Raphael: A very human Renaissance master

Updated 28 March 2022

More than five centuries after his death, Raphael’s influence continues. Ahead of a much-anticipated exhibition of the artist’s work, Melissa Baksh finds out why.

Raphael, The School of Athens, in the Stanza della Segnatura at the Apostolic Palace, 1509-11, Wikimedia Commons


Raphael, Self-Portrait with a Friend, 1518-20. Photo: E Lambert of C2RMF

From Urbino to Florence and Rome

In April, the National Gallery in London will host one of the first-ever exhibitions to explore Raphael’s complete career and the breadth of his artistic pursuits, looking not only at his celebrated paintings and drawings but his work in architecture, poetry, and design for sculpture, tapestry and prints. It will also examine his engagement with archaeology and art theory, so making the comparatively ‘forgotten’ aspects of his career better known, shining a light on Raphael as the ottimo universale or ‘universal artist’, as the 16th-century writer Giorgio Vasari called him. Created in close contact with the similarly conceived exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, ‘Raphael’ was scheduled to take place in 2020 as an anniversary show marking 500 years since Raphael’s death but, though much delayed by the pandemic, the exhibition – unlike many others – has, fortunately, been able to be rescheduled. Raphael is often hailed as one of the great trinity of High Renaissance masters, alongside Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, and the exhibition will explore why he was, and is, considered so important an artist. As one of the finest draughtsmen in the history of Western art, Raphael was able to expand his polymathic approach into an enormous artistic enterprise, and with a career spanning just 20 years, he shaped the European tradition unlike any other artist before or since.


“With a career spanning just 20 years, Raphael shaped the European tradition unlike any other artist before or since”


Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) was born in Urbino in central Italy. These origins should not be underestimated – the city was home to a small but sophisticated court, to which Raphael had privileged access; his father, Giovanni Santi, was a court painter to the Duke of Urbino, and so Raphael grew up in an aristocratic, learned culture. It is worth noting that Raphael styles himself ‘da Urbino’ (from Urbino) throughout his life and career. The artist was orphaned as a child; his mother and father died when he was aged eight and 11, respectively, and he was raised by his uncle, Simone Ciarla. At a young age he trained in the workshop of the great painter Pietro Perugino, whose influence on Raphael’s work is clear. At 17 he was considered a fully trained ‘master,’ and at 20 he was asked by the painter Pinturicchio to produce compositional drawings for the Piccolomini library in Siena Cathedral.

Raphael, The Virgin and Child ('The Madona of the Pinks'), c1506-07, acquired for the National Gallery, London, with Art Fund support © The National Gallery, London

Raphael went to Florence per imparare (to learn) and worked there intermittently between 1504 and 1508, where he observed and copied works by Leonardo and Michelangelo, among others. A ‘magpie of styles’, Raphael had an exceptional gift for absorbing the best from the art of his contemporaries, and an ability to synthesise this into his own work. A transformation of his artistic practice and style is apparent during these years, and he increasingly turned to the Florentine medium of pen and ink, as well as red chalk. While working in Florence, he transformed the traditional iconography of the Madonna and Child – depictions of the Virgin Mary and her infant son. Rather than focusing on their divinity, Raphael investigates the very human intimacy and affection between the mother and child, an example being the moving Tempi Madonna (1508), in which the two figures appear as a single unit; the Virgin gazes sweetly at the child, and squeezes Him tenderly against her cheek.

The arrival of Raphael in Rome in 1508 was nothing short of an explosion; his activities during the following years were multifarious, and the impact Rome had on his career was equally fundamental. Raphael enjoyed the patronage of Pope Julius II (reigned 1503-13) and the succeeding pontificate Pope Leo X (reigned 1513-21), who were both committed to the urban and architectural renewal of the city, and his first Roman commission was the Stanza della Segnatura – the Papal library. Although Raphael grew up in a cultured milieu, he defied the odds in ascending to the Roman elite, and along with Michelangelo was the reference point for other artists coming to Rome. Roman art at this time was by no means homogenous, and artists travelled to Rome from afar for papal and cardinal patronage, and for the antiquities. As Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery notes, ‘He was both among the discoverers of the art and architecture of Antiquity, as well as the conservator of Rome’s ancient patrimony.’

