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Painter and architect, despite his short life, Raphael represents the pinnacle of painting of his time, a genius in constant search of grace and harmony. Born in Urbino in 1483, his legacy unequivocally changed the course of art history, influencing it until 1900.
Childhood at the Montefeltro court
Raphael’s early childhood developed around the Montefeltro court, where his father Giovanni Santi worked as a painter. From an early age he was introduced to the dynamic artistic environment of the Duchy of Urbino, at the time one of the centers of excellence of Renaissance culture. After his mother, Magia di Battista di Niccolò Ciarla dies when little Raphael is just nine years old, the artist remains in the care of his father and new stepmother. It was Giovanni who gave his son the first painting lessons, showing him the works of Piero della Francesca, the Flemish Giusto di Gand and Antonio del Pollaiolo exhibited in the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino. The father not only enjoys the privilege of being able to enter and leave the building as he pleases, but he is also a friend of many artists and writers active in the city, characteristics that will prove to be fundamental in directing Raphael’s personality and lifestyle.
In 1494, Giovanni Santi died and the young artist passed under the protection of his paternal uncle Bartolomeo. Of his formation after the death of his father there is no certain information. There are rumors of a probable apprenticeship in Perugino’s workshop, a fact suggested by the similarity of subjects and compositions of some works by the Umbrian artist and those of Raphael’s youth, but there is no concrete evidence of this relationship.
The artistic beginnings and the stay in Florence
The young artist’s talent could not remain long in the shadow of any master: already in 1500 the painter, just eighteen, signed a contract for the creation of an altarpiece. The document bears the Latin name Rafael Johannis Santis de Urbino associated with the word magister, or master, which suggests the already established talents of the artist. After just two years, he received his first commission outside the duchy: together with the famous painter Pinturicchio, he created the cycle of frescoes for the Piccolomini Library in Siena.
In 1504, he created the work that ever brought him closest to Perugino: The Marriage of the Virgin, now kept in the Pinacoteca di Brera. Subject, title and even the depiction of the scene are almost identical to the painting of the same name by the Umbrian master, although Raphael demonstrates greater attention to the perspective and the architectures present in the backdrop. The same year he leaves for Florence, an almost obligatory stay for any self-respecting artist, where he remains until 1508. Here, immersed in the artistic and cultural environment that gave birth to the Renaissance itself, the already outstanding talent from Urbino has the opportunity to blossom into new and great forms. Inspired by the works of Donatello, Masaccio and Luca della Robbia, and coming into contact with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Piero di Cosimo, he created some of his most iconic works. First of all, the Madonna del Cardellino, completed for the wealthy merchant Lorenzo Naso in 1506, now kept in the Uffizi Gallery. In this brilliantly colored work we see Raphael’s clear appreciation for Leonardo’s work in the pyramidal composition and in the set of linked gazes and movements, as well as in the vaporous rendering of the landscape. The scene, however, rather than wrapped in Leonardo’s aura of mystery, inspires a sincere and calm sweetness. The gestures are kind, familiar, Maria is a patient and happy mother, not the hieratic depiction of pious grief over the anticipated death of her son.
In the Florentine years he continued to create works of a religious nature, mainly in Umbria, but he also approached private clients. He created two splendid portraits for the wealthy Agnolo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi, the famous Doni spouses now exhibited in the Uffizi. The couple was passionate about art and in those same years had commissioned works from other great artists, such as Michelangelo’s Tondo Doni. There are many portraits made in that period and, curiously, also a famous self-portrait. Raphael paints himself in simple clothes, a black tunic over a white shirt, the painter’s classic work outfit. With this small work he not only wants to declare his profession, he wants to glorify, elevate and therefore make it worthy of being immortalized on canvas. Not only creator but also main actor of the work, the painter is a celebrity for Raphael. It is no coincidence that in 1508 he leaves for Rome, where he will become a real star.
