Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, early years and Florentine period

We find now one of the most eminent artistic personalities of the 16th century, who took advantage of the characteristics of all the artistic schools that preceded him and whose works represent the happy result of the long evolution of Italian painting: the famous Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, commonly known as Raphael (March 28 or April 6, 1483-April 6, 1520) son of a painter from Urbino, Giovanni Santi, who was, according to Vasari, a person “of good manners and gentle”, but who in his paintings demonstrated to be a medium artist, both for his technique and his style. Raphael, who helped his father in the works and commissions he executed as part of his job as court painter to the Duke of Urbino, received, in addition to his teachings, those of another painter, a certain Timoteo Viti, who had been the first disciple of another Bolognese painter called il Francia (Francesco Francia), who in turn had learned at the school of Leonardo and from the early Venetian painters. Thanks to his father’s involvement with the Urbino’s nobility, Raphael grew up within the court circles, which would provide him with excellent manners and social skills that would later be useful for him to easily blend into society’s highest circles as an adult.

Here we can see how, thanks to il Francia and Viti, came to Urbino something of the artistic styles from northern Italy, and precisely at the time when Raphael was beginning his artistic career. Details of Raphael’s training in Urbino are still unknown. It is not well clarified how he got to know il Francia, with whom we know Raphael still frequented when he was already at the height of his glory. Be that as it may, in the beginning Raphael depended more on the school of il Francia than on any other; the figures in his first paintings show a morbid roundness and, at the same time, the characteristic force displayed in the works of the painting schools of northern Italy. Precisely this morbid roundness and the essential characteristic of Raphael (his dangerous and marvelous technical ability, which transformed everything he touched into serene beauty) made him a pleasant artist from the beginning.


St. George Fighting the Dragon, oil on wood, by Raphael, 1503-1505, 29 x 25 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Appointed to the order of the Garter in 1504 by Henry VII of England, Guido da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, commissioned Raphael to paint a picture of Saint George as a gift for the King. Saint George is one of the most popular of the Christian saints and is the patron saint of England. He was also a favorite subject of Renaissance artists, who depicted him slaying the dragon. The painting depicts the instant when Saint George had just pierced the dragon with his lance, which lies broken in the ground, and he proceeds to kill him with a blow of his sword; meanwhile, the princess is shown fleeing on the right. Due to the still Peruginesque style of this painting, it has been regarded as one of Raphael’s early works.


As a child Raphael showed exceptional virtues and ease for drawing typical of a child prodigy, fabulously gifted in painting. We can see, for example, with what high level of artistic talent Raphael began his career in three works that survive from his youth: the Knight’s Dream, at the National Gallery in London; the Saint George fighting the Dragon, from the Louvre Museum, and the Three Graces, from the Museé Condé in Chantilly, France. In the first, a young man asleep in the middle of a landscape has, on each side, symbolic figures, perhaps the representation of Pleasure and Virtue. In the Saint George we already see the typical trees of the pictures of the Umbrian school; Saint George once again represents the chivalric ideal, which at Urbino’s court was related to a desire to renew the classical spirit. Finally, the painting of the Three Graces, painted in 1504-1505, when Raphael was 21, repeats an ancient motif: we have already discussed in another essay that Greek sculpture and painting had used several times the images of this group with three girls, but Raphael infused a new grace, with a clear serenity, on this ancient theme.


