Raphael, born as Raffaello Sanzio, was seen to be more versatile than Michelangelo and more prolific than his older contemporary Leonardo da Vinci. A tribute on his 500th death anniversary.

 

Many believe that the period of Renaissance (1400-1600 A.D.) bridged Middle Ages and modern history. This period witnessed the rebirth of cultural and intellectual movement but was also influenced by classical art. A new method of thinking evolved and ideas nurtured during this period paved the way for socio-political upheaval, especially in Europe. During this, patrons made it possible for Renaissance artists to develop new techniques. The Catholic Church commissioned painters. Many wealthy individuals also become patrons including the Medici family. The family helped artists such as Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael.

Raphael, born as Raffaello Sanzio, was crowned as the ‘Prince of Painters’ by Giorgio Vasari, a sixteenth-century biographer of artists. He was seen to be more versatile than Michelangelo and more prolific than their older contemporary Leonardo da Vinci. Recognised as the supreme High Renaissance painter and a paragon of classicism, he dominated the academic tradition of European painting until the mid-19th century.

An artist of extraordinary refinement and deep feeling, he was trained in the ‘Umbrian’ style by the master painter Pietro Perugino and later became renowned for his jewel-toned artworks distinguished by the almost evanescent delicacy of his figures’ features. He imitated his master closely, and their painting styles are so similar that art historians have found it difficult to determine which were painted by Raphael, and which were by his master. It is said of Raphael that whatever he saw, he took possession of, always growing by what was taught to him.

His master’s influence on him can be seen in one of his masterpieces “The Marriage of The Virgin (the year 1504)”. He worked on this painting, also known as ‘Lo Sposalizio’, while he was still an apprentice to Perugino. Critics believe that the painting was inspired by two compositions by Perugino: the celebrated Christ Delivering the Keys to St Peter from the fresco cycle in the Sistine Chapel and a panel containing the Marriage of the Virgin now in the Museum of Caën. By painting his name and the date, 1504, in the frieze of the temple in the distance, Raphael abandoned anonymity and confidently announced himself as the creator of the work.

This was his beginning. When he left Perugia for Florence, he embraced the innovative styles of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Although he assimilated the styles of different masters of the time, he continued to pursue his unique style. From 1500, when he became an independent, he worked throughout central Italy and became a noted portraitist and painter of Madonnas. In Florence, his many paintings of the Madonna and Child display his characteristic human warmth, serenity, and sublimely perfect figures.

The Sistine Madonna is perhaps the most thoroughly discussed and analyzed of all his paintings. Commissioned in 1512 by Pope Julius II for the Church of San Sisto, Piacenza, the canvas was one of the last Madonnas painted by him. Giorgio Vasari called it ‘a truly rare and extraordinary work’. Raphael’s use of the curtain in this picture invoked a device that had been employed by a number of the Old Masters as ‘Trompe l’oeil (deceive the eye) technique of drawing the viewer into the composition, functioning to reveal this vision of the holy personages as if they constituted some sort of sacred relic that is exposed only temporarily. The use of drawn-back curtains had a long tradition in medieval and Renaissance tombs, in both three-dimensional and bas-relief sculptures, and these monuments may have provided Raphael with the original idea.

Raphael’s art epitomised the High Renaissance qualities of harmony and ideal beauty. In four years, his fame led to the summons to Rome from Pope Julius II to help with the redecoration of the papal apartments. As a painter to the papal court, his work met with high praise, and he established himself as the most favoured artist in Rome. He was commissioned to paint portraits, devotional subjects, and the Pope’s private rooms.

Raphael’s career falls naturally into three phases and three styles. First described by Vasari: his early years in Umbria, then about four years (1504-1508) absorbing the artistic traditions of Florence, followed by his hectic and triumphant twelve years in Rome, working for two Popes and their close associates. Raphael spent the majority of his working life in Rome. The boy genius and man of passion died in Rome in 1520, at the tender age of 37 years. Recently, the India International Centre, in collaboration with the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre and Bell’Italia 88 organised a 55-minute digital exhibition “Raffaello Sanzio: A Painter Called Master” to mark the 500th death anniversary of the Prince Painter. The exhibition showed how Rome influenced Raphael, and how he changed Rome.