The Raffaello Raphael Sanzio Biography

Raphael Biography

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Raffaello Raphael Sanzio (1483 - 1520)

Born in 1483 at Urbino, a small independent duchy on the east coast of Italy, Raphael was the son of a court painter named Giovanni Santi. His earliest training under his father exposed him not only to modern painting techniques and ideas, but also to the humanist intellectual concerns that circulated in Urbino. His father died in 1494, and sometime thereafter Raphael made a connection with the workshop of Perugino, the most successful artist in central Italy. His early paintings (Coronation of the Virgin, Rome,  Vatican, c. 1502-04; Marriage of the Virgin, Milan, Brera, c. 1504) reveal considerable reliance on the older master; indeed, in Raphael's early period it is often difficult to distinguish the two artists’ works.

From 1504 to 1508 Raphael lived in Florence; this experience would prove decisive in the maturation of his career, as exposure to the art of Leonardo and Michelangelo led him to develop a grandiose, powerful approach. Still very young, he received no significant public commissions in Florence. Instead he concentrated on relatively small private works -- paintings of the Madonna and Child and portraits -- to explore a variety of artistic ideas. Works such as the Madonna of the Meadow (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, c. 1505), the Madonna of the Goldfinch (Florence, Uffizi, c. 1506) and Maddalena Doni (Florence, Pitti Palace, c. 1507), reveal him working out how to use geometry, balance, ideal form, and naturalism to create impressive, moving, believable images.

In 1508 Raphael moved to Rome, where he would spend the rest of his life. Like Michelangelo, he had been summoned by Julius II, and he was employed in redecorating the papal apartments in the Vatican to suit the pope’s notions of an appropriate setting for the leader of Christianity. He painted three rooms of the pope’s private apartments from 1508 to 1517. The first, the Stanza della Segnatura (1509-11), is his most famous. The School of Athens and Disputa, show the artist’s mastery of composition in a large-scale, public format. The frescoes are balanced, harmonious, and naturalistic. Figures’ anatomies and poses are believable, and space and light are clear, but the overall impression is of a perfect world, where human and divine beings act with the utmost nobility and monumentality. In the later two rooms, the Stanza d’Eliodoro (1511-14) and the Stanza dell’Incendio (1514-17), Raphael strove to add drama and complexity to his ideal world. Increasingly he relied on assistants to carry out his designs.

After the Stanza della Segnatura Raphael’s popularity was ensured; he was inundated with commissions, both public and private, from the highest levels of Roman society. His portrait, Julius II (London, National Gallery, 1512) and Sistine Madonna (Dresden Gemäldegalerie, 1513), both painted for the pope, showed him returning to the painting types of his Florentine years in a transformed style; now he moved beyond artistic formulas to probe the psychology of both his figures and his viewers, creating powerful impressions of personality. He was commissioned by Pope Leo X to design a set of nine tapestries to decorate the Sistine Chapel (Cartoons:  London, Victoria and Albert Museum; Tapestries:   Rome, Vatican, 1515-16); their clarity and monumental calm served as the classic model for depicting historical narrative until the nineteenth century. He painted a number of oil paintings and fresco decorations for Roman churches and private homes as well.

Raphael also worked as an architect. He designed two chapels for Agostino Chigi, an influential Roman banker, between 1512 and 1516. Normally the building of a new chapel would be parceled out to specialists, but Raphael controlled the whole commission, planning the architecture and devising the two-dimensional and three-dimensional decoration. Thus he established the concept of the artist as the master who managed an entire design rather than the craftsman-for-hire who produced what his patron demanded. This new role allowed him to determine how his art was experienced.

Raphael’s last major work was still incomplete at his death. The Transfiguration (Rome, Vatican, 1518-20), a huge altarpiece commissioned by the Medici, took the static, iconic altarpiece formula of Renaissance art and converted it into dynamic narrative. The clarity of the psychological relationships is typical of Raphael, while the complexity of the poses and irregularity of the space suggest the seeds of the Mannerist style that would dominate Italian painting after his death.

Until the nineteenth century Raphael’s works served as the paradigm of great art for western civilization. Clear, skillful, and grand, they symbolized the artist as a rational intellect whose art was didactic and ennobling. His popularity has declined with the modern concept of the artist as a tortured genius, but there is no mistaking the richness of his invention or the power of his presentation.

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