One exhilarating spring day in 1506, a brilliant young Italian painter named Raffaello Santi was summoned to the grand ducal palace in his home town of Urbino. There, in the presence of Duke Guidobaldo and his simpering courtiers, the painter was to receive a commission that was to change his life. Raffaello was still very young, just twenty-three years old, living only for artistic advancement and ravenous for recognition and fame. Behind him stretched years of hard-bitten apprenticeship: ever since he had been old enough to handle a paintbrush, Raffaello had devoted himself to his art, gradually focusing his precocious talents on the possibilities of sublime creation. But now, unfurling in front of him like a great golden banner, lay honor, glory, and immortal fame.
A recent self-portrait showed a pale, meek-looking youth, his pearly, opalescent skin licked with dark, damp curls, his full feminine lips troubled only by the slightest shadow of fuzz. But the portrait's vacuous beauty was a fiction. It betrayed none of the extraordinary energy and determination of Raffaello's paintings, no hint of the skillful manipulator of powerful patrons and the mercenary careerist that without doubt he had become even at this stage. Raffaello, now known to us as Raphael, reeked of ambition, certainly. He knew he would go far, perhaps to the top of his profession. But even he, in his most vainglorious moments, could never have imagined that he was poised on the brink of an artistic maturity that was to turn him into a mortal god of the Italian Renaissance. His name would be universally famous for the next five hundred years.
Raphael reached the palace and was admitted through the decoratively carved stone entrance. A contingent of armored guards conducted him, clanking along in their steel, through the beautiful pillared courtyard, up the stone staircase, and on through a sequence of vaulted halls, chambers, and apartments. Ushered past noblemen and ambassadors waiting in attitudes of stiff formality, Raphael was propelled toward the seat of power itself. Finally he stood in front of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino and ruler of one of the most powerful courts in Italy.
The duke had a high regard for Raphael, and his choice of the brilliant young painter had been a careful one. For on that spring morning, to the melodious sound of quills totting up ducats on parchment, the duke commissioned Raphael to paint a picture of St. George and the dragon. It was essential, Guidobaldo explained, that this should be his finest work yet. This jewel of a painting, he went on, this portrait of the great and romantic, chivalric hero was to be sent to England as a gift for King Henry VII.
Five hundred years later, fascinated by the extraordinary life of the painting that Raphael created for the Duke of Urbino, I stood in the same piazza, looking up at the monumental façade of the ducal palace. I had been intrigued by this picture, by its travels, by the people who had wanted it, ever since stumbling on the outlines of its story a couple of years earlier. Across the sweep of half a millennium and spread out over the breadth of half the world, a string of rulers and rich men had gone out of their way to possess this gem. Several had clambered their way to power by devious means. Most had filled their purses and bank accounts dishonestly. All were rapacious consumers of art, obsessed with the glamour and power it conferred. But who were these people, and why had they wanted Raphael's painting so badly?
I first saw the painting many years ago, hanging, where it is now, in the Raphael room at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. As I gazed at it, I had no inkling of what momentous events it had witnessed, the dangers it had survived, the passions it had engendered, and the mysteries it contained. In the intervening years, it continued to dance before my eyes. This exquisite work of art had unleashed its magic on me too. Of course I was in no position to have it for myself, but instead, now that I knew something of its story, I was possessed with the urge to pursue this mystery, to follow the trail and discover what lay beyond the aesthetic attractions of this masterpiece.
Although Urbino is no longer the place of patronage and power it was in the sixteenth century, its architectural glories are still there, reassuringly little changed, and the shrill and gaudy melee of continuing life swirls in little eddies all over its piazzas and up and down its precariously steep surrounding streets. If you were to go there today, you could still inhale something of the place where this painting was born, perhaps catch a glimpse of a ghostly footprint.
It was autumn when I was there, a time of ungraciously bitter winds, which stung my cheeks as I spun round trying to imagine the scene of Raphael's summons. Dozens of university students hurried across the piazza, trailing long knitted scarves and bags of books. They stopped here and there to confer in little huddles before disappearing into cafés for coffee and canoodling. Tourists ambled across the uneven flagstones, their heads buried in their guidebooks, trailed, perhaps unwittingly, at a distance by pickpockets. And all around were shops and stalls flogging cheap goods, their determinedly jocular proprietors the descendants of the colorful hustlers of old. As I walked around, I tried to flesh out imagined pictures of that earlier reality, with all its maddening and unpossessable detail.
The massively precocious Raphael must have been barely able to contain his jubilation at the news of his commission. Here was one of the most influential and enlightened courts in Italy summoning him to paint a greatly symbolic picture for the king of England. It was to be beautiful. It was to convey an important message and carry with it a strange power. And although Raphael did not know it at the time, its many-sided allure was to take it on a journey to fabulous worlds as yet undreamed of.
For one so young the request was almost unimaginable. How could this youth, not long out of adolescence, possibly have won such a prestigious commission? The answer is that Raphael was no ordinary twenty-three-year-old. The story of his development as a painter was familiar to Guidobaldo; it is worth recounting, for it reveals much about the ruthless ambitions of Raphael, ambitions that were to be invested, at their most intensive, in this small but radiant painting that would go on to dazzle the world.
It was well known that Raphael had matured astonishingly fast as a painter. His name was already famous in the region for the many Madonna and Child devotional paintings he had completed for wealthy Florentine clients. These were small and outstandingly refined works that had succeeded in spreading Raphael's name as a rising star. But he had also made his mark with a number of larger narrative paintings. One of these was the Marriage of the Virgin, commissioned by the Albizzini, a leading family in nearby Città di Castello, for the church of San Francesco. For a painter just twenty years old, this work, which now hangs in the Brera Museum in Milan, was astonishingly assured. Its powers of narrative and subtleties of perspective and design, as well as its grace, ensured that Raphael's name reached the ears of the most powerful men in the land.
Painting had always been in Raphael's blood. He was born in 1483, the only surviving child of Magia Ciarla Santi, a merchant's daughter, and Giovanni Santi, a learned poet and minor courtier at Urbino who had taken up painting late in life, just a few years before Raphael was born. As a child, Raphael had virtually grown up in his father's studio, spending his days in the small airless workroom adjoining the family house, its whitewashed walls hung with sketches, the floor strewn with supplies, sections of altarpieces, and devotional works in progress.
