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Who was... Raphael?

RAPHAEL WAS the youngest of the Renaissance masters. After the larger than life stature of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael comes across as a refreshingly normal artist (if that were possible!) Born on April 6, 1483, Raffaello Sanzio or Santi as any follower of Dan Brown would tell you, Raphael received his early training from his father, Giovanni Santi.

Later his father sent him to Pietro Perugino, a well-known artist of the time. Unlike Da Vinci and Michelangelo who quickly outgrew their tutors, Raphael's strength lay in his capacity to observe and absorb diverse influences. So an early Raphael would show Perugino's influence just like his later work shows the influence of Michelangelo and Da Vinci's work.

Raphael's sojourn in Florence in 1504 was particularly productive. It was the time Da Vinci stunned the world with Mona Lisa and Michelangelo completed his David. The Madonna and Child was a favourite motif with Raphael and when we study the different paintings we can pinpoint the various influences on the works.

While there are paintings with a strong Da Vinci influence with its pyramidal composition, contour, balance and interplay of light and dark (chiaroscuro) and sfumato (extremely fine, soft shading instead of line to delineate forms and features), there are others that reveal a Michelangelic inspiration.

Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to redecorate a suite of papal rooms. In 1509 Raphael commenced work and created vibrant frescos where the subjects throbbed with life and energy. Like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, Raphael too included his peers in his fresco with Plato bearing a strong resemblance to Da Vinci.

Michelangelo was not particularly happy about what he perceived as plagiarism and complained in a letter years after Raphael's death that "everything he knew about art he got from me." Raphael was appointed architect of St Peter's Basilica in 1514. During this time Raphael produced a number of important works including the tapestry cycle depicting the lives of the Apostles for the upper zones of the Sistine Chapel. Raphael's Sistine Madonna is the best-loved and most discussed paintings rivalling the Mona Lisa for its cryptic nature.

Raphael's extraordinarily good looks makes him the top contender for the poster boy of the Renaissance. His personal charm and prodigious talent earned him the sobriquet of Prince of Painters.

Raphael was a skilled portrait painter as well. His artist's eye could look beyond the physical to present to the world the core of the subject. Raphael tried his hand at architecture and designed the banker Agostino Chigi's funerary chapel. Raphael died on his 37th birthday in Rome. His funeral mass was celebrated at the Vatican. He was honoured with a public funeral. His last unfinished work, The Transfiguration, was carried in procession, and he was buried in the Pantheon.

Raphael is out of favour today, as his work is considered too perfect. One look at his work crackling with energy and the words of 16th artist and writer Giorgio Vasari's makes perfect sense "While we may term other works paintings, those of Raphael are living things; the flesh palpitates, the breath comes and goes, every organ lives, life pulsates everywhere."


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