Raphael, the painter of Grace – Biography and works

Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael is one of the three greatest masters of the Renaissance. He is also known as ‘The Divine.’ Influenced by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Pietro Perugino, Masaccio, and Fra Bartolommeo, he is part of the history of art for the perfect grace and spatial geometry of his painting and drawing of the High Renaissance. His career is divided into 3 phases: the Umbrian period, in Perugino’s workshop. In the Florentine period and the Roman period, he worked in Rome for 2 Popes and created works such as Santa Cecilia, Our Lady of San Sisto, and The Transfiguration.

Among his most important works are the frescoes in the Raphael Rooms (including the Stanza della Segnatura) in the Vatican Palace – long considered among the greatest Renaissance paintings – and the compositions of the altarpiece The Sistine Madonna (1513, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) and the just mentioned Transfiguration (1519-20, Vatican Museums). He was also an important contributor to Renaissance architecture, in such works as the Church of Santa Maria, the Chigi Chapel, Rome (1513), the Palazzo Pandolfini (façade), Florence (1517), and the Villa Madama, Rome (begun 1518).

Raffaello Sanzio was born in Urbino on 6 April, a Good Friday, in 1483 by Giovanni di Sante di Pietro (Sanzio is the Latinized form of the inheritance of Sante or the saints), an intellectual of value even if not an excellent painter at the court of Federico di Montefeltro (of which he wrote in his honor the work on the art of the time Cronaca Rimata). Little Raphael, therefore, spent his first years at the cosmopolitan ducal court of Urbino, where his father, from whom he learned the first rudiments of painting, painted in the style of Pietro della Francesca and Melozzo da Forlì. In 1491 she lost her mother, Magia, and in 1494 her father. Orphaned at eleven, Raphael was entrusted to his uncle Bartolomeo, a priest. It is probable that in addition to his uncle, Raphael was under the tutelage of Evangelista da Piandimeleto, pupil and trusted friend of his father, who is presumed to have collaborated with Raphael for the convent of Sant’Agostino in Città di Castello in 1501, the Altarpiece of the Blessed Nicola da Tolentino, then dismembered and dispersed among the Tosio-Martinengo Art Gallery in Brescia, the Capodimonte Museum in Naples and the Detroit Institute of Art.

In the meantime, he was sent to Perugia, to Perugino’s workshop (c. 1450-1523), a very active and lively environment, also because the master accepted any assignment to increase his earnings. Raphael paints and draws everything here, often copying his fellow workshops from life. He created an infinite number of portraits from which he would later draw to create the figures of his most famous paintings of him, in which other prominent contemporary personalities can be recognized, such as Bramante in the guise of Pythagoras in the School of Athens.

From these innumerable drawings (I think that a few hundred have come down to us) we deduce, on the one hand, Raphael’s working method, which consists in thoroughly analyzing every possible alternative of the subject before moving on to the realization phase, on the other his interest more in harmony, nature, balance than in the anatomical precision that so obsessed his Tuscan contemporaries.

Right from the start, the young artist demonstrated that incredible learning ability that would characterize his entire existence when he met the greatest artists of his time, from Leonardo to Michelangelo. Leonardo da Vinci was at that time thirty years his senior. His influence is evidenced by the drawing of a young woman in which Raphael uses the three-quarter pyramidal composition of the Mona Lisa just completed. Raphael also perfected Da Vinci’s nuanced technique to give subtlety to the flesh of his figures. From Perugino, he learned the sense of compositional balance, the taste for bright colors, and the agreement of the figures with the landscape. He learns but soon surpasses: compared to the master, his images of him are, in fact, more powerful, and the colors even brighter. His first certain work dates back to 1500 and is the Coronation of Blessed Nicola da Tolentino for a church in Città di Castello. It is an altarpiece of which some drawings and a few fragments remain. Then we have the preparatory drawings for the departure of Enea Silvio Piccolomini to the time of the Council of Basel, commissioned by Pinturicchio when Raphael was just twenty years old. Comparing the two initial works, the differences stand out clearly: the drawing is made up of spatial planes that lead the eye to move as the knights in the foreground move gradually further and further away over the port and the open sea; the fresco instead is flattened and without perspective, more decorative than realistic or descriptive.

