Raphael of Urbino is called the prince of painters. And a true prince he was in physical beauty, in graciousness of manner, in kindness of soul, and in power to command the love and admiration of all people with whom he came in contact.
It would almost seem that the gentleness of Saint Francis himself had fallen upon him, for Raphael, too, was born among the Apennines near the old town of Assisi. The rugged mountains still rise hill upon hill to the distant blue sky. Assisi, almost deserted, may still be visited, and you may stand in the very house where Raphael was born. You will find it on a steep hillside in the little town of Urbino.
Urbino is built upon a jutting mountain cliff beneath which is a rushing torrent. In the far distance one may see on a clear day the blue Mediterranean. Urbino was once a prosperous town over which a powerful duke ruled, but now it is a quaint village whose one treasure is the house on the steep hillside.
Raphael’s father was Giovanni Santi, a painter of some ability. His mother was the daughter of a rich merchant. Raphael was born April 6, 1483.
No shadow fell across the path of the child until he was eight years of age. Then a great sorrow befell him. His mother died. His father, anxious that the child should not miss a mother’s care, married again. His stepmother treated him with all tenderness, and thus the child grew strong and beautiful in the bright Italian sunshine and the loving atmosphere of home.
He had few companions besides his father and mother. He played much in his father’s studio, and like Angelo learned in babyhood to use the tools of art which later would bring him renown.
In 1494, while the boy was still young, his second misfortune came. His father died. Raphael was left under the guardianship of his stepmother and his father’s brother, a priest.
For a time nothing was done toward his further education. But an uncle who seemed to realize that the lad had unusual genius for painting at last gained permission to send him away to a master. He was placed under the instruction of Perugino, who, it is said, remarked, “Let him be my pupil; he will soon be my master.”
Raphael remained in the studio of Perugino at Perugia nearly nine years. Other students were with him who afterwards became great artists.
A master like Perugino would often receive many orders for pictures or frescoes which he could not execute alone. So the less important work would be left to students. This not only aided the artist, but it made it possible for students to show their power. If a young man had unusual talent, he was sure to seize this opportunity to show his ability and attract the master’s attention. Raphael’s earliest work was done to assist Perugino.
After the death of Perugino, Raphael returned for a time to Urbino. Here he painted for the reigning duke Saint George slaying the Dragon and Saint Michael attacking Satan. Both of these pictures are now in the Louvre gallery at Paris.
But Raphael wanted especially to see the pictures of Angelo and Leonardo, whose fame had spread to the most remote valleys of the rugged Apennines. So with a letter of introduction to the ruler of Florence, Raphael in 1504 started upon his travels. His letter, he knew, would insure him a welcome in Florence at least.
As he walked through the streets of this beautiful city he felt like a fairy prince in a land of magic. Now he stood beneath the bell tower which Giotto had designed, now he passed the wonderful bronze gates which Ghiberti had cast, and now he studied the pictures of Leonardo or Angelo which were in all the brilliancy of fresh color.
New ideas crowded upon him, new inspiration roused him. He was sure he could do more, much more, than he had ever dreamed of doing before. Eagerly he began to paint, and within a few months three Madonnas were marked with his name. A fresco painting of the Last Supper, which was probably executed by him this same year, was discovered on the wall of a convent dining room in 1845.
He had been gone not quite a year when he returned to Urbino to complete some work which he had before undertaken. The influence of Florence was seen at once in both color and form. He was a finer artist.
All that northern Italy could offer, Raphael had now seen. But the art of Rome excelled the art of Florence. Angelo was at that very time hard at work upon the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. Leonardo in Milan had amazed Italy and the world by his Last Supper. He, too, was soon to be in Rome. Hither, in 1506, Raphael went.
A young man of handsome, courtly appearance and gracious manners, with many friends and no enemies, fortune truly favored him! The Pope received him gladly and soon commissioned him to decorate the hall of the Vatican.
Two of the greatest artists of any age were now working almost side by side, Michael Angelo and Raphael of Urbino. Often one or the other would stand by his rival and watch his brush. Yet neither ever spoke. Each admired the other and each was known to defend the other under the attacks of inferior artists.
Raphael worked steadily in the Vatican hall. Perhaps the most pleasing of these frescoes is the one which shows the Church in heaven and the Church on earth.
The fresco is divided into two sections. The upper one shows the Almighty Father in the midst of angels. Below Him is Christ enthroned, with the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist. Beneath the throne is the Dove of the Holy Spirit. In the lower fresco appear Saint John, Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, and Saint Gregory.
At No. 124 Via Coronari, near the Saint Angelo bridge, is the four-story house where Raphael lived during his first four years in Rome.
Raphael was admitted in 1514 into the Fraternity of the Body of Christ, and his many Madonnas of rare beauty were doubtless inspired by his devout spirit.
During his stay in Rome Raphael set up a studio to which many students flocked. They loved him both as friend and master, and he was untiring in his efforts to instruct and inspire them.
He was commissioned by the Pope with the task of making certain decorations for the Sistine Chapel. They were to take the form of tapestries with which the chapel would be adorned on great festival occasions. There were ten of these, all telling some Bible story in the life of Christ or one of His immediate followers.
The last of the series is the Coronation of the Virgin. It shows Christ on his throne crowning the Madonna. The Father and the Holy Spirit are seen above and Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist below.
As yet nothing has been said of the painting by which the name of Raphael is best known, the Sistine Madonna. It was painted in 1518 for the Benedictine Monastery of San Sisto at Piacenza. In 1754 it was purchased by Augustus III, Elector of Saxony, for forty thousand dollars. It was received in Dresden with great rejoicing, and the throne of Saxony was moved to give it a suitable place. It is now in the Dresden gallery.
Another favorite is the Madonna of the Chair. This shows the Madonna, seated, holding the child. “The dress of the mother is light blue; the mantle about her shoulder is green with red and willow-green stripes and a gold-embroidered border; her sleeves are red faced with gold at the wrists. A grayish-brown veil with reddish-brown stripes is wound around her head. The child’s dress is orange colored; the back of the chair is red.” Such is the description given by Grimm.
At the time of his death Raphael was putting forth every effort to finish his noble conception of the Transfiguration. It is now, as he left it, in the Vatican.
On the night of Good Friday, April 6, 1520, at the age of thirty-seven, Raphael died. In his beautiful home, where the people of Rome might do him honor, the unfinished Transfiguration beside him, in the midst of lighted tapers, he lay in state until the body was carried to the Pantheon. In the procession also was carried the great picture.