N THE BOOK OF THE COURTIER
, Baldassarre Castiglione (1478–1529) recalls the city-state of Urbino where Raphael was born:
On the slopes of the Apennines, almost in the centre of Italy towards the Adriatic, is situated, as everyone knows, the little city of Urbino. Although it is surrounded by hills which are perhaps not as agreeable as those found in many other places, none the less it has been favoured by Nature with a very rich and fertile countryside, so that as well as a salubrious atmosphere it enjoys an abundance of all the necessities of life.1
From 1444 until his death in 1482, Federico da Montefeltro (1422–1482) had ruled the Duchy of Urbino, instituted by Pope Eugene IV
in 1443. As a young man, Federico received his education from the prominent humanist Vittorino da Feltre, who also served in Mantua as preceptor for the scions of the House of Gonzaga and was hailed on the reverse of Pisanello’s medal of 1447 as a ‘mathematician and father of all studia humanitatis
’. An intrepid condottiere
(military leader) and
an able man of politics, Federico played an important role in the delicate balance between the different ruling Italian signorie
(princely states), the jockeying for supremacy with the temporal power of the papacy and the meddling incursions of foreigners on Italic soil. While affirming his military prestige and his political authority, Federico set about turning Urbino into a flourishing centre of humanism and art; the ripples spreading from his court and his Ducal Palace were felt throughout the city. To augment his glory, Federico invested a large proportion of his income in the erection of a mighty palace, extensively transforming the pre-existing Palazzetto della Jole, opposite the Duomo. The new palace epitomized in a perfect synthesis the fortress of a condottiere
well versed in the studia humanitatis
: ‘a palace built by the hand of God, not of man’, it was modelled on the ideal forms and proportions of classical architecture.2
The enlightened environment, the munificent patronage and the heroic exploits of Duke Federico were celebrated in a lengthy Chronicle in Rhyme
) that was composed by Giovanni Santi between 1482 and 1487 and dedicated to Federico’s son, Guidobaldo. Giovanni Santi (c
. 1440–1494) was Raphael’s father. A courtier and a painter, Santi had established himself as an artist of some repute in Federico’s court. He ran a workshop in Via di San Francesco in Urbino, nearby the eponymous church. In this workshop, Giovanni apprenticed Evangelista da Pian di Meleto (c
. 1458–1549), termed in a document of 1483 as ‘a follower of Giovanni Santi, painter of Urbino’, and the artists Timoteo Viti (1469–1523) and Girolamo Genga (c
. 1476–1551), all of whom were later to be close assistants of Raphael. At Federico’s behest, Santi
painted the Nine Muses
in a small room in the palace, known as the Tempietto delle Muse
, facing the Loggia dei Torricini. He was also active in other artistic centres falling under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Urbino. In Fano, between 1488 and 1489, the painter completed a Visitation
for one of the altars of Santa Maria Nuova, and in Cagli, the frescoes for the Tiranni Chapel in San Domenico, ostensibly executed in the early 1490s.
When Raphael was born in Urbino on 6 April 1483, Federico da Montefeltro had died only a few months before, on 10 September 1482. The dukedom had passed to the hands of his son Guidobaldo (1472–1508) who, at little more than ten years of age, was under the tutelage of his uncle, Ottaviano Ubaldini. Raphael, the offspring of Giovanni Santi and Magia di Battista Ciarla, had a grief-stricken childhood blighted by loss: aged two, he was bereaved by the death of his brother and at eight, in 1491, of both his sister and mother. In 1494, Giovanni Santi remarried to Bernardina, the daughter of Pietro di Parte, a goldsmith from Urbino. In the same year, the young woman gave birth to Elisabetta, who was also to die in infancy. In August 1494, at eleven, and having already endured the loss of his mother and siblings, Raphael was orphaned by the death of his father. In his will, Giovanni stipulated that his son be entrusted to the care of his brother Bartolomeo, both of whom were named as beneficiaries of his estate. To his second wife, Giovanni bequeathed the dowry she herself had brought to their recent nuptials, some garments, goods and chattels, and the family home to hold in usufruct where she could dwell with her as yet unborn child, providing that her life was lived in chastity and honesty. In
the will, Giovanni pledges to his wife that in the event of their unborn child being a son, all of the inheritance would be shared between him, Raphael and his uncle Bartolomeo. If a daughter, she would be given a dowry amounting to 150 gold ducats.
