I once spoke with a high school teacher who asked me how she could make the Renaissance interesting for her kids. This is totally understandable, especially since so many teachers are assigned to teach subjects that are outside their wheelhouse. I know how hard that is!
At the time though, the only thought that went through my head was, “How do you make it boring? It’s the Renaissance!”
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The Italian Renaissance (meaning “rebirth”) was an explosion of culture, thought, art, economic activity, politics, and theology. It came on the heels of several centuries in which most people could not read or write and had almost no contact with anyone outside their village or area. People really did live in their “own little world,” and ideas were confined to specific areas.
Within a very small amount of time, the world suddenly became a lot bigger. And opportunities for artists expanded like crazy!
This is the world that Raphael was born into: a world of cities just starting to really grow, of political intrigue and theological awakening. The superstitions of the past centuries were starting to give way to reason, but symbols and relics were still very common.
In the world of art, new techniques were coming to light. Italy was the center of much discovery during this time, and artists were trained to work in many different mediums. Raphael became a master of several of them.
He was born Raffaello Sanzio in 1483 and was the son of a court painter in Urbino, Italy. His mother died when he was 8, and his father took him on as an apprentice at an early age. He showed promise even then. When his father died, he was only 11, but he apparently took over his father’s projects and workshop!
Shortly after his father’s death, Raphael was apprenticed to master artist Pietro Perugino, who trained him and honed his skills. After his apprenticeship, he relocated to Florence, which was one of the great centers of art. During this time, he worked on many projects and eventually became known as one of the three great masters of the Italian Renaissance.
The other two were Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, so Raphael is in good company!
Even though he died at the young age of 37, Raphael left many amazing works of art. Today, we’re going to learn about some of them!
Many of Raphael’s paintings are of religious scenes, and he is famous for his paintings of the Madonna – the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. This was a very common theme for works of art during his time, but his Madonnas also show his progression as an artist.
Some of these paintings were commissioned, while some seem to be his own personal studies. Many similar paintings during the 15th century seem to almost have “stock” figures – a mother and child that are beautifully done, but don’t seem to be connected in the scene. Raphael’s Madonnas, however, progressively show his mastery of composition, anatomy, feeling, and connectedness.
For example, in Madonna of the Pinks, the mother and child pass a handful of flowers between themselves. They seem to be playing, rather than just serenely looking into the distance. In the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna, the child pulls at his mother’s bodice as if he wants to nurse.
Rather than portraying majesty and glory through dark colors and flat scenes, Raphael showed them gently. He used almost photo-quality details and emotional connection as well as careful composition to share what he saw.
Raphael was not only a master of oils, but also of frescoes. This is a technique in which the artist paints on plaster while it is still wet; because plaster dries kind of quickly, this takes a lot of skill! When it is done, however, it lasts for centuries. Many of his frescoes are still around today!
Sometimes, an artist would make a mural in fresco, and sometimes, he would complete entire rooms. Many of the frescoes that Raphael is famous for take up entire rooms – and some of them were commissioned by the Pope!
Some of these rooms, known as the Stanze of Raphael or the Stanze della Segnatura, were used as an apartment in the Pontifical Palace in the 1500s. You can take a virtual tour of the Stanze – the detail is amazing!
Raphael was also known for his skill as an architect; he was actually in a bit of a competition with Michelangelo over who would get certain commissions!
His most famous commission, part of the Basilica of St. Peter, was commissioned by Pope Leo X. He gained his architectural skills – his eye for composition – through painting.
However, he also used classical influences of the time in his design. In previous centuries, the Byzantine Empire had been the leading influence in the church, and Greek styles of architecture were common. During the Renaissance, however, Rome and the western church started to become the influence, and it showed in the architecture.
You can find out more about Raphael’s work on the basilica here. It’s really a fascinating story!
Timeline of the Arts
On your Timeline of the Arts, be sure to record Raphael. He lived from 1483 to 1520. In the history section, you’ll also want to mark the Italian Renaissance. In upcoming lessons, you’ll have more artists and events to add to this section – a lot happened right around this time!
Hands-On Activity: Make a Fresco!
While you may not want to take on a project as ambitious as Raphael’s Stanze, you can get an idea of what making a fresco is like!
Raphael would have made his own paints, since he didn’t have a craft store handy. You can use Plaster of Paris and tempera or watercolor paints, though!
To make your fresco, first you need to make a plaster base. This is really easy to do with Plaster of Paris – all you have to do is mix some up and pour it on a paper plate or into a shoebox! Just remember not to pour it too thickly; if you do, the outside will be dry before the inside is stable enough to work with.
Pouring it about an inch thick should work well. Wait until it is set, but the outside is still somewhat wet. This will give you a great surface to work with!
While you’re waiting for it to set, sketch out the scene you want to paint. This will give you a reference to work off of.
Now, it’s time to get to work. Using either tempera or watercolor paints, paint your design. You’ll want to be a little careful, since paint doesn’t come off of plaster, but it’s ok if you make a “mistake.”
Mistakes in art aren’t really mistakes – they’re opportunities to get creative! If you accidentally drip paint somewhere you didn’t plan to, you can just make that drip into something else. No one will ever know, and you might just like it better!
Once you’re done, let your fresco dry for a day or two. The paint will set as soon as the plaster dries, but the inside will probably need more time. This way, you’ll have a piece that will last for years!
You can also make smaller frescoes as Christmas tree ornaments, gifts for friends or family, or as keepsakes. Have fun with it!
RaphaelSanzio.org – This site includes plenty of great information about Raphael as well as his full collection of works!
Italian Renaissance Learning Resources – This is a unit on Raphael’s Madonnas.
St. Peter’s Basilica – This site is maintained by the Vatican and has some interesting information.
Raphael’s School of Athens – one of the most famous frescoes from the Stanze della Segnatura. This video from Khan Academy gives some great information!
Share Your Masterpiece!
I would love to hear about what your kids create – comment below and let me know!
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