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Raphael Santi: Prince of painters


The exhumation of Raphael’s remains was initiated in 1833 by the Accademia di San Luca, which possessed a skull long held to be that of the Prince of Painters. Raphael died on 6 April 1520 – Good Friday – at the age of 37. Seizing on the anagogical significance of the date, one of the many stricken observers reporting on his death from the papal court remarked, with some chronological licence, that just as at Christ’s Crucifixion, the heavens willed a sign of profound grief, causing the walls of the Vatican palace to rupture. The Christological analogy was reinforced by the funerary tableau staged after his death, when his body was laid out on a bier beneath his final painting, the Transfiguration. Emerging from the darkness like an apparition, the radiant Christ, transcendent in an explosion of divine light, must have struck the mourners as a portrayal of the artist himself, whose Christ-like features had been remarked on in his lifetime.

A cult devoted to Raphael

Then, in accordance with his wishes, Raphael’s earthly remains were interred in a tomb in the Pantheon (for centuries a consecrated church but originally a temple to the pagan gods of antiquity). There was no more symbolically resonant space in Rome. His burial there fuelled the nascent hagiography of the ‘Prince of Painters’ – the enduring epithet conferred on Raphael while he was still alive. In the centuries after his death, the cult of Raphael grew, promoted in academies across Europe and championed by devout adherents like Ingres. It is not surprising, then, that the opening of his tomb in September 1833 was greeted with the heightened anticipation and solemn ceremony attending the exhumation of a saint.

All Rome talked of nothing else. As if for a blockbuster exhibition, tickets were issued for viewing Raphael’s skeleton in the Pantheon, and in the course of the six days it was displayed in a glass case before being reinterred, more than 3,000 people filed past. The canonical view of Raphael as agreeable, well-mannered and endowed with a sweet, even angelic, disposition was articulated by the biographer Giorgio Vasari in the mid 16th century. He was prone to artistic melancholia, as shows this drawing captured in Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraved portrait. He played on the saintly nature implicit in his surname: Santi.

An ambitious artist

There is no doubt that Raphael was indeed genial, polite, sociable, and genuinely fond of and beloved by his many friends and associates. At the same time, he was ambitious, competitive, conspiratorial, occasionally ruthless in his single-minded climb to the top and perhaps, at times, unscrupulous. So he was more psychologically complex than the beatific portrait of past centuries. He acquired vast wealth that allowed him to invest in real estate that consumed no small part of Raphael’s scarce non-working hours and abundant financial resources. By 1517 he owned the Palazzo Caprini on the fashionable Via Alessandrina designed by Bramante; in May 1518, he finalised the purchase of a vigna near the Colosseum; and on 24 March 1520, two weeks before his unforeseen death, he acquired a parcel of land on the Via Giulia where, it has been speculated, he intended to build a grand new palace he would have designed himself. In addition to owning property, Raphael held a number of salaried official appointments that supplemented his already handsome income. His wealth brought him social standing. A perfunctory survey of Raphael’s career trajectory makes clear the existence of an unwavering ambition alongside his legendary affability. Called to Rome by Pope Julius II in 1508, Raphael acquitted himself so brilliantly in the Stanza della Segnatura that the painters who were already at work in the papal apartments in the Vatican were dismissed. From that position of privilege, he made a clandestine visit to the Sistine Chapel – without Michelangelo’s permission – to see the frescoes in progress. For Raphael, the encounter was transformative as his Isaiah is an undisguised paraphrase of Michelangelo’s prophets. 

Painter of the Popes

For the enraged Michelangelo, it was an unforgivable violation – grounds for his bitter, lifelong lament that everything Raphael knew he had learned from him. From then until his death, Raphael was the pope’s painter. Under Julius’s successor, Leo X, his remit expanded to encompass architecture (he was named architect of St Peter’s following Bramante’s death) and antiquities, in sum, virtually every venture of artistic significance in Rome. Unrivalled success did not quell his competitive streak, however – or perhaps his competitive streak helped ensure his hegemony.


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