Raphael: Homage or Theft?

by Gurpreet Sihat

My sister and I have recently discovered the art of debate. 

It began with a simple, teasing remark: Filippo Brunelleschi is a greater architect than Antoni Gaudí. My sister’s argument lingered on the fact that Gaudí’s vision was so complex that 138 years on the Sagrada Família is still being constructed. The aim, I hear, is to complete it by 2026, the centenary of the architect’s death. My argument? Brunelleschi completed a project that had been left unfinished 124 years earlier, with the greatest architects of the time unsure how to continue. He even invented a number of machines to aid in the construction – machinery that is still used today, and which helped the likes of Verrocchio and his apprentices (including a young Leonardo da Vinci) place the lantern on top of the Santa Maria del Fiore dome a little over 50 years later. My sister and I declared a stalemate and moved on, so I’ll leave the final decision to you. 

This weekend, however, we started again. This time: Raphael – homage or theft?

Raphael Santi is considered to be one of the traditional Trinity of Great Masters from the High Renaissance (the other two being Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo da Vinci). 

He was born in Urbino in 1483, where his father, Giovanni, was court painter. Growing up among the elite, in a court filled with the arts – music and literature included – gave Raphael his famous manners and social skills. Unlike his artistic contemporaries, however, he didn’t receive a humanist education which was paramount in the time of the Renaissance. 

Giorgio Vasari, considered the founder of art history writing, splits Raphael’s life into three clear sections: his early years working as an apprentice under the Umbrian master, Pietro Perugino; his period absorbing the artistic tradition in the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence; and his dominant dozen years in Rome where Raphael worked in the Vatican (at, I should say, the exact same time as Michelangelo). The influence of these three periods is extremely noticeable in Raphael’s art, and Raphael was known to ‘borrow’ often. All artists are influenced by others, regardless of their medium. I, for one, have a nod to my favourite scene from John Wick in the first instalment of my duology. But there’s a notoriously fine line between paying homage to someone and plagiarising them, and this is where our debate begins: 

Was Raphael’s borrowing taking inspiration, or plagiarism? Was it homage, or was it theft?

Let’s take a quick look at the Mond Crucifixion (or the Gavari Altarpiece). One of the earliest of Raphael’s work (believed, in fact, to be his second commission after the Baronci Altarpiece), the Mond Crucifixion is a patchwork of three other pieces. 

From Brunelleschi’s Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella, Raphael takes the figure of Christ. Brunelleschi’s model actually included a loincloth similar to the one that Raphael has used in his composition. 

Raphael then takes the saints and composition itself from Perugino’s Pazzi Crucifixion and Monteripido Altarpiece. The copy is so obvious that Vasari wrote had he not signed it, no one would have believed it was Raphael and not Perugino who painted the piece. 

For the record, I love the Mond Crucifixion. There’s a subtle complexity that I never understood until I studied it, and now I can’t help but admire the gaze and linger at the details. But I also can’t ignore the fact that it’s obviously fabricated from other people’s work. 

Keeping this in mind, we move to the main focus of our debate: the infamous rivalry between Raphael and Michelangelo.

Michelangelo, infamously cantankerous, despised Raphael. Raphael was a young upstart gaining prestige among those who considered Michelangelo a Master; and the Master was losing out on commissions because of it. When Sebastiano del Piombo arrived in Rome, the two bonded (likely over their dislike for Raphael, with whom Sebastiano had previously worked) and when Sebastiano and Raphael were put into direct competition, with one being commissioned to paint The Raising of Lazarus, and the other The Transfiguration, Michelangelo provided Sebastiano sketches for Lazarus to make sure he won against the Umbrian painter.