As a comparison, however, the one between two subjects painted in the same 1504 by Perugino and his pupil, the Marriage of the Virgin, is more striking. After this effort, Raphael’s first existential and artistic stage closes, and the next one opens in Florence. He even has to confront Leonardo and Michelangelo but desires to learn and does not seek controversy with the two great contemporaries. While Michelangelo contrasts Leonardo’s Doni Tondo with the Virgin and Saint Anne with Child and Infant Saint John, Raphael studies Michelangelo’s Tondo Taddei, reverses it as a mirror image and derives from it the so-called Bridgewater Madonna, very sweet and serene; just as the Canigiani Holy Family (1507) takes up the duplication of the Madonna-Sant’Anna and Jesus-St. John the Baptist from Leonardo’s painting, inserting them into a pyramid with the slightly bowed figure of St. Joseph at the top.

A curious note is that the very sweet Madonnas by Raphael, so loved by sixteenth-century patrons, still meet with enormous public success: just think of the countless reproductions of the Madonna with the goldfinch, which often appear in place of the crucifix above the beds, or the particular of the two little angels at the feet of the Sistine Madonna which, in the form of a panel, have now become a piece of furniture as fashionable as it is anonymous.

A comparison with Leonardo’s work can also be established through the parallel between the Mona Lisa and the portrait of Maddalena Doni, executed a couple of years later (1506) on commission from Angelo Doni, one who had ordered the tondo of the same name from Michelangelo. The two women are in the same position, slightly foreshortened and with the right hand on the left. Still, while Leonardo’s portrait is all an enveloping nuance that unites the figure in the foreground to the background with the ancient landscape, in Raphael’s portrait, we see a concrete Florentine noblewoman, sumptuously dressed and with a slightly haughty expression on her face with soft features. And even the colors, with their fresh transparencies, are far from those of Leonardo.

The ongoing challenge between Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael has profound repercussions on the Florentine environment and beyond. Botticelli no longer receives commissions, Perugino is criticized as a painter who always proposes the same models, and Filippino Lippi and Piero di Cosimo – the last remaining of the previous generation – need help finding work. On the other hand, the sum of the big three extends to Rome, and the Florentine lordship emerges defeated by the French and, above all, Roman competition. It is impossible to oppose the sumptuous patronage of Julius II della Rovere, who summoned the period’s major artists, including Michelangelo and Andrea Sansovino in 1505 and Raphael in 1508.

While work on the Sistine Chapel was starting, the Pope put another grandiose project in the works: a new apartment in the Vatican. This determined and irascible Pope, the more soldier than intellectual, could not bear to live in the same apartment as his predecessor (apart from the very brief parenthesis of the old Pius III), the controversial Borgia of Alexander VI. Of course, there were the splendid frescoes by Pinturicchio, but the problem was overcome in a peremptory way: he would get more beautiful frescoes. He summoned the best artists of the moment, Lorenzo Lotto, Bramantino, and Sodoma. Still, then he didn’t hesitate to change his mind and entrust all the work to a particularly promising boy: Raphael.

And the result will even exceed expectations because Sanzio is a careful and very sensitive interpreter of his time, whose ferment he grasps and reflects before anyone else. Contrary to the gloomy and solitary Michelangelo, Raphael is, in fact, well introduced in the Roman world, nor does he draw the female company; on the contrary, there are various hypotheses on the identity of his lovers, one of which would have been identified in the topless lady known as the Fornarina. What is certain is that Raphael also has other interests. For example, he urges Leo X to stop looting Roman ruins (exploited as quarries for building materials at no cost) and to catalog them carefully. And his way of recovering the ancient spirit is classic (with his architecture, the grotesques, the stucco decorations of certain buildings, the mosaic for the dome of the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo), but without the rigid orthodoxy of the classicist’s real.