The Marriage of the Virgin (also known as Lo Sposalizio), oil on round-headed panel, 1504, 170 x 117 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). This panel was commissioned by the Albizzini family for the chapel of St. Joseph in the church of St. Francesco of the Minorities at Città di Castello. It is believed this painting was inspired in two compositions by Perugino: the famous Christ Delivering the Keys to St. Peter from the fresco cycle in the Sistine Chapel and a panel containing the Marriage of the Virgin now in the Museum of Caën. Raphael signed and dated this work in the frieze of the temple in the distance (“RAPHAEL URBINAS MDIIII“), thus abandoning anonymity and confidently announcing himself as the creator of the work. In the foreground, Joseph is solemnly placing the ring on the Virgin’s finger, and holding the flowering staff, the symbol that he is the chosen one, in his left hand. His wooden staff has blossomed, while those of the other suitors have remained dry. Two of the suitors, disappointed, are breaking their staffs. The polygonal temple in the style of the contemporary architect Bramante establishes and dominates the structure of this composition, determining the arrangement of the foreground group and of the other figures. The temple in fact is the center of a radial system composed of the steps, portico, buttresses and drum, and extended by the pavement. In the doorway looking through the building and the arcade framing the sky on either side, there is the suggestion that the radiating system continues on the other side, away from the spectator. Caught at the culminating moment of the ceremony, the group attending the wedding also repeats the circular rhythm of the composition. The three principal figures and two members of the party are set in the foreground, while the others are arranged in depth, moving progressively farther away from the central axis. This axis, marked by the ring Joseph is about to put on the Virgin’s finger, divides the paved surface and the temple into two symmetrical parts. Though this painting is similar to that by Perugino in the Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s painting features a well developed circular composition, while that of Perugino is developed horizontally, in a way still characteristic of the Quattrocento. The space is more open in Raphael’s composition, indicating a command of perspective in some way superior to Perugino’s. The Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote a composition for solo piano based on this painting with the title “Sposalizio“.
Allegory (The Knight’s Dream), egg tempera on poplar wood, by Raphael, ca. 1504, 17 x 17 cm (National Gallery, London). Art scholars believe that this and the Three Graces (see picture below) probably formed a single diptych presented to Scipione di Tommaso Borghese at his birth. The theme of the paintings could have been based in the epic poem Punica recounting the Second Punic War, by Silius Italicus. In this first panel, Scipio, the sleeping knight, must choose between Venus (pleasure-right) and Minerva (virtue-left); in the second, the Graces reward his choice of virtue with the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. In the Knight’s panel, a young knight is asleep in front of a laurel tree that divides the picture into two equal parts. There is a figure of a beautiful young woman in each half: on the left the personification of Virtue is holding a book and a sword above the sleeping man, while the figure on the right is presenting a flower as a symbol of sensual pleasure. The probable meaning of the allegory is that the young man’s task is to bring both sides of life into harmony. Another interpretation is that the two feminine figures may represent the ideal attributes for a knight: the book, sword and flower which they hold suggest the ideals of scholar, soldier and lover which a knight should combine into his persona.
Study for The Knight’s Dream, cartoon, by Raphael, ca.1504, 170 x 170 mm (National Gallery, London). The holes serving to facilitate the transfer of the drawing to the painting panel (see picture above) can be observed.
The Three Graces, oil on panel, by Raphael, 1504-1505, 17 x 17 cm (Musée Condé, Chantilly). This painting is believed to form a pair with that of the Knight’s Dream (see picture before). The Three Graces is Raphael’s first study of the female nude in both front and back views. It was probably not based on living models, but on the classical sculpture group of the Three Graces located in the Piccolomini Library in Siena.