If you were to go there today, you would find the structural bones of Raphael's house little changed, but it is now a tourist attraction, a small house-museum, cold and unbreathing in the way house-museums so often are. It is filled with reproductions of works by Raphael and a thin little assortment of period furniture. But at the back, in a small shady courtyard, there is the original well where the boy helped his parents draw water, and a stone slab where pigments were ground. It had been worn down into a hollow. I reached out and felt its smooth surface, imagining the small boy who had stood working away there, grinding colors for his father, unaware of the reverence that would still be attached to his own name five hundred years later. Next door is the studio, now an art gallery, but still laid out as a series of rooms as it would have been in Raphael's time. I wandered round trying not to look at the gaudy acrylic landscapes being touted for sale. The place was full of tourists: Americans, French, Germans, and some Italians, haggling for a piece of art that had hung in Raphael's studio. You have to half-close your eyes to imagine the eager little boy, busying himself among his father's apprentices.
Raphael carefully observed the work going on around him as he helped with the mixing of pigments, dabbling at sketching and painting his own pictures. He must have shown early signs of promise, for soon after Giovanni died in 1494, the eleven-year-old Raphael was sent off to work in Perugia as an apprentice in the studio of Pietro Perugino, the most popular and prolific painter in central Italy.
Perugino's achievements in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel in the 1480s had brought him many major commissions in Tuscany and Umbria, and he was famous as a painter of frescoes. During the 1490s, he was commuting frequently between Florence and Perugia and constantly receiving new commissions. To complete these works he maintained a large workshop which, given his frequent absences, was required to reproduce the master's style with complete fidelity.
Arriving with little experience to speak of and only the recommendation of his late father's colleagues, Raphael dutifully took on all sorts of menial responsibilities in Perugino's bustling studio, initially grinding pigments and preparing panels for paint and then moving on to brushing in backgrounds and completing whole sections of paintings on his own. The place was alive with activity all day long. Church representatives and the heads of wealthy families were always dropping in to view works in progress and commission their own. Traders came and went with supplies. Senior members of the studio were negotiating details and directing work. And the dozens of young apprentices went earnestly about their assigned tasks, hoping to curry favor with their master and win promotion in the studio hierarchy as they moved toward becoming fully fledged painters themselves.
As he worked, Raphael carefully studied the poses of models and in his spare time began developing his own compositions, all the while ruthlessly building and refining his skills by determined observation and experience. With month after month of trial and error, he came to grips with perspective and learned to refine his shading, in paint and charcoal, until shadows and light blended together like smoke, without lines or borders.
Artists and apprentices in the workshop were expected to follow predetermined formulas for their work, for Perugino was one of the first painters to appreciate the advantages of reusing standardized designs. Depictions of smooth-faced saints gazing heavenward surrounded by dancing angels rolled out of his studio in endless combinations and in huge numbers. The system, of course, required the complete subjugation of the pupil's individuality to the master's style. In this, Raphael was unable to conform. His extraordinary talents meant that he was always enlivening the standard pattern figures with lively flourishes of his own.
Raphael proved to be an astonishingly fast learner. Within just six years of arriving as a child in Perugino's studio, he had blossomed into a precocious young man. His painting skills matched the talents of his master and in some areas were beginning to outdo him. Branching out on his own, Raphael received his first independent commission in 1500 when his name was inked into the accounts book of the church of St. Agostino in Città di Castello, under an order for a large altarpiece for the Baroncio family chapel. The painting required was of the coronation of St. Nicholas of Tolentino, a recently canonized Augustinian friar who had been particularly popular in Umbria. The picture, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1789, only survives in fragments, but a good idea of its style can be seen from a surviving preparatory drawing that Raphael did showing a design characteristic of the Perugino workshop. Raphael worked on this commission with another, older painter, who had been employed in his father's workshop. And it was probably owing to this shrewd collaborative arrangement that Raphael was able to attain the title of master, as he was named on the contract, at the unusually young age of seventeen.
The painting was duly completed and delivered nine months later to delighted members of the Baroncio family. It must have excited approving comment from a wider circle, for it prompted a steady stream of further commissions from admiring parishioners until by 1504 Raphael, with rising confidence and a growing local reputation, realized that the time had come for a move to Florence.
So it was that one October morning, as the sun burnt off the haze hanging over the Arno valley, Raphael stood on the road from Arrezzo looking down at the distant skyline of Florence. No visitor could fail to be impressed by this thriving city. Although unfinished, her cathedral, the Duomo, promised to be the largest in Christendom. The elegant octagonal Baptistry, with its elaborately inlaid marble façade, the huge Franciscan convent of Santa Croce, and many other magnificent palaces, villas, and churches all testified to the city's affluence. With a population of fifty thousand, this bustling, commercial city was the sixth largest in Europe, surpassed only by London, Milan, Naples, Venice, and Paris. Florence was the epicenter of artistic activity in Italy. Rivalry among artists was fiercer here than in any other city. For Raphael, no destination could have been more appealing.
Raphael made his way to the center of Florence, the smell of money and success already pricking insistently at his nostrils. The winding streets and broad piazzas were thronging with people and products, doctors visiting the sick, servants running errands, packhorses struggling under bales of wool, and the wives of rich merchants gossiping like sparrows as they promenaded in their finery. Farm trucks trundled past, laden with heads of fennel, artichokes, and wicker cages crammed with clucking chickens. Scholars, clad in as many shades of black as the jackdaw, stood engrossed in debate, oblivious to the human tide raging around them. These were perfect targets for the pickpockets who loitered, armed with quick little blades, waiting to separate leather purses from the belts from which they dangled.
Raphael saw slender houses, top-heavy with balconies, lining the narrow routes. Shops stood on street corners, their awnings hanging like lowered eyelids over their doorways. He must have wandered around in a daze, marveling at every turn, at the splendid architecture, the range of luxuries spread out for sale, and amazed at the vigor and entrepreneurial spirit of the place.
