The Enigma of Raphael – Price Analysis and History of the Legendary Artist

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483 – 1520), Uffizi Gallery, Wiki

By Giancarlo Graziani | Ce.St.Art. – Center for Studies of Art Economy

On April 6th, 1520 the man Raphael, son of Giovanni Santi from Urbino, died in Rome, capital of the State of the Church, reigning Pope Leo X de’ Medici, and from that moment the myth Raphael was born, which Giorgio Vasari thus defined: “With him, Nature gave a gift to the world, when, already vanquished in artistry from art by the hand of Michelangelo Buonarroti, she let herself be defeated by Raphael in both art and good manners together”.


This combination of virtues has left incredible works of art that were already desired when he was alive. After Raphael’s passing they became real cult objects and remained as such to this day.

The Fire in the Borgo, Raphael, 1514–1517, Vatican Museums, Wiki

An endless bibliography has dealt with the Raphaelesque myth and the desire to attribute works to his authorship has led over the centuries the scholars to recognize his hand where it wasn’t and not to take it into account even in cases where the documents said the opposite.

On the other hand, over the centuries, the will and greed to possess Raphael’s paintings has always been so intense that it had to be satisfied.


And it is obvious to consider that those who, owner or curator, had in collection alleged Raphaelesque works, stylistically poorly similar or clumsily attributable to the Artist, was certainly not willing to recognize the non-authorship, even denying the existence of an original in order to say that alleged copy, although not excellent, was Raphael’s authentic work, however made with the help of his best pupils and justifying such helps with the multiple duties of the Artist, overwhelmed by commissions.

On the art market, the demand for Raphael’s paintings has always been characterized by very high values and this, of course, is an important factor of reflection to consider, which can sometimes become the keystone for the interpretation of attributive events.

In 1754, the “Sistine Madonna” was purchased by King Augustus III of Poland Elector of Saxony for 25,000 gold coins paid to the monks of Piacenza.

In 1871, the “Madonna Conestabile or with the Book”, despite the attempts to withhold the work in Perugia or Italy, was purchased by the Emperor of Russia Alexander II to give it to his wife, the tsarina Marija Aleksandrovna, for 550,000 francs, a very high amount for the Government of the Kingdom of Italy and for the City of Perugia, but which was well accepted by Count Scipione Conestabile to accept the sale.

Madonna Conestabile, Raphael, 1502–1504, Hermitage Museum, Wiki

In 1884, the “Ansidei Madonna” was purchased by Lord Charles Spencer as a gift for his brother, the Duke of Marlborough, and then moved to the National Gallery in London, for 70,000 guineas when 17,500 were enough for the “Equestrian Portrait of Charles I”, Anton Van Dyck’s masterpiece.

In 1901, the “Colonna Altarpiece” – now stored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – was purchased by John Pierpont Morgan for 500,000 dollars.


More recently, in 2004, the National Gallery of London raised 44 million dollars to avoid the sale of the “Madonna of the Pinks“, while in 2007 the “Portrait of Lorenzo de ‘Medici” was awarded for 27.4 million euros: the authorship of both works has always been discussed and the second was considered the best version of an original lost.

Madonna of the Pinks, Raphael, 1506–1507, London National Gallery, Wiki

Curiously in 2009 and 2012 two drawings by Raphael, “Head of a Muse” and “Head of a Young Apostle”, were acquired for 47.9 million dollars each, the highest prices paid for works by the artist from Urbino, even greater of the prices paid for the two paintings mentioned above.

In 1550, thirty years after Raphael’s death, the first edition of “The Lives” by Giorgio Vasari was published – which will then be updated and revised in the 1568 edition – in which ample space was given to describe the works and the life of Urbinate and which constitutes the cornerstone of all the specialist bibliography of Raphael’s work, as well as that of many other artists, being the most important publication of all the artistic literature of the sixteenth century in Europe.


Antoine Chrysostome Quatremere de Quincy, also author in 1826 of a still valid biography of Raphael, so says about Vasari’s biographic work referring to the “Life” of Raphael: “… he wrote about the life of Raphael, about thirty years after his death, when the  memories were fresh, the authorities still alive, and the materials less spread than  they were after. One can only praise the order that he followed, the impartiality that he showed, the appropriateness of his judgments and his remarks”.

In his life Vasari – an artist himself who in 1524 was already in Florence to learn in the workshops of Andrea del Sarto and Baccio Bandinelli – was in contact with artists and writers and was a friend of many among them and also of Michelangelo, who he frequented for a long time during his Roman stay and with who he had an intense correspondence.

The Deposition, Raphael, 1507, Galleria Borghese, Wiki

From 1540, residing living in the capital city of the State of the Church – it had only been eleven years since the death of Raphael when Vasari arrived there in 1531 following Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici, and still very much alive was the echo of the presence and activity of the Divine Painter – Vasari began to collect testimonies and documentation on the lives and works of artists active in Italy, from Cimabue until his time.

Given the large collection of such documents, he began to order it from 1542 with the intent to write a book, that was printed then in 1550, after writing it with great critical rigor, but not before having made in 1541 a journey through various cities of the states of northern Italy to see the artworks then described with the eye of the talented artist he was, whose reputation as a historiographer has somewhat tarnished.