This “lucky boy”, as il Francia called him, who at such a precocious age produced admirable works and who had known how to assimilate the artistic novelties that necessarily arrived weakened at Urbino, very soon had to receive another decisive influence on his artistic training when his father took him to Perugino’s workshop. Vasari says that, Raphael’s father realizing of his son unique abilities, entrusted him to Perugino, who, admiring the boy’s way of drawing, immediately accepted him into his workshop. The 16th century was beginning when Raphael entered Perugino’s workshop, and from this teacher he certainly learned many things that he would not forget in his entire life. His beautiful painting of the Marriage of the Virgin, in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, shows stereotyped the physiognomies of the character types previously created by Perugino. On one side of Mary are the maidens of Judah accompanying her, and whose faces reflect the affected gestures of Perugino’s characters; on the other side, the suitors who break their rods and put their hands on Joseph’s back, still dressed in the typical hose of the fashion of the Quattrocento; only in the background, a circular pavilion already shows the ideal of the new architecture, shown in a perspective that must have constituted then, for the Umbrian painters of Perugia, an obsession. It seems as if the architect Bramante had communicated to Raphael that shape of a classical temple with a central dome. This painting bears the year 1504, and Vasari already noted in it “the increase of the virtue of Raphael”, refining and improving the “manner” of Perugino. “There is a temple in perspective there,” says Vasari, “drawn with so much love that it is admirable to see how he [Raphael] tried to exercise himself in solving difficulties.” By December 1500 it is known that Raphael was already known as a “master”, that is, fully trained in the art of painting, and in 1502 he went to Siena invited by another pupil of Perugino, Pinturicchio, to help him with the cartoons, and probably also with the designs, for the series of frescoes he painted in the Piccolomini Library in the Cathedral of Siena. As we can see, Raphael was obviously already in high demand even at this early stage in his career.

At the beginning of 1505 (or the end of 1504) the young Raphael traveled to Florence, where he set up a workshop on his own. Florence had been until then the capital of art; Perugino also had to visit it before becoming famous; a painter, who wasn’t Florentine, by birth or adoption, wasn’t yet conceived in those years. More or less, Florence must have been the living museum that it continues to be today, full of most of the admirable artworks that it still keeps, because in the 16th century and following the artistic wealth of the city didn’t increase much.


Madonna del Granduca, oil on wood, by Raphael, 1506, 84 x 56 cm (Palazzo Pitti, Florence). This Madonna shows the strong influence of Leonardo: the figures of the Virgin and Child emerge from a dark background, an element coined by da Vinci, and are bound together by a sweet sentiment which derives largely from the gesture of the Child who, while looking toward the spectator, presses against his Mother. The painting belonged to Grand Duke Ferdinand III of Lorraine from whom the painting’s name derives. This work has remained as one of the finest creations of Raphael from his early period, when he went to Florence after his first formation under Perugino at the beginning of the Cinquecento. Raphael here fused and assimilated both, the Peruginesque and the Leonardesque influences, into a marvelous harmony which extends to the whole composition, from the spacing of the two figures in the space with that sense of flowing rhythm to the magic of the color which softly dissolves into delicate shadows and penumbra. Raphael’s vision of the Virgin Mary has been adopted by subsequent generations in the same way as Michelangelo’s conception of God the Father. A painting like this by Raphael is truly ‘classical’ in the sense that it has served countless generations as a standard of perfection in the same way as the works of Phidias and Praxiteles.
Study for the Madonna del Granduca, black chalk, blending stump, stylus on paper, by Raphael, ca. 1504, 211 x 184 mm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).
Madonna of the Goldfinch (also known as Madonna del Cardellino), oil on wood, by Raphael, 1507, 107 x 77 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). In this composition, Raphael depicted the Virgin, Christ and the young John the Baptist holding a goldfinch. It is one of the works he executed while in Florence, painted for the marriage of his friend Lorenzo Nasi and Sandra di Matteo di Giovanni Canigiani. The goldfinch represents a symbol of the Passion, because it feeds among thorns, and here Raphael shows us the Christ Child while lovingly stroking such a bird that the boy Baptist has just given him. Thus, this scene combines both, symbology and a common scene of children at play. This painting composition follows that of the Madonna of the Meadow (see picture below), with the essential difference that the children here are more firmly united with the central figure of the Virgin. The background landscape, and particularly the architectural forms it contains, reflects the influence of Flemish art. The influence of Michelangelo is evident in the well structured figure of the infant Christ. It was to become even more evident in later works by Raphael. The pyramidal composition reflects the influenced made on Raphael by the lost cartoon for the Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Leonardo, displayed from the beginning of the century in the Church of the Santissima Annunziata, as well as the Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo, sculpted before the summer of 1506. Raphael was also able to use Leonardo’s ‘sfumato‘ technique, which he used to dissolve the background into the atmosphere on the horizon. Even though this was a modern image of Mary for its time, yet it still contains symbolic elements from traditional worship, such as the small holy text in the Virgin’s hand, a sign of her faith and a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ, which is also evoked by the innocently fragile goldfinch.


