by Roderick Conway Morris

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Reconsidering Raphael's Father

By Roderick Conway Morris
URBINO 19 June 2009
Convent of Montefiorentino, Marche
Sacred Conversation
by Giovanni Santi, 1489



Giovanni Santi, the father of Raphael, was described by Vasari as'pittore non molto eccellente' - not a very good painter - and generations of art historians have tended to presume therefore that he had little influence on his son.

'Raphael and Urbino' goes a long way to overturning this assumption by juxtaposing works by father and son, putting them in the wider context of the city's culture and drawing on 672 contemporary documents, the vast majority of them previously unknown, and 136 of which refer directly to Raphael himself. These new insights will surely also have implications for the interpretation of elements in Raphael's mature works, both intellectual and artistic.

This reassessment of Giovanni Santi and the young Raphael was stimulated by two recent exhibitions: 'Raphael: From Urbino to Rome' in London in 2004 and'Raphael: From Florence to Rome' in Rome in 2006.

The current show, curated by Lorenza Mochi Onori, builds on the richly rewarding trawl by the paleography expert Anna Falcioni through the Urbino archives, which had not been systematically investigated for documentary evidence relating to the Santi family and workshop since 1829.

The Santi family arrived in Urbino from their home village, Colbordolo, in the 1440s, not long after Federico da Montefeltro had been raised to the Signory by popular acclaim. Federico was then in the process of transforming this rather remote town into one of the most brilliant courts in European history. And the Santis' fortunes rose with those of Federico, their ruler.

Giovanni Santi's father dealt in various forms of merchandise, including foodstuffs, nails, rope and glue, but as the documents discovered by Dr. Falcioni show, their residence-warehouse also contained a workshop producing artistic objects, Giovanni himself being registered from 1468 to 1476 as a master gilder.

This studio was just one of the many that were springing up at the time to satisfy the demands of Federico's court and related institutions in a town that was attracting artists and intellectuals from all over Italy and beyond, among them Alberti, Botticelli, Bramante, Francesco di Giorgio, Luciano Laurana, Piero della Francesca, Uccello, Flemish painters such as Gusto da Gand, and the Spanish artist Pedro Berruguete; not to mention Baldassare Castiglione, who immortalized the city in'The Book of the Courtier' in 1528.

When Piero della Francesca was commissioned by the Corpus Domini Confraternity in 1469 to execute a panel of the'Communion of the Apostles,' Giovanni Santi was not only appointed to coordinate the project, but also lodged the artist in his own house.

Santi, who is believed to have been born in the late 1430s, was a relatively late starter as a painter by the standards of the times, though he was probably not much more than 15 years old when he began to devote himself to this vocation. Later on, from 1474 to 1480, the prosperity of the family studio allowed him to go on an artistic Grand Tour, during which he appears to have visited Florence, central and northern Italy and Venice.

This experience of seeing the works of the peninsula's masters in situ, in addition to the many major works by then visible in Urbino itself, explains the diversity of influences on his own paintings and an impressive width of knowledge at his disposal by Raphael's birth in 1483.

One of the revelations of the exhibition is a series of Santi panels of the Muses, now cleaned and restored, from the 1480s that have not been seen in public for more than a century. They are from a private collection at Palazzo Corsini in Florence. The grace, lyricism and considerable painting skills manifest in these works - as in others by Santi, notably an'Annunciation' (on loan from the Brera), his'Sacred Conversation' at the Franciscan Convent of Montefiorentino (to the northwest of Urbino) and his frescoes at Cagli (to the south) - seriously undermine Vasari's dismissive comments.

The Muses were part of a decorative scheme for the Ducal Palace, where by then Santi was a respected figure. Among the tasks he had set himself was an account in verse of'The Life and Deeds of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino,' dedicated to his heir, Guidobaldo, which contains many references to contemporary artists.

Other duties involved writing and staging theatrical events. Santi's intimacy with the ducal house continued after the accession of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro and his wife, Elisabetta Gonzaga, on the death of Federico in 1482.

His father's court connections guaranteed the young Raphael access to the lively intellectual and artistic life of the palace, and the humanist education fostered by the ducal school, where promising boys from poor families were admitted free.

There is no record that Raphael served a formal apprenticeship in Santi's studio. Thus, while having the opportunity to master necessary techniques he did not have to waste time doing repetitive chores. His father died in August 1494, shortly after returning from Mantua.

He had gone there on the recommendation of the duchess, Elisabetta Gonzaga, because the Gonzaga in Mantua were becoming dissatisfied with Mantegna's portraits of them. That she should have put Santi forward is yet another indication that he was well regarded in Urbino as an artist.

At the age of 11, Raphael became the heir to Santi's thriving workshop. By 1500 he was being referred to as'illustris,' in recognition of his status as an independent master. Documents confirm that he spent a great deal of time during the first decade of the 16th century as an itinerant artist broadening his horizons.

But Urbino remained an important source of commissions, as witnessed by his portraits in the exhibition of Duchess Gonzaga and her husband that were executed from 1502 to 1504. Yet another example here of a painting closely related to Raphael's birthplace is the'Small Cowper Madonna' from Washington, dated 1504-08, with San Bernadino degli Zoccolanti, designed by Francesco di Giorgio as Federico da Montefeltro's mausoleum, on a hill in the background.

Urbino, or possibly Perugia nearby, was where Raphael met the great architect Bramante - whom he was to replace as the principal architect of St. Peter's in Rome on the death of Bramante in 1514 - and the influential Venetian intellectual Cardinal Bembo.

Despite Raphael's absences, the documents bear witness to the fact that the Urbino workshop was still going strong in the second decade of the 16th century, and that Raphael maintained his ties with his birthplace until his sudden death in Rome in 1520.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024