Written by: Kate Zusmann
The four Raphael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello) locate in the museum complex of the Vatican. These rooms are worldwide known for their frescoes, painted by Raphael and his workshop. Raphael’s paintings are frequently compared and discussed along with Michelangelo and his ceiling in the Sistine Chapel which is considered the grand fresco sequence of the High Renaissance in Rome.
Raphael Rooms, also called the Stanze, were originally created as a suite of apartments for Pope Julius II della Rovere. The Pope commissioned Raphael and his studio in 1508-1509 to decorate the interiors of rooms. The Stanze is located right above Alexander’s Borgia Apartment on the third floor of the Palace of the Vatican, overlooking the south side of the Belvedere Courtyard. After the death of Julius II in 1513, only two rooms were finished, but Pope Leo X continued the program. Moreover, when Raphael died in 1520, his assistants Gianfrancesco Penni, Giulio Romano, and Raffaellino del Colle made the project ready by finishing works with the frescoes in the “Hall of Constantine.”
These four rooms are “Hall of Constantine” (Sala di Constantino), “Room of Heliodorus” (Stanza di Eliodoro), “Room of the Segnatura” (Stanza della Segnatura), and “The Room of the Fire in the Borgo” (Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo).
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael (1483-1520), was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. Raphael was a productive person and despite his death at 37, he left many artworks. Many of his works are located in the Vatican Palace and Villa Farnesina (Trastevere Neighborhood, Rome). The painter was quite influential in his lifetime and his work was most famous for his collaborative printmaking.
Raphael was born in the Marches area of Italy. His father was a court painter and the son followed in his footsteps by achieving an education in the arts, literature, and social skills. Raphael moved easily amongst the higher circles of court society and compared to Michelangelo, he was more at ease in social circles. Moreover, his style was considered more refined. By 1501, the artist was held in high esteem and got important commissions, such as the Mond de Crucifixion in 1503.
Raphael’s career divides into three phases and three styles: early years in Umbria, a period of about four years (1504-1508) of learning and using the artistic traditions of Florence, and his last twelve years in Rome, where he was working for two Popes.
The Raphael Rooms (the Stanze) formed the part of the apartment located in the Pontifical Palace that was chosen by Julius II della Rovere as his own residence and used by his successors. Raphael and his school between 1508 and 1524 executed the decoration of the rooms. Moreover, the famous Raphael is a Renaissance artist, who created many notable artworks that you can find in Italian museums and villas nowadays.
The Room of Constantine was designed especially for official ceremonies. The school of Raphael was working on its decoration based on drawings by the artist, who died before the completion of the artwork. The room takes its name from Constantine (306-337 AD), the first Christian Emperor, who officially recognized the Christian faith. The walls of the room represent the episodes of the Emperor’s life. Moreover, the decoration of the room is completed by figures of great Popes surrounded by allegorical statues of Virtue.
The Vision of the Cross painting depicts the premonition that the emperor Constantine I had before the battle against Maxentius. According to the legend, a cross appeared to Constantine in the sky, after which as described in the fresco, he adopted the Greek motto translated as “In this sign you shall conquer.” Thus the victory in the Battle over the Milvian Bridge is only possible in case if he substituted the imperial eagles on the soldiers’ norms with the cross, thus officially recognizing the Christian religion.
Read also about the Triumphal Arch of Constantine.
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The Battle of the Pons Milvius (312 AD) represented the victory of Christianity over the pagan world. The episode represented in the painting shows the topographical precision north of Rome with Monte Mario, where Villa Madama (built those years by Raphael for the Pope) is also shown on the left side. Raphael made an initial project for this masterpiece, but lately, his pupil Giulio Romano executed it.
The Baptism of Constantine painting describes the scene where the emperor kneels to receive the sacrament from Pope Sylvester inside the Baptistery of the Lateran. This fresco is attributed to Giovanni Francesco Penni.
Donation of Rome Triumph of Christian Religion describes the episode where the emperor Constantine kneels before Pope Sylvester in the act of offering him the city of Rome, embodied by the golden statue. Based on this scene, the power of the Popes became verified and the state of the church was founded. Moreover, the painting shows the interior of the old early Christian basilica of St Peter’s, which was destroyed later.
The Room of Heliodorus was initially used for the private audiences of the Pope. The four episodes of the Old Testament on the ceiling are the work of Raphael, while in the grotesques and arches there are parts attributed to Luca Signorelli, Bramantino, Lorenzo Lotto, and Cesare da Sesto. The room’s program is political and purposes at documenting in different historical moments from the Old Testament to medieval history, the miraculous protection bestowed by God on the Church.
The Mass of Bolsena depicts a scene that happened in 1623 in Bolsena, near Orvieto. It shows the Mass celebrated by a Bohemian priest and the moment of consecration when the blood of Christ trickled from the host. His cloth was stained by blood and lately held as a relic in the nearby town of Orvieto. Pope Julius II visited Orvieto and prayed over the relic in 1506. Thus, the painting shows the Pope as a participant in the Mass and a witness to the miracle kneeling to the right of the altar, with cardinals Leonardo Grosso della Rovere, Raffaello Riario, Tomasso Riario, and Agostino Spinola, his relatives, and the chair bearers of the group.
The Liberation of St Peter (Deliverance of Saint Peter) depicts the prince of the apostles and first Pope, who was saved from the prison by an angel while the guards lie sleeping, as described in Acts 12. This episode is a reference to Julius II, who was the titular cardinal of St Peter in Chains (S. Pietro in Vincoli) before being elected as the Pope. The fresco is notable for its natural moonlight, man-made torchlight, and God-provided angel light.
