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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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As many a biography is testament to, Raphael is recognised by many art historians and academics as the artist who most fully and supremely captured the art of the High Renaissance movement.

Italian born towards the end of the 15th century, he also achieved great respect as an architect, designer and draughtsman.

Raphael was born Raffaello Santi in Urbino, Italy, in 1483 - the son of Giovanni Santi, a painter and writer to the court of Fedrico da Montefeltro. With this beginning, Raphael was, unlike many of his peers and artists through the ages, handed a blessed position in life at a time where social standing was utmost in the eyes of many patrons and other influential people.

Though his father's own position and talent were no doubt essential to the forming of Raphael's craft and his pathway through life, it is equally likely that the young Raffaello helped his father in no little amount. How deep their relationship went and how far the period of father/son training shaped Raphael is not clear though. Giovanni died in 1494, when his son was just 11 years old so to say his father was the greatest influence would certainly be inaccurate. It is far more likely he was the inspiration, though this is still conjecture.

The details of his other youthful tutelage are also the subject of much discussion by art historians. Many say it is clear that Timoteo Viti (b.1469 d.1523) was instrumental in Raphael's young life, for example. Also an artist working in and around Urbino at the time, this association is one with much validity.

Early on in his career Raphael's work graced the collections of many patrons throughout the Umbrian region and it is clear from this time that one of the biggest influences on Raphael was Pietro Perugino (b.1446 d.15.23). The elegance of Raphael's brush stokes, together with the grace and clarity of expressions and gestures shining through his paintings are evidence of this.

It is again unclear though, and the subject of often hotly contested arguments, whether the younger artist was indeed the pupil of his senior Perugino. From just 17 years old Raphael is recorded as being a 'magister' - a master of his craft. This was a title attached to Raphael some two or three years before the two would have any documented contact.

In any case, from his early 20s too Raphael was outperforming the works of Perugino. Academics point, for example, to the two paintings of the same title by the two artists covering the same subject - The Marriage of the Virgin. Both produced c.1504, they are strikingly similar in their poise and construct. It is starkly clear, however, that Raphael's command of human body and nature outstrip his older colleague.

The period from 1504 through 1508 is generally accepted as being Raphael's Florentine period and, he did spend a lot of this time in the Tuscan capital. He did not live in Florence on a permanent basis at the time, but the city did have a profound affect on how he would take his art forward and away from the earlier stronger influences of Perugino.

Raphael would retain much of the elegance, sweetness and dainty nature from Perugino in throughout his career in many respects, but, under the influence of and inspired by colleagues Leonardo (b.1452 d.1519) and Michelangelo (b.1475 d. 1564) a greater confidence soon brightly beamed through. Greater sophistication and grandeur would come to the fore alongside this; while his painting of individuals and groups continued to be clarified and strengthened. Raphael would also master the use of colour far more - this possibly and most likely inspired by the brush of Fra Bartolommeo (b.1472 d.1517). See also Sandro Botticelli and Rembrandt.

His Florentine period would see some of the most celebrated compositions emerge from Raphael. Often focussing on his favoured subjects of the Virgin Mother, Christ the Child and the Holy Family, his own confidence of expression seemed to be ever more apparent. Art academics would likely point to his 'Madonna of the Meadow' from 1505 in example of this growing skill.

Throughout this period Raphael continued to develop his command of the very human form - a healthy and well-lived human form. It shows his use of touch, grace and serenity to project his vision of the work's subjects to the viewer - told unequivocally that this is very real Human person but at the same time exuding deep and integral Holiness that is far from human. His grace and genteel nature sets him apart from the more powerful, dramatic and pronounced ethereal constructs of Leonardo and Michelangelo however.

Raphael also set himself apart from these contemporaries in life, despite taking clear direction from them throughout his work. It is widely accepted that Raphael was simply quite a nice person. Famously, Leonardo and Michelangelo were tortured, egotistical and controlling entities. The same seems not to be true of Raphael who remained approachable and sociable throughout his life. Perhaps he had some vision of his early demise or perhaps his comfortable start in life and the death of his father influenced this.

Despite this rather charitable and amicable approach to life which seemed, (and perhaps still seems to be), contrary for many artists, Raphael still produced a stunning body of work. This is true both in volume and quality with his workload and workmanship accompanying each other as they increased.

