Raphael

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. His work is admired for its clarity of form and ease of composition and for its visual achievement of the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he forms the traditional trinity of great masters of that period.

Raphael was enormously productive, running an unusually large workshop, and despite his death at 37, a large body of his work remains. Many of his works are found in the Vatican Palace, where the frescoed Raphael Rooms were the central, and the largest, work of his career. The best known work is The School of Athens in the Vatican Stanza della Segnatura. After his early years in Rome much of his work was executed by his workshop from his drawings, with considerable loss of quality. He was extremely influential in his lifetime, though outside Rome his work was mostly known from his collaborative printmaking.

Raphael was born in Urbino from a father who was court painter to the Duke. The reputation of the court had been established by Federico III da Montefeltro. Federico was succeeded by his son Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, who married Elisabetta Gonzaga. Under them, the court continued as a centre for literary culture. Growing up in the circle of this small court gave Raphael excellent manners and social skills. Raphael mixed easily in the highest circles throughout his life.

Orphaned at eleven, he had already shown talent : a brilliant self-portrait drawing from his teenage years shows it. Raphael evidently played a part in managing his father's studio from a very early age. In Urbino, he came into contact with the works of Paolo Uccello, previously the court painter, and Luca Signorelli. Most modern historians agree that Raphael worked as an assistant to Perugino from around 1500; the influence of Perugino on Raphael's early work is very clear. The Perugino workshop was active in both Perugia and Florence, perhaps maintaining two permanent branches. Raphael is described as a "master", that is to say fully trained, in 1501.

His first documented work was the Baronci altarpiece for the church of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in Città di Castello. In the following years he painted works for other churches there. He also painted many small and exquisite cabinet paintings in these years, probably mostly for the connoisseurs in the Urbino court, and he began to paint Madonnas and portraits. Raphael led a "nomadic" life, working in various centres in Northern Italy, but spent a good deal of time in Florence of about 1504-8. The most striking influence in the work of these years is Leonardo da Vinci, who returned to the city from 1500 to 1506.

Raphael's figures begin to take more dynamic and complex positions, and though as yet his painted subjects are still mostly tranquil, he made drawn studies of fighting nude men, one of the obsessions of the period in Florence. Another drawing is a portrait of a young woman that uses the three-quarter length pyramidal composition of the just-completed "Mona Lisa", but still looks completely Raphaelesque. He also perfects his own version of Leonardo's sfumato modelling. Michelangelo, who was in Rome for this period, was just eight years his senior. Michelangelo already disliked Leonardo, and in Rome came to dislike Raphael even more, attributing conspiracies against him to the younger man.

By the end of 1508, he had moved to Rome, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was invited by the new Pope Julius II, perhaps at the suggestion of his architect Donato Bramante and commissioned to fresco the Pope's private library at the Vatican Palace. This was a much larger and more important commission than any he had received before. This first of the famous "Stanze" or "Raphael Rooms" to be painted, was to make a stunning impact on Roman art, and remains generally regarded as his greatest masterpiece. The death of Julius in 1513 did not interrupt the work, the Medici Pope Leo X continued to commission him.

The Vatican projects took most of his time, although he painted several portraits. One of his most important papal commissions was a series of 10 cartoons, of which seven survive, for tapestries with scenes of the lives of Saint Paul and Saint Peter, for the Sistine Chapel. His last work, on which he was working up to his death, was a large Transfiguration and shows the direction his art was taking in his final years—more proto-Baroque than Mannerist. After Bramante's death in 1514, Raphael was named architect of the new St Peter's. Most of his work there was altered or demolished after his death and the acceptance of Michelangelo's design, but a few drawings have survived. He designed several other buildings, and for a short time was the most important architect in Rome, working for a small circle around the Papacy. Julius had made changes to the street plan of Rome, creating several new thoroughfares, and he wanted them filled with splendid palaces.

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