Soon he was picking up the talk of town: the competition between the fifty-one-year-old Leonardo da Vinci, famous as the consummate draftsman of his age, and his twenty-nine-year-old archrival, Michelangelo. Both of these maestros had just been commissioned to paint murals commemorating famous Florentine battle victories on opposite walls of the Grand Council Chambers, then under construction in the Palazzo della Signoria. For an artist, this was the most prestigious location in Florence. But never before had the two men been pitted against one another in a commission that was turning into a public contest. Leonardo and Michelangelo had needed no introduction. Each was aware of the other's reputation, and their esteem for their respective talents was genuine. But da Vinci did not need reminding that his output had dwindled of late. A long-commissioned painting for the altar at the Annunziata monastery was far from complete, and his overdue portrait of Isabella d'Este, the demanding and tenacious marchioness of Mantua, was not even begun.
The brash young Michelangelo, on the other hand, was fresh from a pair of successes. He had just completed his Pietà in Rome to great acclaim, and had also achieved a triumph with his statue of David in Florence. Friendly Florentines, full of pride for their creative stars, would have filled Raphael in on the background to these masterpieces. The David had been a true sensation, for he had carved the enormous figure from a huge block of badly hewn marble which had already been discarded by several other sculptors after their botched attempts to fashion figures from it. Michelangelo, an obsessively secretive and suspicious artist, had immediately ordered the block to be hidden from view behind a wooden enclosure. There he had chiseled and chipped at it for hour after hour, day after day, removing, as he was heard to say, "everything that was not David." When it was finally unveiled, three years later, the giant was shockingly nude and as tall as the block of marble would allow, with huge hands and an oversized head. It was a gigantic statement, a boastful trumpeting of both the city's pride and of Michelangelo's own daring.
A few weeks before Raphael's arrival in Florence, the statue had been slung up on a wooden frame and eased along greased beams by forty men, taking four days to make its precarious progress through the narrow streets to its final resting place outside the main door of the Palazzo della Signoria, now known as the Palazzo Vecchio. Then there was a furious row. The more conservative of the city's arts advisory committee objected loudly to the figure's nakedness. Michelangelo was enraged, but the elders won and arranged for a large and permanent garland of twenty-eight fig leaves to be strategically fixed to the front of the statue for modesty's sake.
Michelangelo, hailed as a master sculptor, now found himself entering da Vinci's own territory of painting, with the chance to prove himself in direct competition. Both men had reason to be rankled by the presence of the other. Michelangelo had insulted da Vinci with a rash comment about his unfinished bronze horse for the duke of Milan. Da Vinci had offended his younger rival by insisting that David's nudity be less blatant. The two men nevertheless settled down to work at preliminary sketches for their paintings, and the people of Florence began to revel in the contest of intellects as if it were some kind of spectator sport.
Florence's citizens were unusually well educated. Everyone, from the grandest merchants and government officials down to the city's many bakers, cobblers, and even its humblest stable boys, went to see every new work of art, engaging in heated debates over its merits. The large Piazza della Signoria sat at the heart of sixteenth-century Florence. Here, watched by Michelangelo's David, people gathered all year round to sit and chat, sitting in summer under the awnings of surrounding shops, in winter wherever they could find a patch of thin sun. There they would eat and drink at the little food stalls and discuss the issues of the day. Their opinions were not always favorable. Fortunately for Raphael, the lively interest in art also translated into abundant commissions, thanks to the emergence of a thriving middle class with money to spend on art and building projects. Of course da Vinci and Michelangelo between them were scooping up all the most prestigious commissions. But the fact that even the minor commissions not only paid a stipend but also provided room and board was most welcome to a young newcomer.
Raphael immediately put out word that he was available for work. He already had in his possession a letter of introduction from Giovanna della Rovere, the Urbino-born wife of the prefect of Rome and an influential supporter of his work. She had addressed it to Piero Soderini, the gonfalonier, or leader, of the Republic of Florence. "The bearer of this letter," she began, "is Raphael, a painter from Urbino, who has much talent in his vocation, and wishes to spend some time in Florence to study." Soderini must have passed the letter on, for Raphael soon made contact with Taddeo Taddei, a wealthy and powerful lawyer and a generous patron of the arts.
Taddei invited Raphael to join his own household, entertained him to meals, and gave him a commission to paint a small devotional picture of the Madonna and Child. These devotional images were very popular and most households possessed at least one, choosing a cheap print or a relatively expensive painting according to their means. The works cost little to make. Raphael, shrewd as ever, with few funds to speak of, chose to concentrate on this genre because it guaranteed him a certain income while allowing him to attract the attention of other collectors by offering works of a superior quality.
Through the introductions of his friend Taddei, Raphael soon began to make his mark among the cloth merchants of Florence, painting Madonnas and Holy Families for a number of wealthy clients. For a while he was preoccupied with these commissions. He studied how others treated the same subjects, drew dozens of different variations on the theme, and worked out new solutions to compositional problems. What he had learned in Perugino's guild-controlled medieval workshop had given him an excellent grounding. But here in Florence he was astonished and exhilarated by the new metropolitan standards. He saw that he could choose freely among any number of stylistic possibilities, and he applied himself by adapting them to his own use.
He experimented with some of Leonardo's innovations, and those of Donatello and Michelangelo, all the time sketching new ideas and trying out more and more ambitious groupings and poses as he gradually found his way toward his own individual style. His work soon came to the attention of Agnolo Doni, an immensely rich but notoriously tightfisted cloth merchant, public official, and significant arts patron. Doni commissioned Raphael to paint a double portrait of himself and his plump young wife, Maddalena Strozzi. The young painter gave his social-climbing patron an aristocratic air of gravitas. Adept already at strategic flattery, he also minutely detailed their fine clothes and jewelry, positioning their hands carefully so as to best display their expensive rings.
When he was not busy preparing and painting his commissioned works, Raphael spent his spare time walking around Florence with a sketchbook, studying and drawing the finest art works to be seen in the city. He was overwhelmed by the art he was seeing, and he drew and drew as if to absorb everything. He sketched Donatello's heroic statue of St. George, which stood in a niche of Or San Michele, right in the center of Florence. He went to look at Uccello's Battle of San Romano, which hung in the palace of the exiled Medici. He saw works by Botticelli and studied Fra Bartolommeo's famed Last Judgement in the church of San Marco. Fascinated by the male nude, he sketched variations on Antonio del Pollaiuolo's famous engraving, the Battle of the Ten Nudes.
