On Good Friday, April 6th, 1520, Raffaello Sanzio, one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance, died. Raphael, as he is known in English speaking circles, had asked to be buried in the Pantheon, and his request was granted, making him the first artist to be accorded such an honour.
Raphael's epitaph hails him as a preeminent painter and rival of the ancients; it also implies that he died on his birthday, which may or may not be true. Vasari simply states that Raphael was born on Good Friday, 1483, which in that year fell on March 28th. However, another source states that he was born on April 6th.
By the 19th century Raphael had become a cult figure and on September 14th, 1833, Pope Gregory XVI (r. 1831-46) ordered that his tomb be opened to verify that the artist was really buried there. The tomb was opened in the presence of a host of distinguished figures from the worlds of art, the church, politics and medicine. A skeleton was discovered and the doctors declared (on what grounds?) that this was, indeed, the earthly remains of Raphael. The event was duly recorded in a painting by Francesco Diofebi (1771-851).
The skeleton was transferred to an ancient sarcophagus, a gift from the pope, on which were inscribed the last two lines of his epitaph: 'Ille hic est Raffael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori.' They have been attributed to Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), a Venetian humanist, scholar and writer, who first met Raphael at the court of Urbino.
The couplet was beautifully translated by the English poet, Alexander Pope (1688-1744), in the last two lines of his Epitaph on Sir Godfrey Kneller (1723): ‘Living, great Nature feared he might outvye Her works; and, dying, fears herself may dye.’ Kneller, who was a very successful German portrait painter, is interred in Westminster Abbey, London.
Returning to the Pantheon, the sculpture of the Virgin and Child, which is known as the Madonna del Sasso (1523-24), is the work of one of Raphael's pupils, Lorenzo Lotti (1490-1541), aka Lorenzetto. The rather insipid bronze bust (1833) of Raphael, himself, is the work of Giuseppe de Fabris (1790-1860).
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