Sunday, 7 April 2013


“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” - Oscar Wilde

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (March 28, 1483 – April 6, 1520), known simply as Raphael, was an Italian painter. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he forms the triumvirate of great masters of the High Renaissance period of Italy. Raphael was especially noted for the grace and beauty of his paintings and became a model for this high renaissance style of art.

Raphael was born in the Italian city of Urbino in the Marches area of Italy. His father was a court painter and Raphael followed in his father’s footsteps, achieving a wide education in the arts, literature, and social skills. This enabled Raphael to move easily amongst the higher circles of court society and useful in advancing his career in gaining artistic commissions. The elegant and highly decorative style of Raphael contrasted with the more eccentric genius of Michelangelo. Michelangelo, arguably came to be the more revered artist, but, he certainly lacked the refinement of Raphael in dealing with others and unlike Raphael often found himself in dispute with his customers…

By the age of 18 years, Raphael was already considered a Master painter with considerable talent. He gained his first commissions, including the Mond Crucifixion in 1503. From about 1504, Raphael spent considerable time in Florence where he was influenced by the explosive artistic culture of the City. As he was the contemporary of Leonardo and Michelangelo he had plenty of opportunity to interact with these and other major artists. Michelangelo had a terrible temper and had the habit of easily falling out with other artists – Raphael proved to be no exception. Whilst Raphael absorbed the Florentine artistic tradition he was experiencing, his talent was more attuned to the classic form of perfection in form and composition. This was a somewhat different direction to the flair, inventiveness and genius of Leonardo and Michelangelo.

After Michelangelo had completed the Sistine Chapel, he complained that Raphael had even gone as far as “plagiarising his work”, though this was not the case. This can be seen to be a back-handed compliment where Michelangelo acknowledged Raphael’s genius. Raphael’s career blossomed and in 1508 he was invited to Rome by Pope Julius II. Whilst Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel, Raphael was given rooms in the Vatican to paint. The rooms that he painted were considered some of the greatest Italian art on display. The first room known as the Stanza della Segnatura included the masterpieces – “The School of Athens”, “The Parnassus” and the “Dispute”.

By 1511 Raphael had one of the largest art schools in Rome, with over 50 pupils. It is said Raphael was not just a genius of art but also excellent at managing and inspiring his pupils, helping the school become a famous place of art. As well as a painter, Raphael was also a noted architect, draughtsman, and with Raimondi a printmaker. He died in April 6 1570, aged only 37. Yet, he left behind a considerable legacy and was celebrated even during his lifetime, with thousands of people attending his funeral.

Raphael’s life was short, but while he lived he was one of those geniuses who continually evolve and develop. He had an extraordinary capacity (like, though greater than, Picasso’s) to respond to every movement in the art world, and to subsume it within his own work. As a portraitist, Raphael is an observer, effortlessly cutting through the defences of his sitter, yet courteously allowing whatever image the sitter’s ego would seek to have portrayed. This represents a duality, looking beneath the surface and yet remaining wholly respectful of the surface, gives an additional layer of meaning to all his portraits. The two portraits shown here were both believed to be self-portraits of Raphael. We now know that one is of Bindo Altoviti (c. 1515) and the other is definitely a self-portrait (1504-06).

There is a congruency between these two portraits, but they are also quite different. Although the poses are in counterpoint, Raphael’s earlier self portrait is rather stark and honest, where the artist has stripped himself down to the essentials, the eyes looking at the observer serenely yet searchingly. “This is me and this is how I look at the world”, Raphael pronounces.

 Bindo Altoviti was handsome, a successful banker, and rich: Not unlike Raphael himself, in his later years. Although there is a feeling of fellowship in the work, the sitter’s face is sensitively fleshed out and the technical proficiency of the artist is laid out for us. Half the face is in shadow, as if to allow the sitter his mystery, his maturing, his own destiny. The lips are full and sensual, balanced by the deep-set eyes with their confrontational stare, almost defiant. The ruffled shirt is half-covered by the young man’s locks, calculatedly casual, at odds in their dandyish profusion with the plain beret and the rich but simple doublet. He holds a darkened hand dramatically to his breast, maybe to show off the ring, maybe to indicate psychic ease. This is a more accomplished work, complimentary to the sitter and well-suited for ostentatious display, while at the same time retaining the precepts of classic beauty and understated simplicity.

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