On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the death of Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520), we suggest an itinerary to discover the places of art in Rome where the great Renaissance master left his mark.
Raffaello, also known as the Urbinate for his Marche origin, alongside Leonardo and Michelangelo, has always been considered one of the most influential Renaissance artists, capable of conquering the most important characters of the time, thanks to his art and charm.
Born in Urbino in 1483, he enters Perugino's workshop as a child. He travels to various Italian cities such as Siena and Florence, where he observes, practices, compares himself with other artists, and creates! Son of an artist, Raffaello is gifted with talent and has a noble and kind soul. Painter of harmony and beauty, he is an often idealized man, but he basically was a common and genuine man, not immune from love and passion, so much so that he left us six love sonnets dedicated to a woman still little known to us.
The path in his footsteps, presented here, starts precisely from his being a common man. For this reason, our first stop can only be the National Gallery of Palazzo Barberini. Here is preserved the fascinating painting La Fornarina (1518-19), we could say an equivalent of the Mona Lisa, which shows Raphael as a lover and an artist. Behind the mysterious gaze and the enigmatic smile of this young woman, Raphael would hide her beloved, identified by some as the daughter of a baker from the Trastevere district, depicted as a goddess. It seems that Raffaello Sanzio was very jealous of this painting to keep it in his studio until his death.
The itinerary continues at the Borghese Gallery. In its rooms are preserved the very first works by the artist. These were intended for other places but eventually merged into the collection of Cardinal Scipione. It is the case of the Deposition of Christ (1507). Also called Pala Baglioni, it was intended as an altarpiece to the chapel of the Church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia, before being given as a gift to Cardinal Borghese.
Another singular story is hidden behind the Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn (1505-06). Did you know that before its restoration (1935), the woman was identified as Saint Catherine of Alexandria? Well yes, thanks to an in-depth study by the well-known art historian Roberto Longhi, it was discovered that, under the main attribute of the Saint, the gear wheel, there was a unicorn, a symbol of virginal purity. This particular detail has radically changed the iconological interpretation of the painting.
The journey on the traces of Raphael continues in the beautiful Chigi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, a splendid testimony of his activity also as an architect. For this church, he realizes the project of the chapel and the mosaic design of its dome.
From Piazza del Popolo, you can reach the Vatican Museums to appreciate the most important works by the Urbino Magister. Here, he proves he can be equal to his contemporary colleagues and confirms himself as one of the 16th-century most successful artists. Frescos by the artist abound in the small but extraordinary Vatican Rooms. Be careful because the risk of being affected by the so-called Stendhal syndrome is very high! Indeed, it is not easy to take your eyes off the group of philosophers and scholars portrayed in The School of Athens (1508). Among the characters, you can recognize well-known faces, such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bramante, and Federico II Gonzaga, all in the role of the most famous philosophers. At the same time, you cannot but be fascinated by the grace of the shapes and the harmony of the colors of The Parnassus (1511), and by the perfect architectures that form the background to the various episodes depicted here. In the other rooms, you can find other works, including The Transfiguration (1518-20), once exhibited inside Saint Peter’s Basilica, today replaced by a copy in mosaic.
Among his many activities here in Rome, there are his architectural creations; almost a supremacy we could say, considering that the city preserves the highest number of buildings attributed to him. It is not necessary to go too far from St. Peter's Square to admire one of his architectural works. Suffice it to consider the Vatican Lodges and the Jacopo da Brescia Palace, which facade is still preserved, both examples of Renaissance style. Thanks to the wide fame he enjoyed in the 16th century, Raphael receives several commissions for portraits, altarpieces, and wall paintings, even during the drafting of the Vatican frescoes. He works tirelessly and simultaneously in different construction sites, helped by his pupils.
A key stage of our itinerary is the Chigi residence, later called Villa Farnesina, and today home to the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei. Here, Raphael works numerous times at the creation of wall paintings for his most trusted client, the banker Agostino Chigi. By Raphael are also the frescoes of the Loggia di Galatea (1511-12) and of the Loggia di Amore e Psiche (1517-19), which demonstrate his extensive knowledge of literature and classical art. They were accomplished by his pupils.
More than elsewhere, here in Rome, the appeal for antiquity is strong. Even Raphael, who received the appointment of Superintendent of Roman Antiquities in 1515, is charmed and deeply moved by the desire to recover Roman antiquities. He participates in the excavations in search of evidence of imperial Rome, of which he creates a detailed map, unfortunately never achieved.
Continuing our itinerary, near the Lungotevere dei Tebaldi, you can visit the small Church of Sant’Eligio degli Orefici (1509-1775), a still intact architectural intervention. In it, the Bramante influence in the choice of a central Greek cross plan is still recognizable, as in the project for the Fabbrica di San Pietro by Bramante himself.
