July 2020: a week following the steps of Raphael, the ‘Divine Painter’.

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Hidden Italy: a week following in the steps of Raphael, the ‘Divine Painter’.

Hidden Italy: a week following in the steps of Raphael, the ‘Divine Painter’.

The Italian government declared 2020, the Year of Raphael, with a vast array of events and exhibitions to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his death.  Unfortunately, all this went belly up in March, however, with the slow improvement of the situation in Italy, all has not been lost:  many of the events have been rescheduled or extended including the seminal ‘Raffaello, 1520 – 1484’ at the Scuderie del Quirinale, which will now be closing on 30 August (booking required:  www.scuderiequirinale.it).

Below, we have prepared an itinerary that follows Raphael’s progress from Urbino, the lovely town of his birth in Le Marche, to his formation in Florence, and then to his triumphant years in Rome, where he died at the young age of 37.  You mightn’t be able to it this year but hopefully you will in the not too distant future.

On April 6, 1520, Raffaello Sanzio (known to us simply as Raphael) died in Rome at the tender age of thirty-seven (after a night of excessive sex, as his biographer Giorgio Vasari scurrilously recorded).  It was a rock star death, news of which shocked Rome and quickly spread throughout the courts of Europe, where many of his commissions had been.  Such was his standing among his contemporaries that his funeral was held in the Vatican (his coffin carried four cardinals) and, at his request, he was buried in the Pantheon, an honour usually only reserved for kings and nobility.  The inscription on his marble sarcophagus, written by Pietro Bembo, reads: ‘Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.’

Known to his peers as the ‘Divine Painter’, Raphael had travelled a long way from the hill town of Urbino, in Italy’s Marches region, to create in only two decades an artistic legacy on a par with his three great contemporaries:  Leonardo, Michelangelo and Titian.  Indeed, to many he is still considered the greatest artist of them all.

The Raphael trail falls naturally into three phases:

  • Urbino, Le Marche:  where he was born and raised between 1483 and 1504)
  • Florence:  where he spent four years absorbing the artistic traditions between 1504 and 1508
  • Rome: where he spent twelve hectic and triumphant years in Rome, working for two Popes and their close associates (1508 to 1520)
Raphael in Urbino

Raphael was born in Urbino, a hill-town in the north of Le Marche, one hundred kilometres across the Apennine Mountains east of Florence.  He was born six months after the death of Federico di Montefeltro, the duke whose court had made this small town into a flourishing cultural centre, attracting painters, architects and mathematicians from far and.  Raphael’s father worked in the court and was an accomplished painter, who also wrote poetry and plays.  Raphael grew up in this rich milieu absorbing the art of Perugino, Pinturicchio and Luca Signorelli.  Urbino is an enchanting city that has changed little since Raphael’s time.  It is a great place to spend a weekend.

Where to stay:

Albergo San Domenico (Piazza Rinascimento, 3).  This 4-star hotel is in a beautifully restored monastery opposite the Palazzo Ducale, complete with cloisters and Roman cistern but also has all the modest conveniences as well.  Double with breakfast from 80 euro.

Hotel Raffaello (Vicolino Santa Magherita 40).  Situated in the historic centre of town (ask for parking directions when booking), this old seminary has been transformed into a convenient and modern hotel.  Doubles with breakfast from 70 euro

B&B Albronoz (Via dei Maceri, 23).  This B&B has three elegant rooms, each with its own bathroom and kitchenette.  It is positioned in the highest part of the old town, next door to the Albornoz fortess and has wonderful panoramic views and is only four hundred metres (downhill) from the cathedral and the ducal palace.  Doubles from 70 euro.

Where to eat:

Osteria l’Angolo Divino (Via Sant’Andrea 14).  This elegant restaurant offers both seasonal dishes from the surrounding countryside and from the nearby sea, such as steak tartare with hazelnut and anchovy mayonnaise and baccala (salt dried codfish) with sundried tomatoes and olives.  Degustation meal from 45 euro per person.

La Trattoria del Leone (Via Cesare Battista 5).  A small restaurant in the historic centre of the city which serves simple local cooking, including bean soup, ravioli stuffed with casciotta cheese, and roast suckling pig.  Classic menu from 28 euro per person.

What to do:

Urbino is Le Marche’s most immediately likeable town, a walled hill-town, it is jumble of Renaissance and Medieval houses, churches and palazzi dominated by the stupendous Palazzo Ducale.  It is saved from an existence as a museum piece by its lively university, making it a refreshing and energetic place.  Plenty of places to eat and drink - hanging out in the upper, historic is itself a very pleasant way to pass your time.  Other things to do:

Visit the Casa Natale di Raffaello.  Near the Piazza della Repubblica, Raphael’s birthplace has been preserved since the 19th century as a monument to the painter and retains a very evocative atmosphere.  It contains reproductions of his most celebrated paintings as well as a charming fresco of the Madonna and Child painter by a very Raphael.

