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San Marino 1963. Raphael. Self-Portrait.


From Urbino to Rome

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The Vatican 1944. Raphael. Self-Portrait.

Raphael, whose real name was Raffaello Sanzio, was an Italian painter who was one of the leading artists of the Italian Renaissance. He created many of the most significant paintings of the early 16th century and his art was extremely influential for centuries after his death.

Raphael was born in Urbino on March 28 or April 6, 1483. His father, the artist Giovanni di Santi, worked mainly for Francesco Gonzaga in Mantua, and Raphael spent his youth in a courtly environment. In 1500, so Vasari records, Raphael was apprenticed to Perugino, a highly respected artist who was one of the first in Italy to paint extensively in oil. He employed pure strong colours for his figures, which were imbued with a particularly sweet air of piety, often setting them in landscapes infused with pale, shimmering light.

Raphael’s early paintings include large altarpieces as well as smaller works, both devotional and secular, many of them made for the court at Urbino. One such is a small panel painting, St George Slaying the Dragon (c. 1505, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); it seems to be connected with Guidobaldo da Montefeltro’s election to the Order of the Garter in 1504 and is remarkable for its miniature precision and the knowledge of the work of the Flemish painter Hans Memling that it displays.  

Uganda 1983. Raphael. St. George Slaying the Dragon. 5 sh. Uganda 1983. Raphael. St. George Slaying the Dragon. 20 sh. Uganda 1983. Raphael. St. George Slaying the Dragon. 50 sh. Uganda 1983. Raphael. St. George Slaying the Dragon. 200 sh.
Laos 1983. Raphael. Souvenir sheet "The Coronation of the Virgin".

Raphael’s earliest large-scale paintings were executed in Città di Castello, which was a day’s ride from Urbino. Works such as the Sposalizio (or Marriage of the Virgin) (1504, Brera, Milan) and the Coronation of the Virgin (c. 1503, Vatican Museum, Rome) demonstrate Perugino’s influence in their static composition and sweet figure style. 

  • Laos 1983.  Souvenir sheet depicting "The Coronation of the Virgin".  The sheet is printed on a very nice shiny silver-grey background, that appears slightly bluish on screen.  

Although intentionally similar in composition to earlier works by Perugino, Raphael’s paintings already possessed a dynamic spatial quality that is lacking in the former’s work, and his consummate technical mastery and idealizing imagination led to his working in competition with his former master on altarpieces in Perugia, for instance the Ansidei Altarpiece (1505, National Gallery, London) made for Bernardino Ansidei for the chapel of St Nicholas of Bari in the Servite church of San Fiorenzo. 

Raphael’s visit to Florence in about 1504 seems to have been motivated by his desire to see the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps in order to improve his skills in areas such as anatomy and perspective, where he was still inexpert. He did not settle there but visited frequently between 1504 and 1508. His work during these years was extremely varied in nature and scale, ranging from the series of madonnas he painted for individuals, to the large-scale religious works commissioned for churches.   

USSR 1970. Raphael. Madonna Connestabile. Italy 1970. Raphael. Madonna with Gold Finch. Hungary 1983. Raphael. Madonna della Seggiola.
Raphael’s style developed fully during the years 1504-1508. He lost Perugino’s air of sweetness and developed a bolder, more monumental manner that was partly inspired by the works of Fra Bartolommeo. 

While his madonnas were idealized portraits of tranquil women, he also painted real sitters; for instance Maddalena Strozzi, whom the artist has "given" a unicorn in her arms.  The stamp is shown largely oversized for a better view.  This painting was said to be inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's painting of Mona Lisa.  

If you take a close look at the animal bottom left, you will see a lamb-like creature with a unicorn sticking out from his forehead. 

  • San Marino 1963.  Maddalena Strozzi (or The Lady with the Unicorn).


San Marino 1963.  Raphael. Maddalena Strozzi (or "The Lady with the Unicorn").

In 1508 Raphael was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II in order to decorate a suite of offical rooms in the Vatican known as the Stanze. He started with the Stanza della Segnatura, the office in which documents were sealed, producing a series of frescos concerned with different aspects of the human intellect. The most famous of these, the School of Athens (1509-1511), represents groups of Greek philosophers in a monumental Classical setting. Despite the great number and variety of figures, the painting has a remarkably balanced, unified composition, dominated by the eloquently gesturing figures of Plato and Aristotle in the centre. 

