The Upcoming 500th Anniversary of Raphael’s Death

Raphael self-portrait, approximately 23 years old

Raphael Sanzio: one of the world’s first Renaissance men, right up there with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci as part of the most famous artistic trinity. And yet in many ways, an afterthought. Younger than Michelangelo by eight years, Raphael was born on Good Friday 1483, after Leonardo had started The Adoration of the Magi, been accused of sodomy, and moved to Milan to serve the Sforza duke.

Moreover, Raphael died young, likely before he reached the pinnacle of his painting prowess, perishing on Good Friday 1520 at the age of 37. According to one study, artists don’t reach their peak creativity until around age 42. Leonardo didn’t paint the Mona Lisa until he was in his 50s. Likewise for Michelangelo, who didn’t start The Last Judgement until he was 59.

Title page of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

But Raphael will always hold a special place in my heart, perhaps because of his unrealized potential. I learned much about him while writing and researching my first novel, The Sidewalk Artist, coauthored with Janice Kirk. Frustratingly little is known about Raphael, much of it second-hand rumors from Giorgio Vasari, who wrote the indispensable Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.

As we dug deeper into what was actually known about the man, we realized how much rumor laced his biography. Why did Raphael never marry although he was engaged for six years? Was the baker’s daughter, rather than his fiancée, his true love, at a time when people routinely married for economic and strategic reasons? Did he become a cardinal or not? Why did he buy property in Rome but never build on it? And did he really die from sexual excesses? This lack of concrete knowledge permitted us to play with the spaces between the facts, allowing for a slightly fantastical novel.

Raphael’s Galatea, 1514

What is known for certain is that he created some stunning artwork. My favorites include the majestic Triumph of Galatea, a fresco for Agostino Chigi’s Villa Farnesina; the awe-inspiring School of Athens, in the Vatican’s Stanza della Sengatura; and the lovely Madonna della Seggiola, which hangs in the Pitti Palace in Florence.

Another reason Raphael appeals is that he sounds like a man with a high emotional IQ. Michelangelo was a known curmudgeon, slovenly to boot. Leonardo was certainly well-liked and respected but always either late with his commissions or completely delinquent. Raphael was known to be charismatic, well-dressed, responsible, the Pope’s favorite. Not to mention good-looking. At the 2013 Kingston Writers Festival, I likened him to the George Clooney of the Renaissance. Although perhaps at age 58 George is getting a bit long in the tooth for the comparison to truly work, there’s no denying the similar class and grace Raphael exuded as a celebrity of his day.

Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola, circa 1513

So much so that when he died on April 6, 1520, people wailed in the streets, much like when Alexander Hamilton expired in New York less than three centuries later. The pope himself, Leo X, gave him last rites. And large crowds attended his funeral at the Pantheon in Rome.

He was a superstar, an icon – at least in 1520.

And not appreciated enough in recent centuries, the Raphaelite period of the 19th century notwithstanding. Hence part of the focus of my website for the next year (though not exclusively so), after I noticed much coverage of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death on May 2, rightly deserved with retrospectives of his work in museums and articles written in the Economist, National Geographic, and CNN, to name but a few.

Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, 1512

I wonder: will Raphael enjoy the same treatment next spring? Scouring the web, I found only two items in English that showed any forthcoming awareness (although the  Staatliche Kunstsammlun in Dresden had an exhibit on the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna a few years ago – oh those famous cherubs!). One looks to be an abandoned though intriguing website. The other is a brief mention on a website devoted to tourism in the Marche region of Italy (home of Urbino, Raphael’s birthplace). Perhaps there is more in Italian or other languages.

And maybe more will appear in the months leading to April 6, 2020. Either way, I plan to help remedy this global deficiency by shedding more light on a singular artist.

I welcome your contributions and look forward to the journey of discovery.


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A fascinating discovery at the foot of the steps that lead up to Casa Loma in Toronto. Davenport Road became what it is due to an indigenous trail already existing at the foot of the bluffs. Further back in time, the land from this point out to what is now Lake Ontario was all under water. Perhaps with climate change it will eventually revert.

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