And of course he went to see how the two old masters had begun on their rival battle scenes. Although neither fresco was ever finished, both da Vinci's Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina, with their violent, muscle-bulging fighting figures, were tremendously influential in their early sketched forms. Hordes of Florentines sought admission to the Santa Maria Novella, where the large-scale drawings, known as "cartoons," were displayed. Many young artists flocked there to make copies, and Raphael was among them. Within a few years, Michelangelo's cartoon had been torn to pieces by eager students.
This was a stirring moment in Florentine artistic history. With da Vinci and Michelangelo forging the way, the canons of the great classical style, now known as the High Renaissance, were being established, and Raphael was lucky to be able to devote himself to absorbing and assimilating the finest elements of these very works. He applied his prodigious talents to his painting with extraordinary intensity. But success, for him, was measured in terms of money. Owing to the high quality of his work, he quickly got himself noticed and started to pursue rich and powerful patrons with a vigor and a native cunning that was singularly lacking in both da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Raphael was ruthless in his pursuit of excellence and did nothing to hide his ambition. He even talked his way into a personal meeting with the great Leonardo da Vinci. Perhaps he hoped for some kind of benediction from this artistic godfather, a laying of aged hands on his own perfumed young head. What Raphael got was access to da Vinci's drawings for various projects, from which he quickly picked up his master's superior pen drawing techniques. But he also managed to engineer a long-term dialogue with da Vinci, which helped Raphael to free himself from his provincial Peruginesque style and to develop his own idiom in response to the highest new standards in the arts.
His relationship with Michelangelo was less harmonious. By nature Michelangelo was a solitary, melancholy genius. He was secretive, moody, and suspicious, a burly and generally unwashed figure, slightly hunchbacked, with a quick tongue and a broken nose, earned -- perhaps deservedly -- in a fistfight with the sculptor Pietro Torrigiani. Raphael, on the other hand, was a man of the world, gregarious, well dressed, robustly confident, charming, and crafty too. As a result, the two were natural antagonists. Raphael thrived in the combative atmosphere of the Florentine art world and was convinced he could equal Michelangelo and even, one day, surpass him. Michelangelo naturally distrusted Raphael. He regarded him as a precocious young upstart, an artist without natural talent who had gotten where he was merely by dint of unusually persistent study. "All that Raphael knew in his art, he had from me," he wrote later, maddened by Raphael's rising star. The rivalry was to become more bitter in following years, with Michelangelo and his supporters accusing Raphael of stealing his ideas and trying to ruin him.
For the moment, Raphael blithely ignored all of this. Determined to advance at all costs, he carried on with his pattern of appropriating and exploiting ideas from the old masters, meanwhile producing undoubtedly the finest devotional pictures in Florence.
He was not exactly a copyist, but he had a power of synthesis that made him the envy of his rivals. By day he would draw, paint, and study furiously, and in the evenings he would often visit the workshop of the artist Baccio d'Agnolo, where he met other painters and idlers interested in art. Here he kept in touch with all the latest news and gossip, exchanging ideas, comparing commissions, and, as always, sniffing out more work. Honor, glory, and fame were soon to be his, but for the moment, the clink of cold cash sounded louder in Raphael's ears.
After a few hours of chatter, he would slope off into the night in search of distraction, to mask with perfume the bitter tang of his ambitious dreams. Raphael was a dedicated womanizer. In stark contrast to the ethereal purity and grace of his paintings, his private life was racy and effusively amorous. Night after night, in the streets and piazzas of Florence, the charming and handsome young Raphael had no trouble picking up women. Back in his rooms, as if releasing some sort of feverish, pent-up energy from his painting, he would assuage his sensual appetites. Around this time, an uncle in Urbino sent word to Raphael telling him that he was preparing to open negotiations to find him a suitable wife. The artist responded hotly, in some startlingly candid letters. There was absolutely no question of taking a wife, he wrote. Such an encumbrance might soften his resolve, he explained, distract him from his career, and prove to be a drain on his financial resources. Raphael could paint like an angel; at the same time he was proving to be a remarkably ruthless operator.
With two years of determined study and improvement behind him in Florence, his policy was evidently paying off. Increasingly lucrative commissions continued to pour in and Raphael's name became well known both in Florence and across all of central Italy. At the time of his summons in 1506 by the Duke of Urbino, those in the know were referring to Raphael as an exceptional painter, the outstanding rising star of the moment.
Raphael was the perfect choice for Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro. At this moment the duke badly needed a painting fine enough to do justice to his precarious position as ruler of the splendid inherited court of Urbino. Unlike Raphael, Guidobaldo was a tentative, nervous man, weak, sickly, and lacking in confidence. His whole life had been overshadowed by the powerful presence of his father, Duke Federico da Montefeltro, who had died at the age of sixty the year before Raphael was born.
It is hard to overestimate the belittling effect the grand and successful Federico had on his weakling son. But ironically, it was this shaming comparison that, as we shall see, motivated Guidobaldo to commission Raphael to paint the beautiful picture of our story.
Federico was a fabulously wealthy condottiere, the leader of a powerful mercenary army who commanded huge sums to fight wars on behalf of the highest bidders. Francesco Sforza employed him for sixty thousand ducats a year in peacetime and eighty thousand for war. His annual income, above and beyond what he required to run his estate, was around fifty thousand ducats, an enormous sum when you consider that a domestic servant received about seven ducats a year, that the doge of Venice received a mere three thousand a year, and that the profits of the Medici Bank at its peak were less than twenty thousand a year. Federico was one of the richest men in Europe. Gloating at his less successful counterparts, he made sure everyone knew that he had more wealth for patronage than any other prince in Italy.
He was a large, meaty man, a great swaggering soldier hero who had lost an eye in an amorous intrigue and the upper part of his nose in a sword joust, although some said he had had it lopped off to help him see better on his blind side. He was by all accounts a prudent and cunning fighter, and politically well connected. Over the years he had built for himself what everyone in Italy aspired to have: a set of carefully nurtured links to the pope. He was also highly educated and harbored grand cultural aspirations. When Pope Sixtus IV created him Duke of Urbino in 1474 and in the same year Edward IV made him a Knight of the Garter, England's most prestigious chivalric order, Federico decided to build himself a palace. He wanted a court of a grandeur suitable to someone of his growing prestige. Spending some of his immense accumulated riches, he commissioned a program of church building and ordered ducal residences to be built in half a dozen smaller towns under his rule. He also had the castles scattered around his estate remodeled and fortified.
