While the geniuses of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci flourished at the turn of the sixteenth century there was another artist in Vatican complex whose name was to become synonymous with great painting. Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael) was an Italian painter whose work along with that of his older contemporaries Leonardo and Michelangelo defined the High Renaissance style in central Italy. Raphael’s artistic skills underwent several stages of development and undoubtedly his manner and his work became grander and more sophisticated under the inspiration of Leonardo, Michelangelo.
Extraordinary changes in style and technique may be observed in Raphael’s paintings from Florentine and Roman periods. Raphael was born in Urbino, the son of a competent painter, Giovanni Santi, who was employed as the court artist of Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro. He probably received his earliest training from his father, who died in 1494 when Raphael was 11 years old. According to Vasari’s account ‘Raphael came to be of great help to his father in the numerous works that Giovanni executed in the state of Urbino’ (1998, p. 306).
Perugino was at this period one of the most admired and influential painters working in Italy, and Raphael’s familiarity with Perugino’s manner, both in style and technique, is evident from Raphael’s early works painted for churches in his native Umbria. Despite his success as a painter of altarpieces and of smaller courtly paintings, Raphael clearly felt the need to leave Umbria in order to widen his experience of contemporary painting. With a letter of recommendation from the Duke’s sister-in-law, the ruler of Florence, he arrived in the city soon afterwards.
He was to remain in Florence for four years, and during this time he gradually familiarized himself with the new style being developed by Florentine artists, notably Leonardo and Michelangelo whose cartoons for the proposed frescoes of battle scenes in the Palazzo della Signoria date from this period. With characteristic energy of purpose Raphael set about mastering the new requirements of Florentine art: the depiction of figures in movement, the expression of emotional state through expression and gesture, and the creation of complex narrative.
In Florence he produced a number of accomplished pictures of the Madonna and other saints, such as his Though, this painting reveals indebtedness to Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks (Fig. 2) in Raphael’s description of the landscape background, the work extols an emotional sensitivity and quiet tenderness all his own. Like in Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks, almost immediately, one is struck by the developed sense of illusionism within the confines of the picture plane.
Raphael’s adopted Leonardo’s organic and naturalistic landscape which gives the piece a deep, mysterious space without the static and often awkward reliance on perspective lines. Through the keen observation, Raphael noted such perceptual subtleties as how objects move toward a more neutral blue-grey as they recede in space, and further how images become less clear in the distance. This portrayal of space with regards to these rather elementary observations is a direct imitation of Leonardo’s technique called “atmospheric perspective”. (Osmond, 1998, p. 20)
At that time only few artists had yet broken away from the mannerisms of earlier traditions and attempted to harness such findings to their own paintings. (Fischel, 1948, p. 45) Leonardo considered these observations from nature as fundamental to knowledge, and their implementation into art a decisive move toward a more ideal vision. For many, observation provided little of interest outside the most fundamental necessities such as proportion, but for Leonardo the natural world provided the underlying blueprint for the workings of the universe.
For Raphael too the balance between natural observation and artistic freedom was paramount and it finds its greatest expression in La Belle Jardiniere. In Raphael’s La Belle Jardiniere even in this early point, the ideal has become a psychological embodiment, where subjects possess not only the physical attributes of beauty but also the emotional characteristics of an inner harmony. It is this remarkable depiction of solemnity and dignity that has endeared Raphael to so many viewers for nearly five centuries.
In 1508 Raphael was summoned to Rome by Julius II, and he was to remain in the city serving successive popes until his death. His first commission was the decoration of the Stanza della Segnatura, a room almost certainly used by the Pope as a library. The function of the room is reflected in the subjects of the frescoes – Theology, Poetry, Philosophy, and Jurisprudence, which correspond to the classification of books according to the faculties.
In the frescoes Raphael shows a genius for finding simple pictorial means to convey these complex abstract concepts. In the most celebrated of all the frescoes, The School of Athens (Fig. 3) of 1508, a group of philosophers with Plato and Aristotle at the centre are shown beneath a majestic vaulted building which probably reflects Bramante’s plan for S. Peter’s (Fischel, 1948, p. 144). Leonardo’s far distant Last Supper, (Fig. 4) with its dramatic association of so many heroic figures must have exercised the most profound influence on Raphael.
It is also one of the most convincing and seemingly natural depictions of space using one-point perspective to emerge during the period, a feat of technical brilliance which further concentrates the viewer’s attention on the deep space in which these figures interact. This one-point perspective is the result of Leonardo’s impact on Raphael’s technique in this painting. Leonardo’s Last Supper’s scene portrays Christ’s presentation of the sacraments and the acknowledgment of his later betrayal at the hands of Judas.
The group that congregates around the back of the table parts from the central figure at the news, creating a heightened focus on Christ. Ultimately the painting’s success rests on the pivoting figure of Christ – a compositional arrangement that embodies Leonardo’s theoretical standards, palpable in Raphael’s The School of Athens. Leonardo positions Christ as the central figure in this work, in keeping with his divine status and importance of the subject matter. His presentation in the center of the table also corresponds with the central vanishing point for the receding perspective lines that enclose him.
Leonardo, by utilizing such a mathematical system with consummate skill, has successfully painted an image of harmony and idealism within Christian dogma. (Goffen, 2002) The similar objective is reached by the same manner in Raphael’s The School of Athens – positioning Aristotle and Plato in the center of steps, the central vanishing point for the receding perspective lines make these figures central and prominent in the scene. The School of Athens is homage to the great Classical philosophical tradition, anchored by the towering figures of Plato and Aristotle, who stand together in the center of composition.
Plato, on the left, strides forward while pointing to the heavens – a reference to his believes in ideal forms. He is flanked by Aristotle, whose downward-pointing hand is a visual reminder of his steadfast belief that all knowledge is based in observation, empiricism. The brooding figure of the philosopher inserted in the foreground of the composition is the first evidence of Raphael’s study of Michelangelo’s recently unveiled Sistine chapel ceiling. This figure was not present in original cartoon and appeared only as an afterthought.
In 1510, Raphael happened to observe Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling by candle light. He was so fascinated by this unfinished fresco that he decided to include Michelangelo into his painting to express his respect for the artist. As art critic Daniel Bell asserts “the evidence is clear that Raphael decided to add the figure of Heraclitus sometime after he had completed the fresco” (1995, p. 639) Many historians believe that it was his intent to model the philosopher on Michelangelo in a typically “Socratic” mood (Bell, 1995).
Both the environment and its figures are heroic, and the work demonstrates the breadth of Raphael’s skill both as a draftsperson and an imaginative thinker. It seems as if Raphael in The school of Athens had this very composition in mind, in point of the free arrangements of the groups of many moving figures on a limited base which at the same time becomes the base for the space – this corresponds to the importance of the steps in The school of Athens; one finds the groups of people bending over Archimedes, gesturing and moving, the reminiscences of corresponding grouped figures in Michelangelo’s composition of The Last Judgement (Fig. 5).