After delaying its opening due to Covid-19, the National Gallery in London finally opened its doors to The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael on 9th April 2022. Originally intended to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death in 2020, the exhibition is the first outside of Italy to encompass the entire length of Raphael’s artistic career. Whilst Raphael’s life was short, he was a prolific painter, producing as much work as other painters who lived twice as long. Working across a wide range of media, Raphael produced oil and fresco paintings and designed prints, tapestries, mosaics and sculptures. The extensive exhibition, with loans from the Louvre, Uffizi and Vatican, proves that whilst Raphael passed away at the age of 37, his legacy is immortal.
Although known mononymously as Raphael, the artist’s birth name was Raffaello Santi or Sanzio. He was born in 1483 to Giovanni Santi (1440-94), the court painter of the Duke of Urbino, and Màgia di Battista Ciarla. Unfortunately, Raphael’s mother died when he was only eight years old, and his father followed three years later. For the remainder of Raphael’s childhood, his paternal uncle, a priest called Bartolomeo, served as his formal guardian.
Raphael showed a talent for drawing at a young age and continued his father’s workshop following his death in 1494. Some sources claim Raphael received training from Pietro Perugino (1446-1523), but others maintain Raphael only worked as Perugino’s assistant, from whom he picked up similar artistic traits.
Raphael had a talent for seamlessly combining observation and imagination, which attracted several religious establishments in the Umbrian cities of Città di Castello and Perugia. His first documented commission was for the church of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in 1500, after which Raphael worked in numerous churches. In 1503, he painted the Mond Crucifixion, an altarpiece for the church of San Domenico. The main panel depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus against a luminous Umbrian sky. Two angels hover in the sky, collecting Christ’s blood in chalices, while on the ground kneel Mary Magdalene and Saint Jerome. The church had a chapel dedicated to the saint, which is likely why he was included in this composition. Also depicted in the painting are John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, who stand slightly behind the kneelers.
From 1504 to 1508, Raphael spent a lot of time in Florence. A letter from the mother of the Duke of Urbino, for whom Raphael’s father once worked, suggests he travelled to the city in search of patrons and customers. The letter reads, “The bearer of this will be found to be Raphael, painter of Urbino, who, being greatly gifted in his profession has determined to spend some time in Florence to study. And because his father was most worthy and I was very attached to him, and the son is a sensible and well-mannered young man, on both accounts, I bear him great love…”
On arrival in Florence, Raphael’s style of art was very much like Perugino’s, but he soon started adopting the manners of other artists, including Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Donatello (1386-1466). (Incidentally, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello are the names of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) One of Raphael’s drawings, potentially a study for a painting that is either lost or never produced, looks remarkably similar to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Raphael’s painting of Saint Catherine of Alexandria also bears similarities to Da Vinci’s work.
With her arm resting on the wheel upon which she was tortured, Saint Catherine’s slightly corkscrewed body is an echo of Da Vinci’s lost painting Leda and the Swan. Unlike Leda, Catherine is fully clothed and looks up to the sky in ecstasy. The religious nature of the scene is still reminiscent of Perugino’s work, but the inclusion of other influences shows Raphael was experimenting and developing as an artist.
Raphael’s painting of The Madonna of the Pinks also pays homage to Da Vinci. With similarities to the Benois Madonna, a youthful Virgin Mary sits playing with the Christ child, handing him carnations (pinks). Carnations belong to the dianthus genus, Greek for “flower of God”. In art, these flowers are symbolic of Christ’s Passion, from His entry into Jerusalem to His death and resurrection. Due to the similarities with other artists, scholars only officially identified The Madonna of the Pinks as a genuine Raphael in 1991.
During his years in Florence until his first year in Rome in 1508, Raphael painted many Madonnas (depictions of the Virgin and Child). Several were commissioned as large-scale altarpieces for churches, although some were designed for private prayer and devotion. As well as showing great attention to detail, Raphael filled his religious paintings with symbolism and dynamism, which emphasised the importance of the characters.
The Tempi Madonna, so named because Raphael painted it for the Tempi family, depicts Mary’s maternal love for her child. Unlike other Madonnas, which usually hint at Christ’s future through his dramatic poses and behaviour, this painting is more natural. Raphael reveals the emotion, tenderness and absorption of a mother, who holds her son close with her cheek pressed against his. Yet, the baby, Christ, stares into the distance as though contemplating his destiny. Raphael may have taken inspiration for the emotionally charged scene from sculptural reliefs made by Donatello.
A more typical pose of the Christ child is the scene in Raphael’s Alba Madonna, which belonged to the Dukes of Alba in Spain until 1836. As well as Jesus and Mary, the infant John the Baptist joins the scene, holding purple anemones, symbolising Christ’s fate. Other flowers in the painting hold significant meaning, including cyclamen for love and sorrow, and violets for humility. Some scholars surmise the tondo-style artwork was inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
In 1508, Raphael moved to Rome, where he immediately gained two new patrons, Pope Julius II (1443-1513) and the Pope’s principal financial backer, Agostino Chigi (1466-1520). The Sienese banker was allegedly the richest man in Italy and required Raphael to produce frescoes for his villa in the Via della Lungara, now a museum called Villa Farnesina. Chigi also commissioned Raphael to design chapels in two churches, Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo.
