What was Raphael's contribution to the Renaissance

From DailyHistory.org
Revision as of 11:06, 10 January 2020 by Ewhelan (talk | contribs) (Created page with "==Introduction== The Italian Renaissance is regarded as one of the high points of Western civilization and it has left an enduring artistic legacy. Traditionally, the three gr...")
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to: navigation, search


The Italian Renaissance is regarded as one of the high points of Western civilization and it has left an enduring artistic legacy. Traditionally, the three great master painters of the era are regarded as Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1517), better known as Raphael, is often cited as one of the great painters of all time and one of the most influential. He was not only a great artist who produced great works but made a real contribution to the Renaissance, in several areas. Raphael’s work was revolutionary, and he changed the history of art in this epoch both in Italy and beyond. Indeed, he inspired new artistic schools. He was a Renaissance man and a pioneer in printmaking, indeed he was one of the first artists to use this medium. Moreover, he was crucial in the modern conception of the artist.

Self-portrait by Raphael

Life and times of Raphael

Raphael was born on April 6, 1483, in Urbino, Italy. At this time Urbino, a small dukedom in the Papal States and one of the centers of the Renaissance. His father was Giovanni Santi, who was the court painter for the Duke of Urbino. It appears that Raphael’s father taught him the basics of painting at an early age. His childhood was idyllic, but his mother died when he was eight and his father died when he was just eleven. Remarkably, while still a child it is claimed that he took over his father’s workshop and he became an accomplished painter [1]. This story may be apocryphal, because the young man was later apprenticed to the well-known painter Perugino, in Umbria. While serving his apprenticeship he worked on frescoes and learned new techniques. Raphael soon developed his own unique style as seen in the Oddi Altar place, completed in 1503. From an early age, he was committed to demonstrating the grandeur of humanity, probably under the influence of Neoplatonism. After completing his apprenticeship, the young painter moved to Florence, where he studied the works of Leonardo and others. He composed a series of paintings on the Madonna (Virgin Mary) and this made him famous. He attracted the attention of Pope Julius II who commissioned him to paint the Vatican ‘Stanze’, a suite of reception rooms in the Papal Palace. Raphael painted a number of massive frescoes, among the most famous of these is the School of Athens, a painting of the great ancient Greek philosophers. He labored for over four years to create a cycle of frescoes that include the Triumph of Religion. These images express the Christian humanist philosophy that was prevalent in Rome at the time. These paintings were very well-received, and the Pope commissioned another set of frescoes in other Vatican room, the Room of Heliodorus. These works are considered among the greatest works of the High Renaissance. At the same time, Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel and he came to dislike the younger painter. He began to suspect that Raphael was conspiring with others against him. Michelangelo accused the young man from Urbino of plagiarising his work, but no one took this seriously. [2]. While working on the Vatican Rooms, Raphael, established a workshop, where, he and his assistants, produced a great many paintings of the Virgin Mary, including the renowned Sistine Madonna. He also painted many notable portraits at the time, including that of Pope Julius II and two cardinals (1519) and the astounding character study of the writer Baldassare Castiglione (1516). Raphael was a tireless worker and he also produced many great cartoons and he is widely regarded as one of the greatest draughtsmen in all western art. Raphael like the other great Renaissance figures was a man of many talents, and he was also an architect. Raphael had great respect for the classical past and he was one of the first to display an interest in archaeology. He urged the Pope to stop the destruction of ancient ruins. It was often the case that old buildings were pulled down and their materials recycled in new buildings. Raphael was appointed the commissioner of antiquities for the city of Rome by Julius II and in this role, he preserved many ruins, collected inscriptions and drew up a map of the archaeology of Rome. By 1512, the painter was in charge of all the Papacy’s artistic projects. He was a very popular figure in Rome and was notorious for his many affairs. He became engaged to a niece of a Cardinal but appears that he was reluctant to marry because he was deeply in love with his mistress and model, Margarita Luti, known as La Fornarina whom he painted many times. Raphael fell gravely ill and died on Good Friday 1517, which many believe was also the date of his birth. It has been suggested that he died of overwork, but given the unhealthy environment of Rome, he could have died of some infectious disease. In his will, he left most of his estate to his beloved Margarita. Raphael was buried in the Pantheon in Rome, a singular distinction and indicates his fame at the time of his death. His early death possibly meant that he did not achieve even more.

