Raphael was a rock star. He was the Elvis of his generation, the “prince of painters,” at a time when painters were the A-List celebs. It pissed off Michelangelo and Leonardo to no end. He died young, as rock stars do, and there was even a legend around that.
The Pope’s Mission
Raffaelo Sanzio da Urbino was in his early twenties when he traveled to Rome from Florence and Urbino, two other Italian cultural centers of the time. It helped that he was buddies with the future Duke of Urbino and distantly related to Bramante, who was designing the dome for St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Julius II invited him in for a chat and immediately gave him the commission to paint his private library.
The paintings won immediate acclaim, to such a degree that the rooms he ended up painting in the Vatican are now called the “Raphael rooms.” This first one included the School of Athens which I’ve included in posts on more than one occasion. This photo is a little wavy because it was hot and crowded on the Vatican tour (in 2018), and I was being jostled as I stood right at the wall, trying to take a quick photo. But it may give you a sense of the enormity of the canvas and its sense of grandeur. And such vibrant colors!
For a rival to get such a coveted commission was hard to swallow for Michelangelo, who had been left cooling his heels waiting hours for the pope, more than once. Vasari, who was the chronicler of several of these painters, claimed that the elite judged Raphael to be better with color and more strictly adhering to classical forms. Only 26, Raphael had immediately shown great facility showing people in movement. Michelangelo was judged equal in design, and he called himself more of a sculptor anyway.
Raphael wasn’t keen on Michelangelo’s carping in the social media, which at the time meant the nobles of Rome gossiping in court. He painted Michelangelo’s face in a pout on the body of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who had a reputation for being crabby.
Death from Too Much?
Too much of a good thing too young? We know what happens when 26-year-olds become the toast of the town. Even in an age where life could be brutishly short given plague, famine, war, etc., Raphael’s death at only 37 was unusual. It’s amazing, in that sense, that Leonard and Michelangelo both lived past Medicare age.
Vasari was a notorious exaggerator. In his biography of the young painter, he claimed that Raphael died of exhaustion brought on by “too many romantic interests.” In other words, too much sex (and rock ‘n’ roll)? This led to many speculations that he died of syphilis, which was a disease that showed up shortly after Columbus returned in the 1490s.
The idea that Raphael had some kind of long-known wasting disease, whether syphilis or tuberculosis or summat, has so captivated art historians that they improvise. An analysis of descriptions about this painting from the year that Raphael died showed that museum curators frequently describe him in this painting as…. Pensive? Friendly (hand on shoulder)? Mystical?…
No, they call him “careworn” and “prematurely aged.” This is historical cheating. Knowing that Raphael would be dead soon, and that one historian claimed he was exhausted, people imply something in this painting that’s probably not there. Raphael probably was tired from late night partying and mixing eggs into his tempura, but no more than anyone else.
Meanwhile, forensic art historians–is there such a thing? I made that up. But whatever you call people who analyze evidence from the Renaissance about how famous painters died–they think it was pneumonia plus bloodletting. Based on some references to Raphael’s fever, coughing, and fatigue, it seems likely he caught a virus which might have been like COVID or pneumonia. Then, physicians at the time, also known as quacks, used leeches or knives to make him sicker. He died on Good Friday, which seems ironic, though All Hallows Eve would have been even weirder.
But Such a Beautiful Dragon–Twice!
My favorite Raphael paintings are the St. George and the Dragon versions which he did twice, for Guidobaldo Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. The duke had been awarded a Knight of the Order of the Garter by the English king. Henry VII had already made his 3 year old son (Henry VIII) a knight of the garter, so why not some Italian guy from a small but prosperous city?
The Duke commissioned two versions on the painting. In both, on the horse’s flank lies a banner with the order’s motto: Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks this evil). Raphael painted these even before he went to Rome, and St. George does appear to be quite lively in motion, suggesting the talent Raphael would show later.
I dig the idea of the dragon and the composition of the paintings. But this is clearly a baby dragon, yeah? If that’s the size of the dragon terrorizing the local villagers, they seem to be a bit of a pushover. I’ve seen German shepherds that were bigger, although German shepherds don’t usually spit fire. Raphael’s dragon also has such small wings, I don’t know how Raphael thought it could fly.
I mean this is Da Vinci’s dragon, taking on a lion and some sort of weasel with really long back legs–that’s a real dragon. No wonder Da Vinci thought Raphael was over-hyped!
Probably just as well that Raphael spent more time satirizing his rivals as Greek philosophers.