The Italian painter and architect Raphael (1483-1520) was the supreme representative of Italian High Renaissance classicism.

Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael, was born on April 6, 1483, in Urbino. His father, Giovanni Santi, was a painter and doubtless taught Raphael the rudiments of technique. Santi died when his son was 11 years old. Raphael's movements before 1500, when he joined the workshop of Perugino, are obscure, but he evidently fully absorbed the 15th-century classicism of Piero della Francesca's paintings and of the architecture of the Ducal Palace at Urbino and the humanist tradition of the court.

During his 4 years with Perugino, Raphael's eclectic disposition and remarkable ability to assimilate and adapt borrowed ideas within a very personal style were already apparent. Many works of this period, such as the Mond Crucifixion (1502/1503), are in stylistic detail almost indistinguishable from Perugino's gentle sweetness, but they have an inherent clarity and harmony lacking in Perugino's work. Raphael's last painting before moving to Florence, the Marriage of the Virgin (1504), is primarily modeled on Perugino's version of the same subject, but the compositional design is reinterpreted with greater spatial sensitivity, the figures are more accurately built, and the dramatic significance is transmitted without the artificiality of pose and gesture of the prototype.


Florentine Period

When Raphael arrived in Florence late in 1504, it must have been evident to him that his Peruginesque style was dated and provincial compared with the recent innovations of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. It was to the latter's work that he was temperamentally more attracted, and during the next 3 years he executed a series of Madonnas that adapted and elaborated compositions and ideas of Leonardo's, culminating in La Belle jardinie‧re (1507). Here Raphael's own artistic personality was somewhat submerged in his fervent examination of the principles of Leonardesque design, modeling, and expressive depth. Raphael adopted Leonardo's sfumato modeling and characteristic pyramidal composition, yet the essential sense of clarity deriving from his 15th-century classical background was not undermined.

It was principally, however, Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina rather than Leonardo's companion piece, the Battle of Anghiari, that provided the dramatic ideas used by Raphael in his most ambitious Florentine work, the Entombment (1507). But perhaps unable yet to understand entirely the imaginative power of Michelangelo's works from which he borrowed, Raphael here failed to combine the figures, expressions, and emotions with the unforced balance and harmony of his later narrative works.

Stanza della Segnatura

Raphael left for Rome in 1508 and seems to have been at work in the Vatican Stanze by early 1509. Pope Julius II's enlightened patronage stimulated the simultaneous creation of the two greatest High Renaissance fresco cycles: Michel-angelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling and Raphael's Stanza della Segnatura. Whereas Michelangelo's frescoes are a masterpiece of titanic creative imagination, Raphael's are the epitome of classical grandeur and harmony, disciplined in overall conception, artistic thought, and clarity of individual compositions and figures.

The theme of the Stanza della Segnatura (completed in 1511), eminently suited to Raphael's thoughtful humanism, is divinely inspired human intellect in four spheres: theology, poetry, philosophy, and law. The earliest of the principal scenes to be painted, the Disputa‧ (representing Theology), shows Raphael still developing from his Florentine style in the light of the enormous challenge of the stanza: never before had he undertaken a decorative scheme on this scale. It is not until the so-called School of Athens (representing Philosophy), the zenith of pure High Renaissance culture, that Raphael reaches complete, independent artistic maturity.

The disposition of each figure in this great fresco is so precisely calculated as, paradoxically, to achieve the impression of absolute freedom. The ingenuity with which the grand, harmonious space is mapped out by the figures, emphasized by the superbly rich Bramantesque architecture behind, is concealed by the overall compositional balance and the monumentally calm atmosphere. The compositional lines and the distant arch focus attention on the two central figures, which set the tone of the painting in their expressive contrast: the idealist Plato points heavenward, while Aristotle, the realist, gestures flatly toward the ground. Around them are grouped many other classical philosophers and scientists, each indicating clearly by expression and gesture the character of his intellect—yet never obtrusively, for detail is throughout subordinated to the total balanced grandeur of effect.


Stanza d'Eliodoro

Divine intervention on behalf of the Church was the theme of the Stanza d'Eliodoro (decorated between 1511 and 1514). This subject gave Raphael greater scope for dynamic composition and movement, and the influence of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, completed in 1512, is noticeable. Compositional unity is achieved in Raphael's Expulsion of Heliodorus by the balance of emotional and expressive contrasts. This fresco and the Liberation of St. Peter, a brilliant display of the dramatic possibilities of unusual light sources, witness the beginnings in Raphael's work of expansion away from the dignity and purity of the School of Athens.