Frescoes in the Vatican

Raphael’s influence on painting

Raphael had an enormous impact on the history of painting in the Renaissance. His work was very classical in style and in this regard it was similar to Michelangelo and Leonardo. However, he took painting in a new direction and he was prepared to show the emotional life of his subject. Previously artists had been reluctant to show emotions in a realistic way under the influence of classical art. Raphael was not afraid to portray his subjects in an emotionally realistic way and this made him very popular. In particular, it meant that he was a much-admired portraitist. His portraits are concerned among some of the finest that has ever been composed and influenced painters during the later Renaissance and even later. Raphael was not an innovator in painting techniques but perfected many techniques. This gave his works a very harmonious quality that was much admired and emulated. Raphael’s ‘sprezzatura' or naturalness was especially praised [3]. Despite his great artistry, he was able to conceal it and nothing painted by him every appears to be contrived or forced. It is claimed that this naturalness and effortlessness was something that even the great Michelangelo envied. In some of Raphael’s works, such as his frescoes in the Vatican we can see the beginnings of a new school of painting. The Urbino artist’s, contrasts of light and dark, and use of dramatic colors inspired the development of the Mannerist School [4]. This was a movement that includes painters such as Tintoretto and influenced the work of El Greco. Raphael is considered to be one of the great religious painters in the Christian tradition of all time and his depictions of the crucifixion of Christ are considered to be masterpieces. However, it is his depictions of the Madonna, or Mary the mother of Jesus Christ that has been particularly admired. Raphael’s portrayal of the Madonna changed the course of religious art in the Renaissance and indeed to this day, the many representations of the Virgin Mary, show the mark of his influence. Raphael was enormously influential and was called the ‘Prince of Painters’ by the first art historian Giorgio Vasari [5]. Raphael was not only influential in how own day but also later. His fame was eclipsed by others in the Baroque, but he was extremely popular in the 19th century and was widely emulated.

Portrait of Julius II

Raphael as an architect

Raphael was also an important architect. He was appointed the chief architect of the Pope after the death of the great Donato Bramante (1440-1514). Raphael was to play an important role in the creation of Rome as we now know it, today. His first successful design was a chapel in the Church of Saint Eligio degli Orefici. Perhaps his most important work was the chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo Chapel, which can still be seen in St Peter’s. Raphael also designed several private villas and houses, but sadly none of these have survived, if they did, it is likely that his reputation as an architect would be higher. Raphael style owed much to Bramante, but he also incorporated many details and ornaments in his buildings. This encouraged other architects to design less austere and severe classical buildings, which was to become very popular during the Late Renaissance [6].

Raphael and the emergence of reproductive art

Raphael was not a printmaker, but he worked with one of the first printmakers Marcantonio Raimondi. The artist produced the drawing and they were then engraved by Raimondi, who had them printed. Together they produced many of the best-known prints of the Italian Renaissance. The artist was one of the first to make prints of his work and he played an important role in the rise of reproductive art or prints. He had prints made of some of his most important works such as the Massacre of the Innocents. Raphael was an innovator and perhaps the first great artist to recognize the importance of prints in the Renaissance.

Raphael’s Sistine Madonna

Raphael and the conceptualization of modern art

In the Middle Ages, painters and other artists were only regarded as craft persons or manual workers and had little or no social status. The Renaissance changed all this and led to the modern conception of the artists, that is someone who is gifted and can produce beautiful works that offer profound insights [7]. During the Renaissance painters and others attained a new status and rank. Raphael was one of the first to be regarded in this light. Unlike his predecessors, he was famous and was a well-known personality in Rome. He was indeed something of a celebrity, in his time. Moreover, he was a close friend of the great and the powerful. At one time it was even proposed that he be appointed a Cardinal and became a confidant of Pope Julius II. Raphael was a charismatic and attractive character and he did much to redefine the role of the artist in Renaissance society[8]. He was to demonstrate that the visual arts, such as painting were superior to the crafts. Raphael in works such as the School of Athens showed that the painting could deal with serious subjects and provide a unique experience. While in his religious paintings he demonstrated that art could be uplifting. The Urbino born artist helped to change the way that people experienced art. Raphael played a very important role in the conception of what is the nature of art and its value to society.


Raphael was a true Renaissance man and remains one of the most popular of all the artists, from that period. He is synonymous with grace and elegance. Today, he is not as highly regarded and other artists such as Titian are even regarded as his superior. Yet Raphael was a great painter and he produced many masterpieces. His mastery of technique and his emotional realism was revolutionary and changed the history of Renaissance art. He was possibly the most decisive influence on the painting of the Later Renaissance, while he changed the nature of religious art and portraiture. Raphael was also an innovator and he was a pioneer in prints, a fine architect and was one of the first who sought to preserve the built heritage of Rome. His life and work were crucial in the emergence of the modern idea of the artist and the nature of art.

Further Reading

Goffen, Rona. Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian. (Yale University Press, Yale, 2002).

Liebert, Robert S. "Raphael, Michelangelo, Sebastiano: High Renaissance Rivalry." Source: Notes in the History of Art 3, no. 2 (1984): 60-68.

Hall, Marcia, and Marcia B. Hall, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Raphael. Cambridge University Press, 2005.


  1. Gould, Cecil, The Sixteenth Century Italian Schools (National Gallery Catalogues, London 1975), p. 13
  2. Liebert, Robert S. "Raphael, Michelangelo, Sebastiano: High Renaissance Rivalry." Source: Notes in the History of Art 3, no. 2 (1984): 60-68
  3. Piper, David.The Illustrated History of Art. 2004. Octopus Printing: UK)
  4. Piper, p 202
  5. Vasari, Giorgio (2000). Lives of the Painters (London, Penguin, 2000), p. 178
  6. Vasari. p. 301
  7. Burckhardt, J The culture of the civilization of the Italian Renaissance (Penguin, London, 1995), p 34
  8. Vasari. p. 301