*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The town of Urbino, a small hamlet 20 miles from the northeastern coast of Italy, is a charming locale in the heart of Tuscany. Nestled among rolling hills, the picturesque landscape would provide even a novice artist with plenty of inspiration, but on April 6, 1483, one of the most famous painters in history — Raphael Sanzio — was born into this sun-drenched masterpiece of classic Italian architecture. Over the next 37 years, he would grow to be a Renaissance master.
Despite the size of his hometown, Raphael could not have asked for a better place to be born into: Urbino was known for its disproportionately large artistic community. Federico III, Duke of Urbino, had a reputation for encouraging literary pursuits, yet he employed a court painter in order to keep pace with his contemporaries. The man he hired as his official poet and painter was Giovanni Sanzio, Raphael’s father.
Living in this environment, Raphael benefited immensely from being surrounded by the wealthy. His father could spend time instructing him in the finer points of painting technique, while others helped him understand the complicated discipline of proper courtly behavior. Nurturing these skills made him comfortable within the upper echelons of Italian society, something which would come in handy as he aged.
In August 1494, Raphael’s father died, leaving him in a custody battle between his stepmother and uncle. Though just 11 years old, the boy already displayed the talent necessary for a full-on career in the arts, possibly learning how to manage a successful business by helping to run his deceased father’s former workshop. Eager to see his ability developed to its fullest potential, Raphael was apprenticed during his late teens to Pietro Perugino in the town of Citta della Pieve, one of the most sought-after painters of the time.
Bouncing between Perugia and the Medici-run culture capital of Florence while under Perugino’s tutelage, Raphael achieved the status of “master” in 1501 — the same year he finished his first commission, an altar for a tiny church in the town of Citta di Castello. As if by fate, his individual pursuits blossomed almost immediately: he quickly gained a number of jobs in Urbino and Perugia while also helping a friend design the frescoes for the Piccolomini Library in the Siena Cathedral.
From 1504 until 1508, Raphael spent most of his time in Florence developing his style further, echoing the shapes and compositions of others to produce his own method for bringing a story to life on canvas. Remarkably, very early in this period, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti also worked among the Florentines, marking the only occasion the “Trinity of Renaissance Masters” undertook their craft in the same place. (Intense personal rivalries developed between them in the years that followed.)
Raphael produced some of his most famous works during his days in Florence, painting Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Deposition of Christ shortly before he moved to Rome in 1508. Upon arriving in the Italian capital, he immediately received a commission to cover the ceiling of Pope Julius II’s library in the Vatican Palace, the largest project of his life to that point.
While his rival, Michelangelo, worked on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Raphael moved from room to room throughout the vast papal estate covering up works ordered by Pope Alexander VI only a few years before. Referred to as the Stanza della Segnatura (“Rooms of the Signature”), the three-room complex is Raphael’s masterpiece, an overwhelming expression of his detailed compositions.
Despite his excellence on display throughout the Stanza, particularly in The School of Athens, Raphael was overshadowed during his era by the magnitude of Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel. The bitterness between the two spilled over often, with Michelangelo (somewhat correctly) accusing Raphael of plagiarism for copying his style from hidden sections of the ceiling before its completion in 1512.
Work for the Vatican consumed Raphael’s artistic talents. When his friend Donato Bramante, the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica, died in 1514, the 31-year-old artist from Urbino took his place as lead designer and project manager. As Rome grew around the capital of the Catholic Church, Raphael found himself designing buildings to line the streets, often residences for the many high officials living in the city.
On April 6, 1520 — 37 years to the day after his birth — Raphael died at his Roman home. Now as financially secure as the people he grew up around in Urbino, his funeral ended up one of the biggest events in the city at the time.
Recognized by other artists at the time for his prolific sketches, Raphael’s work fell into the shadow of Michelangelo for decades after his death. Nearly a hundred years later, the balance and magnificence of his works gained wider appreciation. Even then, he still remains the lesser known of Italy’s three Renaissance painters today.
Also On This Day:
1453 – Mehmed II begins his siege of Constantinople (present day Istanbul)
1793 – The Committee of Public Safety effectively becomes the central government during the French Republic
1830 – The Church of Christ — the first incarnation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — is begun by Joseph Smith, Jr. in upstate New York
1896 – The first modern Olympic Games opens in Athens
1917 – The United States declares war on Germany, officially entering World War I