardo and Michelangelo are in Florence, working on the execution of two major frescoes (respectively the Battle of Anghiari and the Battle of Cascina); therefore, he asks Giovanna Feltria, the sister of the Duke of Urbino, to write a letter of introduction for Pier Soderini, gonfalonier for life in Florence. Raphael doesn’t get any new commissions from Pier Soderini (who, after commissioning the David by Michelangelo is now in financial straits), but receives important commissions from private customers: he paints the Madonna del Cardellino (today at the Uffizi Gallery) for Lorenzo Nasi, the Canigiani Holy Family and the Madonna Tempi (today preserved at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich) for his brother-in-law Domenico Canigiani; a masterpiece series of new Madonnas and Child, like La belle jardinière (displayed in the Louvre Museum) also date back to this period. In Florence, he is widely respected by patron Taddeo Taddei, for whom he paints the Madonna del Prato (today at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna) and the Bridgewater Madonna (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). 

 Orleans Madonna - Museé Condé, Chantilly - France

Orleans Madonna - Museé Condé, Chantilly - France

During his stay in Florence, he receives new assignments also from Umbria and Le Marche: he is called to Perugia to carry out some altarpieces (the Colonna Altarpiece and the Ansidei Altarpiece) and the fresco with the Trinity and saints is still today housed in the church of the San Severo Monastery, in Perugia. He is called to the ducal court of Urbino for the Portrait of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, the portrait of his wife Elisabetta Gonzaga and of their heir Guidobaldo della Rovere (all of them shown in the Uffizi Gallery); he is also commissioned a large Madonna (the marvelous Orleans Madonna, today in the Museum Condé of Chantilly) and three oil paintings on wood. 

 Baglioni Altarpiece (Borghese Entombment) - Galleria Borghese - Rome, Lazio

Baglioni Altarpiece (Borghese Entombment) - Galleria Borghese - Rome, Lazio

The stay in Florentine is an opportunity for Raphael to study in-depth the models of the XV century (from Masaccio to Donatello) and to learn the new artistic principles of Leonardo and Michelangelo: Raphael is very fascinated by Leonardo’s ability to harmoniously compose figures according to geometrical rules; he puts into practice the plastic chiaroscuro, the dynamicity of figures and chromatic richness of Michelangelo. During this period, he paints many portraits influenced by Leonardo’s style, like La Donna gravida (today at the Galleria Palatina in Florence), the Portrait of Agnolo Doni and the Portrait of Maddalena Strozzi (both in the Uffizi), the Young Woman with Unicorn (Galleria Borghese, Rome) and La Muta (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino). Major works of this phase are also the Baglioni Altarpiece (the central part of the painting is kept at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, the tablets of the predella at the Pinacoteca Vaticana and the friezes at the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria in Perugia), in which Raphael combines the tragic theme of death and the vital impetus of turmoil with a monumental, dynamic result, with clear starting points from Michelangelo, and the Madonna of the Baldacchino (kept in the Galleria Palatina in Florence), a large altarpiece remained incomplete, a work with a great dynamicity which will influence Andrea del Sarto and Fra' Bartolomeo in the following decade. 

IN ROME: RAPHAEL'S PROFESSIONAL MATURATION

At the end of 1508, Raphael is called to Rome and quickly leaves Florence, leaving a few works he is working on, incomplete. It is Pope Julius II who personally wants him in Rome (after a suggestion of Bramante), who in these years is working on an important urban renewal of the city calling on all major artists of that time (in addition to Raphael also Michelangelo and Bramante).

