- The Divine Raphael [Biography]
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Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael)

When Raphael Sanzio died in 1520 at the age of 37, his career was like a soaring skyrocket bursting at the apogee of its trajectory with a brilliance that stunned the sensibilities of his contemporaries, even those used to the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo, his painting master, Perugino, and his mentor, Bramante. This skyrocket was launched from the city of Perugia in 1483. His father, also a painter, apparently put a brush in his son's hand almost as soon as the boy could hold it. But when Raphael was eleven, his father died. At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to Perugino, and apparently began painting Madonnas under his own name around 1500. Raphael was like a one-man Madonna factory in fact, over the next few years, seemingly painting one for every church in Italy.

After some time in Florence studying Masaccio and sneaking peaks at the work of Michelangelo, he was invited to Rome by a fellow Perugian, Donato Bramante, who just happened to be the architect for the new St. Peters Cathedral. Bramante personally introduced him to Pope Julius II who put him to work ripping down some old Signorelli frescos in the papal apartments from the hated Borgia regime and replacing them with scenes such as The School of Athens and The Transfiguration. The latter of these he never finished. It was before this giant masterpiece that the body of the sweet-faced young master lay in state, mourned by his lovely bride-to-be and half the population of Italy.

From this point the starburst faded quickly. Michelangelo said of him that he'd succeeded not so much because of his superior talents but because of his tremendous industry. It sounded polite enough at the time but amounted to praising with faint damns. Giovanni Bernini, a century later, warned young painters not to try and emulate Raphael for it would get them nowhere. The German archaeologist, Johan Winckelman, is said to have remarked that Raphael's Christ-child images had a "common" look. But Edouard Manet was the most outspoken. He let people know in uncertain terms, "Raphael turns my stomach." His reputation glowed briefly during the Romantic era when it was fashionable to die young and beautiful, which Raphael certainly did. And Queen Victoria is said to have found him a "delightful" painter. However even the Pre-Raphaelites regarded his work as full of "hollow virtuosity" and the English critic, John Ruskin, considered his Madonnas nothing more than "lovely ladies". It has only been in this century that Raphael's work has come to be appreciated in the context in which it was created--amidst a crescendo of classical thought ignited with religious visual exposition that never was before and never will be again.

contributed by Lane, Jim

28 September 1998

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