Hats Off to Raphael

Was it bad luck for  Rafael Sanz (Raffaello Sanzio) to have been born while the two greatest artists who ever lived—Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci—were alive and working in Italy?
“Not at all,” he would have said. “I learned from both of them and improved my painting so much that I became Number Three in the world.”

Self-portrait of Raphael Sanz at about age 23

It’s not as though he had nothing of his own. Few in all of history could draw such graceful figures or invent such beautiful colors. But without Leonardo and Michelangelo as guides Rafael might have become only a better Perugino, his first master.

He learned most from Leonardo.
“Leonardo’s paintings left Rafael amazed and entranced,” says Vasari, his biographer. “Gradually abandoning what he had learned from Perugino… [he] tried to the best of his ability and knowledge to imitate Leonardo’s style.”
How far did he get?

“For all his diligence and study, however, in certain problems he was never able to surpass Leonardo. And although there were many who considered that he surpassed [him] in sweetness and in a kind of natural facility, nonetheless Rafael never achieved the sublimity of Leonardo’s basic conceptions or the grandeur of his art.”

Still, Vasari gives him second prize in painting: “In this context, however, where few can stand comparison with Leonardo, Rafael came nearer to him than any other painter, notably in grace of coloring.” That included Michelangelo.

He learned a lot from him too. Vasari says that because of the first style he had learned from Perugino, “he experienced great difficulty in learning the finer points of the nude and the technique for doing difficult foreshortenings from the cartoon that Michelangelo made for the Council Hall in Florence. No other artist, no matter how talented, would have been able to do what, convinced that he had so far been wasting his time, Rafael was then able to accomplish. For he rid himself completely of the burden of Perugino’s manner to learn from the work of Michelangelo a style that was immensely difficult in every particular; and he turned himself, as it were, from a master into a pupil once more.”

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8 Responses to Hats Off to Raphael

  1. Frank Lin says:

    I always thought while Leonardo provided the graduate study, it was Michelangelo whom Raphael completed his phd with.

  2. ion danu says:

    Such a pity Raphael died so young! I would have been trilled to see what he would have been capable of doing if he had Titian’s old age… or Michelangelo’s…

  3. 100swallows says:

    That’s good, Frank, except that Rafael did all the study on his own–no German university “doctor father” pointing the way. Neither Leonardo nor Michelangelo helped him at all. He was self-taught. The poor kid had to do without the advantages of our monster universities and their degree requirements.
    And do you know what (though it is beside the point)? I don’t think he ever really digested that inimitable style of Michelangelo’s. I wonder whether his best stuff wasn’t made before he became that pupil Vasari speaks of. His best things are his portraits and some strange grace you see in his early work and which he perfected in imitation of Leonardo but then put aside later when he tried for muscles and other Michelangelo features. But let me think about this to see if I really believe it or can support it with examples.

  4. 100swallows says:

    danu: see my comment to Frank. What do you think? Rafael tried to learn from Michelangelo’s style, and may have, but I wonder whether he really grafted it successfully onto his own? It seems to me that his best stuff, his wonderful grace and colors, and even his drawing, were best without Michelangelo’s influence.

  5. Frank Lin says:

    100Swallows, I was making a metaphor, I’m well aware of the fact Raphael did not attend a university, nor received direct help from Leonardo or Michelangelo; it was from their examples he learned from.
    I am interested in seeing your examples of Raphael’s work not being bettered from the influence of Michelangelo, especially when most art critics say the opposite.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Sorry, Frank, I knew you knew. I guess I’m just touchy about universities. When I think of Rafael and his style I remember the first Virgins and the Holy Family pictures, like a couple in the Prado, both before and after his experimenting with Leonardo’s chiaroscuro. And his portraits. Those owed nothing to Michelangelo. Let me work on this.
    After looking long at Rafael’s work: Danu and Frank: I think I’m going to have to tear up my first sketch of a theory that Rafael was better without Michelangelo.
    Frank:Did you change your avatar?

  7. Aryul says:

    Well one thing is for sure: Rafael is definitely the most likeable. He finished his work unlike the procrastinating Leonardo and nice to others unlike the anti-social Michelangelo. He also seemed to have no problem having women flock to him, and he probably would have been the best if he had lived longer. So yes, hats off to Rafael.

  8. 100swallows says:

    Aryul: It’s true everyone seemed to like Rafael. And Condivi said that although Michelangelo and Rafael had competed, Michelangelo never spoke ill of him. He only said: what he achieved, he achieved through work, not through nature (which wasn’t really true, of course but it shows a respect).

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