In Florence Raphael finished forming his own style. In contact with the Florentine grace, this disciple of il Francia and Perugino unfolded his spirit, felt animated with youthful enthusiasm and in a period of four years he painted a series of works, mainly of the Virgin and Child, which still constitute today the most delicate jewel of the artistic treasure of humanity. They are more than a dozen admirably painted innocent images, ideal groups of the Mother and Son, often alone, embracing, kissing or both playing with equal innocence. On other occasions, they are accompanied by Saint Joseph or Saint Anne. It is impossible to describe one by one these Madonnas, that photography and reproductions have so much popularized and that even in the worst copies always show an ideal of beauty. Most of them were painted for the most prominent Florence families or for neighboring religious communities, such as the so-called Madonna del Granduca, from the Palazzo Pitti, or the Madonna of the Goldfinch, at the Uffizi; the rest have emigrated, spread through various museums in Europe: thus the Holy Family of the Pearl and the Holy Family with a Lamb, both in the Prado Museum, in Madrid; La Belle Jardinière, at the Louvre, in Paris; the Holy Family with a Palm Tree, in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, the Madonna del Prato (Madonna of the Meadow), at the Kunthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Canigiani Holy Family, in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, and the Colonna Madonna, at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Other works worth mentioning from Raphael’s years in Florence include the Entombment (Baglioni altarpiece), in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, and St. Catherine of Alexandria in the National Gallery in London.


