Whatever you may think about Raphael’s art, there’s no disputing how important he had become by the time of his death almost five hundred years ago. Not only did Pope Leo X visit the artist several times during his terminal illness, but his body was interred in the Pantheon, and his epitaphs were written by the likes of Ariosto (author of Orlando Furioso) and Pietro Bembo. For any painter of the day, these were recognition that he was a great deal more than a mere craftsman at court.
Raphael was born in 1483 as Raffaello Santi, or Sanzio, the son of the court painter and poet to the Duke of Urbino. The court, like the city of Urbino itself, wasn’t large or as powerful as those of other Italian cultural centres such as Florence, but had recently become related by marriage to that of the Gonzagas of Mantua. It was an excellent environment for a prospective artist to develop their manners and social skills, as well as learning to draw and paint.
By the age of eleven, Raphael was orphaned, and his uncle, a priest, became his formal guardian, although the boy still lived with his stepmother. It’s unclear what training he might have undertaken between 1494 and 1500, but he worked for or with Pietro Perugino for a period around 1500, and is described as becoming a master in his own right at the end of that year.
Perugino and his workshop were highly productive at this time, making altarpieces and easel paintings, as well as wall painting such as this fresco of Cato in the Collegio del Cambio in Perugia, Italy, from 1497-1500.
One of Perugino’s major religious works is the Tezi Altarpiece from 1500.
His superb Portrait of Francesco delle Opere was painted rather earlier, in 1494, which is probably the earliest in which Raphael might have started his apprenceship. Perugino’s rendition of clothing here is characteristically plain, as it is in the Tezi Altarpiece.
Various attempts have been made to identify the hand of the young Raphael in paintings in which he may have been involved, but given their age, previous conservation work, and the similarity of styles at this time, those have been doomed to failure. Early records of commissions start in around 1500, and there are some fragments of altarpieces such as that of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (the Baronci altarpiece) which attest to the existence of independent works by Raphael from the year in which he is claimed to have become a master in his own right.
One of Raphael’s earliest surviving paintings is the Solly Madonna, or to give it its more formal title Madonna and Child Holding a Goldfinch, which has been dated to around 1501. This could easily be taken for a Perugino. The modelling of flesh is distinctly pre-Raphaelite, and just as in the paintings by Perugino above, there is comparatively little attention paid to the fabrics and their surface textures.
That was probably followed by Madonna with Child Blessing, Saints Jerome and Francis (1502).
Raphael’s more independent works started with two pairs of small paintings which were probably made for commissions from the court.
His cartoon for Vision of a Knight, made in 1502-03, shows the pinprick holes used when ‘pouncing’ to transfer the design from this drawing to the ground of what was to become the finished work. It’s perhaps surprising that, even at this early stage in his career, Raphael did this for a painting which was little more than six inches square (17 x 17 cm), but the finished work (below) remains faithful to this drawing.
Vision of a Knight (c 1502-03) is the companion to The Three Graces below, although it’s unclear whether it was attached in a diptych or formed its reverse. Described as an allegory, this has been interpreted by Panofsky and Eisler following careful investigation. It shows the young Scipio Africanus, a major Roman military leader and statesman, asleep beneath a laurel tree. In his sleep he dreams of the personifications of Virtue (left), with her book and sword, and Pleasure (right), with the flower which she is offering him.
Even the landscape is allegorical, with the rock and towering citadel representing Virtue, with surrounding pastures. The basis for this is a woodcut from Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, which had only been published in 1497 but had already become popular. This in turn refers to a Latin account of the life of Scipio Africanus. This appears to have links with the Borghese family of Siena, several of whom bore Scipio’s name. Panofsky has suggested that this pair of paintings may therefore have been commissioned in 1500-01 for the confirmation of Scipione di Tommaso di Borghese, who was born in 1493.
The Three Graces (c 1502-03) is just as tiny as its partner, and shows the Hesperides holding golden apples, as the rewards of virtue, the thematic link between the two paintings. However, study of this work has revealed that the right arm of the central figure originally grasped the shoulder of her companion, rather than holding an apple. The golden fruit was added at a late stage in the painting.
The other pair of paintings is thought to have followed those, and have contemporary literary links.
Saint George and the Dragon (c 1502-03) is thought to have formed a diptych with its companion piece Saint Michael and the Demon below. Here Raphael combines all the key elements to tell this well-known legend: Saint George is about to deliver the fatal blow to the fearsome dragon, with the Princess keeping a safe distance. Under the saint’s horse are the shattered remains of a jousting lance.
Saint Michael and the Demon (c 1502-03) is painted on the reverse side of a chessboard, and is generally accepted as referring extensively to Dante’s Inferno, including Canto 23 and other verses. These include the punishments for hypocrites, and for robbers, and the burning city in the distance. The first printed edition of the Divine Comedy had only appeared in 1472, and by this time had become all the rage.
Within these first few years as a master, Raphael was starting to diverge and develop his own style, albeit still largely based on that of Perugino and his workshop.