Other fundamental stages for an itinerary about the great Renaissance artist are the Church of Santa Maria della Pace and that of Sant'Agostino in Campo Marzio, a few steps from Piazza Navona, where Raphael created frescoes of remarkable beauty.
It is not difficult to notice the Michelangelo influence in the poses of the subjects. It is said that thanks to Bramante, Raphael would have seen the Ancestors of the vault of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel before the scaffolding was removed. The Magister, however, develops an original solution, adding fluid and continuous movement compared to Buonarroti's work.
His paintings have become objects of frenetic collecting by gentlemen and writers of the time. There are more than 80 paintings by him scattered around the world. Moreover, his pupils achieved his very numerous most significant works in Rome. Raphael embodies the ideal of the Renaissance artist, well-liked by popes, cardinals, and the most influential noble families.
A general discomfort enveloped Rome as soon as Raphael got sick. It is said that, in the 15 days of his illness, Pope Leo X de' Medici visited him to bring comfort. The Transfiguration was put next to the artist's lifeless body. Vasari stated that: "in seeing the dead body and the living one painting made the soul burn with pain".
Raphael died on 6 April 1520, at the age of 37. He is buried below the dome of the temple of all the gods: the Pantheon. According to his desires, his mortal remains are kept in the third chapel, under the Madonna del Sasso statue, the last stage of our journey.
To enrich your itinerary, pay a visit to the opulent Doria Pamphilj Gallery, in via del Corso, where you can admire the Portrait of Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazzano (1516). And also to one of Raphael's latest works, the elegant Renaissance Villa Madama designed on the models of ancient Roman villas, such as Villa Adriana in Tivoli and the Domus Aurea in Rome.
With the collaboration of the volunteers of the 2020 National Civil Service Project "Roma ti Accoglie".
Barberini Palace - La Fornarina
Amongst the different portraits Raphael painted, his favorite one was The Fornarina (1518-19), today at the National Gallery of Ancient Art, in the Barberini Palace. It is believed that the lady depicted in it was the lover of the artist, and she is supposed to be Margherita Luti, the daughter of a baker in the Trastevere district. As Vasari says, Raffaello loved her during his entire lifetime. To seal up this love story, the lady is wearing a bracelet on her left wrist bearing the signature: Raphael Urbinas.
The Borghese Gallery - The Deposition of Christ, The Lady with a unicorn, and The Portrait of a Man
Raphael’s artworks enrich the extraordinary collection of the Borghese Gallery.
The Lady with a Unicorn (1505-06) is a painting of exceptional beauty, in which elements like the ruby and the unicorn exalt the marital virtue and the innocence of the bride depicted in it. In The Portrait of a man (1503-04), we can easily detect the adherence to the Nothern portraiture. But Raphael’s masterpiece in the Gallery is The Deposition of Christ (1507), also known as Pala Baglioni. According to Vasari, Atalanta Baglioni commissioned Raphael with The Deposition as a tribute to her son killed in 1500. The maternal grief of this noblewoman is represented as that of the Virgin Mary.
The Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo - The Chigi Chapel
The Banker of Pope Julius II, Agostino Chigi from Siena, commissioned Raphael with a new chapel for his family. Raphael designed it with a central plant, inspired by Bramante, and also created the sketch of the dome for Luigi de Pace’s mosaics.
In the middle of the vault, you can admire God, the Creator of the Firmament surrounded by pagan gods representing the planets and the Sun, surmounted by angels restraining their power.
Lastly, on the pendentives, there are the paintings by Francesco Salviati, representing the Seasons.
The Vatican Museum masterpieces
Invited by Pope Julius II, Raffaello arrived in Rome in 1508 to decorate the main rooms of the pontifical private apartment, today known as the Stanze di Raffaello. The first room to be decorated with frescoes was the Room of the Segnatura (1508-11), named after the highest Vatican Court Segnatura Gratiae et Iustitiae. Here, Raphael depicts the Neoplatonic theme of poetry and justice in Christan values. This room also houses the most famous artwork by the artist: The School of Athens, in which we can identify a self-portrait of the artist himself. He works then in the Heliodorus room (1511-14), used by the Pope for his private hearings. In this room, the Deliverance of Saint Peter stands out for its unique beauty and use of new light effects.
The Sistine Chapel subverts Raphael’s artistic orientation. The transition is evident in the Room of the Fire in Borgo (1514-17), which has the same name as the fresco inside, and in which Michelangelo’s artistic influence emerges from the portrayal of bodies and the bright colors.
The last of the four rooms, which is the first in order while visiting, is Constantine’s room (1520-24), designed post mortem by his students following his sketches.
