The Artist Raphael: Biography & Paintings

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the life and work of the great Italian artist Raphael and test your understanding of Renaissance art history, the paintings and Raphael, and Italian culture.

Raphael was Not Just a Turtle

You might associate the name 'Raphael' with the most rebellious of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but each of those cartoon creations was actually named after an Italian artist. In Raphael's case, his namesake was was an Italian painter and architect who lived and worked during the Italian Renaissance. This was a period from roughly 1300-1600, marked by a rise in intellectual culture, new wealth, and an immense passion for the arts. Raphael died at the age of only 37, but left a tremendous influence on art with his serene compositions and classical human forms. Along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he was considered one of three greatest masters of that era.

Self portrait by Raphael


Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) was born in Urbino, a small Italian town with a proud artistic tradition. He worked in the workshop of his father, also a painter, and may have helped run it after his father died in 1494. In the Italian tradition, professional artists operated workshops of apprentices and trained them in fine art. When an artist was fully trained, they were called a master.

Raphael was made a master in 1501. His first major commission was the Baronci altarpiece in the church of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino. After this commission, he began developing a reputation. By 1508, he was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint for the Vatican, mostly for the Pope's personal library. These frescoes became some of his most famous works.

Raphael also ran his own workshop, one of the largest of the time, with over fifty apprentices under him. The artist and historian Vasari said it was an efficient workshop, and that Raphael kept good relationships with his patrons and his apprentices. In an era where artists were the biggest celebrities, not all masters were so personable. Raphael became famous for his portraits as well before dying from illness in 1520. Vasari said the true Renaissance ended with the death of Raphael.


Renaissance Styles

The painting below, 'The Wedding of the Virgin', is indicative of the early works of Raphael. This painting displays several characteristics of Raphael's style. The human figures are gracefully posed and occasionally slightly contorted so that Raphael could display his mastery of the human form. Additionally, Raphael shows his expertise of Renaissance styles, like perspective, or the illusion of more distant objects being smaller. Note the designs on the floor and the temple in the background. The lines from these structures create the illusion of space and distance.

Wedding of Virgin by Raphael
Wedding of Virgin by Raphael


Raphael's frescoes in the Pope's libraries are some of his most famous works. The below painting, 'The School of Athens', shows Raphael's mastery again of realistic space. All of the figures in the painting are major philosophers, artists, mathematicians, and engineers from classical Rome and Greece. The Renaissance era idealized ancient Romans and Greeks and saw them as the basis of civilized society.

School of Athens
School of Athens by Raphael

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