The Europeans, No 4: Raphael
Great achievements by artists such as Raphael gave Italy a cultural power of attraction that it still retains
Rafaello Sanzio, or Santi, was born in 1483 in Urbino in north-central Italy, where his father was court painter first to Duke Federico Montefeltre and then to his son, Guidobaldo. The court of Urbino has been widely recognised as the epitome of Renaissance culture and refinement, first by Baltasar Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier (1528) and later by WB Yeats, who celebrated it in verse as a school of courtesy where “wit and beauty learned their trade”.
Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, presents Raphael as a man who, unlike some other artists (who “received from nature a certain element of savagery and madness”), had “all the rarest qualities of the mind, accompanied by . . . grace, industry, beauty, modesty, and excellence of character”.
Raphael grew up in Urbino, absorbing grace and civility from his surroundings and learning the rudiments of painting from his father. When Giovanni Santi could teach his son no more, he was sent to nearby Perugia, where he was taken on by Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino, whose style of painting he easily adopted. He is described as a master, which is to say fully trained, by 1501.
Raphael next moved to Florence, where he saw the work of Masaccio, Fra Bartolomeo, Michelangelo and Leonardo, the latter in particular now becoming a strong influence.
The Madonna del Prato (Madonna of the Meadow), from 1506, illustrates Raphael’s gifts as he enters his maturity. The painting shows three figures, the Virgin Mary, the infant Jesus and the infant St John, pictured together in a triangular or pyramidal group (a favourite shape of Raphael’s). Inside the larger triangle, there are discernible smaller ones, while variation is provided by circles (the heads of the three figures, the halos) or parts of circles, the neck line of Mary’s dress and the embroidered hems on her cape.
In the distance, the meadow is green, setting off the red of the dress. In the foreground it is brown, shading to orange, setting off the blue cape.
The strong red and blue leap from the picture, in strong contrast to the very delicate tones of the flesh of the infants. St John offers Jesus the cross, which he accepts. The poppies to the right of the three figures are a traditional symbol of the Passion of Christ; the wild strawberries in the foreground are a symbol of Mary and of purity. Faultless composition, intellectual coherence, lusciousness of colour and serenity: these are four of the elements we most associate with this artist.
By 1508, Raphael had moved to Rome, where he was to spend the rest of his life. He was summoned there to work on murals for the private library of Pope Julius II, including those in the famous Stanza della Segnatura. Of these, the best known is perhaps The School of Athens, which features a wide panorama of the great philosophers, gathered around Plato and Aristotle, with many contemporary figures, including the architect Bramante, Raphael himself and a morose Michelangelo, sitting apart, supplying the models.
A Renaissance triumvirate
Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo are the outstanding figures in an Italian Renaissance that is heaving with genius – Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Bellini, Botticelli, Titian, Giorgione, one could go on. This abundance of achievement gave Italy a cultural power of attraction that it still retains, but the Italians also learned from others – van Eyck and van der Weyden at an early stage – as others later learned from them, such as Cranach, Dürer and Holbein.
Raphael is said to have had many affairs, yet to have been devoted to his mistress, Margherita Luti, known as La Fornarina (the baker’s daughter).
Indeed, Vasari believed that his death, at the age of 37, was brought on by the effects of a night of excessive passion with Margherita. This is probably poor medical science.
The Madonna del Prato is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. His portrait of Margherita Luti, La Fornarina, is in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. There are several Raphaels in the National Gallery in London. Christopher Thoenes’s Raphael in the Taschen Basic Art series is wonderful value at £6.99.