Raphael Biography – Italian Renaissance Painter, Architect, Legacy

Raphael biography
Spread the love

Raphael. Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Listen to the audio version of this biography.

Raphael Biography and Legacy

Raphael was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time and one of the three great masters of the High Renaissance along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

He was admired and revered for the composition, grandeur, and clarity of form in his works, as well as his prolific output.

Early Life

Raphael, whose actual name was Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, was born either on the 28th of March or the 6th of April 1483, in the city of Urbino in the Marche region of Italy to Magia and Giovanni Santi.

Unfortunately, his actual date of birth is still disputed, and hence we have to make do with the two dates mentioned above.

Raphael’s father was a poet and painter in the court of Urbino and often rubbed shoulders with the ruling family and their inner circle. The court of Urbino encouraged and promoted both literature and art, but was mostly regarded as a center for literature rather than art.

With the help of his father’s close association with the ruling family’s inner circle, Raphael was raised in this inner circle, learning and incorporating the social skills and posh manners that would go on to define his character in the future.

Moving and growing up in the highest circle of the court of Urbino developed his personality in such a manner that later on in life he found it extremely easy and natural to mix and mingle with the highest circles of Italian society. This was a trait that greatly helped him to further his artistic career.

Raphael’s father ran a workshop with several apprentices, and from a very young age, Raphael became involved in the workshop, not only learning to draw and paint but also helping his father to run the workshop. In this way, he became interested in art at a very young age and quickly began showing some talent and aptitude for drawing and painting.

As he became more absorbed with art, Raphael’s education took a backseat. It is said that he did not have a full humanistic education and was probably not that well-versed in Latin.


Although Raphael was a great help to his father in running and managing the workshop, his father put him in the workshop of Pietro Perugino as an apprentice, so that he could learn and develop as an artist.

Raphael was only 8 years old when this happened, and hence this event is at times disputed by historians as 8 years was considered too young for an apprenticeship to begin.

The same year, Raphael’s mother died, and his father remarried shortly thereafter. Three years later, in 1494, his father died too. At the mere age of 11, Raphael became an orphan.

His paternal uncle, Bartolomeo, who was a priest, became his guardian. However, it is speculated that he continued to live under the care of his stepmother when he was not living as an apprentice with Perugino.

Raphael developed quickly as an artist under the tutelage of Perugino, and his early works show a clear influence of Perugino’s style. He took his apprenticeship very seriously and absorbed as much of Perugino’s teachings as he could, so much so that a time came when it was almost impossible to differentiate between Perugino’s and his hand. Their styles and technique were almost identical.

Early Commissions

By the year 1500, when Raphael was 17 years old, he was already considered fully trained and was described as a master.

The same year, he received his first proper commission for the Church of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in the town of Città di Castello, halfway between Urbino and Perugia. This commission led to his first known work, the Baronci Altarpiece. He worked on the commission along with another painter named Evangelista da Pian di Meleto. The commission was completed in 1501.

In the next few years, Raphael received several other commissions for churches, such as the Oddi Altarpiece, Mond Crucifixion, and The Marriage of the Virgin. Apart from these large paintings, he also painted several portraits, madonnas, and small, intricate, and exquisite cabinet paintings such as Saint Michael and Three Graces. These small paintings were usually commissioned by connoisseurs in the court of Urbino.

By the age of 19, he was already much in demand and highly sought-after for his artistic skills.

In 1502, Raphael was invited by Sordicchio, another pupil of Perugino, to the city of Siena to work on a series of frescoes in the Piccolomini Library in Siena Cathedral. Sordicchio would later describe Raphael as a draughtsman of the highest quality.

Nomadic Life and Influences

Raphael began to live a somewhat nomadic lifestyle in the early 1500s, traveling to cities where he was commissioned to paint and then leaving for another city after completing the commission. Most of his travels were in Northern Italy, where he worked in various cities in the following years.

One of the regions that had a great influence on his art was Florence, the heart of the Renaissance that saw the emergence of great masters who came before him such as da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Raphael’s artistic style showed the influence of Florentine art as far back as when he was still an apprentice under Perugino. He is believed to have visited Florence on and off between 1504 and 1508, mainly to study art and acquire materials, but never permanently resided there.

Raphael’s works during this period of his life show a resemblance to painter Fra Bartolomeo, and most importantly, da Vinci. Inspired by da Vinci, the figures in Raphael’s paintings took on more complex and dynamic positions. He also began drawing nude men fighting much like many other artists of the time.

One of his most famous series of easel paintings was directly inspired by da Vinci’s composition, the pyramidal Holy Family. He also practiced and perfected his own version of da Vinci’s famous sfumato technique, which softens the transition between colors. He particularly used this technique for the painting of flesh in his works.

Although he was influenced by other artists of the time, Raphael was boldly treading in his own unique direction by developing his own unique style different from his older and more established contemporaries.

Moving to Rome

When Raphael and da Vinci were in Florence during this period, Michelangelo was in Rome after being summoned by the Pope. Michelangelo had already developed a dislike for Raphael even though they resided in different cities, mainly because Raphael represented an up-and-coming younger artist who was a potential threat to him.

But in 1508, when he was 25 years old, Raphael was summoned by Pope Julius II, mostly on the recommendation of the great architect Donato Bramante, who was the Pope’s architect during this period. Raphael accepted the invite and moved to Rome, where he quickly received a commission from the Pope to paint frescoes in the Pope’s private library at the Vatican Palace.

The same year, Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Raphael had never worked on such a large project before, but he was more than willing to take up the challenge head-on.