However, the artist also cultivated another vein that softened and revitalized his classicism: it is that taste for theatrical effects which is increasingly accentuated by the Madonna of Foligno (1511-1512) with its bright Giorgionesque colors, Sistine Madonna (1513-1514) and Santa Cecilia (1514), up to the Transfiguration, from the controversial attribution. In the Sistine Madonna, for example, the virgin is not seated on a throne nor is she static, but is captured as she advances between the saints Sisto and Barbara (respectively, they point to and look at the faithful below, creating a rotary motion that involves the spectators in ecstasy), one foot in front of the other and the veil raised by the wind. The scenic effect is given by the side curtains draped by a soft carpet of clouds, from which the two little angels we were talking about emerge.

The “theatrical” setting is accentuated in the Transfiguration, completed by the students, which sees a luminous upper area (with Christ gloriously ascending into heaven) dominating the gloomy lower area, where the spectators of the prodigy underline its exceptional nature with exaggerated gestures or, in fact, theatrically emphatic. Raphael’s wholly humanistic passion for the theater also finds concrete expression in the preparation of some sets, such as that for Ariosto’s I Supposti in 1519. The artist cultivates two other strands in many multifaceted activities: portraiture and architecture.

The portraits of two popes exemplify the first: Julius II (1512-1513) and Leo X (1518-1519). Few but important examples remain of the second, such as the small Church of Sant’Eligio degli Orefici, inspired by Bramante, like Santa Maria delle Carceri, which takes up the central plan scheme so dear to the Renaissance. Of course, Raphael was explicitly inspired by Donato Bramante (who recommended him as his successor). When the latter died in 1514, the pope hired Raphael as his chief architect. In addition to the design for Sant’ Eligio degli Orefici, he also designed a chapel for Santa Maria del Popolo and an area within the new St. Peter’s Basilica. Raphael’s architecture, like Bramante’s, used ornamental details that prefigure the architectural style of the late Renaissance and early Baroque.

On April 6, 1520, his 37th birthday, Raphael died suddenly of mysterious causes in Rome. At his death, she was working on her largest canvas painting, the Transfiguration (commissioned in 1517). This last unfinished painting was placed on his coffin during the funeral held in the Vatican. Raphael’s body was buried in the Pantheon in Rome.

After his death, Raphael’s movement towards Mannerism influenced Italian painting styles moving towards the Baroque at the end of the century. Celebrated for the balanced and harmonious compositions of his “Madonnas,” portraits, frescoes, and architecture, Raphael continues to be widely regarded as the leading artistic figure of Renaissance classicism. After his death, Raphael’s movement towards Mannerism influenced Italian painting styles moving towards the Baroque at the turn of the century. Celebrated for the balanced and harmonious compositions of his ‘Madonnas,’ portraits, frescoes, and architecture, Raphael continues to be widely regarded as the leading artistic figure of Renaissance classicism.

What did Raffaello Sanzio die of?

No one knows the artist’s cause of death. However, according to Vasari, his death occurred after 15 days of illness, which began with a fever, caused, according to the biographer, by “amorous excesses,” and was treated with repeated bloodletting, which did him more harm than good.

Alfonso Paolucci, ambassador of the Duke of Ferrara Alfonso I d’Este in Rome, thus recalls the burial of Raphael in the Pantheon on April 7, 1520.


Enjoy priority entry to Italy’s greatest art treasures with a reserved entrance ticket to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. See masterpieces by Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Giotto, and spend as much time as you like gazing at Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.”

visit uffizi small group tours payment option

Join our Uffizi Gallery Tour for skip-the-line access with an expert guide to make the most of your visit!

Skip-The-Line Uffizi Gallery Timed Entrance Ticket

Uffizi gallery skip the line tickets

From € 20.00 per person

Enjoy priority entry to Italy’s greatest art treasures with a reserved entrance ticket to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Skip-the-Line Uffizi Small Group Tour

Skip-the-Line Uffizi Small Group Tour

From € 39.00 per person

Visit the Uffizi Gallery, one of the oldest in the world. Learn all about the inside stories behind some of the most notable art masterpieces in the world from your guide.

Uffizi & Accademia Small Group Walking Tour

From € 119.00 per person

Explore Florence on a small group tour with an expert local guide. See Michelangelo’s David, the Duomo and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.