Given the paucity of written sources, our knowledge of Raphael’s formative period and artistic development is scarce. A handful of documents from Urbino’s archives deal with matters of inheritance disputed by Santi’s second wife and her father, acting on her behalf. These documents shed no light on the young artist’s life from his paternal loss to Raphael’s activity as an independent artist in circa 1500.
Giorgio Vasari’s Life
of Raphael of 1550 and 1568 is the sole account to state that prior to the death of his mother, Giovanni apprenticed the young boy to the Umbrian painter Perugino (Pietro Vannucci, c
Although no documents exist in relation to either artist to endorse Vasari’s assertion, it is true that Raphael’s father was aware of Perugino’s work. In fact, Giovanni praises him in the Chronicle
as ‘Pier da Pieve, a divine painter’ who is ‘a youth of the same age and predilections’ as Leonardo da Vinci.4
Having garnered acclaim for his works at St Peter’s and in Sixtus IV
’s Sistine Chapel in Rome, from the late 1480s Perugino executed highly admired paintings in Tuscany, Umbria, the Marches and in other Italian cities. In 1488 the artist completed the Annunciation
for Santa Maria Nuova in Fano, near Urbino, where Giovanni Santi might have encountered him. In 1497 he delivered another altarpiece for the same church, the Fano Altarpiece
, with the Virgin and the Child and Saints
in the central panel, and Scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary
in the predella. Raphael might have assisted the older master in the execution of the predella of the Fano Altarpiece
In 1495 Perugino executed the Lamentation over the Dead Christ for the convent of Santa Chiara in Florence. From 1495 he received numerous commissions in Perugia: the Decemviri Altarpiece for the Palazzo dei Priori’s chapel (1495–6); the San Pietro Polyptych for the Abbey of San Pietro (c. 1496–9); the Resurrection of Christ for San Francesco al Prato (1499); and the Betrothal of the Virgin for the Duomo (c. 1499–1504). In 1496 Perugino also received the distinguished commission to decorate the Audience Chamber of the Collegio del Cambio, completed in 1500, with a series of illustrious men, allegories of Virtues and a ceiling with grotesques and images of the pagan gods and astrological divinities. Indeed, Raphael’s early paintings are extremely close in style and invention to Perugino’s works. Vasari claims that the debt Raphael owes to Perugino is substantial:
It is a very notable thing that Raffaello, studying the manner of Pietro, imitated it in every respect so closely, that his copies could not be distinguished from his master’s originals, and it was not possible to see any clear difference between his works and Pietro’s.5
However, during this phase, Raphael constructively reacted to the stimuli offered by his father’s works in Urbino and Piero della Francesca’s, and by two other artists of central Italy considered at the time as second only to Perugino, Luca Signorelli and Bernardino Pintoricchio. In his early works Raphael also seems relatively conversant with classical models;
a knowledge acquired from drawings after the Antique that had a widespread diffusion outside of Rome from the late quattrocento onwards.
Drawing from the calligraphic style of Signorelli, the elegant but affected figures of Perugino, the dense narratives of Pintoricchio, as well as absorbing the tenets of mathematics and geometry of Piero della Francesca and the iconography of ancient statues and reliefs, Raphael was at the starting point of a process which challenged his ability to create his individual style.
