Five hundred years ago on Good Friday, 6 April 1520, Raffaello Sanzio, known as Raphael, died in Rome, leaving the world in sorrow. This year Italy celebrates this great painter and architect, master of beauty and perfection. Raphael, son of the court painter Giovanni Santi, was born and trained in Urbino, a small, picturesque town in central Italy. Italy then had many important noble families such as the Medici in Florence, the Gonzaga in Mantua, the Sforza in Milan, along with the power of the Popes in Rome. This country produced many artists and was considered the fulcrum of taste, creativity and beauty in all the arts. There was enormous cultural capacity, though it was constantly subject to foreign invasions and conquest.
Raphael travelled widely, like many other artists in those socially and politically stormy times. After completing his artistic education in Perugino’s workshop in Perugia, he moved first to Siena, then to Florence and lastly to Rome, called by Pope Julius II. There he stayed until his premature death at the age of 37. He didn’t live to see the political decline of Italy and remained the great star of Italian culture and art of the Renaissance with his ability to make reality appear as if it were supernatural or divine, shown through his use of colour and the lightness and perfection of his shapes and compositions. He left an immense and wonderful legacy to the world.
Milan holds two masterpieces by Raphael. One is the preparatory pasteboards for one of the frescoes in the ‘Stanza della Segnatura’ in the Papal apartments of the Vatican. The fresco, The School of Athens, was painted between 1509 and 1511 and is one of the most fascinating and symbolic frescoes of the ‘Stanze’. It shows a large multitude of philosophers, thinkers and geometricians of antiquity, including Socrates, Diogenes, Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Zoroaster. Plato and Aristotle are placed centrally in the composition. Plato points to the heavens, the world of ideas, Aristotle to the earth, the world of experience. In this work Raphael tried to represent the search for truth, following the classical spirit of the Renaissance. The recently restored pasteboard for the painting is in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan and presents the same scenes and almost all the characters depicted on the fresco. It lacks the imposing architecture that surrounds the figures. There must have been a preparatory pasteboard for the architectural background, but it was probably lost. The restored pasteboard is also important since it
is the only remaining one of such a huge dimension and is well preserved.
The second work, in the Pinacoteca of Brera in Milan, is The Marriage of the Virgin (1504), one of Raphael’s most famous paintings, created when he was 21. He was inspired by the altarpiece that Perugino had painted for the Cathedral of Perugia. This oil on panel, with perfect perspective, shows a landscape with a circular building that fills the space. In the foreground people are gathered to take part in Mary and Joseph’s wedding; the figures are relaxed and harmonious. The whole composition is quite beautiful, as are the colours, gestures and the delicate faces.
These celebrations that Milan dedicates to Raphael are the right reward for a magnificent, admired and much copied artist, who was said to be ‘divine’.
Volume 34 no 3 January – February pp 27 – 28