Exactly 500 years ago, on April 6th, 1520, Raffaello Sanzio, one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, died. Raphael, who had just turned thirty-seven, had asked to be buried in the Pantheon. His request was granted, making him the first artist to be accorded such an honour.
Raphael's epitaph hails him as a preeminent painter and rival of the ancients (PICTORI EMINENTISS VETERVMQ AEMVLO); it also states that he died on his birthday (QVO DIE NATVS EST EO ESSE DESIIT), which may or may not be true.
Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), in his book Lives of the Artists (1550), simply notes that Raphael was born on Venerdi Santo (Good Friday), 1483, which in that year fell on March 28th. As April 6th, 1520, was also a Good Friday, he died after a manner of speaking on his birthday.
By the 19th century, Raphael had become a cult figure and on September 14th, 1833, Pope Gregory XVI (r. 1831-46) ordered that his tomb be opened to verify that the artist was really buried there. The tomb was opened in the presence of a host of distinguished figures. A skeleton was discovered and the doctors declared (on what grounds?) that this was, indeed, the earthly remains of Raphael. The event was duly recorded in a painting by Francesco Diofebi (1771-1851).
The skeleton was transferred to an ancient sarcophagus, a gift from the pope, on which were inscribed the last two lines of his epitaph: ILLE HIC EST RAFFAEL TIMVIT QVO SOSPITE VINCI/RERVM MAGNA PARENS ET MORIENTE MORI. The lines have been attributed to Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), a Venetian humanist, scholar and writer, who first met Raphael at the court of Urbino. They were beautifully translated by the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), who used them in his Epitaph on Sir Godfrey Kneller (1723): ‘Living, great Nature feared he might outvye Her works; and, dying, fears herself may dye.’ Kneller, who was a very successful German portrait painter, is interred in Westminster Abbey, London.
Returning to Raphael's tomb, the sculpture of the Virgin and Child, which is known as the Madonna del Sasso (1523-24), is the work of one of Raphael's pupils, Lorenzo Lotti (1490-1541), better known as Lorenzetto. The rather insipid bronze bust (1833) of Raphael is the work of Giuseppe de Fabris (1790-1860).
Epitaph: RAPHAELI SANCTIO JOANN F VRBINATI/PICTORI EMINENTISS VETERVMQ AEMVLO/CVIVS SPIRANTEIS PROPE IMAGINES SI/CONTEMPLERE NATVRAE ATQUE ARTIS FOEDVS/FACILE INSPEXERIS/IVLII II LEONIS X PONTT MAXX PICTVRAE/ET ARCHITECT OPERIBVS GLORIAM AVXIT/V A XXXVII INTEGER INTEGROS/QVO DIE NATVS EST EO ESSE DESIIT/VIII ID APRIL MD XX/ILLE HIC EST RAFFAEL TIMVIT QVO SOSPITE VINCI/RERVM MAGNA PARENS ET MORIENTE MORI.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private and
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