Life in Rome
At the request of Pope Julius II, he therefore arrives in the eternal city to participate in the great urban renewal projects of the pontiff. In a few years Rome is filled with artists such as Michelangelo and Bramante, with whom Raphael will collaborate, and often clash. The first major work that the Urbino created in Rome were the frescoes for the famous Vatican Rooms, the apartment that Julius II had chosen for himself, unable to bear the idea of living in those occupied by his predecessor Alexander VI. Initially the painter had been commissioned to make simple tests on the vault of the Stanza della Segnatura. The pope, enraptured by what Raphael had just sketched out, decided to entrust him with the task of the entire complex of rooms, even destroying the parts already built the previous century by artists of the caliber of Piero della Francesca and Andrea del Castagno. Not only that, the restoration of the rooms had already been started by a group of highly respected painters, including Perugino, Lorenzo Lotto and Baldassarre Peruzzi, who are thus liquidated in an instant at the sight of Sanzio’s proofs. In the end, Raphael and his assistants created three of the main rooms of the pope’s apartments: the aforementioned Stanza della Segnatura, the Stanza dell’Incendio and that of Eliodoro.
Raphael’s fame grew more and more and during the 1510s he accumulated commissions after commissions from the richest exponents of the Roman patriciate. Around him, although still young, a first-rate workshop was thus created, set up by the master to meet the growing amount of work entrusted to him. The painter mainly deals with making the drawings and preparatory cartoons while his assistants, meticulously trained to follow the master’s style, spread the color and take care of the finishing touches under his supervision. Obviously this makes the attribution of numerous works to Sanzio’s hand very complicated, so much does his work and that of his assistants overlap throughout the last decade of his activity.
The authorship of one painting in particular was discussed for a long time: La Velata exhibited in the Palatine Gallery of Palazzo Pitti. We do not know whose commission it is, nor the precise date of its creation and for centuries experts have debated whether the work was by Raphael or only created in his style. The first inventory of the building that includes it bears the particular wording “they say by hand of Raffaello d’Urbino”. Every century seems to have seen a new interpretation of the matter: in the 1700s by Justus Sustermans, in the 1800s by Raphael’s workshop, today universally recognized as being made by his hand. One of the revealing clues seems to be the face of the woman portrayed, too similar to that of other works by Urbino, such as the Fornarina and the Sistine Madonna. In all these cases, and in many others, the model could be Margherita Luti, the woman he had loved most of all. The most loved, but certainly not the only one. In addition to painting, Raphael seems to have loved women very much, much more than was appropriate for a respectable man of the time. Even Vasari speaks of this “passion” of his so much as to see in it the cause of his premature death.
The protection of the artistic heritage
Pope Leo X, in 1514, awarded Raphael the title of Praefectus Marmorum et Lapidum Omnium, or the prefect of all the marbles and stones of the city. The function of the office is to supervise the excavation and recovery of marble and stone from ancient buildings located in Rome and intended to be reused for St. Peter’s Basilica. After all, Raphael had long boasted of being one of the greatest connoisseurs of ancient art and architecture. Specifically, the task is to carefully evaluate which pieces should be saved from this spoliation, evaluating their artistic value and supporting their cataloguing. This is the first real attestation of the commitment of a European state to the conservation of what we know today as cultural heritage. Not only that, in 1519, in a letter that we now know was written by Baldassarre Castiglioni on behalf of the artist, Raphael urged the pope to pay more attention to the issue of conservation. The epistle attacks the Roman nobles who for centuries plundered the ruins and upholstered their palaces with fragments of ancient Rome, recalling the importance of a complete mapping of the city and its ruins, to avoid further spoliation.
Style and heritage
Today Raphael is known as the artist of grace. In each of his works he manages to rework the innovations of the previous masters by interpreting them through his harmonious and soothing language. We can see Leonardo’s great psychological connotation and the softness of the outlines of the subjects, especially in portraiture. The sculptural plasticity of the characters and the use of space are by Michelangelo. His distinctive traits are instead the refinement and the real rendering of nature, with clear influences from Flemish art in the attention to detail. His style, almost divine for his contemporaries, laid the foundations for Mannerist and later Baroque art and his influence reached uninterrupted until 1900.
On April 6, 1520, at the age of only 37, Raphael died after more than two weeks of fever. In Vasari’s Lives we find written “And so the amorous pleasures continued out of the way, it happened that one time among the others he messed up more than usual, because he returned home with a very bad fever […]. Then I confess and contrite he ended the course of his life on the same day he was born”, suggesting that the disease was caused by the amorous excesses of the Urbino. Today, if we rely on the gossipy Vasari’s version, the only explanation we can give ourselves is that Raphael had contracted some venereal disease.
Whatever the reason for his death, what matters is what Raphael left to the world: an indelible, wonderful, almost divine artistic legacy.
Cover photo: Self-portrait, circa 1504-1506, Raffaello Sanzio, Palazzo Pitti, Florence
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