Did Iconic Renaissance Artist Raphael Die From Too Much Sex?
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (known more commonly as Raphael) was a painter and architect who lived in Italy between the late 15th and early 16th centuries, during a period known as the High Renaissance. According to the website of the National Gallery, Raphael has been recognized for centuries as “the supreme High Renaissance painter, more versatile than Michelangelo and more prolific than their older contemporary Leonardo.”
2020 will be the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance artist Raphael’s death and there are already plans underway to highlight his work in exhibitions around the world. Some of the most compelling will be in Rome.
Raphael’s Early Life
Raphael was born in 1483 in the town of Urbino, in the Marche region, which lies on the east coast of Italy. Raphael’s father was Giovanni Santi, who worked as a painter for Federigo III da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino at that time. As a young boy, Raphael had helped his father with the painting of some pieces for the duke’s court. The time spent in and around the Duke of Urbino’s court also resulted in Raphael picking up proper manners and social skills, which was an uncommon thing among artists of that period.
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Portrait of a Young Man, 1514, lost during WWII. Possible self-portrait by Raphael. (Public Domain)
When Raphael was 11 or 12 years old, Giovanni Santi died, leaving his son an orphan (Raphael’s mother had died when he was 7 or 8 years old, and Giovanni Santi re-married). Thus, Raphael came under the guardianship of an uncle, a priest by the name of Bartolomeo. The earliest known example of Raphael’s work was produced around this time of the artist’s life, a self-portrait that he painted at the age of 15 or 16. In addition, Giovanni Santi’s workshop continued to be in operation, under the management of Raphael, who was probably working together with his stepmother.
Where Raphael Presented His Artistic Talent
Around 1500, Raphael became an apprentice at the workshop of Pietro Perugino, an Umbrian Master. The apprenticeship lasted for 4 years, and Perugino had a strong influence on the early works of Raphael. Following this apprenticeship, Raphael left for Florence, where he was heavily influenced by the style of Fra Bartolomeo.
Another famous artist who exerted an influence on Raphael’s works during this time was Leonardo da Vinci, who had returned to Florence from 1500 to 1506. In spite of these various stylistic influences, Raphael maintained his own unique style, which is most visible in a 1507 painting called ‘ La belle jardinière.’
‘La belle jardinière’ (1507) by Raphael. (Public Domain)
Raphael’s next stop was the Vatican in Rome, where he moved to in 1508. The remainder of Raphael’s life would be spent there. Raphael received his first commission from Pope Julius II. He was to do a fresco in what was to be the Pope’s private library in the Vatican Palace. This room became known as the Stanza della Segnatura ("Room of the Signatura") and is one of the four ‘Raphael Rooms.’ The other three are: Sala di Costantino ("Hall of Constantine"), the Stanza di Eliodoro ("Room of Heliodorus"), and the Stanza dell'Incendio del Borgo ("The Room of the Fire in the Borgo.")
As the Pope was impressed by Raphael’s work when it was completed, more commissions came his way. Julius, however, died when the second stanza was being painted. Fortunately for Raphael, Julius’ successor, Leo X, was also impressed by the artist, so he allowed him to continue his work. Raphael’s best known works, including The School of Athens and the Disputa, can be found in these rooms.
Disputation of Holy Sacrament (1509-1510) by Raphael. (Public Domain)
While Raphael was in Rome another great painter, Michelangelo, was also there. The latter was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and this masterpiece had an influence on Raphael’s own style when he was working on the Raphael Rooms. Raphael’s ability to absorb different styles from various other painters is said to have annoyed Michelangelo, who even accused Raphael of plagiarism.
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The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1515, one of the seven remaining Raphael Cartoons for tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. (Public Domain)
Raphael’s Legendary Death by ‘Excessive Passion’
On April 6, 1520, Raphael died suddenly at the age of 37. According to the 16th century biographer, Giorgio Vasari, Raphael’s death was caused by “excessive passion.” During that time, the accepted medical view was that the human body is composed of humors, and a person’s health depended on the balance of these elements.
As a result of Raphael’s excessive passion, his humors were said to be destabilized, causing him to fall ill, and ultimately resulting in his death. The only available account of Raphael’s life comes from Vasari, who claims Raphael died from having too much sex with the artist’s mistress Margherita Luti. Luti was Raphael’s muse and is often referred to as ‘La Fornarina’ (the (female) Baker) for her appearance in the painting of the same name.
‘La Fornarina’ by Raphael. (Public Domain)
Their story is legendary, as The Guardian reports:
“The young, gifted, handsome and courtly artist he [Vasari] claims was so enamoured of his mistress that she had to be allowed to live with him in the Villa Farnesina in Rome (as it's now called) while he was painting its frescoes. No sex, no frescoes. The story of Raphael's sensual relationship with La Fornarina, as Vasari names her, fascinated artists down the centuries. Raphael became an icon of lust.”
Although death by too much sex is not an explanation most researchers would accept today, the lack of more information on Raphael’s life means we’ll probably not get to the truth of the matter anytime soon. Raphael’s funeral was held at the Vatican, followed by the artist’s interment in the Pantheon.
Grave of artist, Raphael, in the Pantheon in Rome, Italy. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Top image: Detail of a self-portrait of Raphael, aged approximately 23. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
Jones, J., 2009. Raphael, the artist killed by too much sex?. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2009/nov/25/raphael-art-sex
The National Gallery, 2017. Raphael. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/raphael
Totallyhistory.com, 2012. Raphael Sanzio. [Online]
Available at: http://totallyhistory.com/raphael-sanzio/