The Encounter between Leo the Great and Attila is the last fresco created in this room, which was finished after the death of Julius II. According to the legend, the apparition of Saints Peter and Paul armed with swords during the meeting of Pope Leo the Great and Attila (452 AD) made the king of the Huns refrain from the invasion to Italy. Raphael depicted the episode at the gates of Rome, identified by the Colosseum, an aqueduct, and an obelisk.
The Expulsion of Heliodorus, from whom one of the four rooms takes its name, embodies the biblical episode of Heliodorus, sent by the king of Syria Seleucus, to possess the treasure located in the temple of Jerusalem. Moreover, at the request of the high priest Onias, God sends an equestrian accompanied by two men, who beat Heliodorus.
The frescoes from the ceiling date to the first decoration commissioned by Julius II at the beginning of his pontificate. Raphael replaced the grotesques in the center of the ceiling with the four Episodes of the Old Testament: Noah leaving the ark (Genesis 8:15-20), The sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22: 1-14), Moses before the burning bush (Exodus 3: 1-12), and Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28: 10-22).
The Room of the Segnatura includes frescoes that made Raphael famous. This room not only contains the first works of the artist in the Vatican, but these masterpieces also mark the beginning of the High Renaissance. The room’s name goes from the highest court of the Holy See, the “Segnatura Gratiae et Iustutuae”. Originally, Julius II used this room as a library and private office. It represents the three greatest categories of the human spirit: Truth, Good, and Beauty.
The Supernatural Truth is illustrated in the Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament (theology) and the rational truth is represented in the School of Athens (philosophy). Good is seen in the Cardinal and Theological Virtues and the Law, while beauty is represented in the Parnassus with Apollo and the Muses. In addition, the frescoes of the ceiling are interconnected with the scenes below them. Lately, under Leo X, the room was used as a study and music room, in which the pontiff kept his collection of musical instruments. The original furnishings from the times of Julius II were replaced with a new wooden wainscot.
The Disputation over the Most Holy Sacrament, corresponding to Theology, is located on the wall opposite the School of Athens. There is the Triumphant Church at the sides of the Most Holy Trinity (with God the Father, Christ between the Virgin and St John the Baptist, and the Holy Spirit in the center). The patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament alternated with apostles and martyrs seat in a hemicycle on the clouds. In addition, on the ground, at the sides of the altar on which the Most Holy Sacrament dominates, you can see the Militant Church.
The School of Athens fresco represents the most notable philosophers of ancient times. In the center, Plato is shown with a finger that points upwards and holds his book Timeus, flanked by Aristotle with Ethics. Pythagoras is depicted in the foreground intent on describing the diatessaron.
Then, Diogenes is lying on the stairs with a dish, while Heracleitus is leaning against the block of marble, writing on a sheet of paper. Moreover, Euclid is shown on the right side, where he is teaching geometry to his students, and Zoroaster is represented holding the heavenly sphere, while Ptolemy holding the earthly sphere.
The Cardinal and Theological Virtues and the Law is on the wall opposite the Parnassus. The painting corresponding to Justice is an illustration of the Cardinal Virtues (Fortitude, Prudence and Temperance) and the Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity), while below, at the sides of the window, the Delivery of the Pandects to the Emperor Justinian and the Delivery of the Decretals to Pope Gregory IX. Moreover, the pontiff is a portrait of Pope Julius II.
The Parnassus is presented as the god Appolo, seated at the center, plays the lyre, while the nine Muses surround him, patroness of the arts, and ancient and modern poets such as Dante and Virgil are also recognizable behind him.
The Room of the fire in the Borgo was used in the times of Julius II for the meetings of the highest court of the Holy See: the Segnatura Gratiae et Iustitae presided over by the Pope. It has special paintings on the ceiling by Pietro Vanucci, called the Perugino, commissioned by Julius II in 1508. Moreover, at the time of Leo X the room served as a dining room. The frescoes illustrate the political relations of Leo X through the real-life stories of two previous Popes with the same name: Leo III and Leo IV.
Six figures of emperors and sovereigns who are defenders of the church are shown in the monochromes below the paintings
The Crowning of Charlemagne took place in Saint Peter’s on Christmas night in the year 800. This event forms the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Justification of Leo III illustrates a scene that happened the day before the crowning of Charlemagne when the Pope replied to the calumnies of the nephews of his predecessor Hadrian I by renewing the concept that the vicar of Christ is responsible to God alone for his doings.
The Fire in the Borgo shows an event documented in the Liber Pontificalis, where the fire broke out in the Borgo in Rome in the year 847.
The Battle of Ostia painting was inspired by the naval victory of Leo IV over the Saracens at Ostia in 849.
Raphael Rooms are part of the Vatican Museums.
There is no separate ticket for the Stanze, you have to buy a ticket whether at the ticket desk or online on the official website of the Vatican Museums: www.museivaticani.va. Read detailed instructions on how to buy tickets to the museums here.
Moreover, the price is 17 euros per person + a 4 euro reservation fee. Undoubtedly, it is better to purchase tickets online since you will save lots of time that you can spend in queues for tickets at the ticket desk. Additionally, for adults older than 60 years old and students there is a special discount – the cost of the ticket is 8 euros. Of course, the best option to see all the main masterpieces of the Vatican Museums and particularly of the Raphael Rooms is by getting a private guided tour.
There are many interesting details and worldwide known masterpieces inside the Vatican Museums. You can visit the museum complex of the Vatican daily, except Sunday. Opening hours from Monday to Friday are from 8:45 am to 4:45 pm, while on Saturday museums work until 1:45 pm. Don’t forget to follow the dress code during your visit, you have to cover your knees and shoulders!
Don’t miss an opportunity to visit the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums during your Roman holiday! Tell us, what is your favorite painting?
Author: Kate Zusmann
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