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Artists and authorship: the case of Raphael
Artists and authorship: the case of Raphael

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2.5 Raphael’s death: the primary sources

By now you have learned to question the idea that primary sources about artists, such as biographies, are somehow accurate reports, or offer easy access to artists and their work. While primary sources such as early biographies are generally defined as ‘original’ documents from the time of the artist’s life or shortly thereafter (works of art, or legal documents), and secondary sources as later interpretations or analyses, it is important to recognise that ‘primary’ sources are also interpretive rather than objective, even if the words ‘primary’, ‘source’, or ‘document’ give them an aura of truthfulness. Digging into archival records from the past one finds, just as with artists’ biographies, myth, opinion and self-promoting falsifications. As with secondary sources, understanding the author’s point of view is critical. An important difference between primary and secondary sources, however, is that when dealing with primary sources one needs to understand and analyse the author’s point of view from a historical perspective: the opinions the document expresses in and of themselves speak volumes about the moment in time under investigation.

We will now put these ideas into practice by considering Vasari’s biography along with letters composed in the days following Raphael’s death. These describe a profound public reaction to the artist’s passing at such a young age, while in the midst of a major project to carry out a drawing survey and description of the ancient ruins in Rome. When he died Raphael was rich and famous. He lived in a large Roman palace worthy of a gentleman and was even engaged to a cardinal’s niece. He was given the high honour of burial in the Pantheon, an ancient temple built in Rome in the second century CE. Although the Pantheon had been rededicated in the sixth century as the Christian church of Santa Maria Rotonda, burials there were uncommon. Sources inform us that Raphael had set aside a large trust to pay for his tomb (see the ‘Letter from Pandolfo Pico’ in Section 2.6), which was placed at one of the temple tabernacles (Figure 4). A member of his workshop, Lorenzetto, sculpted an over-life-sized marble statue of the Madonna and Child for the altar.

Figure 4 Raphael’s tomb; Madonna and Child by Lorenzetto. Pantheon, Rome. Photo: 2015 © Scala, Florence.