Raphael the Universal Artist

Two years after the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death delayed due 2020’s Covid restrictions, the National Gallery, London, makes possible the first-ever exhibitions dedicated to Raphael the Master of the Renaissance in Italy: the universal artist as written by Giorgio Vasari.
Raffaello Sanzio was architect, painter, draftsman, archaeologist and designer and  he was clever and ingenious combining in the art expression beauty, faith, religion in a mix among divinity, humanity, colors, figures and passion in love. A brief live along an immortal and evergreen artistic production.
“The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael” is curated by David Ekserdjian, professor of History of Art and Film at the University of Leicester, Tom Henry, professor of History of Art (Emeritus) at the University of Kent and, for the National Gallery, dr Matthias Wivel, the Aud Jebsen Curator of Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings.
In a quick presentation via the National Gallery, “Raphael” opens to the visitor with a section devoted to the artist’s early works created in the Marche region and his birthplace Urbino. These include the drawings for his Saint Nicholas of Tolentino altarpiece (Studies for the Coronation of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, about 1500‐1, black chalk, Palais des Beaux‐Arts de Lille) reflecting his lifelong practice of studying from live models.
Continuing, the exhibition focuses on Florence where he continued to produce works for many other locations, including the Ansidei Madonna (The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas of Bari, 1505, oil on poplar, the National Gallery) for Perugia. A rare gathering of Raphael’s paintings of the Virgin and Child – the genre that he above all made his own – includes pictures dating to his time in Florence, as well as paintings executed during his first years in Rome, where he moved in 1508 to work for one of the great patrons in Western art history, Pope Julius II (reigned 1503–13).
Another section is dedicated to the Raphael’s arrival in Rome where he quickly gained the patronage of the Sienese banker, Agostino Chigi (1466–1520). Chigi became his most important lay client, commissioning frescoes for his suburban villa, now called the Farnesina, as well as designs for chapels in two Roman churches: Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo. The exhibition includes two bronze roundels from Santa Maria della Pace, never previously exhibited outside Italy (attributed to Cesarino Rossetti after designs by Raphael The Incredulity of Saint Thomas; and The Descent into Limbo, both about 1511–12, bronze, Italian state property, Milano, Chiaravalle, Chiesa Abbaziale di Santa Maria).
A room is then devoted to Raphael’s frescoes for Julius II’s private apartments, or Stanze. This four-room project included monumental, multi‐figure compositions depicting biblical subjects, scenes from the history of the Church, allegories of concepts such as Poetry and the great gathering of philosophers known as the School of Athens (1509–10). Drawings on display include a life study for the Greek philosopher Diogenes (about 412–323 BCE) depicted in the School of Athens (Study for Diogenes, about 1508–10, silverpoint on paper primed in beige, rose and light‑purple, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main.) In addition to his demanding commitment to the Stanze, Raphael found time for other commissions, including his penetrating portrait of the sickly and elderly, yet strong-willed Julius II, also exhibited in this room (1511, oil on poplar, the National Gallery, London) which transformed the way the powerful were depicted in Western art.
In the articulated exhibition itinerary a deepening goes as an architect in Rome, including his most prestigious appointment as architect of the new St Peter’s – the beginnings of the basilica we know today. His designs for private townhouses, or palazzi, are represented by a model of the façade of the Palazzo Branconio dell’Aquila, while his designs for the sprawling Villa Madama, created as a Medici refuge just outside Rome, were the most ambitious of their kind since antiquity but sadly the villa was only partially completed (Elevation Drawing of a Villa Project, about 1516, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).
Along his art expressions The spectacular final room is dedicated to the portraiture of Raphael’s last years. He was generally too busy to take on portrait commissions, unless there was a strong political imperative, as with the Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1518, oil on canvas, Private Collection). The portraits he did execute, therefore, tend to have been painted out of friendship or affection, supremely exemplified in his famous Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1519, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris).


For centuries Raphael (Urbino 1483 – Rome 6/4/1520) has been recognized as the supreme High Renaissance painter, visualising central aspects and ideals of Western culture.
Though he died at 37, Raphael’s example as a paragon of Classicism dominated the academic tradition of European painting until the mid-19th century.
Raphael (Raffaello Santi – Raffaello Sanzio) was born in Urbino where his father, Giovanni Santi, was court painter. He almost certainly began his training there and must have known works by Mantegna, Uccello, and Piero della Francesca from an early age. His earliest paintings were also greatly influenced by Perugino. From 1500, when he was already an independent master, to 1508 he worked throughout central Italy, particularly Florence, where he became a noted portraitist and painter of Madonnas.
In 1508, at the age of 25, he was called to the court of Pope Julius II to help with the redecoration of the papal apartments. In Rome he became one of the greatest of all history painters. He remained in Rome for the rest of his life and in 1514, on the death of Bramante, he was appointed architect in charge of St Peter’s. He died unexpectedly leaving behind a multitude of great projects, some unfinished, and an even greater legacy as a defining artist in the Western tradition.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael
9 April – 31 July 2022
The National Gallery, London.
First Floor Galleries, Rooms 1-8
Admission charge. Members go free.

by Alain Chivilò