Raphael Sanzio was one of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance. A super-heroic Illuminati artist and canny businessman, Raphael was a court favorite throughout his career and performed massive architectural commissions for Pope Julius II and later Pope Leo X.
But there was steep competition for artistic genius in 15th century Italy. Raphael is considered to be one of the ‘holy trinity’ of the Italian Renaissance masters, along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. But while Da Vinci was 30 years older than Raphael, Michelangelo was just 8 years his senior — and become a bitter rival.
Giorgio Vasari, in his “Lives of the Artists,” attributes Michelangelo’s commission for the Sistine Chapel to a vindictive scheme by Raphael. Michelangelo preferred sculptural work, and according to Vasari, avoided frescos in fear he couldn’t compare with Raphael. So to force a direct comparison, a friend of Raphael persuaded Pope Julius II to commission Michelangelo to complete the massive fresco. Though the Sistine Chapel would eventually become an unparalleled masterpiece, it was a herculean and miserable project that would take Michelangelo fours years to complete and strain his relationship with the pope to the breaking point.
Raphael, in the meantime, completed more personal commissions throughout the Vatican — the Stanze frescos in the Pope Julius’s own living quarters, which included works like Disputation of the Holy Sacrament and The School of Athens, considered to be among the finest examples of Italian Renaissance art.
At the height of his productivity and extraordinary fame, Raphael ran a workshop of fifty artisans, possibly the largest studio of his day. According to Vasari, Raphael was as capable in management as he was at subterfuge, and his workshop hummed with efficiency and harmony. Even after his sudden and startling death, Raphael’s workshop continued his commissions in the master’s style.
So how did Raphael die?
Here we turn again to Vasari, ancient historian and gossip monger. Vasari makes very clear that Raphael’s professional skill was matched only by his lust. Raphael never married, but had many lovers — but Margherita Luti was his dream, his nightmare, and apparently, his end. Describing a night of unparalleled passion with Luti, Vasari says: “Raffaello continued to divert himself beyond measure with the pleasures of love; whence it happened that, having on one occasion indulged in more than his usual excess, he returned to his house in a violent fever.” The fever and mishandled treatment by his doctors was too much for Raphael, who died on Good Friday in 1520 at age 37.
So the wunderkind built an empire, trapped his enemies, and sexed himself to death. If you can’t get enough Raphael, you can read Vasari’s full, lurid biography here: Lives of the Artists: Raphael Sanzio.