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Raphael's Unione

Originally published 24 Sep 2011

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Raphael, c. 1507, Oil, The National Gallery, London

My exploration of colour in the Renaissance now leads me to Raphael (1483 –1520), who, according to Marcia B. Hall, was central to the development of two of the four modes of colour in Rome of the High Renaissance: Chiaroscuro and Unione. (ref 1) The other two modes which I’ve explored in earlier posts, were developed by Leonardo da Vinci (Sfumato) and Michelangelo (Cangiantismo). The dramatic, often night-lit scenes of Chiaroscuro, are very recognisable especially as adopted by Caravaggio and Rembrandt; but Unione? What does it mean?

After reading and re-reading Colour and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting (ref 1), my understanding is this: Unione came about as a response to Leonardo’s Sfumato. Raphael was greatly impressed by the overall tonal unity of his style. By tone I mean intensity of colour. In Sfumato’s case, mid-tones dominated the palette. By mid-tones I mean colours softened with white or darks. By delicately gradiating each transition from light to shadow, the overall effect of Sfumato was one of great harmony, a kind of dusky perfection. Raphael sought to achieve soft shadows and tonal unity, without sacrificing bellezza di colore, or brilliant colour, a highly valued property of paintings in early Renaissance Italy. (ref 2) 

Unione can be thought of as a blend of Sfumato and bellezza di colore. Here is a juxtaposition of paintings found in Marcia B. Hall’s book, which illustrates this middle ground between Leonardo’s Sfumato and Michelangelo’s bellezza di colore clearly. (ref 3)

a visual comparison of Unione, Sfumato, and Bellezza di Colore

Before encountering Leonardo’s Sfumato whilst in Florence from 1504-1508, Raphael’s painting already exhibited the soft shadows and translucent colours of the painter Pietro Perugino (1450–1523). According to Vasari, Raphael worked as his studio assistant which would explain his stylistic emulation.(ref 4)

Transfiguration of Christ, Raphael, 1516-1520, Oil, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

Perugino’s style owed much to the technique of glazing with oils, to achieve the soft shadows and light reflective colours which also became Raphael’s trademarks. After exposure to painters such as his rival Michelangelo, Raphael’s compositions tended to feature more animated people and scenes than Perugino’s, and he became more focused on colour style as a way to achieve diverse moods. (ref 5) He sometimes used a bright style, flooded with daylight, and other times experimented with a more dramatic style for night lighting, a style which later came to be known as Chiaroscuro. Even in Raphael’s chiaroscuro mode, brilliant colours prevail – and in all his compositions, he concentrated on overall impression of colour balance and harmony on an abstract level. This recalls the earlier tradition of isochromatic colour, where painters concentrated on symmetrical deployment of their colours, ordering them in pleasing abstract patterns.

In this sense he was a pioneer as a multi-modal painter, adopting his colour mode to suit the requirement of the commission. His last painting, Transfiguration, uses Unione style in the top divine half, and a dramatic Chiaroscuro style in the bottom half, which depicts a less than divine cast of characters.

Johannes Vermeer, The Kitchen Maid, Oil, c. 1658, The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Turning to Dutch masters, the most memorable aspect of seeing Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid in person is the brilliance of colour.

The softness of style and mood is deceptive, as the intensity of colour overpowers the room almost by stealth. I hadn’t really connected the two before, but Vermeer feels as Unione as Rembrandt is Chiaroscuro.

My search for contemporary Unione incarnations took more effort. The closest brush with Unione style I could unearth is Tim Burton’s film Alice.  It’s mostly a lovely piece of Sfumato colouring throughout, with subtle moments of Unione when the sky clears.

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) film

The 2010 Wii game version, stayed faithful to the artistic style of the film, while giving it a Wii brightness boost. On YouTube, the scenes can be observed in play mode without having to be a gamer.

Alice in Wonderland, Game (2010), Developed by Étranges Libellules, published by Disney
Alice in Wonderland, Game (2010), Developed by Étranges Libellules, published by Disney

Although much of it is under moody skies, the overall result is a colourful Chiaroscuro reminiscent of Raphael’s in his darker modes, and under blue skies, a satisfying Unione.

References 1. Hall, Marcia B., Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting, Cambridge University Press (1992), p. 93.

2. Ibid., p. 67.

3. Ibid., pp. 98-99.

4. Jones, Roger and Penny, Nicholas, Raphael, Yale University Press (1983), p. 5.

5. Raphael: from Urbino to Rome, The National Gallery London


  • Three Pipe Problem - An excellent art history blog, with particular love for Raphael. This site is the late Hasan Niyazi's blog - no longer updated, but still accessible.


Archived Comments

Hazan Niyazi 30 Sep 2011 Stunning post – with such a clear explanation showing us how Raphael found that beautiful middle ground between Leonardo’s gloomier sfumato and Michelangelo’s bold colours! Anyone interested in Renaissance colour really must track down the Marcia Hall book mentioned in the post – it’s out of print, but still traceable as a used copy Keep up the amazing work! H
John 24 Nov 2012 Very interesting post – especially with the modern cinema and gaming references. Well done.


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