The year 2020 is dedicated to Raphael because of the 500th anniversary of his death. Alongside Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, he is one of the great trio of Italian Renaissance artists. I dare say, however, that he is the least known of them. The average art lover will associate him with the over-sweetened Madonnas, which he produced abundantly with the cooperation of a thriving workshop. With a bit of luck, we will associate him as the author of the Portrait of a young man stolen during World War II from the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow and not yet found. But who was the artist described by Giorgio Vasari as the god of art?
Raphael Santi was a native of Urbino, educated in Perugia, but his talent was most evident during his stay in Florence since 1504, where he came into contact with the art of the esteemed artists Michelangelo and Leonardo. Their work inspired the twenty-four-year-old to creatively compete with them. That resulted, among other things, in the Madonna of the Goldfinch (Madonna del cardellino) kept in Uffizi, Florence. The painting refers to the composition of Leonardo’s Virgin of the rocks, where Mary was depicted in the rocky landscape, sitting surrounded by children. The second model was undoubtedly the sculpture of the Virgin with the Child, made by Michelangelo on behalf of the townspeople of Bruges. Raphael saw it in Florence before it left for the Netherlands in 1506. The painting and the sculpture share the way the Child is portrayed supporting itself against the mother’s knees and touching her foot. The painter’s invention regarding his great predecessors was to introduce an idyllic landscape, not the distressing one of Leonardo’s and to give the features of the Madonna a gentle, tenderness-filled expression, so different from the pathos of Michelangelo’s Madonnas. His sublime style proved to be an apt marketing move and provided him with orders from the wealthy clients of Florence and Perugia.
Raphael’s popularity grew rapidly, and in 1508 he was invited to Rome, to the court of Pope Julius II, the great patron of the arts and initiator of the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica. There, he had the opportunity to use his previous experience in creating frescoes and at the same time compete creatively with Michelangelo, who was then creating the polychromy on the vault of the Sistine Chapel. Raphael was entrusted with the decoration of the Vatican stands, i.e. the representative rooms in the Vatican Palace, to which Julius II intended to move. The most important work there is undoubtedly the School of Athens– a monumental fresco depicting ancient philosophers. The most important are the figures of Plato and Aristotle, fathers of two philosophical traditions – idealism and empiricism. Raphael “hid” in the faces of some thinkers the portraits of Michelangelo, Leonardo and Donato Bramante, and among them he also placed his own self-portrait.
Vasari describes Raphael as a charming young man, whose beauty and good manners were bestowed upon his admirers. We know, however, that this was not entirely true. He wasn’t loved by Michelangelo, who is said to have gone mad at the very sound of his rival’s name. The 25-year-old from Urbino undoubtedly was socially smart, not to say cunning, which allowed him to build a strong position at the papal court. He was generous in his friendship – the aforementioned Madonna was a wedding gift to a Florentine friend. He took good care of relationships with people. His position was not shaken by the death of Julius II, his successor Pope Leo X continued to use Raphael’s services. After Donato Bramante’s death he entrusted him with the supervision of the reconstruction of the Vatican Basilica and later made him a prefect of antiquity in Rome. This meant that anyone who wanted to interfere in any way with an ancient building or monument, or had dug up such a sculpture, had to urgently report it to Raphael. A huge responsibility in the hands of a thirty-two-year-old.
The fact that Raphael undoubtedly had the gift of understanding the human psyche is clearly shown by his portraits. The difficult personality of Pope Julius II becomes clear to us today when we look at his tightly closed mouth and focused absent sight. He almost tells us not to interfere with him. The pope’s left hand embraces the armchair’s railing, as if unwittingly preparing to abandon this uncomfortable position of immobility.
A completely different impression is made by the portrait of corpulent Leo X, sitting behind the table, accompanied by two cardinals. Perhaps he is recounting in his memory the profits from the sale of indulgences, which were to help to build the basilica. This trade provoked a violent objection from Martin Luther and his statement on the necessity of the Reformation in the Church.
Raphael created an image of his friend Balthasar Castilglione, the author of the Courtier, so that it also reflects the qualities attributed to gentiluomo. In his treatise written during his stay at the court in Urbino, Castiglione described the “new man” – a gentleman who is guided in life by good manners, conducts intellectual disputes, shows respect for women, and is guided by the principle of sprezzatura – understood as naturalness or nonchalance. This portrait has become a role model for the next generations of artists. It fascinated Rembrandt, who used the pose of Castiglione to create his own self-portrait, giving it a courtly touch.
The eternal memory and place in pop culture was provided by Raphael’s other image, or rather its fragment – the Sistine Madonna. A beautiful, youthful Madonna descending from the heavens, supposedly with the features of artist’s sweetheart, is looked at by two cupids. They are delightful, a little bored and a little curious. And they have become the motif repeated and copied by subsequent generations, especially since the painting was placed in the Dresden gallery by August III Wettin in the mid 18th century.