This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael Sanzio, the celebrated painter and architect of the Renaissance. He was born in Urbino in the Marche region which is not easily reached from Rome so when I got the opportunity to join an art tour of Urbino, I jumped at the chance. The tour was led by a Professor of Art History, Roberto Mulotto who I happen to know.
We set off by coach early last Saturday morning to the Marche which is a region of mountains and rolling fields stopping on the way for a long lunch and a tour of the Franciscan convent of Montefeltrino. Urbino is a walled, medieval city on a high sloping hillside and when we got there, our bus stopped outside the walls at the bottom of the hill and we had to walk up the rest of the way.
It was dark by the time we got to Urbino but the city was beautifully decorated for Christmas and looked very festive. An image of the young Raphael was projected onto the cathedral.
Urbino is dominated by the Palazzo Ducale which was owned by Federico III, the Duke of Montefeltro, in the mid 1400’s. He ruled Urbino for nearly 40 years and being a patron of the arts and a renowned intellectual, he assembled an eclectic court in the Palazzo. The picture below does not do the Palazzo justice as it looms so large over narrow streets that it is impossible to photograph in its entirety. There was a special exhibition on when we visited featuring the artists who had been an influence on Raphael as well as a few pieces by Raphael himself.
The Duke of Montefeltro’s court painter, Giovanni Santi, was Raphaels father and a significant painter in his own right. It was he who taught Raphael to paint at an early age. Since Giovanni Santi was part of the court, he was well off and had a large house with an interior courtyard and several rooms. There was a fresco of the Madonna in the room where Raphael was born reputed to have been among the first of Raphael’s paintings. It is an unusual depiction showing the Virgin reading. In the courtyard, there was the actual grinding stone where the paints were ground and mixed.
Giovanni Santi who studied under Piero della Francesca has several magnificent paintings in the Palazzo as well as in churches nearby. In fact, the reason we had stopped at the Franciscan monastery in Montefeltrino was to see one of his major works in the Capella di Conti Oliva. Painted in 1489 and surrounded by a frame which is a work of art in itself, it features the Madonna with saints on either side and the Count of Montefeltro in armour kneeling at the bottom right. The Madonna is said to resemble the Count’s wife who died at an early age.
Another magnificent fresco was in the Cappella Tiranni in the Church of San Domenico in a small town called Cagli. This was Santi’s last work before he died. The church has been kept open for extended hours to celebrate the anniversary of Raphael’s death so we were lucky to see it as was in the early evening and we were on our way back to Rome at this point.
Giovanni Santi died in 1494, preceded by his wife, Raphael’s mother who died in 1491. Thus Raphael was left an orphan at the age of 11. He continued his training in the workshop of another Umbrian master Pietro Perugino and the new court painter in Urbino, Timoteo Viti, also took him under his wing. Surprisingly, despite his youth, he took charge of his fathers workshop and managed it until news of his talent spread and he became in demand as a painter. In 1508, he was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the Papal rooms at the Vatican at the same time as Michaelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.. His work in Rome is another whole story, too long to go into here. He remained in Rome until he died at the age of 37 and his remains are in the Pantheon at his request. I’m visiting a friend who lives near the Pantheon tomorrow so maybe I will drop by and see his tombstone again.