Born near Urbino, Raphael was trained by his father, Giovanni Santi. Recognizing the boy’s genius, Giovanni sent him to the workshop of Pietro Perugino, a leading painter in the region of Umbria at the time. In 1504, Raphael moved to Florence, the artistic hub of Italy in the early sixteenth century. Studying the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael combined elements from both to come up with a style entirely his own.
In 1508, Raphael was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II to work on a suite of papal rooms. In the first room, probably the pope’s library, Raphael painted frescoes of what were considered the four major disciplines: theology, philosophy, law, and poetry. The most famous of these, philosophy, later entitled the School of Athens, presents Plato and Aristotle set in a vast architectural space and surrounded by all the great thinkers of ancient Greece.
Raphael remained in Rome for the rest of his short but prolific life. In addition to many altarpieces and devotional paintings, he also painted mythological scenes, such as the Galatea, which was commissioned for the Villa Farnesina in 1512, and which depicts the nymph pursued by the giant Polyphemus. Raphael likewise earned a reputation as an architect and was appointed to supervise the construction of new Saint Peter’s Basilica when Donato Bramante, its initial designer, died in 1514. He was also a gifted portraitist, as can be seen in his painting of Baldassare Castiglione (1478– 1529), a prominent diplomat and author, who mentioned Raphael in his famous Renaissance treatise, The Book of the Courtier (1528).
One of Raphael’s most famous images of the Virgin and child, the Sistine Madonna (1512–1514) has provoked much discussion due to the unusually startled expression on the faces of both figures. Recent research has shown that the work’s original location in the church was such that the figures would have been looking at a crucifix.
Raphael is generally said to be the most classical of the three great Renaissance masters. The German scholar Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1842), in fact, claimed that Raphael did not have to imitate the Greeks since it was natural for him to think and feel as they did.
- The earliest biography of Raphael appears in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550).
- In the School of Athens, Plato points his finger up to indicate his interest in abstract, ethereal concepts, while Aristotle gestures down to the ground to show his preference for concrete subjects and worldly affairs.
- Raphael also explored Roman ruins, most notably the buried remains of the Golden House of Nero, the Domus Aurea.