But the main object of his efforts and his spending was the unprepossessing Gothic family house perched on top of a rocky overhang in Urbino. Calling in the best architects and craftsmen available, he had this building dramatically enlarged into a magnificent ducal palace built around a pillared courtyard, the same one through which Raphael was escorted to see Guidobaldo, and which still stands today.
Over the course of a dozen years, Federico pushed through hugely ambitious building programs and decorative schemes.
He built up a famous library with encyclopedic scholarly ambitions, which rivaled the papal library in Rome. No expense was spared. Vespasiano, the Florentine bookseller who was responsible for the library and who supplied many of its volumes, claimed it had cost thirty thousand ducats. Many of the manuscripts were specially commissioned, written and painted on dazzling white vellum by the finest scribes and painters in Florence. Federico's two-volume Bible was bound with gold brocade with silver mounts, and many of the other books were lavish with splendidly colorful bindings. The library was full of Greek and Latin classics, and works of the poets, historians, philosophers, astrologers, mathematicians, architects, and churchmen. It was systematically planned and worthy of a modern Caesar. Naturally, everyone who saw it agreed that it glorified the virtuous and magnificent ruler who had paid for it.
Federico also ordered a princely studiolo to be built. This was a private space, open only to the most favored visitors and designed to express the intellectual and moral aspirations of his life. It was an intimate room, lined with wooden paneling decorated with intricate trompe l'oeil designs. Above this hung a cycle of paintings by Justus of Ghent, twenty-eight portraits of learned men, in two dense rows: ancient philosophers, poets, and legislators above, and popes and cardinals below. Half of these are now in the Louvre.
He commissioned dozens of fine art works and bought huge, colorful tapestries enriched with gold threads. He spent lavishly on ornate detail, ordering carved door frames, decorative marble fireplaces, and gilded friezes. Splendid portraits were commissioned too, and in 1476, father and son sat to Pedro Berruguete.
You can see the painting still hanging in the ducal palace. Federico sits proud as a lion in full body armor and ceremonial robes and chains, his garter prominently displayed below his left knee, which is thrust pointedly toward the artist. His powerful hands clutch a leather-bound book, a treatise on the art of war perhaps, which he appears to be reading with a vigorous intelligence. This man, we are invited to muse, has meditated on Marcus Aurelius, learned his duties from Cicero, and discovered the universe with Lucretius. And here he is, feeding his capacious brain with more intellectual meat. Beneath his massive, steel-encased elbows, clinging like a small kitten to Federico's other knee, is his five-year-old son and heir, Guidobaldo. Dressed in miniature finery and hung with jewels, the small boy seems to stare nervously into the distance with the anticipation of failure on his tiny, pale face.
A steady flow of ambassadors from major Italian states and of poets, artists, and scholars began to stream into Urbino in the hope of securing patronage from the wealthy and cultured Federico. Scholars wrote eulogies to him; other writers dedicated their work to him and donated manuscripts to the ducal library. Piero della Francesca, Justus of Ghent, and other fine painters -- including Raphael's father -- produced masterpieces for his walls.
Not all aspirants to patronage received what they believed they were due: many poems and eulogies were merely acknowledged with a small gift or simply ignored. But by the end of Federico's life, there were over a hundred courtiers listed as being in his service in some form or another. Astrologers, musicians, medical doctors, inventors, painters, poets, sculptors, philosophers were all on the roll call. Entering his service provided a stipend but also carried hidden benefits. There was access to the famous ducal library but, above all, given Federico's close relationship with the Vatican as gonfalonier of the papal forces, a chance to catch the pope's eye, which could lead to further advancement.
Federico's patronage was not disinterested. Shrewdly, with his eye on the best value for money, he invested in tangible things: the magnificent palace buildings, the art works, the sculptures, tapestries, and other wondrous objects. He assumed it would benefit his dynasty and ensure that his name would be carried down through the centuries.
His assumptions were correct. If you were to visit the ducal palace, you would find that the place still trumpets the power of this overblown ego. Everywhere in this treasure house, on every cornice and blank patch of plaster, reproduced in the front of every library manuscript and inserted into every commissioned painting are reminders of Federico's status. Fashioned with majestic extravagance on ceilings, in the decorations around doors, and carved into stone fireplaces are Federico's initials, his coat of arms, heraldic devices, and the insignia of the various decorations and chivalric honors he received. The place screams out his triumphant potency.
Visitors to Urbino today are drawn inexorably toward the ducal palace, which sits commandingly at the top of the hill on which the city is built. This vast symbolic edifice dominates the view of the place from all angles, its orange and pink bricks glowing against the sky, the grandeur of its towers and domes and gateways proclaiming the power of its founder. When my husband, Giles, and I first arrived in Urbino, it was midday. Easing our tiny Italian rental car up the streets and back alleys and close enough to our hotel was the first challenge. Having unloaded and deposited the car outside the city walls again, we decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the city as a whole, resisting the lure of the palace, and instead roaming the little streets and steeply angled piazzas and assessing the Urbino cuisine. Later, we walked down the steep hills and across the valley, looking back at this bastion of power and marveling at how little changed the city is from its Renaissance prime.
The next day we entered the palace and found ourselves sucked into a monument to the magnificence of Federico. Wandering around the long corridors and skating across the polished floors of the enormous state rooms, I counted seventy-eight reproductions of the Order of the Garter, put there to remind visitors of Federico's singular honor. I had come with little knowledge of the Montefeltro family but soon got a sense of Federico's character, his ruthless pursuit of power, and his desire to exhibit it. Five hundred years later, the legacy of his investment is still alive: the hilltop city still attracts crowds of young and creative brains, now no longer the painters, philosophers, and poets of old but the present-day undergraduates of Urbino University.
But his presence is strangely inescapable. Touring the palace a couple of times, even I, a mere tourist and amateur art sleuth, emerged feeling somewhat crushed under the weight of Federico's ego. So it was easy to imagine how, in Raphael's time, Guidobaldo must have felt, installed as the next duke in this pulsating monument to his father. I imagine that he wore the shame of his own impotence rather heavily, like a coat of rusty armor. For Guidobaldo failed in many respects to match his father.
