Raphael: Lights and Shadows in the Life of a Genius 

Giancarlo Pani SJ

 Giancarlo Pani SJ / Art / 15 May 2020

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In his New Year’s greetings to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, Pope Francis recalled the fifth centenary of the death of Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael), “the great artist from Urbino, who died in Rome on April 6, 1520”, and reflected: “he left us a vast legacy of inestimable beauty. Just as an artist’s genius can blend raw materials and different colors and sounds to create a unique work of art, so diplomacy is called upon to harmonize the distinctive features of the various peoples and states in order to build a world of justice and peace. This is in fact the beautiful masterpiece that all of us want to be able to admire.”[1]

The pope then went on to emphasize two other merits of Raphael. The first: “Raphael was an important figure of the Renaissance, an age that enriched all humanity. It was an age that had its own problems, and yet was filled with confidence and hope.” The second merit is that of having dedicated several paintings to the Madonna: “One of Raphael’s favorite subjects was the Virgin Mary. To her he dedicated many a canvas that can be admired today in museums throughout the world.”[2] Pope Francis captured well one of the characteristics of the great artist: in painting the Madonna, almost always depicted with her Son, Raphael established a typology that has had great religious and artistic success in the history of depictions of Mary that have been handed down through the centuries.[3]

Beauty and harmony

Rapahel was born in Urbino in 1483. His father was a painter and man of letters, and introduced his son to art. The cultural life of Urbino under the Montefeltro dukes favored the boy. It was a place where Piero della Francesca had left his mark. After the early death of his father, Raphael became a student of Perugino, a leader of the Umbrian school at the end of the 15th century, who had trained in Florence under Verrocchio, together with Lorenzo di Credi and Leonardo da Vinci. Perugino interpreted Piero della Francesca’s art in simplified and graceful forms, which had a significant influence on Raphael. He in turn was inspired by the crystalline clarity in the works of the great Piero – both in the perspective sphere and in the relationship between space and figure – which would later always be reflected in his paintings.

When Perugino reached the end of his famous career, the young Raphael experienced an inner crisis involving the artistic conception of his master and the vision of  Luca Signorelli, who saw art as communication and exhortation, with a social and spiritual function.

In 1504 Raphael was commissioned by the Albizzini family to paint the Marriage of the Virgin for the church of St. Francis in Città di Castello. It is the first painting on which he clearly placed his signature and the date, right in the center of the canvas, on the facade of the temple overlooking the scene: “Raffaello Urbinas 1504.” Here he reflects the underlying idea of the same image that Perugino was painting for the Chapel of the Relic of the Virgin’s Wedding Ring, in the cathedral of Perugia: this almost constitutes a challenge between the pupil and the master. The master takes up the scheme in the Delivery of the Keys (1484, Sistine Chapel): a foreground with the biblical episode, and in the background the temple and two triumphal arches. The fresco was celebrated as one of the best perspective constructions of the fifteenth century.

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