Raphael and Painting: 1 The state of the art in 1500

Giorgione (1477–1510), The Three Ages of Man (c 1500), oil on panel, 62 × 78 cm, Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Five hundred years ago, the southern Renaissance suffered a double blow: only the previous year (1519), Leonardo da Vinci had died, and on Good Friday 1520, Raphael died too – at the tender age of just thirty-seven. Two masters who had already changed the course of painting were both gone.

Yet this year the anniversary of Raphael’s death is likely to pass almost without notice. This is despite the fact that Vasari’s biography, and many painters, have recognised him as one of the most important artists in the whole of the Renaissance, and there’s little dispute as to his influence on painting in Europe and North America for much of the period since.

In this first article of my series to mark Raphael’s death, I consider paintings from around the time that it’s claimed that Raphael became a master in 1500, although there are good reasons to suspect that at that time he still wasn’t painting on his own account, but as an assistant to Pietro Perugino in Perugia and Florence.

Luca Signorelli (1441–1523), The Damned (1499-1502), fresco, Cappella di San Brizio, Orvieto, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Luca Signorelli’s large fresco masterpieces in Orvieto Cathedral were painted between 1499-1502, and are among the major wall paintings of this period. The Damned from the San Brizio Chapel shows how, even when working quickly in this challenging medium, his figures (detail below) are modelled realistically.

Luca Signorelli (1441–1523), The Damned (detail) (1499-1502), fresco, Cappella di San Brizio, Orvieto, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.
Pinturicchio (1454–1513), St Catherine’s Disputation (1492-94), fresco with gold leaf, dimensions not known, Appartamento Borgia, Palazzi Vaticani, Vatican City. Wikimedia Commons.

Pinturicchio’s wonderful fresco of St Catherine’s Disputation in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican Palace were painted slightly earlier. According to Vasari, Pinturicchio was a paid assistant to Perugino, who was probably Raphael’s teacher.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Mystic Nativity (1500), oil on canvas, 108.6 × 74.9 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Although Sandro Botticelli had apparently ceased painting large religious works by the late 1490s, his paintings from the period include the fascinating Mystic Nativity (1500) above, and his immaculately projected Story of Lucretia (1500-01) below.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Story of Lucretia (1500-01), tempera on panel, 83.5 x 180 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.
Giorgione (1477–1510), Boy with an Arrow (c 1500), oil on panel, 48 × 42 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

Giorgione’s Boy with an Arrow (c 1500) is a brilliant portrait. His subtle modelling of the young man’s face may reflect what he learned from his meeting with Leonardo da Vinci in 1499 or 1500.

Giorgione (1477–1510), The Three Ages of Man (c 1500), oil on panel, 62 × 78 cm, Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Less securely attributed to Giorgione is this famous triple portrait, The Three Ages of Man (c 1500). Its faces are very lifelike and expressive, and are clearly from the hand of a master.

Giorgione (1477–1510), Virgin and Child with Saint Nicasius and Saint Francis of Assisi (‘Castelfranco Altarpiece’) (c 1500), oil on panel, 200 x 152 cm, Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta e San Liberale, Castelfranco, Veneto, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Virgin and Child with Saint Nicasius and Saint Francis of Assisi (the ‘Castelfranco Altarpiece’) from about 1500 combines a fine depiction of the Virgin and infant Christ with two wonderful saintly figures – Nicasius’ armour is spectacular – and an innovative naturalist landscape. The buildings at the upper left are meticulously painted, and there is excellent aerial perspective at the upper right.

Fra Bartolomeo (1472–1517), Adoration of the Child (c 1499), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Galleria Borghese, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Fra Bartolomeo was also active in Florence at the time, then working under his original name of Baccio della Porta. His tondo of the Adoration of the Child from about 1499 is a fine painting of a popular Christian scene, with Jesus’ parents paying their respects to the baby. A variation of the more prescriptive nativity which was often a vehicle for the artist to be less bound by convention, Bartolomeo’s landscape is a joy. In the foreground he has defied seasonal traditions and shows painstakingly-detailed spring flowers, and there is more aerial perspective in the distance too.

Fra Bartolomeo (1472–1517), The Rest on The Flight into Egypt (c 1500), tempera and oil on canvas, 135 x 114 cm, Palazzo Vescovile, Pienza, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Bartolomeo’s The Rest on The Flight into Egypt from about 1500 is a traditional composition showing Mary and Joseph during their journey to Egypt. The more distant landscape is less detailed, but his donkey and palm trees are delightful. This was one of the last paintings which he made before becoming a Dominican friar.

Raphael is believed to have worked with Fra Bartolomeo in 1507, when they were in Florence together. Bartolomeo is thought to have improved his perspective, and Raphael his handling of colour and rendering of fabrics.

Three major influences on Raphael’s style were Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugino, and later Michelangelo, who claimed that Raphael learned everything he knew about painting from his work.

Giampietrino (1495–1549), copy after Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Last Supper (c 1520), oil on canvas, 298 x 770 cm, The Royal Academy of Arts, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Leonardo’s major work of this time was of course The Last Supper, which is now but a shadow of its former self. Giampietrino’s copy made in about 1520 gives the closest impression today of what the original must have looked like.

Perugino’s paintings from around 1500 are indistinguishable from Raphael’s, to the point where there is considerable dispute over who painted what.

Pietro Perugino (1448–1523), Portrait of Francesco delle Opere (1494), oil on panel, 52 x 44 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Perugino’s superb Portrait of Francesco delle Opere was painted in 1494. His execution of clothing is characteristically plain, but his face (detail below), hair and hands are lifelike.

Pietro Perugino (1448–1523), Portrait of Francesco delle Opere (detail) (1494), oil on panel, 52 x 44 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.
Pietro Perugino (1448–1523), The Almighty with Prophets and Sibyls (1497-1500), fresco, 229 x 370 cm, Collegio del Cambio, Perugia, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Perugino’s fresco in the Collegio del Cambio, showing The Almighty with Prophets and Sybils, was painted between 1497-1500. At the left are the traditional prophets of the Old Testament, and at the right are six sibyls, each clearly captioned.

Pietro Perugino (1448–1523), Tezi Altarpiece (Virgin and Child, Saint Nicholas of Tolentino and Saint Bernardino of Siena) (1500), media and dimensions not known, Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The faces in Perugino’s Tezi Altarpiece from 1500 might look glum, but they’re each finely modelled.

Until his return to Florence in 1499, Michelangelo had primarily been a sculptor. His earliest surviving paintings both appear to have been abandoned, no reason being apparent.

Michelangelo (1475-1564), The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’) (c 1497), tempera on wood, 104.5 x 77 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1870), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

Michelangelo’s unfinished The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels, popularly known as The Manchester Madonna, from about 1497, shows that artist’s skills in modelling flesh and fabrics using egg tempera rather than oils.

Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni) (1475–1564), The Entombment (c 1500-01), oil on wood, 161.7 x 149.9 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

His Entombment from about 1500-01 shows a comparable process when working in oils.

Wonderful and realistic these painting may be, but little more than a dozen years later, here’s the mature Raphael, in the Madonna of the Chair (1513-14).

Raphael (Rafael Sanzio de Urbino) (1483–1520), Madonna della seggiola (Madonna of the Chair) (1513-14), oil on panel, diameter 71 cm, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Then there are his frescoes, and those amazing watercolour cartoons: we have a great deal to look forward to in the coming weeks.