Friday, February 12, 2010

Docent Note: Raphael and the Renaissance


Art historians will forever argue about when the Renaissance began, and exactly what it was. They are all in agreement, however, about its culmination in the ‘High Renaissance’, a period beginning about 1495 and ending roughly with Raphael’s death in 1520. The three stellar artists of the High Renaissance were Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. (Michelangelo outlived Raphael by forty-four years, but the work of his later years changed in style and is not properly classified as ‘Renaissance’ but rather as Mannerism.)

So what does this term meaning ‘re-birth’ say to us? Many feel that this period began with Giotto (1267-1337) who brought life to painting with figures who had weight, and movement and real emotion. And his contemporary Duccio, in Siena (1278-1319), changed traditional stylized Byzantine painting into an Italian Gothic form with movement and real narrative. But it was not until the 1400s in Florence that these innovations flowered into an amazing period of growth in art and literature. In art, with Masaccio, Donatello, Lippi, Gozzoli, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, to name just a few, there was a new interest in naturalism, in perspective, in how to depict a figure in real space, and in the classical models of Greece and Rome. This period from 1420 to 1500 is generally known as the Early Renaissance.

So – Leonardo was born in 1452, Michelangelo in 1475, and Raphael in 1483 in Urbino. Raphael’s father was a poet and painter and was connected to the court of Urbino. Both of Raphael’s parents died when he was very young, and he was apprenticed as a teenager to Perugino, a painter of exquisite altarpieces. Raphael learned his style, as was the custom then, and executed many commissions with other painters and on his own. By the time he was seventeen, he was a master in his own right. In 1504 he moved to Florence, where he saw the work of Leonardo and Michelangelo. He must have known how difficult it would be to reach their levels of knowledge and powerful work. But he did just that. His career spanned only twenty years, but in that time he was able to assimilate the best of his contemporaries’ work and form his own distinct style.

In 1508 he moved to Rome and began to work for Pope Julius II, painting the walls of the Vatican Stanze (rooms). The paintings on these walls are a testament to Raphael’s achievement of perfect form and composition, the hallmarks of the High Renaissance . In these paintings one sees his ability to combine a large number of beautifully painted figures harmoniously, in a believable space, so that it is as pleasing to view the entire composition as it is to examine the beautiful details. If he had done just one of these frescoes – The School of Athens, for example, it alone would have earned him the right to be named in the same breath as Leonardo and Michelangelo.

In the next twelve years, until his death at 37, he continued to do frescoes for the Popes, but was also a portrait painter, an architect, and an archaeologist. He had been given a Papal commission to restore Saint Peter’s, and was also named archaeologist in charge of Roman excavations. And, unlike Leonardo and Michelangelo, he was able to transcend the position of artist as craftsman, and move freely as an equal in the Vatican court and social circles. He was apparently universally loved and appreciated. His first biographer, Giorgio Vasari, wrote: “As excellent as he was graceful, Raphael was modest and Raphael the rarest qualities of the heart shown forth.”

When he died in 1520, The Transfiguration, his last panel painting, was displayed at his funeral, and he was buried in the Pantheon, a signal honor.

--Kathleen Durham