Raphael’s Unione

Saint Catherine of Alexandria,  Raphael

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

My exploration of colour in the Rennaissance 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.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-lighting of chiaroscuro is 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, 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. What Raphael sought to do was achieve soft shadows and tonal unity, but without sacrificing bellezza di colore, or brilliant colour, a highly valued property of paintings in early Renaissance Italy.2 So 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.3

Unione as a blend of sfumato and belezza di colore

Before encountering Leonardo’s sfumato whilest in Florence from 1504-1508, Raphael’s painting already exhibited the soft shadows and transluscent colours of the painter Peitro Perugino (1450–1523). According to Vasari, Raphael worked as his studio assistant which would explain his stylistic emulation.4 (Perugino is really my first love of these two painters.  The Virgin Appearing to St. Bernard in Munich is one of my favourites, and will be part of an exciting exhibition, Perugino: Raphael’s Master in Munich from October 13, 2011–January 15, 2012 .)

Raphael's Transfiguration

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’s5, and he became more focused on colour style as a way to achieve diverse moods. 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 isochromatism, 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.
I can really appreciate why Raphael is such a cult figure amongst art lovers: a wonderful synthesis of shadow master and brilliant colourist, not to mention human dramatist.

Vermeer's Kitchen Maid

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

Having just returned from a pilgrimage to Delft, Holland, I suddenly see Vermeer’s style as an incarnation of unione.

The most memorable aspect for me about Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is the unexpected 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.

Alice Poster

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) film

The Wii game version, developed by ELB stays 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, Developed by Étranges Libellules, published by Disney

Alice in Wonderland, Game, 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.


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


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4 Responses to “Raphael’s Unione”

  1. 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!

  2. Very interesting post – especially with the modern cinema and
    gaming references.
    Well done.


  1. Leonardo’s Sfumato | Renaissance For Real - 30. Sep, 2011

    [...] stood out as a unique and distinctive response, no less than Michelangelo’s Cangiantismo and Raphael’s Unione (and later Chiaroscuro). These approaches are now known as ‘colour modes’, but at the time they [...]

  2. Michelangelo’s Cangiantismo | Renaissance For Real - 30. Sep, 2011

    [...] of modelling styles including sfumato (Leonardo da Vinci), chiaroscuro (including Sebastiano) and unione (Raphael).  The Cennini system was not considered a modern approach, until Michelangelo revived [...]