As a young man Guidobaldo led campaigns as a condottiere that brought pitiful returns, and his efforts to defend even his own fortress were inept. In 1502, Urbino was attacked and the ducal palace looted by the rapacious armies of Cesare Borgia, forcing Guidobaldo into exile. All the valuable tapestries were removed and the books from his father's famous library were stripped of their precious bindings and carried off. Although Guidobaldo recovered his duchy in 1503, and the books and tapestries the following year, the memory of the Borgia attack was indelible. The broken protective walls, which you can still see today around the town, now stood as a vengeful reminder of Guidobaldo's own shortcomings.
He was pigeon-chested, pasty-faced, and thin, prone to illness and unable to produce an heir. He spent his days unhappily afflicted with the solitude of state, surrounded by an obsequious throng of courtiers and noblemen. His life must have seemed a total failure until he made two profitable decisions. The first was to marry Elisabetta Gonzaga of Mantua, the sister of the next pope. This was a pairing that set Guidobaldo up with a protective insurance policy for his position as duke and gave him the significant asset of power by papal association. Secondly, he devised a scheme to acquire from the English king the Order of the Garter for himself. At least he could try to match his father in that department.
Of course we know that Guidobaldo did win the Order of the Garter, a personal triumph that prompted him to commission Raphael to produce our jewel of a painting. But the story of how Guidobaldo got his garter reveals just how cynical were the political maneuverings that governed such decisions. It also reveals an unexpected shaft of cunning in Guidobaldo.
In 1504, Guidobaldo had visited Henry VII's representative in Rome and let it be known that his father had been most honored to have been made a Knight of the Garter. The Garter was one of the oldest chivalric orders in Europe, established at Windsor by Edward III on St. George's Day, April 23rd, 1348. Its original members were the English sovereign and twenty-five knight companions who met annually in St. George's Chapel. But under Edward IV, the election of illustrious foreigners was permitted for the first time, concentrated on influential rulers with whom new alliances would strengthen English interests. A few years before Federico had received his honor, three other Italian rulers had been elected to the order: two kings of Naples and the duke of Milan. Federico, whose election was motivated by his military prowess and his papal links, had characteristically interpreted his honor as the highest Europe could offer, taking it to bestow quasi-royal status on his worthy shoulders. Guidobaldo, with his badly diminished ducal position and his emasculated pride, was desperate to claw back status with such an honor.
Subtly insinuating to Henry's man in Rome that he too coveted the honor, he offered his devotion and service in papal circles in return. It is likely that Guidobaldo was aware of Henry VII's urgent desire to win influence with the pope. A usurper of the throne, Henry Tudor was keen to establish his own dynasty through marriage alliances. He had married his daughter to the king of Scotland and, following the death of his eldest son, Arthur, he wished to marry Arthur's widow, Catherine of Aragon, to Arthur's brother, Henry, now Prince of Wales. The marriage was vital as it would guarantee powerful support for the prince's eventual succession. A treaty for such a marriage had been concluded in June 1503, but before a marriage could take place, a papal dispensation was necessary. Obtaining this dispensation became the essence of Henry VII's policy.
Henry VII's representative in Rome discreetly suggested the advantage in naming Guidobaldo a Knight of the Order of the Garter. He was the pope's brother-in-law, highly regarded by him and a captain of the Church. He might just have some sway. The fact that, unlike his father, Guidobaldo had performed no act of bravery, nor shown any noticeable military prowess to justify the Garter, quickly became a mere detail. For Henry, expediency was all when it came to dynastic ambitions. Guidobaldo's unmerited honor was no more than a carefully considered diplomatic maneuver.
Guidobaldo's ruse worked, and in February 1504, in a grand ceremony in Rome, he received the robes and the bejeweled insignia of the order from a team of King Henry's ambassadors sent expressly to Rome. The investiture of the duke as a Garter Knight was performed in the presence of the pope and required a ceremony of staggering formality, rich with Latin recitations that had been distilled over many years. After processions and pronouncements of obscure meaning, Guidobaldo presented his left leg and the aged English peer Sir Gilbert Talbot knelt to fasten the garter below his knee.
The status imparted by this small, coveted insignia far exceeded its physical splendor. It was simply a strap of fine cloth dyed a pale shade of blue, bordered with pearls and mounted with a gold buckle and a pendant ending in a pearl. The strap bore the motto Honi soit qui mal y pense (Evil be to him who evil thinks), embroidered in tiny gold Gothic letters. Sir Gilbert then robed Guidobaldo in a gown of purple, placed a blue mantle over his shoulders, and draped around his neck a heavy gold chain from which dangled a pendant showing St. George killing the dragon.
Guidobaldo's proud moment was followed by a night of lavish celebration, an event which was repeated, with huge expenditure and a certain degree of private mockery from knowing courtiers, when Guidobaldo finally returned to Urbino. At last, a small spark of personal pride had begun to twitch in his chest.
His mind turned at once to how he might cement relations with the English king and thank him for the honor. As a newly ennobled knight, he was now obliged to visit the king himself or send an ambassador to London within two years to receive further badges of office. This was the moment, he decided, to send as a gift the finest painting Urbino could produce. Pondering the possible subjects that might flatter the king and maximize the strategic links between the two courts, Guidobaldo settled on the well-loved story of St. George and the dragon. St. George was the patron saint of the Order of the Garter, and a glamorous hero whose romantic cult of chivalry held a particular appeal in England.
St. George is one of our most elusive and enigmatic saints. He is supposed to have been a soldier in the Roman army, martyred early in the fourth century for refusing to renounce Christianity, somewhere on the Asiatic shores of the Bosphorus. The myth of St. George has long obscured any concrete evidence there might have been of the man. This is perhaps because his martyrdom makes such entertaining, if rather gruesome reading. According to an early text dating from the fifth century, George cheerfully underwent a series of horrific tortures including drinking poison, being cut into ten pieces, and having his bones thrown down a well. After being restored to life, he was made to drink molten lead, suspended over a fire, and then sawn in two. Resurrected again, he endured more bloodcurdling tortures before converting an entire Roman army and then finally being decapitated himself.