During the progress of the second stanza Julius II died. He was succeeded in 1513 by Leo X, who appears in the Repulsion of Attila, the last of the Stanza d'Eliodoro frescoes, executed primarily by Raphael's pupils. At this stage Raphael's assistants began to play an increasingly important role in the production of work to his designs, partly because Leo X's dispatch of Michelangelo to work on a Medici project in Florence left Raphael undisputedly the major artist in Rome.

Late Paintings

Commissions of all sorts poured into Raphael's workshop during the last 6 years of his life. The frescoes in the Stanza dell'Incendio (1514-1517) were based on his design but executed almost entirely by assistants, as was the fresco and stucco decoration of the Vatican loggias (1517-1519).

The monumental cartoons (in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London) depicting the lives of Saints Peter and Paul, the decoration (begun 1519) of the Villa Farnesina in Rome, and Raphael's largest canvas, the Transfiguration (commissioned in 1517 but incomplete at his death), all show a new dynamism and expressiveness. The cartoons were sent to Flanders to be worked into tapestries for the Sistine Chapel and were partly responsible for the dissemination of Raphael's late style, with its emphasis on gesture and movement, throughout Europe.


His Portraits

In portraiture Raphael's development follows the same pattern. His earliest portraits closely resemble those of Perugino, whereas in Florence Leonardo's Mona Lisa was a basic influence, as can be seen in the portraits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni (1505). Raphael adapted Leonardo's majestic design as late as 1517 in the portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, which, like most of his finest portraits, is of a close friend. Castiglione is portrayed with great psychological subtlety, a gentle, scholarly face perfectly suited to the man, who in The Courtier defined the qualities of the ideal gentleman. Descriptions of Raphael's urbane good humor and courteous behavior in fact recall the very qualities that Castiglione wished to find in his perfect courtier.

His Architecture

So Bramantesque is the architecture of the School of Athens that it seems probable that Raphael was working with Donato Bramante as early as 1509, perhaps in preparation for his succession to the post of capomastro of the rebuilding of St. Peter's after Bramante's death in 1514. During the next 6 years, however, progress on St. Peter's was very slow, and his only contribution seems to have been the projected addition of a nave to Bramante's centrally planned design.

As early as the Marriage of the Virgin (1504), Raphael's painted architecture shows the pure classical spirit epitomized in Bramante's Tempietto at St. Pietro in Montorio, Rome (1502). This same unadorned structural clarity characterizes Raphael's first architectural work, the chapellike St. Eligio degli Orefici, Rome, designed in collaboration with Bramante (1509). The Chigi Chapel in St. Maria del Popolo, Rome (ca. 1512-1513), however, shows a much more ornate decorative idiom, although structurally it is almost identical with S. Eligio. A similar development in richness of texture and detailing can be seen between Raphael's two Roman palaces. The Palazzo Vidoni-Caffarelli is directly dependent on Bramante's so-called House of Raphael, but the richly ornamented facade decoration of the Palazzo Branconio dell'Aquila (ca. 1520; destroyed) is essentially unstructural. As in Raphael's last paintings, the tendency in these late architectural projects is toward a form of mannerism and away from the serene classicism of Bramante.

At the time of his death in Rome on Good Friday, 1520, at the age of 37, Raphael's art was developing in new directions, paralleled in his own very different way by Michelangelo in his Medici Chapel sculptures. The zenith of classical harmony and grandeur, reached about 1510, had passed, and it was left to Raphael's pupils to interpret and exploit the trends toward mannerism in the last works of their great master.


Further Reading on Raphael

Studies of Raphael in English are limited. An important monograph in English is Oskar Fischel, Raphael (1948). John Pope-Hennessy, Raphael (1970), an excellent introduction to Raphael's art, concentrates on his working methods and reproduces many drawings and large details. See also Ettore Camesasca, All the Paintings of Raphael (1963). A fine specialized study is John Shearman, Raphael's Cartoons in the Royal Collection and the Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel (1972). Sydney Freedberg, Painting of the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence (1961), is a very useful survey of the period in general.