Apr 062014


Today is purportedly the birthday (1483) of Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance who is better known simply as Raphael. I say “purportedly” because a few sources give his birth date as 28 March, but this is probably a Julian rather than Gregorian usage.  He is one of those rare people who died (1520) on his birthday at the age of 37.  Despite his short life he produced a very large body of work that put him on a par with the other great masters of the era that form a traditional trinity: Michelangelo and da Vinci.  As he developed his own style his work went through several phases, generally called his Urbino, Florentine, and Roman periods during which time he came under the influence of his older peers.  It is related that when he was painting the frescoes in the papal apartments in the Vatican he sneaked into the Sistine chapel to see the first part of Michelangelo’s ceiling right after the scaffolding was being removed to be repositioned for the next panel.  Michelangelo was reportedly not happy to have him emulate his style, but Raphael incorporated all manner of influences in developing his own.  As with so many great masters, I am going to give you a quick overview of his life, and then focus on his master work, “The School of Athens.”

Raphael was born in the small, but artistically significant, central Italian city of Urbino in the Marche region (on the Adriatic coast), where his father Giovanni Santi was court painter to the Duke. The artistic reputation of the court had been established by Federico III da Montefeltro, a highly successful condottiere (military leader) who had been created Duke of Urbino by the Pope (Urbino being one of the Papal States), and who died the year before Raphael was born.

about 1502-3

Raphael was orphaned at age eleven, but his father’s workshop continued and, probably together with his stepmother, Raphael played a part in managing it from a very early age. In Urbino, he came into contact with the works of Paolo Uccello, previously the court painter (d. 1475), and Luca Signorelli, who until 1498 was based in nearby Città di Castello.  Sources are a little unclear about these early years, but it seems that his father placed him in the workshop of the Umbrian master Pietro Perugino as an apprentice “despite the tears of his mother,” that is, by the age of 8 which is when his mother died. He probably worked as Perugino’s assistant from age 12.  He is listed as a “master” by age 13.  Between 1500 and 1504 he worked on commissions in and around Urbino and was apparently much in demand, especially as a draftsman of cartoons (preliminary drawings) for the masters.


From 1504 to 1508 Raphael spent a good deal of time in various centers in northern Italy, but spent much of it in Florence although he was most likely not a permanent resident. The most striking influence in his work of these years is Leonardo da Vinci, who returned to the city from 1500 to 1506. Raphael’s figures begin to take more dynamic and complex positions, and though as yet his painted subjects are still mostly tranquil, he made drawn studies of fighting nude men, one of the obsessions of the period in Florence. Another drawing is a portrait of a young woman that uses the three-quarter length pyramidal composition of the just-completed “Mona Lisa” but still looks completely like Raphael. He also perfected his own version of Leonardo’s sfumato (toned down) style, to give subtlety to his painting of flesh, and developed the interplay of glances between his groups, which are much less enigmatic than those of da Vinci.

By the end of 1508, he had moved to Rome, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was invited by the new Pope Julius II, perhaps at the suggestion of his architect Donato Bramante, then engaged on St. Peter’s, who came from just outside Urbino and was distantly related to Raphael. Unlike Michelangelo, who had been kept hanging around in Rome for several months after his first summons, Raphael was immediately commissioned by Julius to fresco what was intended to become the Pope’s private library at the Vatican Palace. This was a much larger and more important commission than any he had received before; he had only painted one altarpiece in Florence itself. Several other artists and their teams of assistants were already at work on different rooms, many painting over recently completed paintings commissioned by Julius’s loathed predecessor, Alexander VI, whose contributions, and arms, Julius was determined to efface from the palace. Michelangelo, meanwhile, had been commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

This first of the famous “Stanze” or “Raphael Rooms” to be painted, now always known as the Stanza della Segnatura  was to make a stunning impact on Roman art, and remains generally regarded as his greatest masterpiece, containing The School of Athens, The Parnassus, and the Disputa. Raphael was then given further rooms to paint, displacing other artists including Perugino and Signorelli. He completed a sequence of three rooms, with paintings on each wall and often the ceilings too, increasingly leaving the work of painting from his detailed drawings to the large and skilled workshop team he had acquired, who added a fourth room, after his death in 1520, probably including only some elements designed by Raphael himself. The death of Julius in 1513 did not interrupt the work at all, as he was succeeded by Raphael’s last Pope, the Medici Pope Leo X, with whom Raphael formed an even closer relationship, and who continued to commission him. Raphael’s friend Cardinal Bibbiena was also one of Leo’s old tutors, and a close friend and adviser.

I visited the Vatican 7 years ago as the culmination of a teaching stint in southern Italy.  A crowd of us, mostly art history students from my university, were herded through the endless rooms and hallways of the Vatican by a professor of art history who I managed to ditch early on in the proceedings.  There was just TOO MUCH to see and gaze at in wonder – ancient maps, art treasures, and artifacts galore.  Then, without warning I walked through an arched doorway and was smack in the midst of the Stanza della Segnatura.  It was as if I were enveloped in Raphael and I was absolutely in awe.  I don’t remember how long I stood there completely mesmerized.  Fool that I am, I was not expecting such majesty.  The School of Athens is a fresco I had, of course, known all my life from books.  To be in its presence was overwhelming.  I cannot do justice to it in words: go and see for yourselves.


