Raphael led a “nomadic” life, working in various centres in Northern Italy, but spent a good deal of time in Florence, perhaps from about 1504. Although there is traditional reference to a “Florentine period” of about 1504–8, he was possibly never a continuous resident there.He may have needed to visit the city to secure materials in any case. There is a letter of recommendation of Raphael, dated October 1504, from the mother of the next Duke of Urbino to the Gonfaloniere of Florence: “The bearer of this will be found to be Raphael, painter of Urbino, who, being greatly gifted in his profession has determined to spend some time in Florence to study. And because his father was most worthy and I was very attached to him, and the son is a sensible and well-mannered young man, on both accounts, I bear him great love…”
As earlier with Perugino and others, Raphael was able to assimilate the influence of Florentine art, whilst keeping his own developing style. Frescos in Perugia of about 1505 show a new monumental quality in the figures which may represent the influence of Fra Bartolomeo, who Vasari says was a friend of Raphael. But the most striking influence in the work of these years is Leonardo da Vinci, who returned to the city from 1500 to 1506. Raphael’s figures begin to take more dynamic and complex positions, and though as yet his painted subjects are still mostly tranquil, he made drawn studies of fighting nude men, one of the obsessions of the period in Florence. Another drawing is a portrait of a young woman that uses the three-quarter length pyramidal composition of the just-completed Mona Lisa, but still looks completely Raphaelesque. Another of Leonardo’s compositional inventions, the pyramidal Holy Family, was repeated in a series of works that remain among his most famous easel paintings. There is a drawing by Raphael in the Royal Collection of Leonardo’s lost Leda and the Swan, from which he adapted the contrappostopose of his own Saint Catherine of Alexandria. He also perfects his own version of Leonardo’s sfumato modelling, to give subtlety to his painting of flesh, and develops the interplay of glances between his groups, which are much less enigmatic than those of Leonardo. But he keeps the soft clear light of Perugino in his paintings.
Leonardo was more than thirty years older than Raphael, but Michelangelo, who was in Rome for this period, was just eight years his senior. Michelangelo already disliked Leonardo, and in Rome came to dislike Raphael even more, attributing conspiracies against him to the younger man. Raphael would have been aware of his works in Florence, but in his most original work of these years, he strikes out in a different direction. His Deposition of Christdraws on classical sarcophagi to spread the figures across the front of the picture space in a complex and not wholly successful arrangement. Wöllflin detects in the kneeling figure on the right the influence of the Madonna in Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, but the rest of the composition is far removed from his style, or that of Leonardo. Though highly regarded at the time, and much later forcibly removed from Perugia by the Borghese, it stands rather alone in Raphael’s work. His classicism would later take a less literal direction.