THE BARONCI ALTARPIECE AND THE GROTESQUES
On 10 December 1500, Raphael is documented in Città di Castello, a small city in the Marches, near Perugia, on the River Tiber and the Via Flaminia, the road leading to Rome. In the city, Raphael signed his first recorded commission. Although the artist was a mere seventeen years of age, in the contract the term magister (master) is employed, a Latin term that recurs in contemporary written sources to designate an artist who has attained the status of being fully independent. The commission secured the young artist’s services to execute a panel painting for the family altar of Andrea Baronci, a wool merchant, in the church of Sant’Agostino. Raphael was joined in the enterprise by an older painter from his father’s workshop at Urbino, Evangelista da Pian di Meleto. The contract stipulated, for a total sum of 33 ducats, that:
the painters, that is master Raphael of Giovanni Santi of Urbino and Evangelista da Pian di Meleto . . . [pledge
to undertake] an altarpiece for the chapel of the aforementioned Andrea, located in the church of Sant’Agostino . . . [to be completed with] good painting and colours as is the custom of expert painters and masters . . . with those figures that Andrea himself will tell them.6
No ancillary documents have come to light further specifying the patron’s requirements regarding the number of figures or their iconography. Archival records held at Città di Castello attest that the altarpiece was delivered on 13 September 1501, with Andrea Baronci making the full payment:
Master Raphael of Giovanni Santi of Urbino and Evangelista da Andrea da Pian di Meleto, painters, by their own will brought to completion the work and received quittance from Andrea Tommaso Baronci of Città di Castello . . . for the painting and the completion of the altarpiece of the aforementioned Andrea in the church of Sant’Agostino.7
The altarpiece, today known as the Coronation of St Nicholas of Tolentino
, or Baronci Altarpiece
, was dedicated to Nicholas of Tolentino (1245–1305), a friar of the Order of Hermits of St Augustine, canonized in 1446. In 1789 an earthquake caused the church of Sant’Agostino to collapse, reducing the painting to fragments that were subsequently sold to a burgeoning art market.8
Only in 1912 did Oskar Fischel identify the hitherto few remaining scattered pieces of the original altarpiece, thanks to a precise description by the Italian art historian
Luigi Lanzi in his Storia pittorica della Italia
(1796). A settecento copy of the painting, preserved at Città di Castello, and a compositional sketch, today in Lille, that Fischel connected to the altarpiece allow for a hypothetical reconstruction of the entire painting. On the original altarpiece the three-quarter-length figure of God the Father presided upon a cumulus of cloud before a fictive barrel-vaulted ceiling, framed by a mandorla. He was flanked to his right by the Virgin Mary and to his left by St Augustine, each offering a crown to St Nicholas below, and by two angels with scrolls – fragments of which have survived. St Nicholas must have been positioned at the bottom centre of the composition, holding a book in his left hand, a crucifix in his right and trampling Satan underfoot. This iconography is unusual for Central Italy, as the saint is not seated on a throne flanked by two rows of figures, in accordance with well-established tradition. The image of the saint receiving the crown of martyrdom from God the Father, the Virgin Mary and St Augustine relies on an Augustinian tradition diffused in late quattrocento etchings and paintings.9
Raphael studiously drafted the Coronation of St Nicholas in a drawing now at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille. His process shows that the Virgin and God the Father were crafted through life drawing: a young garzone holding a crown is seen first from the front, lending his body to God the Father, and then in profile, for the half bust of the Virgin Mary. Other studies of figures, or heads and hands with a crown or a book, enabled the artist to carefully analyse the rendering of three-dimension, the foreshortening of bodies and intensity of facial expressions.
Within the relatively self-contained arch of the altar-piece Raphael painted a radically innovative space, creating a distinct separation between the celestial sphere, in which God the Father, the Virgin Mary and St Augustine appear, and the earthly one, in which St Nicholas and the good and bad angels are protagonists. In order to achieve such an effect Raphael sought prompts from Urbino. In the Lille drawing, the two compositional parts are set within a barrel-vaulted ceiling ornamented with rosettes. The vault is that of the Tempietto delle Muse
in Federico’s Ducal Palace, where a few years earlier Raphael’s father had painted Apollo
and the Nine Muses
. It also recalls the perfect geometry of Piero della Francesca’s vault, painted for Federico in the Montefeltro Altarpiece
for San Bernardino in Urbino. Raphael altered the proportion of Piero’s figures and their spatial relationships, thereby achieving the space within the constraints of the vaulted architecture to convey the divine apparition above humankind’s mortal world. Raphael’s reference to the Urbinate (quattrocento architecture) and paintings is ultimately confirmed by the fact that the crown is directly taken from his father’s fresco, housed in the Tiranni Chapel in Fano, where the latter echoed Piero della Francesca’s painted architecture.
Raphael’s Baronci Altarpiece demonstrates the great skill of an artist who is able to balance the various elements of a painting: spatial conception, harmonious proportion, volumetric construction of the fig...