A brilliant artist
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino – more commonly known as Raphael – was one of the great painters and architects of the Italian High Renaissance. Together with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, he forms the traditional artistic trinity of that period.
Raphael was born 1483 in Urbino, a walled city in central Italy famed for its turreted, 15th-century Palazzo Ducale. He died in Rome at the age of 37 – reportedly by excessive lust and passion. Despite this short life, he was enormously productive, with a reputation for producing work with an ease of composition and clarity of form. Some of his masterpieces include Madonna in the Meadow (1505/06), The School of Athens (c. 1508–11), The Sistine Madonna (1512/13), The Transfiguration (1516–20), and the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (c. 1514–15).
A tale from antiquity
One of Raphael’s greatest paintings comes from a story from the Metamorphoses, a poem written in 8AD by the Roman poet Ovid. It chronicles the history of the world from its creation, and it has been one of the most influential written works in Western culture, inspiring artists and writers such as Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare.
One of the stories of Greek mythology in Metamorphoses was borrowed from the Sicilian poet, Theocritus. It regards a mortal peasant shepherd, Acis, who falls in love with Galatea, a Nereid (a sea nymph or female spirit of sea water). Galatea was a great beauty with fair skin – her Greek name translates as ‘she who is milk white’.
But Galatea had other admirers including the Cyclops (a one-eyed giant), Polyphemus. Driven by a jealous rage for Galatea’s affection for another, he took revenge. After chancing upon the lovers together, Polyphemus threw a large boulder (possibly column) towards them. It struck Acis, and the blow was fatal. Galatea was heartbroken. The blood flowing from Acis’ wounds turned rapidly into a clear stream ending into the sea – the realm of Galatea, ‘the goddess of the calm seas’. The River Acis still runs today near the volcanic mountain of Aetna.
This tragic tale has inspired many works of art, including Handel’s 1718 opera, Acis and Galatea, and paintings by Raphael, Lorrain and Poussin.
Raphael, though, chose to represent a scene from a later part of Galatea’s story: her apotheosis. In a similar fashion to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Galatea stands triumphant in a large shell chariot, pulled through the waters by dolphins. She is heralded by winged putti drawing their bows, and a company of figures with both human and animal characteristics: some are ichthyocentaurs, with equine lower forms, and others have bird-like feathers. Some are half-human and half-fish. One Triton is shown abducting a sea nymph, while another sounds a shell trumpet.
Despite this crowd of figures, Galatea appears oblivious to the noise and commotion. Her twisted pose exudes elegance and creates a graceful serpentine shape. She gazes up to the skies with a placid expression, as the wind whips up her hair and pulls the drapery from her body. This exposure of flesh – both in the figure of Galatea and her fellow sea-creatures – allows Raphael to demonstrate his superb understanding of the human form: varying in musculature and fleshiness, and warped by every kind of perspective, angle and contortion.
A lavish decorative scheme
Raphael’s painting is a fresco – a mural painting painted directly upon the wet plaster of the wall. This fresco was created around 1512 to adorn the walls of the Villa Farnesina, a grand house built between 1506 and 1510 in the district of Trastevere in Rome. It was commissioned by one of the richest men of the age, the Sienese banker and treasurer to Pope Julius II, Agostino Chigi.
There has been speculation that the model for Galatea was the celebrity courtesan Imperia, Agostino Chigi’s lover. However, Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary historian who documented the lives of the Renaissance artists, suggested otherwise. He claimed Raphael intended Galatea not to depict a specific woman, but to represent the ideal beauty. Raphael explained in a letter that “to paint a beauty, I should have to see a number of beauties, provided Your Lordship were with me to choose the best. But in the absence of good judges and beautiful forms, I use an idea that comes to my mind.”
The Villa Farnesina – along with Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea – was acquired in 1577 by the grand Farnese family – who counted Pope Paul III and a future Queen of Spain as one of their own. Today the villa is open to the public, where Raphael’s fresco remains a key attraction.