The School of Athens- Vatican Museums – Vatican City

The School of Athens- Vatican Museums – Vatican City

In Rome Raphael collaborates with Bramantino, Lotto and other painters for the decoration of the new papal apartments, the renown Vatican Rooms (today part of the Vatican Museums): after the satisfactory result with the decoration of the first room, Room of the Segnatura, that Raphael adorns with themes inspired by theology, philosophy, poetry and law, he is commissioned the decoration of the whole apartment (with the Room of Heliodorus, The Room of the Fire in the Borgo and the Hall of Constantine). The rooms house some valuable masterpieces like The School of Athens, Parnassus, Deliverance of Saint Peter and Disputation of the Holy Sacrament

Villa Farnesina - Rome, Lazio

Villa Farnesina - Rome, Lazio

Raphael is recruited by wealthy banker Agostino Chigi: in the Villa Farnesina (today seat of Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei) he paints several frescoes for him, like Galatea and Loggia di Psiche, and designs the stables (today destroyed), as well as the fresco of Sibyls in the Church of Santa Maria della Pace, of the Cappella Chigi in Santa Maria del Popolo, which Raphael is responsible for the architectural plan as well.

 La Fornarina - Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini - Rome, Lazio

La Fornarina - Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini - Rome, Lazio

Another important activity of this time is related to portrait art, in which he introduces innovative aspects and a remarkable virtuosity: the Portrait of a Cardinal (today at the Prado Museum), the Portrait of Baldassarre Castiglione (at the Louvre Museum), the Portrait of Fedra Inghirami, the Portrait of Leo X with the cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi (in the Uffizi), but especially the Portrait of Julius II (National Gallery, London), with its unusual diagonal, raised point of view, and the famous portrait of a woman, known as Fornarina (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica of Palazzo Barberini in Rome) belong to this period. Pertinent to these years is his new interpretation of altarpieces, with innovative works like the Madonna of Foligno (Pinacoteca Vaticana), the Sistine Madonna (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) and The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia (Pinacoteca Nazionale of Bologna). 

St. Peter’s Basilica (inner part) – Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica (inner part) – Vatican City

Because of his growing popularity, during these years Raphael decides to open his own atelier where he gives work to young painters – among which Fattore, Giulio Romano and Giovanni da Udine – but also to already successful artists, like Lorenzetto. In 1514, when Bramante dies, he is appointed superintendent of St. Peter's Basilica consolidating his architectural skills in the most important building site for Christianity. In designing the Basilica, he abandons Bramante’s perspective configuration (keeping the design for the dome) in order to use a new system: that of orthogonal projection. He is asked to carry out a series of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel: here he can directly measure himself with the genius of Michelangelo, who is working on the realisation of his sensational frescoed vault (the vault of the Sistine Chapel).

In Rome, Raphael, as an architect, designs Palazzo Branconio dell'Aquila (later demolished to house the Bernini's colonnade), Palazzo Jacopo da Brescia (demolished in 1936) and Palazzo Alberini (still in existence today). The project for Villa Madama, at the feet of Monte Mario (which will be a great inspiration for Palladio), in which structure and ornament are fused together in compliance with the ancient Roman models, is left unfinished.

Raphael Loggias - Palazzo Niccolino – Vatican City

Raphael Loggias - Palazzo Niccolino – Vatican City

During these years he continues with the decoration of the Vatican Loggias of Palazzo Niccolino, started by Bramante – known as the Raphael Loggias – and he carries out the Transfiguration (kept in the Pinacoteca Vaticana) for Giulio de' Medici, which will remain the last work of the great artist from Urbino. His death arrives at the height of his success, on 6 April 1520, the day of his 37th birthday, after fifteen days of constant fever. His body is buried in the Pantheon, in Rome; Pietro Bembo writes a touching epitaph: “Here lies Raphael by whom nature herself feared to be outdone while he lived, and when he dies, she feared herself to die”.

Nonetheless, his figure has not fallen into oblivion: in 1869, in Urbino, at the behest of Count Pompeo Gherardi, the Accademia Raffaello was founded, an institution that takes up the task of preserving and divulging the unrivaled art of the genius of Raphael and his memory. The Academy is active still today with research and distribution activities through prominent magazines, as well as holding conferences, public lectures, contests, art workshops, exhibitions and scholarships.