Given his extraordinary story, St. George quickly acquired a large and enthusiastic following and came to be known as one of the greatest military saints. With war a constant threat in early Christian times, he was much in demand, and countries and cities rushed to place themselves under his protection as their patron saint. Today he is invariably associated with his dragon, a more recent and rather compelling addition to his story, which was spread across the Christian world in a thirteen-century account of his life. The combination of a saintly knight, a damsel in distress, and a wicked dragon appealed to everyone, and the tale of St. George and the dragon became one of the great romantic stories of medieval Europe. It is of course a variant on the oldest story in the world, the struggle between good and evil, and as such has endured, even up to this day.
As a subject for a painting intended as a gift of gratitude, it could not have been better. Raphael, with his growing reputation as the next star of Italy's superlative artistic tradition, would be perfect for the job. And so it was that Duke Guidobaldo summoned Raphael on that cold spring day to an audience in the palace of Urbino.
The young painter instantly understood the significance of the task ahead of him. He had to produce a work of art that would honor his own patron, bring glory to the English Order of the Garter, win admiration from an English king, and -- most important of all to him -- further his own reputation in bigger, grander spheres. He knew that in taking up this commission he would be addressing the English court. But he knew also that talk of this work, if it were to succeed, would recommend him in the more knowledgeable and sophisticated circles of Rome, where the papal court, the diplomatic corps, the cardinals, and an elite of educated churchmen and discriminating patrons were gathered with the potential to elevate Raphael to the very peak of his profession.
To any other young artist, this would have seemed a hugely daunting task. But nothing was too difficult for Raphael. This was his greatest opportunity yet to establish himself as more than an exceptionally talented novice, and to rival the great Florentine masters on their home ground. The work ahead of him carried complications, even risks. But Raphael had no doubt that he could surpass all expectations.
Settling down to work, he trawled through all the images in his mind and the drawings he had done that were appropriate to the composition. His own sketchbooks were bursting already with beautifully worked impressions of famous saints, monsters, and fighting men. While in Florence, he had worked hard to develop his knowledge of anatomy and his shaping of the heroic nude, and his mastery was now evident. He had sketches of Donatello's bas-relief of St. George and the dragon and of his statue of St. George at Or San Michele in Florence. He had his own copies of Antonio del Pollaiuolo's Battle of the Ten Nudes. He cast his mind back to Leonardo's series of drawings of horsemen fighting dragons, and the early cartoon stages of his mural in Florence depicting the Battle of Anghiari, a scene of exceptionally powerful fighting men.
Raphael charged into his preparatory sketches with an unnerving combination of high-speed spontaneity and methodical experiment. He had always preferred to draw from life, and he borrowed a garzone, one of the young and eager apprentices who populated the busy studio, to pose for him. Arranging the young boy's scrawny limbs on a stool, right elbow raised and holding a lancelike pole, he thrust forward the boy's left leg in imitation of St. George's powerfully tautened horseback position. A few days later, the same garzone knelt on the floor, shyly impersonating the maiden, hands pressed together and head slightly bowed in prayer as he fought off sleep in the warm room, gradually lulled by the grinding of pigments and the soft industry of brushes.
Raphael's working methods were already well developed. With his industrious and professional approach, his preparations were characteristically rational and economical. He sketched out his preliminary drawings in chalk and ink, trying out different styles and characterizations of varying ferocity and dramatic power. Then he quickly and confidently reworked and reworked them on fresh sheets of paper, each time transferring a copy of the previous composition to the new page by brushing chalk or charcoal dust through pin-pricked outlines, like a pattern for petit point. No time or effort was wasted. Over the weeks, the sketches were improved and refined, all the time being invested with a far greater degree of detail and precision than those for any of Raphael's previous paintings had been. Eventually, with a fully resolved cartoon before him, he was satisfied that the essence was there for what was to become one of the most coveted pictures in the world.
Studio assistants had already prepared for him a small panel of poplar wood, washed with a grounding of white gypsum, smooth as cream. At last Raphael was ready to begin painting. The energy of his creativity poured itself into the delivery of paint onto the panel. Working fast in the rising heat of late spring, he loaded his brush with heavy, creamy paint to model the dense, knotted muscles beneath the horse's smooth white skin. He applied long, swift, multiple brushstrokes to the gleaming polished steel of the saint's armor, and placed delicate sprays of fine color to shape the horse's curling tail and the saint's billowing cape.
Here was a prodigy determined to show off his mastery of every skill in the painter's book, an artist unafraid to take risks, to match himself against the artistic giants of his age. And as he gradually closed in with his brushes toward St. George's face, he changed the saint's expression from the shouting, agonized face of his sketches to the impassive calm of a divine vengeance. Here in St. George's delicate face, Guidobaldo and King Henry VII were being prompted to find the ideal of the perfect chivalric hero, a man of grace and resolution, endowed by nature not only with talent and beauty but also with an air of nonchalance even in the face of the most daunting task.
The painting that Raphael created that spring, five hundred years ago, was like an exquisite polished diamond, its facets sparkling from within. The light, the highly finished detail, like that of a manuscript illumination, the clarity, and the sharpness all drew the eye in close and held it fast as the viewer explored the elements of the story.
Raphael's conceptual genius is there in the dynamic triangular arrangement at the center of the composition, held at its corners by the warrior saint's face, the evil head of the dragon, and the serene maiden, praying on her knees. Leonardo's influence is evident in the dragon, in its beautifully modeled muscular form, with its creeping lion's legs and claws, its scaly serpentine tail and neck, eagle wings, and rabid fanged hound of a head. And plunging his spear into the dragon's breast is noble and romantic St. George, raised powerfully up on his stirrups, his polished steel armor gleaming, his blue gray cape billowing up from his shoulders like smoke.
Behind them, the maiden kneels calmly in prayer before a smiling landscape of serene and dreamily civilized beauty. Delicately drawn trees stand like bunches of brilliant feathers, and a small picturesque citadel animates the distance, among bluish hills arranged in soft folds, hushed and slumbering in the mellow afternoon heat.
