Was it bad luck for Raffaello Sanzio to have been born while the two greatest artists who ever lived—Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci—were alive and working in Italy?
“Not at all,” he would have said. “I learned from both of them and improved my painting so much that I became Number Three in the world.”
It’s not as though he had nothing of his own. Few in all of history could draw such graceful figures or invent such beautiful colors. But without Leonardo and Michelangelo as guides Rafael might have become only a better Perugino, his first master.
He learned most from Leonardo.
“Leonardo’s paintings left Rafael amazed and entranced,” says Vasari, his biographer. “Gradually abandoning what he had learned from Perugino… [he] tried to the best of his ability and knowledge to imitate Leonardo’s style.”
How far did he get?
“For all his diligence and study, however, in certain problems he was never able to surpass Leonardo. And although there were many who considered that he surpassed [him] in sweetness and in a kind of natural facility, nonetheless Rafael never achieved the sublimity of Leonardo’s basic conceptions or the grandeur of his art.”
Still, Vasari gives him second prize in painting: “In this context, however, where few can stand comparison with Leonardo, Rafael came nearer to him than any other painter, notably in grace of coloring.” That included Michelangelo.
He learned a lot from him too. Vasari says that because of the first style he had learned from Perugino, “he experienced great difficulty in learning the finer points of the nude and the technique for doing difficult foreshortenings from the cartoon that Michelangelo made for the Council Hall in Florence. No other artist, no matter how talented, would have been able to do what, convinced that he had so far been wasting his time, Rafael was then able to accomplish. For he rid himself completely of the burden of Perugino’s manner to learn from the work of Michelangelo a style that was immensely difficult in every particular; and he turned himself, as it were, from a master into a pupil once more.”