Sanzio Raphael Biography

A Raphael biography is, of necessity, quite brief. Raphael died when he was a mere 37 years old. He never married, and left behind no children. What he did leave behind is an astonishing output of masterful paintings, including multiple paintings of the virgin birth and the lives of the saints. He participated in one of the great rivalries in all of art history. And he taught an entire generation of painters how to compose paintings without excessive detail or ornamentation. This is quite a legacy.


Sanzio Raphael was born in 1483 in Urbino. His father, Giovanni Santi, was a minor painter with big connections. Sanzio Raphael was introduced to the works of Paolo Uccello and Hieronymus Bosch at an early age, and was encouraged to begin painting himself. It is likely that Raphael would have lived a life of privilege and wealth, however, his parents died when Raphael was quite young, and the boy was placed as an apprentice in the workshop of Pietro Perugino. While the exact beginning date of his apprenticeship is unknown, it was likely around 1495. Under the tutelage of Perugino, Raphael would learn how to stage and set up his paintings, grouping figures in the center of the visual field and reducing cluttering details in the periphery. While Raphael paintings would continue to contain this lyrical, clear quality, the young artist quickly surpassed his teacher, and Raphael began to look for new opportunities.


In 1504, Raphael moved to Florence. A revolution in art was taking place in Florence at this time. Leonardo da Vinci had just returned from Milan, bringing with him the infamous Mona Lisa. Michelangelo had just completed the statue David. Suddenly, realism in art was moving to the fore, as was the realization that the human form could be rendered in all three dimensions. This was the beginning of the High Renaissance, and Raphael didn't want to miss any of the action.

Between 1505 and 1507, Raphael would enter the conversation through the Raphael Madonnas. He would generate at least five images of the Madonna and the Christ child, injecting the Raphael Madonna paintings with a humanism and tenderness never before seen. In The Madonna of the Goldfinch, the Madonna, Christ child and John the Baptist are arranged in a pyramid form. The Christ child here is lovingly realistic as a child, with wrinkles of fat and a chubby, pudgy appearance. The Madonna looks down on him lovingly, fondly, not as a worshipper but as a mother. The Madonna of Belvedere from 1506 is similarly structured, with the figures in a pyramid, but the children here are gamboling and playing, rather than enacting a stiff, formal act. Again, realism, tenderness and beauty are on display here.


Sanzio Raphael paintings were soon considered quite valuable, and the painter quite talented. In 1508, he was called to Rome by Pope Julius II at the recommendation of Donato Bromante. The Pope was redecorating his personal quarters with theological designs, and required a skilled painter. This was an extensive job, with a short timeline, and Raphael was required to hire a team of artists to assist him with the paintings. While it is likely that Raphael designed the majority of the panels, many of the details were likely painted by his assistants not by Sanzio. Raphael would still make a statement with these paintings as they demonstrate a sweeping, bold style and a clear method of composition.

As part of his commission, Raphael Sanzio was required to paint an image depicting the march of knowledge and learning throughout the ages. Raphael generated a masterwork, The School of Athens, as a result. The center of the image is taken up with Aristotle and Plato, walking and talking. Clusters of other thinkers and philosophers crowd this painting, so many that researchers are still trying to determine just who is depicted and where. It is known, however, that the cheeky Raphael included himself in the painting, in the extreme right near a pillar. He looks out at the viewer with a clear, calm expression. The School of Athens is one of the most recognizable Raphael paintings ever created. "The Parnassus," also painted as part of Raphael's commission, depicts the home of the muses, considered the home of poetry in classical literature. Raphael fills The Parnassus with contemporary figures, including Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch intermingling with old masters, such as Apollo, Homer and Ovid.

While Raphael was busily painting these frescoes, another revolution in art was taking place nearly next door. Michelangelo was hard at work on the Sistine Chapel. When the Sistine Chapel ceiling was revealed in 1509, Raphael paintings began to grow and change as well. The twisting, muscular, vibrant bodies of Michelangelo were new and vibrant additions to the conversation, and Raphael promptly added this style to his own paintings. Michelangelo accused the young painter of trying to poison him, and Raphael retaliated by including a weeping Michelangelo in The School of Athens.

In 1512, Raphael included this new style in his most famous work, The Sistine Madonna. In this masterwork, the Madonna and child once more again take center stage. Her arms are powerful, and her position is slightly twisted. She and the baby look out at the viewers with sadness and fear, as though they cannot bear what is to come. This painting has become iconic in modern times due to the small cupid figures at the bottom of the painting. Their images have been reproduced countless times, taken completely out of context of this painting.

In 1517, Transfiguration by Raphael was begun. This painting depicts the rise of the crucified Christ to heaven, in front of a swooning, fighting, writhing crowd. Again, the influence of Michelangelo is seen here in the powerful body shapes, bold gestures and twisted bodies. Raphael would not live to complete this painting.

Sanzio Raphael died on his birthday. He fell ill after a night with his mistress, and was taken to a doctor for treatment. While the details are unclear, researchers believe he was given a botched "cure" and died as a result. His funeral was held at the Vatican, and he was buried in Rome in the Pantheon.