This rivalry seems to have been born in Rome. Raphael moved there in 1508 and almost immediately secured a commission to paint the rooms of the Vatican. These rooms included the Stanza della Segnatura (the Room of the Signatura), with the frescos The Triumph of Religion and The School of Athens, and the Stanza d’Eliodoro (the Room of Heliodorus), with the frescos The Expulsion of Heliodorus and The Liberation of Saint Peter

Donato Bramante, the man who introduced Renaissance architecture to Milan and the High Renaissance style to Rome, was close to both Raphael and Pope Julius II. It was Bramante whom Julius II had engaged for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. It was Bramante who convinced him to hire Raphael to paint the Vatican Palace. It was Bramante who took Raphael to the Sistine Chapel (while Michelangelo was away) to show him the Sistine Ceiling long before it had been completed. 

You can see the evidence of this all over Raphael’s work. The most obvious, perhaps, being the fresco of Prophet Isaiah in the Basilica di Sant’Agostino which is, without a doubt, heavily influenced by Michelangelo’s Isaiah on the Sistine Ceiling. 

It’s true that maybe Raphael should have refused to look at the ceiling, but if you had the chance to look at your idol’s work in progress and to learn from his technique, would you really pass up the opportunity? And maybe, just maybe, Raphael was a sponge, unknowingly absorbing everything in detail and ‘accidentally’ copying almost verbatim. Or perhaps he believed he was honouring Michelangelo. Giving him credit, in a way, to Raphael’s success. 

I say this because of Raphael’s portrait of Michelangelo in the School of Athens

Here, Michelangelo sits among the greatest of thinkers, including Leonardo da Vinci as Plato and Bramante as Euclid, as Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher best known for his work on cosmology, in which he believed fire formed the basic material principle for an orderly universe (yeah, I didn’t understand a word of that either… thanks for the explanation, Encyclopaedia Britannica!). In my opinion, it was an honour. In my sister’s, it’s mockery. He sits apart from the other figures, an afterthought. Heraclitus also happened to be nicknamed ‘The Weeping Philosopher’ and was considered a misanthrope who suffered depression and had varicose veins. But before yet another debate begins – Raphael’s depiction of Michelangelo as Heraclitus – deep in thought or a miserable old man? An honour, or mockery? – back to the point…

Was Michelangelo’s anger towards Raphael justified? Was it plagiarism? Or was he just… jealous? 

Michelangelo had grown up among the children of Lorenzo ‘de Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence. Lorenzo took the young, promising student of Ghirlandaio in, gave him a home and a humanist education alongside his own children. One of those children was Giovanni de’ Medici, who became Pope Leo X, Julius II’s successor. Despite their connection, Leo X, like Julius before him, had taken Raphael as his favourite and continuously offered him commissions instead of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo was rumoured to live a life of monk-like chastity (and is now believed to have been struggling with homosexuality alongside his devout lifestyle). Raphael, on the other hand, was known to be quite the ladies’ man, whose early death (he was only 37) was rumoured to have been caused by a fever he had contracted after a night of excessive sex. Where Michelangelo was always alone, Raphael was always surrounded by others, the centre of attention. Where Michelangelo had struggled for months to get a commission from the papacy, Raphael had done it almost instantly. It probably didn’t help that Raphael was also asked to design the tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, which sat beneath the ceiling Michelangelo had painstakingly completed. 

Isaac Newton’s words come to mind: 

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The Renaissance was about building on what came before, perfecting ideas and moving passed them. We think about what Raphael borrowed from Michelangelo – about the inspiration he took from the Sistine Chapel or the fact that the figure of Christ in Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo is clearly behind Raphael’s Christ in the Bridgewater Madonna, painted a year before he moved to Rome – but what about everyone else? 

How many pieces from the Renaissance use the Laocoön or the Gaddi Torso somewhere in their composition? How many times have we seen artists quote from other artists, taking a dog from one painter’s masterpiece and inserting it into their own works?

Michelangelo, himself, had begun his career as a forger. He passed off his copy of Sleeping Eros to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, a collector of early Roman antiquities, as the original piece. When Riario discovered this, he didn’t disavow Michelangelo, he became his first patron in Rome, and the sculpture eventually found its way to the hands of Cesare Borgia, who gifted it to Isabella d’Este. 

Where is the line? And did Raphael truly cross it?

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