While working for Chigi, Raphael also completed many works for Julius II, starting with a fresco in the Pope’s private library at the Vatican Palace. The Stanza della segnatura (Room of the Signatura), or Stanze for short, and other rooms in the palace are frequently referred to as the “Raphael Rooms” because of the numerous paintings that adorn the walls and ceilings. The majority of the paintings depict religious scenes, such as Cardinal and Theological Virtues, Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, Deliverance of Saint Peter and The Vision of the Cross. Other scenes captured legendary events, including The Coronation of Charlemagne and The Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
One of the most famous of Raphael’s paintings for the Stanze is The School of Athens, painted between 1509 and 1511. The masterpiece reflects the growing interest in Ancient Greek Philosophy in Rome at the time. Several of the figures in the scene have been identified by art historians, including a self-portrait of Raphael posing as Apelles of Kos, a 4th century BC painter.
In the centre of The School of Athens, the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato are seen in conversation. Plato points his hand towards the sky, signalling his idealism and abstract thinking, while Aristotle gestures at the ground, referencing his study of the natural world and human behaviour. In his other hand, Plato holds a copy of Timaeus, a dialogue that responds to the opinions of other scholars. Similarly, Aristotle holds a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics, which had a profound influence on Europeans during the Middle Ages. Around Plato and Aristotle, other philosophers are engaged in debates about their ideas and theories.
In the centre foreground of The School of Athens sits a man resting his head upon his hand while writing on a sheet of paper. This is possibly a representation of the philosopher Heraclitus, who lived around 500 BC. Some believe Raphael modelled the figure on Michaelangelo, who was working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the time. Similarly, Plato may be modelled on Da Vinci. Heraclitus, nicknamed “the weeping philosopher”, was prone to depression, which explains his physical demeanour and isolation from the other figures in the painting. Heraclitus believed the world was made of fire and stressed the importance of the unity of opposites and harmony.
Other philosophers Raphael included in his painting are Pythagoras and his pupil Anaximander sitting with Archimedes, who holds a diagram of his method for determining the volume of an object with an irregular shape. Averroes, an Islamic scholar, peers over Pythagoras’ shoulder while Socrates is seen conversing with the Attic orator Aeschines. Names suggested for some of the remaining philosophers include Diogenes, Zeno of Citium, Parmenides, Carneades, Epicurus, Xenophon, and Alexander the Great.
Although much of Raphael’s time was spent working on the frescos in the Vatican Palace, he still found time to complete other paintings, such as a portrait of the elderly Julius II. Seated in a chair rather than on a papal throne, the Pope looks frail and humble; a stark contrast to his powerful and influential position. Julius was responsible for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica and the establishment of the Swiss Guards. When Julius died in 1513, less than two years after the completion of the portrait, he was replaced by Leon X (1475-1521), who continued to oversee Raphael’s progress in the Stanze and Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel.
As Raphael grew in popularity, he started training other artists and employed them as assistants in his workshop. One of his assistants was Giulio Romano (1492-1546), a young artist from Rome who helped Raphael complete the paintings in the Stanze. By teaching his students to replicate his style, Raphael doled out sections of artworks to his assistants to complete, thus saving time and energy.
In some cases, Raphael only provided the drawing, for which his students provided the paint. One example is The Vision of Ezekiel (1516-17), which while designed by Raphael, was executed by Romano. The painting depicts a scene in the Old Testament involving the prophet Ezekiel, who rarely appeared in Italian Renaissance art. In the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet described an encounter with God and four living creatures. According to the Christian priest Jerome (347–420), the creatures symbolised the authors of the New Testament gospels. Matthew is the man or angel because his book begins with the genealogy of Jesus, whilst Luke is the Ox because his book starts with temple sacrifice. Mark is represented by the lion, “roaring in the desert with prophetic power”, and John is the eagle, “flying heavenwards like the divine Word”. Alternative interpretations of this tetramorph (a symbolic arrangement of four differing elements) include Babylonian symbols of the zodiac: Taurus (ox), Leo (lion), Scorpio (eagle), and Aquarius (man); and the four elements of Western astrology: Earth, Fire, Water and Air.
With his assistants working on paintings, Raphael was able to prove his versatility with other mediums. Inspired by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Raphael designed prints, which were subsequently engraved by the printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi (c.1480-c.1534). An example of Raphael’s print compositions is The Massacre of the Innocents (c.1510), which not only shows Raphael’s mastery of the classical male nude but also reveals his talent for depicting movement and violent action. The scene comes from the nativity narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (2:16–18), in which King Herod learns of Jesus’ birth and orders the execution of all children under the age of two. Etching allows the artist to include expressive lines and shading, which often gets lost in coloured paintings. Every detail of the violent soldiers’ actions is carefully recorded, as is the despair and horror on the faces of the mothers.
