Of the three great High Renaissance artists, Michelangelo and Leonardo are still household names, available models of artistic genius. Raphael, who died on April 6, 1520, at the age of 37, is only vaguely known to those who aren’t committed fans of Renaissance art. This past spring, the 500th anniversary of his death brought a series of exhibitions across Europe and the U.S., the largest of which opened in early March in Rome, where Raphael spent most of his working years as artist and architect to the Popes and all-around cultural star. The celebrations, conferences, and shows of 2020, placed on hold by the coronavirus, are now coming back to life. But can they bring Raphael back into popular consciousness?
It was the other way around for most of the last 500 years. Leonardo, whose paintings were held mostly in princely collections and whose writings were known only to experts, was a shadowy figure, and Michelangelo remained a titan of the past, difficult to hold up as a model for anyone who came after him. By contrast, Raphael was a time traveler, celebrated for centuries as a model of perfect painting and a summa of the best that classical art had to teach. By the 19th century, Raphael’s Madonnas had fully pervaded popular culture. They were simply what Madonnas should look like, and were reproduced and riffed on in countless illustrations, cards, prints, and paintings ranging from academic to schlocky.