In the Virtual (and Actual) Footsteps of Raphael

I posed this question to Peter Aufreiter, then director of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, when I sat down with him in his office in the Palazzo Ducale. Mr. Aufreiter’s response was to click on an image of Raphael’s 1507 portrait of Federico’s son, Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro (now in the Uffizi), and then summon me to the window. “Look at the hillside across the valley and that house at the base of the hill — it’s the same background Raphael put in his painting of Guidobaldo.” You can see exactly what Mr. Aufreiter meant by using the magnify feature on this online image.

Urbino’s steep green landscape, limpid light and crystalline architecture — you can also get a good sense of it here — imprinted themselves on the artist’s young mind and surface repeatedly in his work.

Even though Raphael spent most of his career in Florence and Rome, Mr. Aufreiter insists that Urbino, whose cityscape has changed little since the Renaissance, is where you can feel his spirit most intensely.

The spirit is palpable in the artisans’ quarter surrounding the house where Raphael was born, the son of the local court painter Giovanni Santi. Near the summit of the ski-slope-pitched Via Raffaello, just a stone’s throw from the rather pompous bronze monument of the artist erected in 1897, the Casa Natale di Raffaello has been preserved as a museum. There’s a rather rudimentary virtual tour on its website, but you’ll get a better feel for the interior and exterior spaces in this YouTube video. In these bare simple rooms and the deep brick courtyard they enclose, little imagination is required to dial the scene back to Raphael’s apprenticeship in the last years of the 15th century. Giovanni Santi’s bottega (workshop) occupied the ground floor, and the future master grew up amid the bustle of painters grinding pigments, dabbing madonnas and trading in art supplies.

Father and son conducted a more exalted commerce at Urbino’s Palazzo Ducale. Fabricated of brick, stone and flawless geometry, this palace was one of the glories of the Italian Renaissance — not only for its divine architecture, but for the refined elegance of the nobles who gathered here. This video captures some facets of the palace’s perfection — the way its silhouette pierces the profile of surrounding hills, the ideal proportions of its noble courtyard, the interplay of volume and decoration in its interior.

Baldassare Castiglione set his 1528 masterpiece, “The Book of the Courtier,” in this storied palace — and it was here that the young Raphael polished his manners, sharpened his wit, cultivated invaluable connections and acquired a lifelong passion for classical antiquity.

Raised at court, Raphael was pursued by the powerful (Popes Julius II and Leo X), esteemed by the brilliant (Castiglione and the Urbino-born architect Donato Bramante were close friends) and adored by the beautiful.

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