A view of the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums A view of the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums 

Celebrating Raphael on 500th anniversary of his death

April the 6th marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the famous Italian Renaissance artist and architect, Raphael Sanzio who died at the age of just 37. We take a closer look at the life and work of Raphael and explore his connection to the history of the Vatican’s artistic heritage.

By Susy Hodges

Raphael was born on April 6th 1483 in the town of Urbino in central Italy where his father worked as an artist at the court of the local duke. On leaving Urbino in 1500, Raphael went first to Perugia where he served as an apprentice for 4 years before moving to Florence. 

Raphael was fascinated and heavily influenced by the works of other great Renaissance artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo but developed his own unique and highly expressive personal style of painting. During this period of his career he produced a series of paintings of the Madonna and also became a well known painter of portraits. 

In 1508 at the age of just 25 Raphael moved to Rome and stayed in the city for the rest of his life. Here he soon found himself working for Pope Julius II and painted a series of frescoed walls in the papal palace. Raphael was not just an artist but also a poet, a draughtsman and an architect and in 1514 he was appointed by Pope Leo X as the Vatican’s chief architect following the death of Donato Bramante.

Around the world, a series of exhibitions and celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death were planned for 2020 but most have closed, been cancelled or else put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. The biggest exhibition ever devoted to Raphael opened on March 5th in Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale and includes over 100 works by the artist himself.  Unfortunately, the exhibition was forced to close its doors just four days after its opening when Italy imposed a nationwide lockdown.

One exhibit in honour of Raphael that was held before the start of Italy’s coronavirus lockdown, took place in the Vatican Museums.  For one week only in February, the ten tapestries designed by Raphael went on display in the original location for which they were intended, on the walls of the Sistine Chapel beneath Michelangelo’s frescoed ceiling.

Commissioned by Pope Leo X, the tapestries’ designs, or cartoons as they are known, depict events from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul.  They were woven in Brussels over a four year period using silk, wool and gilded silver thread. Only seven of Raphael’s original cartoons still exist and are preserved in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum while the tapestries themselves are normally displayed on a rotating basis in the “Raphael Rooms” inside the Vatican Museums.

Sadly, Raphael himself did not live to see all the tapestries completed and together. Following a sudden illness, he died on April 6th, 1520 which was his 37th birthday. His passing was widely mourned and the artist was given an elaborate funeral and buried in Rome’s Pantheon.

Five centuries after his untimely death, Raphael’s legacy as one of the towering artistic figures of the Italian Renaissance period shines as brightly as ever.  But how much more could he have accomplished if his life had not been cut so tragically short?

Listen to the report by Susy Hodges
05 April 2020, 10:47