Michelangelo vs Raphael: A Renaissance Rivalry

Raphael's decorations of Villa Farnesina in Rome

Raphael's decorations of Villa Farnesina in Rome

When Raphael died at the age of 37, as a result of a fever caused by excessive sex with his mistress (or so they say), the city of Rome went into mourning. His extravagant funeral was attended by huge crowds, and he was buried with great pomp in a marble sarcophagus in the Pantheon. The elegiac inscription in Latin translates as

“Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die”.

But there were to be no tributes from Raphael’s famous contemporary and rival, Michelangelo. The elder artist, who was in his forties at the time, would later write a letter accusing Raphael of plagiarism, complaining that everything Raphael knew about art, he had got from Michelangelo. What was the cause of Michelangelo’s bitter resentment?

The sistine chapel

The roots of their rivalry can be traced back to their respective work in the Vatican in 1508. While Michelangelo was hard at work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the young Raphael arrived in Rome and immediately began attracting attention and adulation for his work in the papal apartments, which clearly showed the influence of Michelangelo. Vatican tours starting with the Vatican Museums and end in the Sistine Chapel always include both these masterpieces, i.e. Raphael's rooms as well as, of course the wonderful Last Judgment by Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Raphael's portrait of his rival, Michelangelo

Raphael's portrait of his rival, Michelangelo

Although there was no doubting Michelangelo’s genius, Raphael appeared to be the personal favorite of Pope Leo X, perhaps as much for his charming personality as his artistic talent. Michelangelo, who was renowned for his grumpiness. We bet Michelangelo must have not been happy to see himself portrayed in one of the famous frescoes of the so-called Stanza della Segnatura all grumpy and lonely, possibly some critics say, like a modern Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher also nicknamed "The Obscure" and "The Weeping Philosopher!" But Michelangelo must have felt even more incensed when an ambassador mistakenly announced that the Sistine Chapel had been decorated by Raphael! The completion of the Sistine Chapel should have been Michelangelo’s moment of glory, and yet it seemed that his rival Raphael was getting all the attention — and the commissions. Raphael won some highly desirable commissions, including tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, portraits of popes, and frescoes for the luxurious villa of Agostino Chigi, now known as Villa Farnesina.

Raphael's Rooms inside the Vatican Museums

Raphael was not Michelangelo’s only rival. Michelangelo also seems to have resented his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, another of the great Renaissance masters. Vasari recounts the legendary artistic contest between Michelangelo and Da Vinci during the decoration of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The two artists were on such bad terms that at one point, Da Vinci left Florence for France in order to get away from Michelangelo.

Perhaps rivalry between these artists was inevitable, given that they were all considered geniuses in their field, and were all working on similar projects in the same cities at the same time. But Michelangelo’s difficult personality undoubtedly played a part too. Unlike the easy-going, pleasure-loving Raphael, Michelangelo was regarded as a solitary curmudgeon, who had stormy relations with his patrons and assistants. He was also a devout Catholic who lived a spartan existence, sleeping in his clothes and boots and eating “more out of necessity than pleasure”. While Raphael was something of a Casanova, Michelangelo is rumoured to have lived a life of “monk-like chastity”, struggling with his repressed homosexuality. Michelangelo may have been as envious of Raphael’s popularity and social skills as much as his artistic reputation.

Raphael's fresco of Galatea at the Villa Farnesina

Raphael's fresco of Galatea at the Villa Farnesina

So, who was the better artist? Raphael was loved during his lifetime, and had a profound influence on generations of artists. The Pre-Raphaelites may have been less appreciative, but their name is a testament to his importance. However, in recent years Michelangelo’s reputation has arguably eclipsed Raphael’s, as the elder artist is admired for his genius as a sculptor as well as a painter. To compare the works of the two rivals, make sure you visit Vatican City on Roma Experience's Vatican small group tour, where you’ll visit the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel, and learn more about the fascinating lives and careers of the artists.

North wall of the Sistine Chapel

North wall of the Sistine Chapel

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