When we speak of the golden boys in art history, it's understood that Italian High Renaissance Master Raphael (1483-1520) lives in the rarefied air of 24K super-stardom. His beautiful compositions and serene Madonnas have been admired since he painted them, and he was famous as an artist before he died. In addition to being insanely talented, he was also rich, charming, extremely handsome, immensely popular, flagrantly heterosexual, and well-bred, -connected, and -dressed.
Was Raphael simply born under a lucky star? Or did he have his problems just as you and I do? Let's take a chronological look at his life, and then it will be up to you to decide.
Raphael, as Raffaello Santi will be known in the future, is born on either Friday, March 28 (using the Gregorian calendar), or Friday, April 6 (using the Julian), in the ducal town of Urbino. Either date works as Good Friday, so this is one piece of information that Giorgio Vasari will record accurately in the middle of the 16th-century.
The proud parents are Giovanni Santi (ca. 1435/40-1494) and his wife, Mágia di Battista di Nicola Ciarla (d. 1491). Giovanni is from a wealthy merchant family traditionally based in Colbordolo, a commune located roughly seven miles from Urbino in the Marche Region. Mágia is the daughter of a prosperous merchant in Urbino. The couple will have have three children, but only Raphael is destined to survive infancy.
The little family celebrates another "birth" when Giovanni -- who is working in Urbino as a court artist and poet -- gets his workshop up and running by mid-October.Also Happening in 1483:
- Although he has likely been there for months, Leonardo's presence in Milan is first documented. He begins work on the first of two Virgin of the Rocks versions. This one will end up in the Louvre.
- Martin Luther is born in Eisleben, Saxony on November 10.
- Giuliano della Rovere is made Bishop of Bologna, and he commissions a triptych of the Nativity with Saints for the Sistine Chapel of Savona Cathedral.
- Sandro Botticelli presumably paints The Birth of Venus.
- Thirteen year old Charles is crowned Charles VIII, King of France on August 30.
Raphael's childhood suffers a severe blow when his mother, Mágia, dies of puerperal fever on October 7. The infant, an unnamed girl, will die on October 25.
Up until now, his life has been pleasant. He has watched Giovanni practice his craft, begun to learn the ways in which one conducts oneself at court, and enjoyed the undivided attention of his mother. Going forward Raphael's childhood will not be unpleasant, but it will definitely be lacking in one crucial area.
This may be a good opportunity to stop and consider those peaceful, calm, beautiful Madonnas he will paint in the future. It is only natural to wonder if Mágia will be their inspiration.Also Happening in 1491:
- Henry VIII is born in England on June 28.
- Giuliano della Rovere commissions Perugino to create the altarpiece Nativity with Saints for the Roman basilica Santi XII Apostoli.
- Nicolaus Copernicus begins the rigorous, four year astronomical-mathematical course of study at the University of Kraków.
- Ignatius of Loyola is born on December 24.
Giovanni Santi marries Bernardina, the daughter of a goldsmith, on May 25 in Urbino.Also Happening in 1492:
- Columbus sails the ocean blue ... for the first time.
- Lorenzo "the Magnificent" de' Medici, de facto ruler of Florence, dies on April 9.
- Pope Alexander VI (Roderic Llançol i de Borja [Italianized as "Borgia"]) succeeds Pope Innocent VIII (Giovanni Battista Cybo, a friend of the della Rovere clan) as the 214th pope on August 11.
- Lorenzo II de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, is born on September 12.
Giovanni Santi dies on August 1, supposedly of malaria. He has time to prepare and sign a will on July 27 that names Raphael, who has recently turned 11, his sole heir. Giovanni's brother, Dom Bartolommeo Santi (a monk and a priest), is named Raphael's legal guardian.
Interestingly, it will not be Dom Bartolommeo with whom young Raphael bonds after the death of Giovanni. Mágia's brother, Simone Battista di Ciarla, will act as the boy's mentor, friend, and surrogate father for as long as they both live.
Bernardina delivers Giovanni's daughter after he dies, but the girl does not appear to survive past the age of five (or less). The widow has been granted permission to continue living in what is now Raphael's house for as long as she does not remarry. Anecdotal evidence suggests that she and Dom Bartolommeo are of similar personalities: loud and quick to anger -- completely unlike Giovanni, Mágia, or Raphael. Uncle and stepmother share a mutual dislike and quarrel at top volume each time they are in the same room.Also Happening in 1494:
- Florentine Master Domenico Ghirlandaio dies on January 11.
- The Florentine Mannerist painter Jacopo Carucci, called Pontormo, is born on May 24.
- Flemish painter Hans Memling dies on August 11.
- Leonardo's patron Ludovico Sforza becomes Duke of Milan on October 22.
- Suleiman the Magnificent, Ottoman Sultan, is born November 6.
- Fra Luca Pacioli's Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalità is published in Venice on November 10.
- Charles VIII of France invades Italy. His armies will reach Florence by November 17.
Raphael is probably apprenticed by now, if not sooner. Tradition holds that his master is the painter Pietro Vannucci. Pietro Vannucci is the given name of Early Italian Renaissance great Perugino (ca. 1450-1523), by the way -- the same Perugino about whom Giovanni had previously written a flattering poem. In fact, Giovanni had expressed his desire, more than a few times, that Raphael should be apprenticed to Perugino. However, no supporting documentation exists to prove any such apprenticeship.
Raphael dies in Rome on his birthday, April 6 (according to the Julian calendar), making him exactly 37 years old.
Giorgio Vasari will fumble a couple of details when he writes about Raphael's death in Delle Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori in 1550. For one thing he claims Raphael was born and died on Good Fridays, which is such a charming anecdote that even this writer stated it to be factual. It is not. Raphael was born on Good Friday, but April 6, 1520, is a Tuesday.
Additionally, Vasari relates the tale that Raphael dies of a fever induced by a night of unbridled passion, the likes of which is seldom seen in recorded history. In other words, poor Raphael "did" himself to death. This adds some delicious sauce to the life of a legend, and it will titillate Raphael aficionados for centuries to come. However, it is not factual either. Current research holds that the artist died of a fever induced by malaria, a fate that many a Roman resident befell. The stagnant marshes around the Vatican were a fantastic breeding ground for mosquitoes.