Already with the aim of writing a second edition, Vasari made a short trip in 1563 – since he entered the service of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici in 1554, he had less freedom of movement due to the large number of commissions entrusted to him – to central Italy, in the Duchy of Tuscany and in the State of the Church, visiting Arezzo, Cortona, Perugia, Assisi and Ancona in order to see again some works for the accurate revision of his “Lives”.

It was in 1566 that Duke Cosimo “gave license” to Vasari “to go for a walk … to see … the works of several excellent makers…because from the year 1542 up to this present 1566 I had not, as I did, run across almost all Italy, nor seen the mentioned works and other ones, which in this space of twenty-four years have increased a lot, I wanted, being almost at the end of this my effort of, before I write about them, to see them and to judge them with my own eye. Why … I wanted, no sparing any expense or effort, to see again Rome, Tuscany, part of the Marca, Umbria, Romagna, Lombardy and Venice, with all its domain, to see again the old things and many new ones that were made from the year 1542 onwards”: about forty stages between March and June 1566 guided by friends and correspondents, many of them artists.

The Holy Family, Raphael, 1518, Louvre, Wiki

This wide and tiring travel around the splendid Principalities of Italy was wanted by Vasari to refine his knowledge about his colleagues, and often friends, contemporaries or who had just preceded him: not happy with what he had detected and described, he left for another journey, this time short, to the Pontificial Capital in 1567, to make the last updates to a text that will become public a few months later.

And this “knowledge” of the works and the artists was added to that of patrons – for Bindo Altoviti, Raphael’s client, Vasari worked several times in Rome and Florence and for the Medici he worked the last twenty-five years of life – and of the cities – he was for a long time in Florence, Rome and Bologna: it’s therefore difficult, sometimes untenable, to refute his indications.


With regard to Raphael’s works Vasari paid great attention in their description – as is clearly is due to the works of who in this kind of Art excelled as much as Michelangelo in drawing and Donatello in sculpture – that, however, does not sometimes coincide with those which should be today.

Studying some of them, remarkable inconsistencies stand out with measures that vary, origins that do not add up and above all executive quality not worthy of the Master of Urbino that Vasari certainly would not have overlooked. 

Vasari describes the “Marriage of the Virgin”, stored at the Pinacoteca di Brera,  as a “tavoletta” (“tablet”), an hard-to-believe indication referred to this for the current dimensions of 170 x 117 centimeters, but the most singular thing is that a previous owner Giuseppe Lechi – a Napoleonic general who wrote that the panting “was a gift” from citizens of Città di Castello (other sources claim that it was taken from Trento with the conquest of the city by his brother Teodoro, also a general at the service of Napoleon, removing the painting from a church: where did it come from, if it was the same?) – in a letter to his father Faustino says “… an altarpiece 2 arms and a half wide and four high, with thirty figures between large and small”: the unit of measurement in use “Brescian arm” varied from 0.67 to 0.64 centimeters if cloth or silk [fore]arm and therefore the painting had to measure either 268 x 172.5 or 256 x 160 centimeters.


These measures do not coincide at all with the painting stored in Brera but rather are closer to those of the painting with the analogous subject attributed to Pietro Perugino – also with thirty painted figures – and today stored at the Caen Museum, whose dimensions are 234 x 186 centimeters to date, current measures after having had various hardships that may have been the cause of damage and therefore changes in size, and even more are closer to the painting by Jean Baptiste Wicar, which replaced Perugino’s “Marriage of the Virgin” in the Cathedral of Perugia, whose measures, 275 x 187 centimeters, probably recall the original ones, especially in height, of the work by Perugino.

The Marriage of the Virgin, Perugino, 1500–1504, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Wiki

It is no coincidence that in the middle of the 19th century, art history modern studies questioned the originality of traditionally recognized authentic works – such as the “Madonna dell’Impannata” or the “Ezekiel’s Vision” at Palazzo Pitti – which in fact show many gaps in their historiography and that, although celebrated by Vasari for their artistic qualities, become an artifice of more or less extensive collaboration.


About these two famous paintings, there is to note that they were related to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and to his heirs, owners in perpetuity – along together with all the Medici Art Collections – destined for “ornament the City and the State” by the will of the Palatine Electress Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, who established ruled this destination both in the Family Pact of October 31st 1737 and in her testamentary wills of April 5th 1739: today they are in possession of the Italian Republic that, in contravention of the “modal donation or modal legacy”, binding and perpetual, sent these two works to Rome for the 2020 exhibition of the fifth centennial of Raphael’s death, set up at the Scuderie del Quirinale, but that’s this is  another story.

Coming back to Raphael’ works, or Vasari was wrong or the originals have disappeared or have not been recognized: we are inclined to the second hypothesis and we will come back to verify it.

Madonna dell’Impannata, Raphael, 1513–1514, Palazzo Pitti, Wiki

© Giancarlo Graziani, Visiting Professor of Art Economy, Founder member and Supervisor of Ce.St.Art. – Center for Studies of Art Economy

Contribution and Digital Edition by Salvatore Prato, Member of Ce.St.Art.

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