Raphael was born in Umbria, but spent four years in Florence where he studied the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo. He was called to Rome by Pope Julius II, probably at the urging of his boyhood friend Bramante, who was already at work on the Pope’s project for Saint Peter’s.

Unlike Michelangelo, who was renowned for his tumultuous and volcanic personality, Raphael was known for his grace and manners, which was equally a characteristic of his art. Giorgio Vasari wrote:

“Thus Nature created Michelangelo…to excel and conquer in art, but Raphael to excel in art and in manners also. Most artists have hitherto displayed something of folly and savagery, which, in addition to rendering them eccentric and fantastical, has also displayed itself in the darkness of vice and not in the splendor of those virtues which render men immortal. In Raphael, on the other hand, the rarest gifts were combined with such grace, diligence, beauty, modesty and good character that they would have sufficed to cover the ugliest vice and the worst blemishes. We may indeed say that those who possess such gifts as Raphael are not mere men, but rather mortal gods, and that those who by their works leave an honored name among us on the roll of fame may hope to receive a fitting reward in heaven for their labors and their merits.”
Giorgio Vasari, on Raphael

Raphael, Madonna in the Meadow, 1505-1506

This painting of the Madonna with the Christ Child and St. John the Baptist in a meadow shows the influence of Leonardo. The figures are arranged in a pyramidal grouping, and their interlocking gestures unite them both physically and psychologically. They exude an aura of divine grace through their serene expressions and physical beauty. But the setting and lighting are very different from Leonardo. Raphael bathes his figures in a pale clear light, instead of using Leonardo’s dark sfumato, and his landscape setting, with its sunny meadow and distant hilltop village, appears picturesque and benign compared to Leonardo’s mysterious landscapes, with their craggy mountains that evoke a primordial age before the beginning of time.

Raphael’s La belle jardiniere (Smarthistory)
Raphael (Italian), La belle jardinière (also, Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist), 1507, oil on panel, 48 × 31½ in (122 × 80 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris) Speakers: Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker

Raphael, The School of Athens, Stanza della Segnatura, 1509-1511

Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to paint a series of frescos decorating the Vatican apartments. This one decorated the Stanza della Segnature (the “room of the signature,”) an important chamber where the Pope signed documents relating to Church Law. The four walls depicted the learning that should guide the Pope in his decisions. Theology appeared on one wall (as to be expected), and across from it was The School of Athens, indicating the church’s embrace of Humanist learning. While Theology would continue to guide papal decisions, secular learning was now acknowledged as a source of wisdom.

The scene depicts the great thinkers of the ancient world, gathered together under a Roman vault resembling the new Saint Peter’s (still under construction at the time). A masterful application of linear perspective, the painting is a tour de force in the way the figures are convincingly assembled in the grand and spacious interior. Taking his cue from Leonardo, Raphael arranged his figures into groups, and united them by interlocking gestures as they discuss, debate, and engage with one another in intellectual dialogue.

In the center are the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Plato carries one of his philosophical books under his arm and points to the heavens, since his philosophy emphasized abstract thinking and the belief in “ideal” reality. Gathered together on his side of the picture are ancient mathematicians and thinkers who also engaged in abstract thought.

Aristotle stands beside Plato, and his hand gestures towards the ground, signifying his emphasis on empirical observation as the source of all knowledge. Gathered on his side of the picture are the great scientists and thinkers whose advances were based on empirical study, rather than abstract thought.

Raphael included portraits of his artistic colleagues as models for several of the figures. Leonardo is believed to have served as a model for Plato, and Michelangelo was used as a model for Heraclitus, the brooding figure in the foreground who is dressed in a sculptor’s smock, and leans on an uncut block of stone. Raphael imitated Michelangelo’s style in his rendering of the figure by giving him massive legs, and posing him in a twisting pose that recalls the sculptor’s figura serpentinata.

Bramante was the model for Euclid, who is drawing a circle and square on a chalkboard as his pupils look on in rapt attention, and Raphael included a portrait of himself in the background to the right. By including his fellow artists in the picture, Raphael was proclaiming that they should be recognized amongst the great thinkers of the past.

Raphael, School of Athens, fresco, 1509-1511 (Stanza della Segnatura, Papal Palace, Vatican) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker, Dr. Beth Harris

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