The other frescos in the Stanza, representing theology, poetry, and law, have a similarly harmonious quality, which also characterizes the Stanza dell’Eliodoro (1511-1514). This was followed by two further rooms, which were mostly executed by Raphael’s assistants, in particular Giulio Romano, who were also responsible for painting the Vatican Loggie, completed in 1519. 

Vatican City 1983. Frescoe by Raphal representing poetry. Vatican City 1983. Frescoe by Raphal representing law. Vatican City 1983. Frescoe by Raphal representing philosophy.

As well as working for the papacy, Raphael also received important commissions from private patrons, in particular the banker Agostino Chigi, for whom he decorated two chapels, at Santa Maria della Pace (c. 1512-1513) and Santa Maria del Popolo (1516). For Chigi he also adorned the Villa Farnesina with sensual mythological frescos depicting Galatea (c. 1511) and scenes from the story of Cupid and Psyche (1516-1517), the latter painted so as to create a trompe l’oeil effect of tapestries suspended overhead. Raphael’s interiors were profoundly influenced by the grotesque style of ornamentation inside the Domus Aurea, the recently excavated palace of the Roman emperor Nero. This is particularly apparent in the stuccoed loggia of the Villa Madama, built by Raphael for Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (begun c. 1518). 

Italy 1970. Raphael. First Day Cover franked with "Triumph of Galathea", and "Madonna with the Goldfinch".

Raphael also experimented with profuse decoration on an exterior in the (now destroyed) Palazzo Branconio dell’Aquila. Such works contrast greatly with the austere beauty of Sant’Eligio degli Orefici, a small church, in the form of a domed Greek cross, which was designed by Raphael and (probably) Bramante around 1509.

 While the church’s lucid geometrical structure and restrained decoration typify the High Renaissance, the later buildings clearly anticipate the complexity of Mannerism. 

During this period Raphael also produced memorable works on panel and canvas, including a number of portraits: these included a remarkably frank depiction of the aged Pope Julius II (c. 1511, National Gallery, London), as well as Pope Leo X and Two Cardinals (c. 1519, Uffizi, Florence) and the nobleman Baldassare Castiglione (c. 1516, Musée du Louvre, Paris). 

  • Yemen Arab Republic 1968.  Balthasar Castiglione (painted c. 1516 -- belongs to Louvre, Paris). 

Yemen Arab Republic 1968. Raphael. Balthasar Castiglione.

Italy 1983. Raphael. Sistine Madonna.

Raphael also executed a number of extraordinary altarpieces, including the celebrated Sistine Madonna (c. 1513, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), a magnificent image of the Virgin and Child appearing among radiant clouds, above two of the most engaging putti (cherubs) in Renaissance art. 
  • Italy 1983.  Sistine Madonna.

Equally extraordinary is The Transfiguration (1517-1520, Vatican, Rome), completed by Giulio Romano after Raphael’s death, which greatly influenced the crowded, dynamic compositions of later Mannerist painters.  Particularly the painting "Transfigured Christ" is much the same "style" as the Sistine Madonna shown immediately above.  Unmistakably Raphael. 

Vatican 1996. Raphael Transfigurations. Moses holding Tablets.

Moses Holding Tablets

Vatican 1996. Raphael Transfigurations. Transfigured Christ.

Transfigured Christ

Vatican 1996. Raphael Transfigurations. Prophet Elijah with Book.

Prophet Elijah with Book

Vatican 1996. Raphael Transfigurations. Apostles John and Peter.

Apostles John and Peter

Vatican 1996. Raphael Transfigurations. Group of Women.

Group of Women

Vatican 1996. Raphael Transfigurations. Landscape.


Raphael’s death in Rome on April 6, 1520, cut short an immensely successful and productive career. His work exemplifies the confidence and originality of the High Renaissance. Like Michelangelo, he produced works of supreme harmony and grandeur, while also on occasion introducing qualities that would later be associated with Mannerism. Through the engravings of Marcantonio Raimondi, his compositions became widely known throughout his lifetime, and his influence on academic painters in subsequent centuries was inestimable. 

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