Raphael, elevation drawing of a villa project (recto), c1516 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Following the death of Raphael’s former mentor Donato Bramante in 1514, with no formal architectural training to his name, Raphael was appointed chief architect of St Peter’s and the Vatican Palace. Architecture may seem like a new departure for Raphael, but as art historian Caroline Elam notes, like all painters of the time, he was obliged to think about architecture throughout his career. He studied both ancient and modern buildings, and Elam suggests that the artist’s distinctive style was founded on a highly informed understanding of Ancient Roman buildings, and by selecting and combining models for their variety and individuality, rather than following rigid rules. The National Gallery exhibition will display Raphael’s design for the palatial Villa Madama, the most ambitious villa all’antica (in the ancient manner) ever attempted, and arguably the crowning achievement of Raphael’s architectural work.

Death and quasi-deification

On 6 April 1520 (Good Friday), at the age of 37 and at the peak of his fame, Raphael died from a sudden fever. The fact he died on the same day as Christ prompted ‘messianic echoes’ in early reports of his passing, and he was immediately likened to Christ as ‘the resurrector of ancient Rome’. Clearly having already thought about fashioning his own posthumous fame, at his request Raphael was buried the following day in the Pantheon, alongside Rome’s great patriarchs; he was the first of several artists to be buried there. In the years that followed, the cult of Raphael remained robust. In the 19th century a notable conspiracy theory claiming that he was buried elsewhere circulated. In 1833 his body was exhumed and examined in obsessive detail, and all kinds of wild theories were made as to what he looked and sounded like. After examination, his bones were laid in state – an honour generally reserved for sovereigns and officials – and more than 3,000 tickets were issued for people to file past in order to view his earthly remains.

Rather than focusing on his elevation to the quasi-divine, the National Gallery show will bring out the very human side of Raphael. Exhibition curator Matthias Wivel suggests that what makes Raphael special is that his art touches upon, ultimately, what it means to be part of a human community. The High Renaissance was a time of great artists, as individuals became a dominant paradigm in art, alongside the cult of the ‘individual genius’. Wivel argues that, as well as being just that, Raphael is also someone who reminds us that we are part of a larger continuum of an exchange of ideas and knowledge. The early loss of his parents may have fed into his interest in the closeness of family; indeed, his most quintessential arrangement of figures are his Madonnas.

Workshop of Pieter van Aelst, from a cartoon by Tommaso Vincidor, after a design by Raphael, tapestry, God the Father accompanied by Symbols of the Trinity (‘The Vision of Ezekiel’), 1518 © Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas, Madrid

Largely, Raphael’s compositions consist of humans interacting, which he conceived with endless variation and genuine warmth. Wivel explains that when Raphael draws a single figure in a composition, he is always aware of their surroundings. His figures are never independent; if you remove one, the entire composition falls apart. In The School of Athens, a fresco painted by Raphael between 1509 and 1511 for the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, we see an assembly of ancient thinkers and experts debating and learning from one another; the composition visualises how knowledge was developed and shared by generations of Greek thinkers, who together form a great tradition.

Unlike Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael was a great collaborator. As an artist who applied his creativity widely and significantly, he was highly attuned to people’s strengths, and was skilled at getting the best out of them. Once in Rome, Raphael swiftly joined forces with printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi to produce some of the most beautiful engravings of the period. Raphael seems to have been acutely aware of the unprecedented reach of prints, and he had been looking at prints by Albrecht Dürer from the outset of his career. The National Gallery show includes several of Raphael’s designs that were made into engravings by Marcantonio, such as the artistically ambitious Study for the Massacre of Innocents (c1509-10), in which Raphael brilliantly combines the violence of the intricately twisting soldiers with the tragic pathos of the mothers, attempting to protect their babies from the soldiers’ swords.