The Raphael Rooms

The Pope’s commission would result in the famous Raphael Rooms, the four rooms that form a suite of reception rooms in the Apostolic Palace, now part of the Vatican Museum.

The first of these four rooms would go on to include three of his greatest frescoes, The Disputation of the Sacrament, The Parnassus, and The School of Athens. Together, these frescoes would make a great impact on Roman art and are now widely regarded as his greatest masterpiece.

While painting these rooms, Raphael was accompanied and assisted by the large workshop he had acquired by then even at such a young age.

In 1513, five years after he had received the commission, Pope Julius II died and was succeeded by Pope Leo X. Fortunately for Raphael, this change in the papacy did not disrupt his work at all as he managed to form a closer and stronger relationship with the new Pope. Pope Leo X allowed him to carry on with the commission.

During this period, Raphael painted several portraits of his patrons, Pope Julius II and Leo X. He also painted works for other clients such as the papal treasurer and banker Agostino Chigi and King Francis I of France.

The painting of the four Raphael Rooms would be continued even after Raphael’s death in 1520 by his assistants and his workshop. While painting the rooms, Raphael was greatly inspired and influenced by Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, whose first section was completed in 1511.

As he did with da Vinci, Raphael quickly absorbed certain aspects of Michelangelo’s style into his own, making it his own unique style. However, Michelangelo was not happy with his influence on Raphael’s art and even accused him of plagiarism. Michelangelo would later claim in a letter that everything Raphael knew about art he had gotten from him.

Today, the frescoes of the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel ceiling mark the High Renaissance in Rome. They are regarded as the epitome of High Renaissance and Western classical art.

Dabbling in Architecture

Although Raphael and his workshop were primarily occupied with painting commissions, by 1514, after Bramante’s death, Raphael also began dabbling in architecture.

After Bramante’s death, Raphael was named architect of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica and began working on its design. However, his plans for the project were shelved upon his death, and Michelangelo took over as the architect.

For a brief period from 1514 onward, Raphael was actually the leading architect in Rome, designing several palaces and chapels for the Pope and his close associates. Many of his designs for these buildings survive to this day.

Final Days

In 1515, Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to paint a series of ten cartoons for tapestries that show scenes from the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, for the Sistine Chapel.

These cartoons, out of which only seven survive, have to be regarded as some of his most important works, rivaling Michelangelo’s painting of the Ceiling as the most influential and well-known designs of the Renaissance. These cartoons became so famous that they were known to all artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, mainly through reproduction in the form of prints.

In his final years, Raphael also worked on some important altarpieces such as the Sistine Madonna and The Saint Cecilia Altarpiece.

In his last years, his art began taking a different direction, leaning more toward the proto-Baroque style rather than the Mannerist style, as can be noticed in his works, Il Spasimo and Transfiguration.


By the late 1510s, Raphael was an established and prosperous artist, widely regarded as one of the great masters of the time. His exceptional works and prolific output earned him several important and influential patrons who took good care of him financially and rewarded him for his talents.

From 1517 onward, he was living in a grand luxurious palace designed by Bramante and enjoyed great favors from his patrons. He was made a knight of the Papal Order of the Golden Spur and a Groom of the Chamber of the Pope, both of which not only earned him status at court but also a very generous additional income.

Although Raphael never married, he is believed to have had numerous short-term affairs as well as a long-term one with a woman named Margherita Luti, who was his model and mistress. She is the subject of his painting, La Fornarina.

On 6th April 1520, Raphael, aged 37, died of reasons that are still uncertain and unknown. Some speculate that he died due to an infectious disease and bloodletting. Others, such as Giorgio Vasari, claim that he died of exhaustion from work and unceasing romantic interests.

Vasari also suggests that Raphael was born on a Good Friday (which, in 1483, fell on 28th March), and died on a Good Friday as well. Some say he died on his 37th birthday. Hence, we have all this confusion regarding his actual birth date.

It is said that Raphael’s illness that led to his death lasted for around 15 days, during which time he put his affairs in order and sorted out his will.

Raphael was given a grand funeral that was attended by large crowds, with cardinals carrying his body and the Pope himself kissing his hand.

As per his request, he was buried in the Pantheon.


Today, Raphael is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential artists of all time. Along with da Vinci and Michelangelo, he belongs to the trinity of the great masters of Renaissance art.

He is also widely regarded as one of the best and finest draftsmen in the history of Western art. But apart from his paintings and drawings, Raphael also played a significant role in the rise of the reproductive print, having created some of the most well-known Italian prints of the century in collaboration with Italian engraver Marcantonio.

After his death, Raphael’s fame was surpassed by that of his older contemporaries, da Vinci and Michelangelo, for various reasons, such as a general bias of future historians toward the latter two.

Perhaps, it could also be due to the fact that both Michelangelo and da Vinci had much longer careers than Raphael, making their contributions greater in multiple fields.

Leonardo da Vinci died just a year before Raphael, on 2nd May 1519, at the age of 67, while Michelangelo died on 18th February 1564 at the age of 88.

Even though history remembers da Vinci as the Genius and Michelangelo as the Divine One, Raphael is often regarded by many as the most ideal, balanced, and natural artist, whose elegant, natural, and graceful paintings surpassed that of his older contemporaries in beauty, composition, and form.

Even in his own lifetime, although not as influential as Michelangelo, he was revered and admired by his contemporaries, and his compositions were widely studied, eventually becoming the cornerstone of the training of the Academies of Art.

Some future historians have described Raphael as the most famous and loved master of the High Renaissance, whose influence is the most consistent and continuous.

Whether one agrees with this assessment or not, one can hardly deny the fact that Raphael belongs to the pantheon of the greatest artists of all time.