Raphael 1483–1520 Italian Artist

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1483–1520 Italian artist

Raphael Sanzio has been hailed as one of Europe's greatest painters. Critics of his own day and later have called him—along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci—one of the most important artists of the Renaissance. They have praised Raphael's versatility, coloring, and composition*, as well as the sweetness of his style. Although Raphael lived only to age 37, he had a substantial influence on many artists who came after him.

Early Career. Raphael was born in Urbino in central Italy and learned to paint from his father, an artist named Giovanni Santi. After Santi's death in 1494, the boy became an assistant in the workshop of Perugino, the most famous painter of the region at that time. Raphael quickly mastered Perugino's style, and the two artists' paintings from these years are hard to tell apart.

Raphael's first commission was for an altarpiece*, St. Nicholas of Tolentino (1500). Then he received several assignments from the duke of Urbino, including a painting of St. George Fighting the Dragon. In 1504 Raphael went to Florence, where he studied the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo. From Leonardo, Raphael learned sfumato, a technique that uses gentle shading rather than sharp outlines to define forms. From Michelangelo, Raphael learned to broaden his figures and to focus more on anatomy.

Raphael spent four years in Florence, applying what he was learning from other artists and experimenting with composition. He also worked for prominent patrons*. He produced numerous religious paintings, some featuring Mary and the infant Jesus, and others showing larger groups of individuals. The most complex of these works, the Canigiani Holy Family, includes five figures. He painted many portraits as well, and some of these show the influence of Leonardo's Mona Lisa. By the end of Raphael's time in Florence, the influence of Perugino had nearly disappeared from his work. Instead, his paintings reflected what he had learned from Michelangelo, Leonardo, and other artists working in the city.

Later Career. Some of the information about Raphael's career comes from Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), a Renaissance painter and biographer. According to Vasari, in about 1508 the young artist heard from the architect Donato Bramante (a distant relative) that Pope Julius II had work for him. As a result, Raphael left Florence and went to Rome.

The pope asked Raphael to decorate a room called the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Palace. Pleased with the result, Pope Julius assigned the artist to paint the neighboring audience chamber, the Stanza d'Eliodoro. Julius died before the work was finished, but the new pope, Leo X, ordered Raphael to continue. Then Leo commissioned Raphael to paint two more rooms, including the meeting chamber of the supreme church court.

Popes Julius II and Leo X surrounded themselves with humanists*. Raphael had not received a classical education, but these scholars supplied him with subject matter for his art drawn from the works of ancient Greek and Roman writers. Under their influence, Raphael developed a style inspired by ancient culture that perfectly suited the papal* court. Raphael became so popular with Rome's patrons that he had more work than he could do. He painted altarpieces and portraits, including one of Pope Julius, as well as frescoes* of biblical and classical* subjects.

The years that Raphael spent in Rome, from 1508 to 1520, were the most productive ones of his life—and also one of the most creative periods of the Renaissance. While Raphael was decorating the Vatican rooms, Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, and Bramante was building the new church of St. Peter. Around 1515 Pope Leo placed Raphael in charge of all classical structures in Rome and asked him to create a map of the city as it had looked in ancient times. For the next five years, Raphael also served as architect of St. Peter's and several other churches and palaces, and he produced drawings for a set of tapestries to be hung in the Sistine Chapel. In 1518 Raphael completed two paintings commissioned as gifts for King Francis I of France: St. Michael and Holy Family of Francis I. Raphael's last work, completed just a few days before his death, was Transfiguration, which illustrates passages from the New Testament.

Artistic Methods and Influence. Raphael helped change the way artists' workshops functioned in the 1500s. Other masters, such as Perugino, had operated large workshops where they supervised assistants who helped them produce pieces. Raphael gave the artists in his workshop considerable responsibility. As his fame grew, so did the demands on his time, and he gathered more artists around him. By 1515 Raphael had what was probably the largest painting workshop that had ever been assembled. Vasari reported that 50 artists accompanied the painter to the Vatican each day. Some were assistants and apprentices*, but others were mature artists who functioned as partners.

Raphael was involved in every stage of a project in his workshop without taking complete responsibility for any step after the initial idea. The other artists not only copied and enlarged designs on sketches, but also drew new studies of live models. Raphael seems to have treated the workshop as a cooperative venture, rather than a strict master-apprentice relationship, and other artists of his time considered him a generous teacher.

Raphael invented new types of composition and new ways of using color, often adapting the methods of others to create his own distinctive techniques. In composing his paintings, he experimented with several different types of perspective*. He also tried to imitate ancient relief*. In Battle at the Milvian Bridge (on the wall of one of the Vatican rooms), he combined traditional perspective with relief. Designed by Raphael and painted by his workshop after his death, the scene shows the emperor Constantine and his army, moving like a procession from left to right.

Raphael was the first artist to adapt his colors to each individual commission. Before Raphael, artists usually used only one style of coloring, which they taught to their apprentices. Raphael combined Leonardo's subtle, smoky sfumato tones with the Florentine taste for beautiful color effects. The result was a style called unione, which Raphael used when he wanted to express harmony. For more dramatic scenes he turned to chiaroscuro, a style marked by deep shadows and high contrast between dark and light colors. In his final masterpiece, Transfiguration, Raphael used unione in the upper part of the painting, which is dominated by an image of Christ. In the lower part, a scene of earthly struggle, he employed chiaroscuro. Raphael's experimentation with color styles encouraged the next generation of artists to make their paintings more expressive by combining colors in a creative way.

(See alsoArt, Education and Training; Art in Italy; Rome. )

* composition

arrangement of objects in a work of art

* altarpiece

work of art that decorates the altar of a church

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

A New Market for Art

Raphael was one of the first artists to sell prints of his work. In the early 1500s, there was a growing demand for affordable, mass-produced works of art. Raphael took advantage of this emerging market to test a new way of producing and selling pictures. He formed a partnership with an engraver who produced prints of his drawings and a businessman who sold them. Raphael controlled the process closely, providing the printer with detailed instructions about reproducing the images. He also received most of the profits from the prints, which helped spread his style across Europe.

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* papal

referring to the office and authority of the pope

* fresco

mural painted on a plaster wall

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

see color plate 2, vol. 1

* apprentice

person bound by legal agreement to work for another for a specified period of time in return for instruction in a trade or craft

* perspective

artistic technique for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface

* relief

type of sculpture in which figures are raised slightly from a flat surface

see color plate 14, vol. 4