AS THE son of a court painter in Urbino, Raphael grew up around rich and powerful men whose profits from wars enabled them to build palaces filled with luxurious objects.
Through his short but prolific life—he died aged 37—he continued to work mainly as a court artist.
Now the subject of an exhibition at the National Gallery in London, Raphael was a painter, architect, archaeologist and entrepreneur.
Raphael’s works, on show in museums all over the Western world, were luxury goods.
They demonstrated the social status, power and religious devotion of the patrons—be they representatives of church or state, or both.
His work was to the taste of rich men, and in the centuries that followed it was inherited or bought by the ruling classes or the rich bourgeoisie, and later bequeathed to museums.
It has been used as a model for the instruction of artists since his death. Today it is still part of Western elite high culture.
Raphael’s skill as a painter was no doubt learned in his father’s workshop.
But it was added to through his working life, and the influence of artists of his time such as Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.
Most of his paintings in this exhibition are oil on wood, giving a shiny jewel-like effect, especially on some of the smaller works.
My favourite is Vision of a Knight (c1504), with a chivalric rather than a religious theme inspired by a rare Latin poem, the subject and the quality of which suited court taste.
A portrait of one of his most powerful patrons, Pope Julius II (c1511-12), can also be seen.
In 1508 Raphael had been summoned to Rome by Julius at the tender age of 25. He was given the prestigious job of painting the huge walls of Julius’s private library in the Vatican Palace, even though he had no experience of working in the fresco technique.
The result was the massive Disputa (1509-10), representing in nearly life-size figures theologians debating the central mysteries of the Catholic faith.
This was such a tour de force that he was invited to decorate the rest of Julius’s apartments.
Fortunately Disputa and other huge frescos not mentioned in this exhibition are still on the walls of the Vatican.
But some of the preparatory drawings and sketches can be seen in this exhibition, showing Raphael’s skills of draughtmanship and composition.
For those who have not been to Rome, Raphael is known more today perhaps for his idealised depictions of the Madonna and Child, with or without St John the Baptist or Joseph.
These show the clarity and the pyramidal composition for which he was renowned. This can be seen very clearly in The Alba Madonna (c1511) and The Garvagh Madonna.
The last exhibit, Portrait of La Velata, (c1514), may be of his lover.
Raphael seems to have had a reputation as a womaniser if we are to believe Vasari, the 16th century biographer who wrote that Raphael died in 1520 because “he continued with his amorous pleasures to an inordinate degree”.
As far as I’m concerned this exhibition is an expensive disappointment. In spite of the fact that it is sponsored by a multinational organisation—Credit Suisse First Boston—it costs the visitor £9 or £8 concessions.
It consists of 103 exhibits, about a third of which are from the permanent collection. Many of the drawings are from the British Museum and therefore can be seen for free after this exhibition is over.
If you want to be inspired by Raphael and you’re lucky enough to go to Rome, make sure to go to see his murals in the Vatican Palace. They will blow your mind.
Raphael: From Urbino to Rome
National Gallery, London, until 16 January