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Raphael's bittersweet 500th anniversary in Rome

Rome remembers Raphael on 500th anniversary of his death.

Raphael died in Rome 500 years ago today.

Rome was to have been the focal point in the global celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the death of the High Renaissance artist and architect Raphael, hosting an "unprecedented" exhibition, the greatest Raphael show the world had ever seen.

The Raphael exhibition saw a boom in the purchase of pre-sale tickets, with thousands of people around the world planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy to see the groundbreaking show, featuring no less than 100 paintings by the Renaissance master, with 40 masterpieces on loan from the Uffizi in Florence.

Raphael's much-anticipated exhibition in Rome had a most inauspicious inauguration however; its launch coincided with guidelines issued by the Italian government urging people to maintain a one-metre distance between each other due to the Coronavirus emergency.

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The museum struggled on for three days, its masked attendants limiting the flow of excited Raphael fans into the art-filled halls of the Scuderie del Quirinale.

Rapahel exhibition in Rome. Photo LaPresse.

However, just 72 hours after opening, and after several years in the planning, the blockbuster exhibition was forced to close, its priceless paintings prisoners of a deadly but invisible enemy.

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Raphael, half a millennium after his death on 6 April 1520, became Italy's greatest cultural victim of the Coronavirus which shut down all museums, archaeological sites, cinemas and theatres across the country.

Raphael's legacy

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino is considered part of the trinity of great masters from the Renaissance era, alongside Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Born in Urbino in the region of Le Marche in 1483, Raphael spent the last decade of his life working as a much sought-after artist in Rome.

La donna velata by Raphael

Raphael was highly regarded in his own lifetime and was hugely productive throughout his short life, receiving major commissions from two popes: Julius II and Leo X, and his art and architecture can be admired today in the Vatican Museums and St Peter's as well as in churches and palaces around Rome (sadly all closed at this time).

Raphael's death

As Covid-19 wreaks havoc around the world, carrying many people away to an early grave, there are poignant parallels with the life of Raphael, who himself was swept away by a fever at the tender age of 37.

Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century art historian, made the sensational claim in his influential volume Lives of the Artists that Raphael's death was caused by a night of excessive sex with his mistress, known as La Fornarina, whose sensual portrait dazzles viewers to this day.

However tall the tale, the lustful legend added a sense of passion to the artist and his work down through the centuries.

Who was La Fornarina?

The woman traditionally identified as La Fornarina was Margherita Luti, the daughter of a baker in Trastevere, hence the name of the portrait which can normally be found in Palazzo Barberini.

When x-ray analysis was carried out on the painting in 2001, experts were amazed to discover a ruby ring on the third finger of La Fornarina's left hand, hidden for almost five centuries.

La Fornarina by Raphael

The painted-over ring has led to speculation of a secret engagement between Raphael and his adored model.

Their secret love affair had to be hidden, as Raphael was already engaged to be married to Maria Bibbiena, the niece of his rich and powerful patron, a Roman cardinal.

However the artist postponed the wedding date continuously for six years, immortalising his true love in his paintings.

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Raphael, who died at the peak of his powers, received a grand funeral and was buried in the Pantheon, where his tombstone reads: "Here lies Raphael, by whom nature herself feared to be outdone while he lived, and when he died, feared that she herself would die."

Raphael in the time of Coronavirus

Rome has made the best of a bad situation, directing disappointed Raphael fans to online talks and virtual visits of the blockbuster show, which remains closed for the forseeable future.

Italy's culture ministry will also host a Raphael marathon of videos on its Youtube channel, starting from 11.00 today.

It can only be hoped that the situation in Italy improves sufficiently to allow for the reopening of the exhibition and for visitors - respecting social distancing norms - to experience the glory of this unprecedented show. 

It must also be hoped that the museum can somehow extend the exhibition beyond its scheduled end date of 2 June, allowing the world to revel in the genius of Raphael, whose legacy is so full of life 500 years after his death.


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Address Via Ventiquattro Maggio, 16, 00186 Roma RM, Italy

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Raphael's bittersweet 500th anniversary in Rome

Via Ventiquattro Maggio, 16, 00186 Roma RM, Italy

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