His work would be elevated further from 1508 when he left for Rome. It was here, under the commission of Pope Julius II and the pontiff's work on the Vatican, that Raphael would produce perhaps his most seminal and certainly most discussed works.

Despite being just 25 years old and despite having no previous experience in fresco work, Raphael was commissioned for the decoration of the Stanza della Segnatura. A collection of three frescoes which were together an unparalleled triumph, it is fair to say that this moment truly marked the arrival of Raphael - in Rome and on the world stage for the ages.

It is thought that Julius used the finished Stanza della Segnatura as his private study or library and the decoration would certainly support this theory. The main wall, painted in an awe-inspiring perspective with The School of Athens work shows greats of classical teaching such as Aristotle and Plato. Opposite meanwhile, is the Disputation over the Sacrament, showing the triumph of the Christian faith over conflicting theologies comprising the subject on the facing wall. Looking down upon all of this from the ceilinged heavens are the sainted and the martyred of Christianity in surround of the Trinity.

Taking about four years to complete his majestic creation, Raphael completed the Stanza della Segnatura c.1512. He continued to work for Julius until the pope's death in 1513. Through this time Raphael's work included his portrait of the pope, in 1511, which set somewhat of a precedent for how all pontiffs over the course of the next 200 years would be depicted.

Raphael continued to service Leo X, the successor to Pope Julius II, and moved on to decorate the Stanza d'Eliodoro in 1514. He'd also been charged with decorating two other rooms but, so popular and sought over had Raphael become at this time in Rome, that these would, in practice, be completed by a troop of his assistants - though under the strict guidance, control and design of their magister.

Despite this, and because of the controlled composition and arrangements demonstrated in the Stanza and the Sistine Chapel, these works have become cherished. They have become essential to the art movements in Europe of the past; of the present and will likely remain long into the future.

The increased popularity of Raphael was, it could certainly be argued, largely of the popes' making too. From 1512 he started to show a greater interest to work in architecture. He was then commissioned by Julius in 1514 to rebuild St Peter's - following the death of Bramante. Then, under Leo X, he became the superintendant of antiquities for Rome - where Raphael would start on an ambitious plan to survey the entire city and its rich tapestry of monuments and architecture through the ages.

Whilst in Rome Raphael would also attract the commissions of many influential, rich and powerful patrons. Uppermost of these was Agostino Chigi, who commissioned the 29-year-old artist in 1512 for his private villa (the Villa Farnesina today). Though his growing body of assistants would again execute the final brush strokes Raphael himself would, however, complete the long-since heralded Galatea within the villa.

Raphael was also charged with the creation of the wealthy Chigi's burial chamber.

The chapel, contained within the church of Saint Maria del Popolo, would see complete control from Raphael - to a point. Starting with the architecture and sculpture of the chapel throughout the painting and stucco work and on to the marble inlays and mosaics, he would dedicate himself to the work. It was a work that remained unfinished by his hand though - with the artist dying just a week after the patron he was creating the chapel for. Finished by Bernini, the chapel fittingly became the inspiration and influence for the Baroque movement. It perhaps today continues to instil richness in thousands of works.

It would be his huge portfolio of Roman period portraits that perhaps most typify Raphael. On display throughout the galleries of the world constantly, they are seen by thousands each day. This is perhaps most perfectly demonstrated in his most renowned depiction of the Virgin Mary and Child Christ - the Sistine Madonna produced from 1512 to 1514. Raphael's Transfiguration in the Vatican, a work also left unfinished by the sudden nature of his death, is another fine example and became an integral work to the start and early propulsion of the Mannerist movement.

It is thought possible that Raphael died on his birthday at just 37 on April 6 1520, having succumbed to a fever. Taken early, it is of course unclear as to what riches would have been created and designed by his hand and mind. Despite being snatched at a young age though, Raphael was eulogised immediately - both within the papal court and without. This is not a surprise; such was his body of work and the fact that he was already being celebrated while still very much alive and working.

He remains one of the foremost artists of the world, responsible for inspiring and influencing painters and paintings through the ages. Many may argue he does not remain as influential today as he may once have been, but he is still eagerly studied, discussed and exalted by academics and students alike.

Intrigue over Raphael and the power of his influence continue right to this very day. In October 2016 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired a programme which revealed a 'lost' painting by the hand of Raphael. The Virgin Mary, located at Haddo House in Methlick, Scotland was said to be most likely to be by Raphael, despite initially being attributed to Innocenzo da Imola.