Pope Leo X with Cardinals by Raphael
Interpretation, Analysis of High Renaissance Group Portrait Painting

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Pope Leo X with Cardinals by Raphael
Pope Leo X with Cardinals
Giulio de' Medici and
Luigi de' Rossi
By Raphael.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Pope Leo X with Cardinals (c.1518)


Analysis of Pope Leo X with Cardinals
Other Portrait Paintings by Raphael


Artist: Raphael (1483-1520)
Medium: Oil painting on wood panel
Genre: Portrait art
Movement: High Renaissance
Location: Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, Florence.

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Interpretation of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi

A masterpiece of Renaissance art, this painting illustrates Raphael's style of 'narrative' portraiture, which set a new standard for other High Renaissance artists in Rome, Venice and Florence. Painted after the success of his fresco mural painting in the Raphael Rooms, at a time when he relied heavily on assistants like Giulio Romano (1499-1546), Giovanni Francesco Penni (1496-1536) and Perino del Vaga (Piero Buonaccorsi) (1501-47), it is believed to be one of the few late works which he executed without help. Like most papal portraits, it should be seen as a political statement - in this case, as a celebration of cinquecento Medici Family power and continuity. Highly influential - see also for comparison, Titian's Pope Paul III with his Grandsons (Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese) (1546, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples) - it is one of the greatest Renaissance paintings of the 16th century, and hangs in the Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence.



Medici Family in the Vatican

Although he had been summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II, Raphael was especially favoured by Pope Leo X. Leo, born Giovanni de' Medici (1475-1521), was the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-92), the most famous member of the Medici Family of Florence. He succeeded Julius in 1513, and continued the rebuilding of St Peter's Basilica in Rome as well as the fresco decoration of the Vatican Stanze and Loggias. (See Raphael's School of Athens.) Unfortunately, his extravagant spending on architecture and other fine art commissions (many awarded to Raphael and his workshop) left the Vatican's finances in heavy debt. His nephew, Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, later became Pope Clement VII (born 1478, reigned 1523-34), and patronized artists such as Michelangelo, from whom he commissioned The Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel, as well as Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) and the portraitist Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547).

Papal Portrait

A highly subtle piece of High Renaissance painting, this group portrait is designed around the dominant central figure of Leo X. On the left is Cardinal Luigi de' Rossi; on the right, Cardinal Giulio de' Medici. On the table in front of Leo is a finely carved bell, and an illuminated religious manuscript (since identified as the Hamilton Bible) which he has been studying with the aid of a magnifying glass. Both objects indicate Leo's love of visual art and his status as one of Rome's great art collectors.

In contrast to the usual idealized features of his Madonnas and saints (see his Sistine Madonna), Raphael makes little attempt to idealize the short-sighted and overweight pontiff. Instead, he creates a more complex and realistic portrait, built on Leo's gravitas and strength as a political as well as a clerical leader. His face and body dominate the painting, while his authority is subtly enhanced by the mood of respectful silence and sumptuous royal-red velvet robes. His two companions occupy subordinate positions, well in the background, although not so distant as to dilute the message of Medici power and authority. Indeed Cardinal Giulio de' Medici has his hands firmly on the papal chair.

The slightly uneasy, offbeat tone of the painting reflects the uncertainty of the period. The German preacher and Biblical scholar Martin Luther (1483-1546) had just publicized his list of complaints against the corrupt activities of the Roman Church, while restless populations across Europe watched the growing rivalry of Charles V of Spain and Francis I of France. (For more, see: Catholic Counter-Reformation Art c.1560-1700.) If Raphael hints at papal misdemeanors or general responsibility, he more than compensates by showing Leo as a serious-minded leader, unhindered by petty distractions. His eyes are fixed firmly ahead. It is regarded as one of the greatest portrait paintings of the 16th century.

Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520)

Raphael excelled in almost every branch of the arts, including altarpiece art, (see for instance The Transfiguration) narrative fresco painting, architecture, even tapestry art. Inspired by the sculptural body language of Michelangelo, as well as the sfumato of Leonardo da Vinci, he wove these and other elements borrowed from his contemporaries into a unique style of graceful harmony, punctuated only rarely by lapses of realism, such as his Portrait of Leo X.



List of Other Portraits by Raphael

Other famous works of portraiture by Raffaello Sanzio include:

Portrait of a Man (c.1502) Galleria Borghese, Rome
Elisabetta Gonzaga (c.1503) Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Pietro Bembo (c.1504) Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest
Portrait of a Woman (La Donna Gravida) (1505-6) Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Lady with a Unicorn (c.1505) Galleria Borghese, Rome
Agnolo Doni (1506) Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Maddalena Doni (1506) Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Portrait of a Woman (La Muta) (1507) Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino
Guidobaldo da Montefeltro (c.1507) Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Portrait of a Cardinal (1510-11) Museo del Prado, Madrid
Portrait of a Youth (c.1509-11) Czartoryski Museum, Krakow
Pope Julius II (1511-12) National Gallery, London
Bindo Altoviti (1512-15) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1514-15) Louvre, Paris
Portrait of a Young Man (c.1515) Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Tommaso Inghirami (1510-14) Palazzo Pitti
Woman with a Veil (La Donna Velata) (1516) Palazzo Pitti
Cardinal Bibbiena (c.1516) Palazzo Pitti, Florence

• For analysis of other important pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
• For more about High Renaissance portraiture, see our main index: Homepage.

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