Eight Ways Raphael Bettered His Master

Here are two versions of The Marriage of the Virgin. The one on the left is by Perugino, Raphael’s teacher.

Raphael’s painting, made when he was around twenty years old, bettered Perugino’s in at least eight ways. Can you find them?

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1 Raphael tightened the composition. He made his design more strictly triangular and circular. He brought the temple down into the picture, and removed its porches. Pietro’s tall building, stretching up and out of the picture, pulled the eye away from the wedding ceremony.


2 Raphael emphasized the roundness of the little temple by giving it sixteen sides instead of eight and capping it with a round roof. This is surely one of the most beautiful and original buildings of the Renaissance. No wonder a pope asked Raphael to design St. Peter’s Basilica.


 3 He gave more natural, more graceful movements to the figures in the foreground. He was original enough to bend the rabbi’s head and NOT make it the peak of the triangle.


 4 He reduced the number of folds on the robes of his people, and he enlarged and simplified them. He also reduced the number of colors and gave them each more power and beauty. The black cape worn by the woman on the left must have astounded even Pietro.


5 He moved the Virgin to the left and isolated her slightly, making her the clear protagonist of the picture. In Pietro’s she barely stands out from the group of women on the right, and Joseph’s yellow robe makes him more prominent.


6 He grouped them better. His figures did not stand in a line. Instead of becoming part of the scene behind them, Pietro’s guests form a fence in front of it, and the square and temple behind them might as well be a backdrop of stage scenery. Raphael integrated them better. Besides isolating the holy couple slightly, he stood them back from the others in a sort of introductory triangle, within the broad, general one of the picture.


7 Raphael realized that the square behind the wedding party would better integrate into his picture as a darker region, and he deepened the color of the tiles to accentuate the perspective lines.The white tiles make paths for the eye to stroll along on its way back to the temple.


8 He placed some of his middle-ground figures right on the perspective lines and not outside them, where they might call the viewer’s eye away. Their red cloaks, one on each side of the “stroll path” and above Mary and Joseph, hold the eye in position and tag the two great personages. It was one more instance of his unifying the elements of the picture and fitting them more tightly into a single point of view than his master had done.


Any more?


Could Raphael have done anything better?

Many viewers find the influence of Pietro still too strong, especially on the faces of Raphael’s figures, which are bland objects of a very mannered beauty, not demonstrations of character.

Were Pietro’s shortcomings obvious to people before Raphael came along and pointed them out?

Yes and no. This was not one of his best works. It was a repetition—a rehashing—of the Sistine Chapel fresco that had brought him so much fame twenty years earlier: The Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter.


Christ Hands the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-1482)

That work, which was much wider than high, dealt with very different problems of design.  And Pietro’s exposition of the perspective laws was very skillful (except for the odd angle of that arch of triumph on the right). The small figures in the second row marked the distance but did not distract from the group of saints. Rather, the lively movement of the boys on the central perspective “tracks” called the eye of the viewer to the center of the picture. Each of the figures in the foreground was the result of careful study—some were portraits of patrons and important personalities. It was Pietro’s debut in Rome and he had worked hard to impress everyone.


The Best in Italy?


For a while Perugino was considered one of the best artists in Italy.

Raphael’s father was an artist who worked for the court in Urbino but he took his boy to Perugia to study with Pietro. “You don’t know how lucky you are to have Pietro for a teacher,” he told his son. “Pietro and Leonardo da Vinci are the two greatest painters in the world.”

Self-portrait by Pietro Perugino

But by the time he painted his Marriage of the Virgin with Raphael (some 20 years later), Pietro was being criticized by the artists in Florence for his constant repetitions and mannerisms. They said he was more interested in money than in art now. Michelangelo called him a lousy artist. All this made Pietro furious but he had only this reply: “The figures you find so bad now you used to praise.What can I do about it?”


Self-portrait by Raphael Sanzio in his teens

Raphael quickly learned everything Pietro had to teach him and went on to become one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance.



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5 Responses to Eight Ways Raphael Bettered His Master

  1. ivdanu – Quebec – Canadian visual artist of Romanian origin.
    ion Vincent Danu says:

    Great post, 100swallows! no doubt now that Raphael is the best…A pitty he died so young…

  2. i have admired the Raphaello paint in Milan, (pinacoteca di Brera) and i can confirm has magic colors comparing with the other paintings, and a special precision also in the minimal details of the figures wich are very small.

  3. Pingback: Raphael (on this day in history…) | If it happened yesterday, it's History

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the art lesson. I could see that Raphael’s painting was better, but I could not articulate it as well.

  5. Pingback: Artist Of The Month: Raphael (Part 1). – Rearview Mirror

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