“What makes Raphael special is that his art touches upon, ultimately, what it means to be part of a human community”


Raphael also transcended simply being a workshop master in the traditional sense, instead operating as an orchestrator of a huge artistic enterprise in the latter half of his career. As Raphael’s fame grew, and he found himself responsible for huge projects, he became less involved in the execution of them himself. In this sense, the institution of the workshop was crucial for him, and he entrusted a great deal of the work to his assistants. It is worth noting that he also had fully trained ‘masters’ in his workshop, which was almost unheard of at this time. Among these masters were Giulio Romano, one of the most prominent artists of the period, Marcantonio, arguably the most proficient engraver in Italy, Giovanni da Udine, the supreme Italian decorative still-life painter, and Pieter van Aelst, Europe’s leading tapestry-weaver.

The real Raphael

By offering a comprehensive view of the many facets of Raphael’s career, the National Gallery exhibition will also challenge certain myths surrounding him and his character. Much of what we know about the artist comes from his biography in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550), where he sets up Raphael as an antithesis to Michelangelo, an allegedly brooding and bad-tempered artist, and one who was far more sensitive to the anxieties and fears of the human condition. By contrast, Vasari praises Raphael’s ‘modesty and goodness … natural sweetness and gentleness … beautiful adornment of courtesy and grace’. There are even claims that he died from ‘an excess of love’ following a passionate tryst. Wivel suggests that one reason such fantasies have endured over time is that Raphael’s personality remains largely ambiguous.

Raphael, Saint Cecilia with Saints Paul, John the Evangelist, Augustine and Mary Magdalene, c1515-16, Reproduced by permission of the Ministry of Culture – National Art Gallery of Bologna

There are only two authenticated letters from him in existence; they affirm a close familial bond with his uncle, who had raised him, but otherwise they are mostly concerned with status, money and work opportunities, showing that Raphael also had his eyes clearly on the prize. In 1514 he became engaged to Maria Bibbiena, the niece of Cardinal Medici Bibbiena. The letters reveal he was far from enthusiastic about the prospect, although this certainly would have been an advantageous marriage. While there is no doubt that he was amiable and well liked by most, he was also ambitious, competitive, and even, at times, ruthless. For Vasari, artistic style and personality are inextricably linked. Undoubtedly, Raphael possessed an exceptional ability to make art that not only appears real, but natural, as if without art. Nevertheless, he was a tireless draughtsman who made countless cartoons, models and preliminary drawings. These drawings reveal how, despite appearing deceptively ‘natural’ and without effort, his compositions are extremely complex, and demonstrate the extent to which he has laboured over them.

The upcoming exhibition will include loans never before displayed in the UK, including The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia (1516-17), from the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna. Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, is flanked by four saints as she looks up in rapture towards the heavenly music coming from above. She holds an organ in her hands and at her feet lie discarded musical instruments – attributed to Raphael’s pupil Giovanni Udine – which may represent the abandonment of earthly pleasures. It will also include several of Raphael’s most celebrated Roman portraits, such as that of his close friend, the humanist Baldassare Castiglione (painted 1514-15), and the Self Portrait with a Friend (1518-20), which give a more intimate sense of the artist. Also on show for the first time will be The Holy Family with St John the Baptist child (c1512-13), a rediscovered drawing that appeared on the art market in 2019.

Viewed together, these works will give a sense of the complexity of Raphael’s enterprise, and the breadth of his ability and creative output. As an artist who has been central to the way European art has been taught and discussed for 500 years, the artist’s case for enduring relevance is convincingly put forward by Wivel: ‘He saw the best, warmest sides of humanity, which now, more than ever, it is necessary to be reminded of. Fundamentally, Raphael shows us that, as a human community, we can achieve great things and, furthermore, we need to do so. He is intensely relevant in this way, because he shows us hope. That is why he is so important.’


A version of this article first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

‘The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael’ will be on at the National Gallery, London, from 9 April to 31 July. 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass.

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