A time that called for giants

The great Italian painter and architect Raphael died 500 years ago, in April 1520. He lived at the time of the High Renaissance, one of the most progressive periods in history; as Engels put it, “it was the greatest progressive revolution that mankind has so far experienced, a time which called for giants and produced giants—giants in power of thought, passion, and character, in universality and learning.”

The High Renaissance

The High Renaissance, 1500–1530, was a high point for the visual arts. Even in the turmoil of the Italian wars from 1494 to 1559 the arts did not lose their importance. Florence was the cultural metropolis of the Medici from 1450 to 1494; in the early sixteenth century Rome took over this role.

By the time Renaissance art reached its peak, Italy’s economic decline had begun. The Italian bourgeoisie withdrew into banking and usury, investing their capital in land. This ultimately led to a revival of feudal conditions in Italy. Absolutism replaced republican control.

However, the progressive thinkers and artists of the sixteenth century all remained committed to the defence of the people. Their works appeared in the vernacular and emphasised national and democratic ideals. This made the Italian High Renaissance a significant and unparalleled event.


Raffaello Sanzio was born in Urbino in 1483. At the age of seventeen he joined the Perugino workshop. Here he first learnt to give expression to psychological delicacy, which arises with the Renaissance discovery of human beings as this-worldly individuals.

From 1504 to 1508 Raphael worked in Florence. As his fame spread, Pope Julius II called him to Rome. Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the time; Leonardo da Vinci was at the height of his creativity. Leonardo and Michelangelo had studied the anatomy of the human body and its movements. They created their compositions from the action and interaction of living bodies and moving faces.

So Raphael went to Rome, at the behest of Julius II, the Warrior Pope. During the Renaissance the popes were not only ecclesiastical leaders but also princes of Roman territories. Julius participated personally in wars, and famously stated that he preferred the smell of gunpowder to that of incense. Furthermore, he sought to construct magnificent buildings as witness to his power and that of the Church. In 1509 he commissioned Raphael to decorate some Vatican rooms, with monumental frescoes on ceilings and walls.

The School of Athens

Set in a great architectural illusion, The School of Athens portrays an entirely male ancient world. Curiously—as this is the Vatican—modern, Christian thinkers do not appear. Though many of the figures lived at different times, they are shown together as part of the Athens School.

The two main figures, centred under the archway, represent two schools: Plato, to whom Raphael gives Leonardo’s features, pointing upwards into the realm of ideas, and his student Aristotle, gesturing to earthly, physical experience. Each of these philosophers holds his book representing his thinking: Plato holds the Timaeus, Aristotle his Ethics, both in modern binding of Raphael’s time. Their clothes support their stance: Plato is dressed in the colours of air and fire, Aristotle in those of earth and water.

The painting divides into two halves along these lines: philosophers, poets and thinkers on Plato’s side, physicists, scientists and more empirical thinkers gathered on Aristotle’s side. On the left, along with Plato, you can see the Greek philosopher Socrates, Plato’s teacher, talking to Athenians. Socrates famously expounded his philosophical thinking in conversation with people, emphasising arguments on his fingers. In the foreground Pythagoras sits with a book and an inkwell, surrounded by students. Epicurus, shown with a crown of vine leaves, had taught that happiness lies in the pursuit of pleasures arising from freedom from fear and the absence of pain.

On Aristotle’s side, Euclid, explaining the laws of geometry with a compass, demonstrates the measurability of actual things. His face is modelled on that of the great architect Bramante, whose design of St Peter’s Basilica was based on a geometrical pattern of circles and squares. Raphael was entrusted with the completion of this building after Bramante’s death in 1514. The pope permitted German Dominicans to sell indulgences to pay for it, which ultimately helped spark the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

Two figures are placed here in isolation in the foreground. The two philosophers are Diogenes and Heraclitus, the latter being the first great European dialectician, wearing the clothes of a stonemason. Raphael gave him Michelangelo’s features.

The great mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy, wearing a yellow robe, holds a terrestrial globe in his hand, facing the Persian Zoroaster, showing a celestial sphere. The young man standing among these scientists, and the only figure looking directly at the viewer, is Raphael himself. Incorporating this self-portrait in a work of such intellectual history was a confident stance for the artist. Placing himself, and the portraits of some of his contemporary artists, in this fresco along with the greatest thinkers in European history elevates the significance of the arts in the High Renaissance.

The Sistine Madonna

Raphael is one of the great discoverers of the feminine in painting. His lifelong preoccupation with the Madonna, which guided him to this subject, the love between human mother and child, indeed one might say ancient mother cults, live on in this theme.

About 1512 or 1513 Raphael created his three large Marian altars, among them the Sistine Madonna. In this work Raphael continues to make Mary appear more maternal and human. The model is assumed to be Margherita Luti, the daughter of a Roman baker and Raphael’s partner for the last twelve years of his life.

She expresses great human depth as she comes barefoot, carrying her child like a peasant woman. Her left arm, his right arm and her flowing veil form a protective circle round the child. The child echoes his mother’s apprehensive expression as he snuggles up to her. It is a profoundly human and this-worldly depiction.

The two angels at the bottom of the painting appear to have escaped from the heavenly hosts in the background but also look exceedingly human. The very original host of ghostly angels’ faces crowding the background add to the forward drive of the Madonna, who seems to be walking right out of the painting.

Raphael died on his birthday, 8 April 1520, aged only thirty-seven, after eight days of illness from pneumonia and was buried the following day in the Pantheon.