The Arazzi (1515-19), made in Flanders by Raffaello, tell the stories of Saints Peter and Paul. Initially situated in the Sistine Chapel on the occasion of solemn festivities, they are today exhibited in the Vatican’s Pinacoteca. In this same room, you can find the Pala Oddi (1502-03) portraying the Virgin’s Incoronation, the Madonna di Foligno (1511-12), an ex-voto artwork for the miracle of Sigismondo Conti’s house, which was undamaged, following a thunder strike, and The Transfiguration, 1518-20, considered Raphael’s last work. The painting is of an impressive size and presents a complex iconography referring to two biblical episodes: Jesus’ apparition to the prophets and the possessed child.
Raffaello works relentlessly inside the Vatican workshops until 1519, the year in which he finishes the production of the Logge (1517-19), a place where people could speak to each other, and a link to the apartments, decorated in a grotesque style.
The Jacopo da Brescia Palace
Designed by Raphael, Palazzo Jacopo da Brescia (1515-19) is an example of a Renaissance-style building. It was a typical Roman palace, but today little remains of its original structure. Still visible are the rusticated façade and the aedicula windows. Initially situated at the beginning of via della Conciliazione, in 1936 it was dismantled and rebuilt in via Rusticucci, during the famous 20th-century urban interventions.
Along the shores of the Tiber River, you can visit Villa Chigi. Also known as Villa Farnesina, the building is adorned with frescoes by the most important 16th-century artists, such as Raphael, Sodoma, and Baldassare Peruzzi.
Those by Raphael decorate two rooms in the Villa: the Loggia di Galatea (1511-12), representing the extraordinary nymph Galatea riding a shell-shaped chariot, and the Loggia di Amore e Psiche (1517-18). On the occasion of the wedding between the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi and Francesca Ordeaschi, Raphael painted the ornamental theme following Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, and the myth of Eros and Psyche. He portrayed a pergola decorating it with flowers, fruits, and vegetables and giving the scene an optical illusion impression.
The Church of Sant’Eligio degli Orefici
Raphael designed this Renaissance small church after Donato Bramante’s design of St. Peter’s Basilica. This artwork follows the Neoplatonic idea of the scale of the human body as an architectural guideline.
The Church of Santa Maria della Pace - The Chigi Chapel
In 1515, Agostino Chigi, the banker of the Pope, commissioned Raphael with some frescoes to be painted in the lunette above his family's Chapel. The theme concerned the Sibyls and the Prophets, first people to believe in the Messiah. Arranged into two groups, the frescoes on the left portray the Sibilla Cumana in the act of writing on a cartouch held by an angel, and the Sibilla Persica writing on a board: “Death will be his fate". Those on the right, instead, describe the Sibilla Frigia, the Sibilla Tiburtina, and a flying angel holding a cartouch saying: “Io aprirò e resusciterò” (I will open and rise again). In the center, a putto holds a flame.
The Church of Sant’Agostino in Campo Marzio - The Prophet Isaiah
A stone’s throw from Navona Square, on a pillar of the central aisle in the Church of Sant’Agostino in Campo Marzio, you can find Raphael's fresco of Prophet Isaiah sitting on a throne between two cherubs holding a garland (1511-12).
More than other works, this fresco tells his close bond with Michelangelo and his paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Its remarkable beauty dwells in the monumental nature and in the bright colors with which he portrayed the Prophet.
The Pantheon - Raphael’s Funeral Monument
Raffaello and the Pantheon are strictly related. Already a temple in the Classical age, today the Pantheon is a minor Basilica. Only a few know that this celebrated Renaissance artist was buried under the aedicule of the Madonna del Sasso by Lorenzetto, in this majestic temple of all gods. On his grave, Pietro Bembo carved this epitaph: Here lays Raphael. While he lived, Mother Nature feared being defeated by him, when he died feared to die with him. The Pantheon also hosts the remains of two kings of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I, buried with his wife Margherita, and those of other famous artists such as painter Annibale Carracci, architect Jacopo Barozi from Vignola, and Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli.
The Doria Pamphilj Gallery - The Portrait of Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazzano
One of the first examples of a double portrait by Raphael is that of Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazzano (1516). This is the only Raphael painting belonging to the collection of the Doria Pamphilj Gallery.
Two distinguished humanists from the Pontificia court are three-quarters in front of an emerald-green background. In this painting, you can admire the excellent interpretation of their faces, and the attention Raphael paid to the lesser details of the mane and beards, and to the stunning light effect, inspired by the Venetians.
Among Raphael’s architectural creations, the one deserving the most attention is the suburban Villa Madama, at the slopes of Monte Mario. Conceived as a countryside residence for Pope Clement VII, this Villa consists of lodges, porches, exedras, and Italian style gardens. It is a grand architectural project, initially designed by Raphael and completed by Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane and Giulio Romano.
Since 1937, it is the Headquarters for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The visit to the Villa requires a special authorization