Raphael’s drawings – The eyes of the soul

Rafael, one of the three most famous artists of the Italian High Renaissance, was an extremely prolific painter. He left behind a hundred paintings and a large number of drawings. He stands out as the greatest master of drawing in Western art.

Rafael, real name Raffaelo Sanzio, was born in 1483 in Urbino. His father Giovanni was a court painter and sculptor and the first teacher to his son. In 1504 he became a pupil of the great master Perugin, who attached great importance to drawings. Namely, in Perugin’s school there has always been a sharp difference between the conception and the performance of a painting. Since the Romanesque, the painting practice has been that the artist plans the final design in detail before applying any pigment. Developing the concept and making sketches (drawings) were the most important part of the creative process. This method of painting was called disegno. Later developments in art led to the view that such preparation was a mental activity, and the realization (painting of the painting itself) a concrete work by hand. Drawings, as the only physical traces of that mental process, lost their importance and did not attract the attention of the public.

After schooling, Rafael lived for years traveling around northern Italy, and spent a long time in Florence where he learned from the older greats Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. He came to Rome in 1508 and that is when his most creative period began. He worked at the Vatican, became a protégé of Pope Julius II. and in 1514 he was awarded the title of chief Vatican architect, one of the highest positions an artist of that time could attain.

Rafael used to do a large number of sketches before making the study. When he made the sketches, he would start working on the main features of the work of art he had in mind, composing parts from the preparatory drawings. This way of working allowed him to choose different poses and details before deciding on the final version.

Raphael’s progress was astonishingly rapid, confirming his exceptional artistic talent. With a little imagination, observing Raphael’s drawings opens a portal to his workshop in Renaissance Rome, and the creative process itself is best described by eminent art historian Catherine Whistler in her essay Raphael’s Hands as remembering, observing, evoking imagination, where with full hand-mind coordination, materials slowly they pass from idea to visible form.

With the aim of bringing Raphael’s opus closer to a wider audience, an exhibition with over one hundred and twenty of his drawings was opened at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 2017. It was a unique opportunity for visitors to peek into the world of the Italian Renaissance and get to know Rafael’s life and work better, from the early days of art formation in Urbino to the mature period of creation in Rome.

Most of the drawings in the exhibition, whether biblical or mythical, clearly show Raphael’s inspiration for ancient art. In the drawing, Hercules fights a lion. Hercules is shown according to the ancient canon. His body is in the pose we encounter in Greek sculptures, and his cloak in swing symbolizes victory and power. With dark ink, Rafael adds dramatic features, such as a lion’s jaw, which create a contrast to the cloak. The background is drawn with a light, almost invisible stroke of a pencil and leaves the viewer the opportunity to imagine the environment in which Hercules finds himself and thus with his imagination gives the last stamp to the drawing. Unlike Hercules who is Martian strong and powerful, also the mythologically inspired Portrait of a Muse is a more delicate drawing, full of elegance and grace. This portrait served as a preparation for the painting of the fresco of Apollo sitting on a mountain surrounded by four muses, located in the Vatican.

One completely new dimension of his talent can be seen in Rafael’s drawings – in the free form of the drawing he gives free rein to the imagination and shows a great example of the so-called sprezzatura style. Sprezzatura is the “art of simplicity” in which one strives to make every movement look completely natural, without adjustment. Even complicated things, which are impossible to do without prior planning, must seem to have been performed spontaneously. Rafael took this style from his teacher Perugina.

As a protégé of Pope Julius II, Raphael painted some of the paintings that are among the most famous works of the Vatican Museum today. In the sketch for the preparation of the fresco, the Athenian School composes philosophers almost as songs – they talk, discuss, explain like a choir in an inaudible rhythm… Poetry, justice and theology are connected in a harmonious symphony. This work, which is one of his most famous masterpieces, was preceded by the most complete study in red chalk.

In the XVI. century famous art historian Giorgio Vasari noted that Raphael was still very popular in Rome during his lifetime. That popularity stemmed not only from his talent but also from his pleasant personality and politeness. Rafael was touched by human destinies, he was always ready to talk and listen. He sympathized with the people around him, regardless of their class and wealth.

Raphael and his teacher Perugino, and most of the Florentine masters of the Renaissance, were proponents of the design method, which first carefully developed the concept of painting on the basis of which sketches would be made. Sketches were drawn on paper or on high quality parchment. Rafael was a master of several sketch drawing techniques: with metal sticks (pencils that had metal instead of graffiti), with pen and ink, and with black and red chalk. Only at the end would it begin to be painted on canvas or wall (frescoes).

Raphael’s Venetian contemporaries, such as Titian, used the colorito method – they drew directly on canvas (or wall) and, if necessary, changed the concept of the painting during the work, thus focusing more on colors and exact brush strokes.

In the drawings, this empathy is even more clearly visible because of
their nakedness, because without colors, tones and complicated
background characters naturally come into focus. One of the most striking drawings in the exhibition is certainly the Head and Hands of the Two Apostles, which is believed to have been made only a week or two before Raphael’s death. The drawing, technically accomplished by multidirectional shading, masterfully depicts the spring and autumn of human life in two characters, two apostles trying to heal a boy and realizing that they cannot do it alone without the help of Jesus Christ. One apostle is young, full of life and energy, but obviously worried, almost in a convulsion. The second apostle is older, wiser, calmer, full of compassion and understanding. Contrast is created by depicting their hands – one has folded, closed hands, the other has open hands. Raphael showed how experience helps the older apostle to stoically, even with a dose of joy, accept the situation as it is, to understand his limitations, but to continue healing with love and patience.

Raphael died in 1520, at the age of 37, at the peak of his career. His untimely death shook Rome and all of Italy.

A top artist, extremely popular, a favorite of the audience and the pope, Rafael created top works of art in his short life. However, looking at his drawings, Rafael comes to the surface, who is less of a public figure, and more of a man, a man whose drawings and paintings contain a subtle depiction of love for the human race. In these works he is always direct, gentle and full of love that is evident in every line, in every movement of the characters, in every wrinkle of drawn faces, in carefully drawn hair… Whether he draws old or young, warriors or priests, men or women, love is there, in every move.

Many later greats of Western art, such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Picasso, and Ingres, took Raphael as a role model. Although they were painters of various styles, they all recognized the strength in Raphael’s works. Just as Shakespeare and Cervantes were masters of words and language in the Renaissance, Rafael is a master of graphic words and visual language.

As he progressed over the years, he increasingly used red chalk, sanguine, as a direct influence of Leonardo da Vinci during the period he spent adopting the artistic traditions of Florence. Unlike black chalk, red allowed the creation of a much more complex and precise work of art, especially in larger and more complex works.

What makes his drawings stand out is the clarity, balance of the composition and spirituality of the expression of the characters of calm beauty. In Raphael’s drawings, the spirit of the High Renaissance with a sense of harmony and fascination with classical harmony and ideal beauty is fully expressed.

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