Alongside prints, Raphael designed mosaics, sculptures, metalwork and decorative art, such as vases. Several drawings and plans for these objects still exist, as do many letters and notes proving that Raphael also had an interest in archaeology. Raphael wrote to Pope Leo X, begging him to prevent the destruction of archaeological interests, such as Roman ruins. He provided the Pope with a survey of all the buildings in Rome that he believed should be preserved for the future, along with detailed drawings. Plans to tear down ancient structures, presumably to build new houses, horrified Raphael and many of his contemporaries. It is thanks to them the world is still in possession of many historically important places.
Some historical buildings appear in Raphael’s work, as do reimagined structures from Classical Greece, such as in the tapestry Saint Paul Preaching at Athens. Between 1514 and 1515, Leo X commissioned Raphael to design a series of tapestries to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Each design depicted a scene from the Acts of the Apostles, which included the life of the first pope, Saint Peter, and Saint Paul. Saint Paul Preaching at Athens reimagines the biblical city and the Areopagus, upon which Paul preached to the judicial council of Athens about God and Jesus. Standing behind Paul in a red cap is a depiction of Leo X.
With so many commissions, Raphael rarely had time to produce portraits, which may be why he included his patrons and himself in some of his large scenes. Towards the end of his short career, while his assistants completed other work, Raphael found a moment to paint a handful of portraits, including a self-portrait with Giulio Romano. Sometimes known as Self-Portrait with a Friend or Raphael and His Fencing Master due to the presence of a sword hilt, the identity of the younger man remained unknown for many years. Today, most art historians agree that it is probably Romano. The hierarchical design of the double portrait, in which Raphael stands behind Romano with his hand on his shoulder, suggests Raphael is the teacher, whilst Romano, who looks over his shoulder for reassurance, is the student. The way Raphael painted the clothing of both himself and Romano makes it look as though the right arm belongs to both of them, hinting that as the master, Raphael aids or manipulates his student.
On promotional material for the Raphael exhibition, the National Gallery used Raphael’s portrait of Bindo Altoviti (1491-1557), a banker and friend of Raphael. The painting echoes Leonardo da Vinci’s Venetian style of posing the sitter as if interrupted by the viewer, at whom he turns to gaze. Altoviti’s father was the papal Master of the Mint, and his mother was the niece of Pope Innocent VIII (1432-92), which made Altoviti a man of wealth and influence. He was also known for his good looks. Altoviti was in charge of collecting taxes to fund the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica. He also liaised with the likes of Emperor Charles V (1500-58) and the Medici family.
The final painting in the exhibition was a portrait of a woman known as La fornarina or The Baker’s Daughter. The suggestive semi-nude portrait has led many to believe she was Raphael’s lover. Traditionally, the sitter is identified as Margherita Luti, who refused to marry Raphael despite his obvious devotion. Art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) claimed Luti was Raphael’s muse and model. He also wrote that Raphael was a “very amorous man and affectionate towards the ladies”.
There are numerous interpretations of La fornarina, with some claiming she represents idealistic beauty and others claiming she was a malevolent goddess. On the one hand, many believe Luti was Raphael’s lover, but another theory is she was a sex worker. An in-depth analysis of the portrait has led some art historians to diagnose Luti with breast cancer. The right breast appears fully formed and proportional, but the left upon which her hand rests is large and deformed. Her left arm also seems swollen, suggesting an enlarged lymph node in her armpit. Since Margarita Luti’s dates of birth and death are unknown, it is impossible to tell whether she died from breast cancer.
On Good Friday, 6th April 1520, Raphael passed away after developing a sudden fever. Vasari poetically recorded that his death was the result of an overindulgence in “amorous pleasures” with Luti, but other sources claim Raphael was engaged to Maria, the daughter of his patron Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi (1470-1520). Raphael’s illness lasted approximately 15 days, during which time he realised he would die and received last rites, confessed his sins and put his affairs in order. As per his request, Raphael was buried in the Pantheon in Rome, where his fiancée was also buried some years later.
Due to his fame and importance in the art world, Raphael received a grand funeral, attended by large crowds. Four cardinals carried Raphael’s body, and the pope kissed his hand before they lowered him into a marble sarcophagus inscribed with a quote from the poet Pietro Bembo (1470-1547): “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”
Following his death, Raphael became the prototype for high art across Europe. Due to his versatility, Raphael influenced many areas of art and remains one of the greatest artists to have ever lived. Raphael produced as much work in his 37 years of life as those who lived twice his age. He was a prodigy of the likes that has not been seen since. Today, artists have barely established themselves by the age of 37, let alone produced even half the number of paintings. The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael demonstrates Raphael’s importance in the art world and proves that his work will last for time immemorial.
The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael is open until 31st July 2022. Tickets cost between £24 and £26 and must be purchased in advance. Concessions are available.