The Biography and Artworks of Raphael

His first professional work was The Marriage of the Virgin, done when Raphael was only 18 years old.


Raphael Sanzio was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance, celebrated for the perfection and grace of his work. With Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he forms the traditional trinity of great masters of that period. Raphael was enormously productive, running an extensive workshop, and because of this, his influence on other artists was far more significant than that of other painters.

Raphael's The Deposition (1507) famous painting. Original from Wikimedia Commons. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Raphael was born in Urbino, one of the important cities in northern Italy and the seat of the ruling family of the Della Rovere. He was named after his grandfather, who had been Duke of Urbino. His mother died when he was only five years old, and at the age of ten, Raphael was taken to the great city of Florence by his father, Giovanni Santi. There he was placed in the workshop of an artist called Pietro Perugino, one of the greatest painters then active in Italy. Raphael's precocious talent soon surpassed that of his master, and several years later, he moved to Rome.

We know more about Raphael than many other Renaissance painters. This is mainly due to his celebrated friendship with the writer and art historian Vasari, who documented Raphael's life extensively when few artists had their lives thoroughly recorded. Though Vasari's texts about Raphael were published in the 16th century, their information (Vasari had direct access to Raphael's friends and family) is still accepted as fact - especially since the publication of a book about Vasari's inaccuracies.

Why was Raphael Sanzio important to the Renaissance?

Raphael Sanzio was a pivotal figure in the development of Renaissance art. He started working as an apprentice at age 14, and from then on, he continued learning from the great masters who were active in Rome at that time. 

His first professional work was The Marriage of the Virgin, done when Raphael was only 18 years old. This artwork shows how Raphael was influenced by his master Pietro Perugino, and it also gives a hint of the artist's future style. After he finished this painting, Raphael was commissioned for frescoes in the Vatican, and many people consider them to be his first big break which led him to achieve more success. Later on, Raphael created essential works such as Madonna of the Meadows and The Fire in the Borgo. 

His last official work - Transfiguration, is regarded as one of Raphael's masterpieces, and it shows how he evolved as an artist by that time. His paintings were different, but they all depicted Christian themes, which was a common practice during the Renaissance period.

Who influenced Raphael?

Raphael was influenced by a number of artists and other people. He fought as an engineer in the papal army and almost certainly came into contact with Leonardo da Vinci's early designs. However, he also absorbed many influences from other sources, such as those found in his native Urbino, which was added to the artistic traditions of Florence and Siena. The most well-known (though probably apocryphal) story about his early life is that at the age of 15, he was apprenticed to Perugino for four years, apparently producing copies of the master's works rather than his own designs.

He stayed in Perugino's studio for four years and then moved to the workshop of Pietro da Milano, known as Pinturicchio. The rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael has been a popular subject among art historians, with several books examining it. There was an element of rivalry early on, but it was a cordial meeting when they met in 1504 when they were at the age of 24 and 22. However, as both artists achieved fame, they later quarreled fiercely as Raphael's success led to resentment from Michelangelo, who felt that Raphael—with his Mannerist paintings and sculptures - had betrayed the principles of High Renaissance simplicity and elegance.

As an artist

Raphael was known for his outstanding skills as an artist, especially his ability to use colors and apply them onto surfaces to appear to be blended rather than painted on. His paintings had a gracefulness and an individuality that had not been seen before him. He was also known for his oil sketches, which served as prototypes for his greatest works, such as Madonna of the Meadow and The Fire in the Borgo.

One element that Raphael became famous for was applying colorful sponges onto wet paint so that no solid lines are visible - this technique is called "sfumato."

At the age of 24, he received the commission to decorate with frescoes the rooms in Vatican Palace, initially working alongside other artists such as Pinturicchio and Perugino. Some of his most famous early works include The Marriage of the Virgin and Conestabile Madonna; both painted around 1505. At the same time, he was also producing detailed pen drawings of Classical sculptures.

Raphael's first important commission came at the age of 26 for a Coronation of the Virgin commissioned by Agostino Chigi, the wealthy banker, and patron of literature and art who was also a friend of Raphael. The painting, which received high praise from his contemporaries, is now housed in the Brera Gallery of Milan.

Another masterpiece done by Raphael around 1508 was The Fire in the Borgo. This painting depicted a dramatic scene of how the fire started in Borgo, a district next to Vatican City, and burned part of that area, including St Peter's Basilica. When he finished his work on the painting, it was presented to Pope Julius II, and the painter received the commission for frescoes in the Vatican, which he completed five years later. Around 1512, Raphael worked on another masterpiece - Transfiguration of Christ - this painting depicts the transfiguration of Jesus. This artwork shows Raphael's artistic maturity because, during that time, he had mastered all elements of painting, including composition, color, and detail.

Raphael's most famous work: School of Athens, was initially designed as the Stanza della Segnatura which means "room of signatures" in Italian. This room is part of Vatican Palace, and it served as a library and study for Pope Julius II. When he started working on this artwork, he was only 26 years old - this is considered a remarkable achievement because he executed it with another great Italian painter and architect of the Renaissance, Donato Bramante. In this painting, Raphael depicted Greek philosophers of classical antiquity who were believed to have inspired the vision of truth as illuminated by Christ.

Raphael's The School of Athens (1511) famous painting. Original from Wikimedia Commons. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Another famous work done by Raphael was Vatican's Loggia done between 1517 and 1519. This artwork shows a series of frescoes depicting events from the Old Testament, painted at different heights to give a three-dimensional effect. The figure of God appears in the opening panel to indicate that it is heaven from where He governs people on earth. Raphael uses his artistic skills to show how powerful and dignified God is.

The last official work of Raphael was Transfiguration commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de' Medici. It took him three years to complete, and it can be seen at the Vatican Museum. The artwork shows Jesus' transfiguration. 

Raphael's Transfiguration (1516–1520) famous painting. Original from Wikimedia Commons. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

- He was shining very bright because he had transformed into a divine figure. A disciple of Jesus is seen lying dead beside the possessed boy. Raphael's contemporaries did not appreciate this artwork because they thought it depicted that we can enter into heaven through death.

The exceptional works of art that Raphael created were admired and copied by many artists throughout history, and even today, they continue to fascinate people worldwide.

In Conclusion

Raphael died in Rome on April 6, 1520, and was laid to rest at Pantheon Basilica with two other famous Italians, the painter, architect Bramante, and the poet Angelo Ambrogini (also known as "Petrarch").

Raphael's works had influenced many other artists after him, including Francesco Francia, Parmigianino, Simone Cantarini, Andrea Sarto, Federico Barocci, Correggio, Girolamo Muziano, and Taddeo Zuccari. 

Raphael's paintings were known for their gracefulness and individuality, a trait that he achieved by applying sfumato. His works also had a high harmony in colors and forms, a talent that many contemporary artists lacked. He was recognized as one of the greatest artists during his lifetime and was greatly admired by other famous artists such as Michelangelo. Raphael's paintings are currently displayed at various museums worldwide, including Vatican Museums in Vatican City, Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Galleria Borghese in Rome, Royal Collection at Windsor Castle in England, and many others.