Cutting through this arrangement is the splendid bravura horse, its eyes so brimful of passion that they look almost human. With its prancing leap frozen in midair, as if seen in a flash of lightning, this huge white charger twists and turns its head to look back, straight into the eyes of the viewer. And there you see the veins throbbing beneath its skin, the nostrils flared with fear, and the hint of muscular eyebrows, ruckled with anxiety over those big round eyes. But even amidst all this action and danger, Raphael seemed to subvert the narrative with a little smile on the horse's lips, a knowing smile containing a mystery that was to be reserved for dukes, kings, empresses, and powerful men. It was a final flourish of wit from a supremely confident artist.
Within just a few months of the commission, Raphael had completed the painting. In a brilliant stroke of subtle flattery, he had made a point of the all-important garter, tied prominently below the knee on the saint's left leg, just as it was on Federico in the double portrait of Guidobaldo and his father. Raphael was introducing the idea to his patron that perhaps he, Guidobaldo, who had seen the evil dragon of Cesare Borgia out of Urbino and now, through his links to the pope, had brought peace to his people, could think of himself as the embodiment of St. George. Guidobaldo, the romantic hero, Raphael was suggesting, could now at last take his place honorably alongside his successful father.
As it turns out, Guidobaldo's name did make it into the history books, but not for his statesmanship or heroism in battle. His name is remembered as that of the earliest important patron of the painter Raphael. For soon after Raphael had completed St. George and the Dragon, word of his genius reached Rome. Tales of the masterpiece destined for the king of England reached the ears of the architect Donato Bramante, who was then engaged on the designs for St. Peter's. Bramante was himself from Urbino, and Raphael had engineered meetings with him on several occasions during the architect's visits to his home town. Bramante had been impressed by the young painter and now, succumbing no doubt to a degree of pressure from Raphael himself, he recommended him to the pope. Within two years, this skilled manipulator of powerful people and clever careerist was established in Rome, employed by the pope on the decoration of the papal apartments, starting with the Stanza della Segnatura.
Raphael's success in Rome was meteoric. The sheer speed of his rise to power became part of the myth of his genius, coloring attitudes to his work for hundreds of years to come. Soon after beginning work in the papal apartments, he began to eclipse the talents of the older and more experienced artists also employed there. One by one, pitted against this brilliant young newcomer, his former mentor Perugino and his collaborator Pinturicchio, Johannes Ruysch, and others were vanquished and removed from the team, their half-finished frescoes destined to be scraped from the walls to make room for Raphael's brushes.
Working furiously to spread his name, Raphael engaged engravers to make copies of his works to advertise his abilities. He persuaded leading cardinals to commission works from him and inspired Agostino Chigi, a prominent banker and probably the richest private citizen in Italy, to employ him to decorate his villa at Trastevere.
In Rome, Raphael came across Michelangelo, who was also working for the pope on the Sistine Chapel, and who by now disliked his young rival intensely. The two crossed swords frequently, but their mutual antagonism became particularly heated when Raphael painted a fresco of Isaiah that appeared to be heavily inspired by Michelangelo's prophets, then still in progress but shrouded in secrecy, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Vasari, in his biographical lives of the painters published some thirty years later, claimed that Raphael, aided by Bramante, had sneaked into the chapel behind Michelangelo's back to climb the scaffold and study the unfinished frescoes.
The farouche older recluse resented Raphael's success bitterly. Years later, after Raphael's death, Michelangelo persuaded Vasari to reassess Raphael's impact in the second edition of his Lives, reducing Raphael's brilliance to a secondary place, behind Michelangelo's.
But back in the 1510s, as Raphael was working away in the papal apartments, Michelangelo could do nothing about the fact that his rival had become part of a sophisticated circle at the top of Roman society, moving among the intellectuals, courtiers, and connoisseurs as a peer. After Pope Julius's death in 1513, Raphael managed to insinuate himself into papal circles so successfully that he became the favorite painter of the new pope, Leo X. He was engaged not only to continue the decoration of the papal apartments but also to serve, after Bramante's death, as architect of St. Peter's and as superintendent of antiquities.
Raphael had become a courtier who also painted. He was living like a prince in a large palazzo, designed by his friend Bramante, in central Rome. According to Vasari, he had a cardinalate in the bag and from there, the author insinuates, it was only a short step to the papal tiara. Mercenary as ever, Raphael totted up his worth in a letter to his uncle, listing property worth three thousand gold ducats and a monthly income of fifty ducats for his architectural work alone, supplemented greatly by his other commissioned incomes. He ran a huge workshop, which turned out paintings for large sums under his famous name, but worked incessantly himself on the major commissions, his last important one being the cartoons for tapestries to be hung in the Sistine Chapel. These show an extraordinary command of form and intellectual achievement for such a young painter.
Like Mozart, Raphael died prematurely, and this early end undoubtedly contributed further to the allure of his name. He died on his thirty-seventh birthday on April 6, 1520, after an illness caused, according to Vasari, by an excessive bout of lovemaking. Michelangelo's ally, the painter Sebastiano del Piombo, who had vied unsuccessfully with Raphael for commissions, immediately wrote to Michelangelo with the news, adding piously, "may God forgive him." His body lay in state for a day before being buried in the Pantheon, a privilege previously reserved only for the canons of the church. The funeral was attended by the entire papal court, and the pope himself is said to have wept publicly during the burial rites. The pomp accompanying Raphael's death and burial were unprecedented for an artist. Not even for Leonardo, who had died the previous year, had there been such a public display of grief. As one contemporary observer wrote, "Here, people are talking about nothing but the death of this exceptional man, who has completed his first life at the young age of thirty-seven. His second life -- that of his fame, which is subject neither to time nor death -- will endure for all eternity."
Raphael had attained a unique status during his short life and had made an indelible mark on art. Vasari, who knew many of his friends and contemporaries, described him as a mortal god. "Because of Raphael," he wrote, "art, coloring, and invention have all three been brought to a pitch of perfection that could scarcely have been hoped for; nor need anyone ever hope to surpass him."
His work was to stand for perfection in art, his star barely wavering over five hundred years. And St. George and the Dragon, his first true Renaissance masterpiece, which had helped to propel him to Rome and immortality, was set to go far too. A combination of Raphael's towering reputation, the painting's beauty and irresistible spirit, and the greed of collectors was to take it on some extraordinary adventures around the world.
Copyright © 2006 by Joanna Pitman