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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Raphael's Skyrocket

Raphael di Sanzio self-portrait in his teens
When Raphael Sanzio died in 1520 at the age of 37, his career was like a soaring skyrocket bursting at the apogee of its trajectory with a brilliance that stunned the sensibilities of his contemporaries, even those used to the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo, his painting master, Perugino, and his mentor, Bramante. This skyrocket was launched from the city of Perugia in 1483. Raphael's father, also a painter, apparently put a brush in his son's hand almost as soon as the child could hold it. But when Raphael was eleven, his father died. At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to Perugino, and apparently began painting Madonnas under his own name around 1500. Raphael was like a one-man Madonna factory in fact, over the next few years, seemingly painting one for nearly every church in Italy.

The School of Athens, 1509-10, Raphael
After some time in Florence studying Masaccio and sneaking peaks at the work of Michelangelo, he was invited to Rome by a fellow Perugian, Donato Bramante, who just happened to be the architect for the new St. Peters Cathedral. Bramante personally introduced him to Pope Julius II who put him to work ripping down some old Signorelli frescoes in the papal apartments from the hated Borgia regime and replacing them with scenes such as The School of Athens and The Transfiguration (see previous aticle below). The latter of these was never finished. It was before this giant masterpiece that the body of the sweet-faced young master lay in state, mourned by his lovely bride-to-be and half the population of Italy.

Raphael Self-Portrait as adult
From this point the star burst faded quickly. Michelangelo said of him that he'd succeeded not so much because of his superior talents but because of his tremendous industry. It sounded polite enough at the time but amounted to praising with faint damns. Giovanni Bernini, a century later, warned young painters not to try and emulate Raphael for it would get them nowhere. The German archaeologist, Johan Winckelman, is said to have remarked that Raphael's Christ-child images had a "common" look. However, Edouard Manet was the most outspoken. He told people in no uncertain terms, "Raphael turns my stomach."  Raphael's reputation glowed briefly during the Romantic era when it was fashionable to die young and leave a beautiful corpse, which Raphael certainly did. And Queen Victoria is said to  have found him a "delightful" painter. However even the Pre-Raphaelites regarded his work full of "hollow virtuosity" and English critic, John Ruskin, considered his Madonnas nothing more than "lovely ladies". Only in the twentieth century has Raphael come to be appreciated in the context of the era in which his work was created--amidst a crescendo of classical thought meeting religious visual exposition that never was before and never will be again.

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