Triumph of Galatea (Raphael) - about 10 years after St. Michael and St. George

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino was an Italian High Renaissance painter living from 1483 to 1520. He was a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Michelangelo wasn’t fond of da Vinci, who was about 20 years his senior; but he disliked the eight years younger Raphael even more. Together these three form the traditional trinity of great masters of the period.

In Italy in the 16th century, the time of High Renaissance, art was a profession you started to learn as an apprentice like any other craft. Masters of the craft owed large workshops that easily employed a dozen or more painters, who realized their master’s drafts. And the commissions to win were given by the church or the courts – altars, frescos, ceilings, tapestry, portraits. Well, wallpaper only started to gain popularity among the emerging gentry and somehow the picture of your nubile daughter had to be shown around on the market though the invention of photography was yet centuries away. Art still had a purpose; I mean a clearly defined purpose, of course. L’art pour l’art came an epoch later.

Raphael, son of a court painter at the small, but artistically significant court of Urbino, mingled effortless in the highest circles throughout his life. I guess he was an extrovert. His career seemed to be effortless and he had a knack for absorbing popular influences into his style. So much so, that Michelangelo accused him of plagiarism.

He was orphaned at a young age and there are signs that he took partly over the management of his late father’ workshop at age 11 while being an apprentice at the workshop of Perugino. He absorbed a lot of his master’s style like applying color thickly in shadows and darker garments while very thinly on flesh areas. By 1501 he was a full fledged master of his art and already there was great demand for his work.

He lived a nomadic life, taking up work in many centers of Northern Italy in the years that followed. It’s when St. Michael and St. George were created. From 1504 to 1508 he lived in Florence and picked up the Florentine style of this time.

The most striking influence came from da Vinci who returned to the city from 1500 to 1506. Where Perugino’s style was still somewhat static, with da Vinci’s influence his compositions became more dynamic and complex, not last through the added interplay of glances between groups. He also adopted da Vinci’s sfumato technique – a way to paint without lines or borders by means of semi-transparent layering – to give subtlety to his painting of flesh which mixed nicely with his master’s way of painting these parts very thinly.

From Florence Raphael moved to Rome, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was immediately commissioned with work at the Vatican where Michelangelo worked at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Over time he built up an unusual large workshop and though much of his work was self-designed, it was for the most part created by his workshop from his drawings. He is best known for his frescoed Raphael Rooms at the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican.

Coming back to the subject of Michelangelo and Raphael and plagiarism – Raphael’s work shows clear influence of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Raphael gained secret access to the chapel and the first scaffolding was taken down in 1511, so it is possible. And Michelangelo dominated Italian art at his time and the following decades. He was liked so his style was copied and Raphael was just the best in absorbing the style. In the end they are still distinct in what they did.

Raphael painted a clear line, the prototype of classical art of the West past antiquity. While Michelangelo had more influence on the art style of his time, Raphael became a role model of the time period of the 17th to 19th century and historical painting. His perfect decorum and balance in his compositions, the super human clarity and grace of his figures and the apparent effortlessness of his artistry became the standard everyone tried to copy.

One thought on “Raphael

  1. Raphael seems to me a genius imitator of other people’s styles. A painter of monumental forms his work, while beautiful seems more plagiarized rather than merely influenced by other painters’ visions. And those visions he absorbed sometimes were not translated as well in his own comparative works. His early madonnas, taken from Perugino’s vision, look rather insipid in comparison to his teacher’s. And it is easy to tell that he consciously switched styles as opposed to evolving through his own temperament.

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