Raffaello Sanzio, better known as the artist Raphael, left us a stunning legacy. Along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he was one of the great Renaissance masters. Ambitious, prodigiously talented and charming, he was a multi-talented force to be reckoned with in the ruthless scramble for aristocratic and Papal patronage in 16th century Florence and Rome.

Raphael self-portrait

His early life remains mysterious, as few documents have survived. He was born in Urbino in 1483, the son of Giovanni Santi, an artist who had gained a measure of prominence at the court of the Montefeltro family at Urbino. So the young Raphael was exposed to art in all its guises from an early age.

Early works of Raphael which can be precisely dated include three important altarpieces for different churches in the city of Citta di Castello, in Umbria. The first contract (for The Coronation of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino) dates to December 1500, when the precocious Raphael was just 17. Over the next few years he received a number of important commissions in Perugia, Urbino, Siena and Florence, such as the exquisite St George and the Dragon.

Raphael's experiences in Florence had a profound effect on his work. It was here, in the city of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, that he systematically acquired advanced techniques and opened himself up to new models.

Raphael's early work shows the influence of Pietro Perugino. It is unclear whether Raphael was ever a fully fledged member of Perugino's workshop, but his work shows that he absorbed something of Perugino's style at this time.

1508 saw Raphael in Rome, undertaking a commission from his most powerful patron yet. Pope Julius II had ambitious plans both for Rome and for his private apartments in the Vatican. Raphael was commissioned to adorn what have become known as the "Raphael Rooms" with a series of stunning frescoes.

The Stanza della Segnatura (Room of the Papal Seal) is the site of Raphael's greatest triumph. Completed in 1511, it set up the young painter up as a major force, right up there with Michelangelo (who was working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the time). The two would become great rivals.


The success of these frescoes helped Raphael achieve an unassailable level of eminence at the papal court, and an unceasing parade of commissions from the family, friends and extended circle of the popes under which he served. He painted portraits of a wide range of Rome's elite, including Cardinal Bibbiena, Count Baldassare Castiglione, as well as the famous portrait of Pope Julius II himself (now in the National Gallery in London).

Pope Julius II

Raphael retained his position at the Vatican court under Giovanni de' Medici who became Pope Leo X in 1513.

Under Papal patronage, Raphael's scope widened still further. He was appointed architect of St Peter's after the death of Donato Bramante in 1514. Pope Leo then presented him with another challenge in 1515, asking him to design a set of ten immense tapestries to decorate the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Raphael began this significant commission at the same time that he was generating frescos for the Stanze, presiding over the continuing construction of Saint Peter's and providing easel paintings and altarpieces for various patrons. The Raphael Cartoons, the preliminary drawings for the tapestries and works of art in their own right, are now in the Victorian and Albert Museum in London.

Raphael died in 1520, after a sudden illness age 37. He is buried in the Pantheon in Rome.