Visit the Palazzo Ducale and the National Gallery of the Marches.  The huge ducal palace dominates the approach to Urbino from the south.  Its fairy-tale turrets belie its serious military power.  It its day it was the largest building in Europe.  It houses the national gallery which holds one of Raphael’s more celebrated paintings, a compelling portrait known as La Muta as well as two masterpieces by Piero della Francesca.

Go trekking.  There are some beautiful walks around Urbino and the nearby Apennine Mountains.  For details and to join organised treks visit the Sistema Turistico Urbino and Montefeltro (www.urbinoeilmontefeltro.it).

Raphael in Florence

Raphael in Florence

Late in 1504 Raphael moved to Florence, then the European capital of art.  It was a period of learning and consolidation.  He responded quickly to the innovations of Florentine painters, especially those of Leonardo da Vinci (who was twenty-one years his senior).  Leonardo's works must have seemed stunningly new.  In the words of Vasari, a sixteenth-century artist and biographer, Raphael ‘stood confounded in astonishment and admiration: the manner of Leonardo pleased him more than any other he had ever seen.’  He was also heavily influenced physical style of Michelangelo (thirteen years his senior) who had just installed the massive statue of David in the Piazza della Signoria.  He also studied past masters such as the works of Massaccio and Beato Angelico, Donatello and Luca della Robbia.  Although young, Raphael was commissioned to paint portraits and devotional works by the city’s rich and most cultivated families. Florence holds some of Raphael’s best-known works.

Where to stay:

Grand Hotel Baglione (Piazza dell’Unita Italiana, 6).  This 4-star hotel is set in a handsome 19th century palazzo near Santa Maria Novella station.  It has one hundred ninety-two elegant rooms.  Doubles with breakfast 137 euro.

Hotel Burchianti (Via del Giglio, 8).  This 3-star hotel is set in a 15th century palazzo in the San Lorenzo, in heart of the historic centre of Florence.  It was opened in the 1919 by the Burchianti sisters to house Swiss students coming to Florence.  The rooms have been beautifully and some of them still have 16th century frescos.  Several of them come with their own (celebrated) ghosts (including, supposedly, an incarnation of Mussolini who stayed here in the 1920s).  Double from 110 euro.

B&B Galileo 2000 (Piazza San Firenze 3).  This elegant B&B (which shares a wall with Leonard’s workshop) has frescoed rooms spread over three floors, some of which have views over the Piazza della Signoria.  They also have some apartments with kitchens and washing machines.  Rooms with breakfast from 70 euro.

Where to eat:

Trattoria 4 Leoni (Via de’Vellutini, 1).  This family-run trattoria is a short walk from the Palazzo Pitti and serves dishes such as tagliarini with truffles and Fiorentina beef steaks.  Around 30 euro per person.

La Grotta Guelfa (Via Pellicceria, 5).  Warm and welcoming this relaxed local restaurant specialises in Florentine ‘anitpasti’ as well as an optimal beef ‘tagliata’ (sliced raw beef served on a bed of rockets and dressed with oil and scallions of parmesan cheese and a large glass of Chianti Classico).

Buca dell’Orafo (Via dei Girolami, 28).  This cosy trattoria is set in a 13th century palazzo close to the Ponte Vecchio.  It specialises in old-school local dishes such as lampredotto (tripe), ribollita (stale bread soup) peposo alla fiorentina (beef off-cuts slow cooked with garlic, red wine and a lot of pepper corns).

What to do:

Of course, the are many things to see and do but if you are on the Raphael trail, you will only need to go to two places:

Uffizi Gallery (Piazzale degli Uffizi, 6:  www.uffizi.it).  The Uffizi reopened on June 3, with restricted opening hours, which will be reviewed: check their website for the latest details.   Entrance fee:  20 euro.  There are kiosks where tickets can be bought in the arcades near the museum to avoid lining up but the simplest thing is to book a visit directly online.

The western corridor of the gallery is the place to go.  Since 2018, two rooms here celebrating a truly unique moment in man's history when, in this city and in the space of only a few years, the greatest artists in the world created the iconic works that are seen today as part of the universal ideal of the Italian Renaissance: Room 41 brings together the masterpieces by Raphael and Michelangelo painted in Florence while the adjacent Hall 15 contains three masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci painted in Florence before his move to Milan.

Palazzo Pitti (Piazza de Pitti, 6: www.uffizi.it/palazzo-pitti).  The Pitti Palace is part of the same museum system as the Uffizi.  It too reopened on 3 June with restricted opening hours, to be reviewed.  Once again, check their website for details.  Entrance fee:  16 euro.

The Palatine Gallery and Royal and Imperial Apartments occupy the entire first floor of Pitti Palace, which was the residence of the Medici dynasty, then of Habsburg-Lorraine one and lastly of the House of Savoy, hosting the King of Italy from 1865 to 1919.  The lavish Gallery was founded between the end of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th century by the Habsburg-Lorraine family, who hung about 500 masterpieces in the ceremonial rooms chosen from the main Medici’s collections.  It is an impressive selection, which includes the largest concentration of paintings by Raphael in the world of, as well as invaluable works by Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio and Rubens.