Madonna of the Meadow (Madonna del Prato, also known as “Madonna Belvedere”), oil on wood, by Raphael, 1506, 113 x 88 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The Madonna of the Meadow is the first of a series of full-length figure compositions painted by Raphael that portray the apocryphal encounter between the Child Jesus and the boy Baptist. The boy Baptist is supposed to have recognized and worshipped Christ as the Redeemer even in their childhood. Raphael (then 23 year old) makes this clear by letting Christ take the reed cross from John. The poppy to the right refers to Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Michelangelo’s influence on Raphael is evident in this composition. The pyramidal structure of the figure group also recalls Leonardo (whose cartoon for the St. Anne was shown in 1506 in the Church of Santissima Annunziata). But Raphael creates his own balancing capacity on the Leonardesque volumetric conception, infusing it with the idyllic serenity which characterizes his paintings from this period in Florence. On the other hand, the twisting figures of the two children clearly reflect Michelangelo’s figurative research. The painting is also known as the Madonna del Belvedere after its long residence in the imperial collection in the Vienna Belvedere.
The Holy Family with a Palm Tree, oil and gold on canvas, transferred from panel, by Raphael, 1506, 101.5 cm diameter (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh). This type of tondo paintings (circular paintings) were popular in Renaissance Florence for private houses. Raphael carefully planned the composition to fit and complement the shape of the panel, with the Christ Child at its center, and created a supremely harmonized and balanced relationship between the three figures. This is one of several variations on the theme of the Virgin and Child and the Holy Family that Raphael explored during his four years in Florence. The palm tree, flowers and fountain or well (to the right) may be inspired by references in special devotions (litanies) to the Virgin Mary, which would be appropriate for a private devotional painting.
The Canigiani Madonna, oil on wood, by Raphael, 1507-1508, 131 x 107 cm (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). The painting’s name derives from the Florentine family who owned it before it passed into the Medici collection and then into Germany with the marriage of Anna Maria Lodovica de’ Medici to the Palatine Elector. The Virgin and Elizabeth are sitting on the grass with their children, and Joseph is standing over them, this shows the importance of Jesus’ adoptive father, and gives support to the increase in the worship of Joseph after 1500. In this work Raphael synthesizes elements taken from the works by Leonardo and Michelangelo and combines them with a typical Northern landscape and delicate colors dominated by iridescent tones. The pyramid in which the figures are enclosed is still drawn from models by Leonardo, but the relationships between them, developed through the glances they exchange and through the serene feelings they communicate, carry the composition onto a calmly descriptive plane.
The Holy Family with a Lamb, oil on wood, by Raphael, 1507, 29 x 21 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). This small painting, aide for private devotion, also belongs to Raphael’s years in Florence. The painting shows the Virgin holding Christ riding on a lamb while the elderly Joseph presides over the family. In the traditional iconography for this subject, Mary is shown trying to pull away Christ from the lamb, as it represents his future Passion. In this painting though, Raphael introduced a slight but very significant modification of the scene’s implications by depicting the Virgin helping her son embrace the lamb as Saint Joseph looks on with an attentive, meditative expression that reveals his awareness of the action’s premonitory significance. As typical of Raphael, the communication among the characters is emphasized by their postures and the direction of their gazes. The inclusion in the middle ground of a secondary scene with the flight to Egypt (left background) suggests that the main subject alludes to a rest on the way. The landscape is filled with architectural elements that are not Italian, and were probably taken from Northern engravings. In that same sense, the meticulous depiction of nature, especially the plant life in the foreground, suggests that young Raphael had been studying the works of Hans Memling that were in Florence at that time.
The Entombment (also known as The Deposition or Baglione Altarpiece), oil on wood, by Raphael, 1507, 184 x 176 cm (Galleria Borghese, Rome). In the last works he executed while in Florence, Raphael draw several elements from the work by Michelangelo. This is particularly evident in the Entombment. This painting was the central panel of a larger altarpiece painted in 1507 in Perugia and commissioned by Atalanta Baglioni as a votive offering in memory of her son, Grifonetto, killed in a piazza in Perugia in the course of a family feud. Raphael took this commission very seriously, and over the course of two years he worked on it and developed his design through two phases and numerous preparatory drawings (see pictures below). This commission marked an important stage in Raphael’s development as an artist, and the formation of his mature style. Here, Raphael detached himself both formally and iconographically from traditional representations of the scene. He does not depict the deposition itself, but the carrying of the dead Christ’s body. The protagonists of the scene do not demonstrate their sorrow violently, but are reduced, through the Raphaelesque mode of feeling, to a sort of painful resignation. The vision of space also appears freer and closer to nature. The influence of Michelangelo can be perceived without doubt in the limp arm of Christ as well as in the crouching female figure at the extreme right painted in figura serpentinata, which mirrors the figure of the Virgin in the Tondo Doni executed by Michelangelo between 1504 and 1506. The scene depicted is actually neither the Deposition nor the Entombment, but located somewhere in-between. This fact can be concluded by an observation of the background: on the right is Mount Calvary, the location of the Crucifixion and Deposition, and on the left is the cave where the Entombment takes place. The two men carrying the body of Christ, and Christ himself, form very strong diagonals in the shape of a V. The younger man on the right holding Christ is supposed to be a representation of the slain youth, Grifonetto to whom the Altar was dedicated. Besides the two men carrying the body, we have St. John and Nicodemus behind and to the left, and Mary Magdalene holding the hand of Christ. On the far right are the three Marys supporting the Virgin Mary, who has fainted. There are other three compositions (Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues) for the predella executed in a delicate grisaille monochrome, and today kept in the Vatican Museums.