The School of Athens is one of a group of four main frescoes on the walls of the Stanza that depict distinct branches of knowledge (given that rooms were intended to house a library). Each theme is identified above by a separate tondo (circular painting) containing a majestic female figure seated in the clouds, with putti (chubby nude babies often mistaken for cherubim) bearing the phrases: “Knowledge of Causes,” “Divine Inspiration,” “Knowledge of Things Divine,” (Disputa) “To Each What Is Due.” Accordingly, the figures on the walls below exemplify Philosophy, Poetry (including Music), Theology, and Law. The traditional title of the main fresco is not Raphael’s, and the subject of the “School” is actually “Philosophy,” and its overhead tondo-label, “Causarum Cognitio” (Knowledge of Causes) echoes Aristotle’s emphasis on wisdom as knowing why, hence knowing the causes.


Indeed, Plato and Aristotle are the central figures in the scene. However all the philosophers depicted sought wisdom through knowledge of first causes. Many lived before Plato and Aristotle, and hardly a third were Athenians. The architecture contains Roman elements, but the general semi-circular setting having Plato and Aristotle at its center is speculated to be alluding to Pythagoras’ iconic circumpunct (circled dot).

Commentators have suggested that nearly every great Greek philosopher can be found within the painting, but determining which are depicted is difficult, since Raphael made no designations outside possible likenesses, and no contemporary documents exist to explain the painting. Compounding the problem, Raphael had to invent a system of iconography to allude to various figures for whom there were no traditional visual types. For example, while the Socrates figure is immediately recognizable from ancient busts, the alleged Epicurus is very different from the standard type for that philosopher. Furthermore, some of the images are actually of contemporary men, such as Michelangelo as Heraclitus.

Art historian Luitpold Dussler counts among those who can be identified with some certainty: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy, Zoroaster, Raphael, Sodoma and Diogenes. Other identifications he holds to be more or less speculative.











It is commonly agreed that this image is a self portrait of Raphael.

Raphael (L)

Raphael (L)

In the center of the fresco, at its architecture’s central vanishing point, are the two undisputed main subjects: Plato on the left and Aristotle, his student, on the right. Both figures hold modern (of the time), bound copies of their books in their left hands, while gesturing with their right. Plato holds Timaeus, Aristotle his Nicomachean Ethics.


Plato is depicted as old, grey, wise looking, and barefoot. By contrast Aristotle, slightly ahead of him, is in mature manhood, handsome, wearing sandals, and adorned with gold. The youth about them seem to look his way. In addition, these two central figures gesture along different dimensions: Plato vertically, upward along the picture-plane, into the vault above; Aristotle on the horizontal plane at right-angles to the picture-plane (hence in strong foreshortening). It is generally thought that their gestures indicate central aspects of their philosophies, for Plato, his Theory of Forms (in the heavens), and for Aristotle, his empiricist views, with an emphasis on concrete particulars (on earth).

Raphael was clearly influenced by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in the course of painting the room. One of the most obvious examples is the image of Michelangelo himself, as Heraclitus, which seems to draw clearly from the Sybils and ignudi of the Sistine ceiling. Other figures in that and later paintings in the room show the same influences, yet are still quite obviously in Raphael’s own style. Michelangelo accused Raphael of plagiarism and years after Raphael’s death, complained in a letter that “everything he knew about art he got from me.”  Raphael’s friend Castiglione coined the term “sprezzatura” to describe Raphael’s frescoes, which he defined as “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.”

The cuisine of the Marche region where Raphael was born bears a resemblance to other central Italian cooking styles, but, as ever, has certain classic dishes, such as brodetto, a soup made from leftovers from the fish markets thickened with toasted stale bread. Traditionally, it was the daily meal for port workers and is considered a complete meal. There are four types of brodetto corresponding to the different fishing localities in the region: Ancona, Porto Recanati, ‘Fano’ and San Benedetto del Tronto.  The prime ingredient in the local brodetto is the main fish caught from each port. There is also a version called ‘brodetto delle Marche’ which combines the other four and is (sort of) what I offer you here.


©Brodetto delle Marche


2-3 lbs of a mix of firm white fish and crustacea (squid, cuttlefish, shrimp/prawns or langostines, crab claws), cleaned and cut in bite-sized pieces.
1 onion chopped fine
a few strands of saffron
extra virgin olive oil
fish broth (made with trimmings)
white wine
salt and pepper
stale bread slices, toasted lightly, and cut in large pieces


Heat ¼ cup of olive oil in a large, heavy skillet and add the onion and crustacea (but not shrimp if using them). Cook over a low heat for a few minutes and then add the saffron, salt and pepper to taste, and ½ cup of fish broth.  Simmer gently over medium-low heat for about 10 to 15 minutes.

Put the fish and shrimp (if using them) in a plastic bag with a generous amount of flour, seal it, and shake until all the pieces are evenly coated.

Arrange the floured pieces in layers in a large saucepan with the fish that needs the least cooking on top.  Gently pour the contents of the skillet over the fish and add an equal mix of broth and dry white wine to cover.  Simmer gently for about 15 minutes.  Do not stir the soup at this stage otherwise the fish will break apart.

Arrange the toasted bread pieces in large serving bowls and then cover with the soup.

Serves 4