Raphael in Rome:

Raphael in Rome:

In 1508, Pope Giulio II, called two artists to appear in his court.  The first was the thirty-three-year-old Florentine, Michelangelo Buonarotti, who the Pope asked to paint the Sistine Chapel, the ‘great chapel’.  The other was a young man who had just turned twenty-five, Raphael from Urbino, who the Pope order to paint the walls and ceilings of his private in the Vatican.  In so doing the Pope Giulio II was shaping the future of Western art for centuries to come.

Raphael’s arrived as the rising star of Italian art and his fame meant everyone wanted a piece of him.  His twelve years were intense.  Not only did he paint the magnificent papal apartments in the Vatican but he was also commissioned by the illustrious Chigi family (bankers from Siena) to paint their Villa Farnesina, as well as many others of the rich and powerful not only in Rome but also throughout the courts of Europe.  To meet the demands, he became the manager of a very large workshop of painters and assistants who included people such standing as Giulio Romano and Giovanni da Udine.  As if that wasn’t enough, he also served the popes as the architect of the new St Peters and as the as the Superintendent of Antiquities in Rome.  Little surprise he died so young!

Where to stay:

Hotel Sant’Anna (Borgo Pio, 134).  This elegant, old-school, 3-star hotel is a five-minute walk from St Peters Square, tucked away in a lovely suburb known as the ‘Borgo’, between the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo on the Tiber River (Raphael lived and worked in this area).  Doubles with breakfast from 150 euro.

Hotel Forum (Via Tor de’ Conti, 25-30).  Close to the Forum, this 4-star superior hotel, is set inan 18th century palazzo and has 78 rooms.  It has a roof-top restaurant and bar, which has marvellous views across the city.  Doubles with breakfast from 120 euro.

B&B Musei Vaticani (Via Sebastiano Veniero, 78).  A short walk from the Vatican, this B&B is set in in a 1920’s apartment block in the smart residential suburb of Prati.  Each comfortable room has an en suite bathroom.  Doubles with breakfast from 55 euro, dinner from 30 euro per person.

Where to eat:

Ristorante Arlu (Borgo Pio 135).  This relaxed and welcoming restaurant serving traditional Italian food with a modern twist is next door to the Hotel Sant’Anna.  Dinner per person starts from 30 euro.

Ristorante L’Arcangelo (Via Giuseppe Belli 59).  This traditional restaurant offers classic Roman cooking using the freshest ingredients.  It is a short walk from B&B Musie Vaticani in the lovely Prati district.  Dinner per person from 45 euro.

Enoteca Ferrara – Osteria Ferrarino (Piazza Trilussa 41).  For an enjoyable taste of the ‘real Rome’ head to this osteria in the heart of the Trastevere district.  A stylish establishment set inside an ex-convent where you can enjoy a plate of cold cuts and cheese or a variety of Roman dishes.  Dinner per person around 25 euro (depending on the wines you choose).

What to do:

‘Raphael 1520 – 1484’, Scuderie del Quirinale, closing on 30 August (booking required:  www.scuderiequirinale.it).  This was the most anticipated exhibition in Italy for 2020, the fulcrum for the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael.  Closed in March fro health reasons, it was reopened and June and will stay open until 30 August.  It presents masterpieces borrowed from the major galleries and museums in Italy, Europe and North America.

Vatican Museums (Viale Vaticano); www.museivaticani.va.  The museums are open from 9.00 am to 06.00 pm, except on Sundays when it is open form 09.00 am to 02.00 pm.  The cost of a ticket, including the Papal Apartments and the Sistine Chapel is 17 euro.  Bookings are obligatory.  One good thing to come out of the current situation is that, if you are able to travel to Italy, you will not find the crowds that once nearly overwhelmed the Capital’s most famous sites, including the Vatican.

Villa Farnesina (Via della Lungara 230); www.villafarnesina.it.  The Villa is open to visitors from 09.00 am to 02.00 pm, from Monday to Saturday.  Ticket 15 euro.  Rahpael was commissioned to decorate the Roman residence of the fabulously rich banker Agostino Chigi.  The magnificent result includes illustrations of the tale of Psyche being revived by Cupid’s kiss.

Borghese Gallery (Piazzale Scipione Broghese 5);  www.galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it.  Open from Tuesday to Sunday from 09.00 am to 07.00 pm.  Tickets cost 20 euro.  The visit is limited to two hours and booking is obligatory.  Apart from its extraordinary collection of works (including seven works by Caravaggio), the Borghese holds one of Raphael’s most celebrated works:  The Deposition of Christ (or the Entombment).  As his contemporary and biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote:

“In this most divine picture there is a Dead Christ being borne to the Sepulcher, executed with such freshness and such loving care, that it seems to the eye to have been only just painted...  In truth, whoever considers the diligence, love, art and grace shown by this picture, has great reason to marvel, for it amazes all who behold it, what with the air of the figures, the beauty of the draperies, and in short, the supreme excellence that it reveals in every part.”

A fitting finale to your Raphael exploration!

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