Some of the studies for the Entombment by Raphael. Left: pen and ink over black chalk, ca. 1507, 230 x 319 mm (British Museum, London). Center: pen and ink over stylus and black chalk, ca. 1507, 289 x 298 mm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Right: ink on paper, ca. 1507, 209 x 320 mm (British Museum, London). The rich assemblage of surviving drawings that form part of the extensive studies Raphael did for the Baglioni Entombment (see picture before) demonstrates the attention to detail and draftsmanship of Raphael’s preparations for this particular commission. The final composition for the Altarpiece was elaborated by using elements from the relief on an antique Roman sarcophagus cover depicting the Death of Meleager. The drawing on the center is Raphael’s last study for this work, in which the final composition is for the most part established. The faint squaring enabled the drawing, which was on a smaller scale, to be transferred easily to the larger format of the painting.
St. Catherine of Alexandria, oil on wood, by Raphael, 1507-1508, 71,1 x 54,6 cm (National Gallery, London). Half-way between a work of private devotion and a collector’s piece, this picture was probably painted just before Raphael moved to Rome. Rather more evident than the influence of his master Perugino is that of Leonardo, who perfected the figura serpentinata pose in which the body twists about its axis, lending movement, grace and three-dimensional presence even to static figures. In fact, some scholars believe St. Catherine’s pose to be an echo of Leonardo’s lost painting of Leda and the Swan. Characteristically, Raphael justifies this unnatural position through a narrative device: Catherine turns her head upwards and to her right in ecstatic communion with the divine light descending in thin gold rays from the sky. St. Catherine’s left arm is leaning on her attribute, the wheel of her martyrdom (whose spikes Raphael wisely reduced to rounded knobs in order to tone down the element of cruelty) , and her right hand is pressed to her breast while she gazes up at a sky flooded with light. The landscape is painted with particular care. This painting clearly shows the intense formal research which underlies Raphael’s creations: he was always careful not to excite emotions which he considered too intense and to mitigate tones and thematic elements in search of a perfect balance between design, color, pose and expression, and between the figurative and ornamental elements.
The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist (also known as “La Belle Jardinière“), oil on wood, by Raphael, 1507-1508, 122 x 80 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This painting follows that of the Madonna of the Goldfinch (see picture before) chronologically, and its composition is a mirror image of that of the Madonna of the Meadow (see picture before). The painting was commissioned by Fabrizio Sergardi, a Sienese nobleman, and was left uncompleted by Raphael and later completed by another artist, probably Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio. Nevertheless, it is signed and dated. The painting is known primarily for the harmonic and proportional balancing of the poses of the figures and for the high formal quality present in every element, particularly in the face of the Virgin, which served as a model of beauty for generations of artists. This work is considered as Raphael’s highpoint of all the Madonnas he painted during his stay in Florence. The bodies occupy the space with great freedom, while the figures interact with deep feeling. The arch formed by the frame completes the composition harmoniously. Raphael put the date of the picture into the hem of the Virgin’s mantle, as he often did, but it is not clear if the Roman numerals are meant to be read as 1507 or 1508.
Colonna Madonna, oil on wood, by Raphael, ca. 1507-1508, 77 x 56 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). The painting took its name from the Roman patrician and papal family Colonna. Raphael painted it either during his last year in Florence or in the first year he was in Rome. The coloring pattern may suggests that the painting is not entirely finished. Raphael shows us here Mary being distracted from her reading by Jesus. He looks to the spectator while reaching for her neckline, clearly wanting to nurse.
The Holy Family, or La Perla, oil on wood, by Raphael (probably aided by Giulio Romano), ca. 1518, 147 x 116 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). The Madonna casts an affectionate eye on the young Christ Child and St. John the Baptist, who play in front of her. With one hand she makes a reassuring gesture toward her own mother, St. Anne, who is shown in a meditative position. St. Joseph sits in the background to the left under the shelter of several ruined classical buildings. On the right there is a serene landscape illuminated by touches of pinkish light. This painting was part of the collection of Philip IV of Spain who gave the picture its nickname, “La Perla”, because he considered it the “pearl” of his collection. This painting clearly shows the influence of Leonardo in the pyramidal composition, the light contrasts and the recreation of a realistic landscape. It is part of Raphael’s work during his period in Rome.

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