The Raphael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello)

We shall see in another essay under what conditions, on Bramante’s recommendation, Raphael moved from Florence to Rome in 1508, where he resided until his death. The purpose that called him there was to collaborate in the decoration of the rooms that Pope Julius II was preparing to be used as Papal apartments. This was Pope Julius’ intent to outshine the apartments of his predecessor (whom he despised) Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), as the Stanze are directly above Alexander’s Borgia Apartments. These rooms, that are now called Raphael Rooms, include three chambers approximately squared in shape, with windows on two of their sides and doors on the adjacent walls, the rooms are not very symmetrical between them. The roof is covered with a somewhat low groin vault, and the lighting is bad. At first, the decoration of these chambers was initiated by various artists; Julius II was in advanced age and wanted to see those works completed as soon as possible. In 1508 Luca Signorelli, Bramantino, Pinturicchio, Perugino, Lorenzo Lotto, even a Flemish painter, Johannes Ruysch, together with Sodoma and Raphael, were working simultaneously on the fresco decoration of these three rooms. But the working plan changed and many of these frescoes were removed so that solely Raphael and workshop could decorate them.

The first room to be decorated, called Room of the Signatura (Stanza della Segnatura), which is still generally considered to contain Raphael’s greatest masterpiece, displays in its two dividing walls the two great allegories called the School of Athens and the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, and in the lunettes over the windows, the scene of the Parnassus and the group of jurists of the Jurisprudence and that of the Cardinal Virtues. The idea was to bring together natural philosophy and revealed theology, science and the arts, all under the supreme protection of the Church.

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View of the Stanza della Segnatura frescoes by Raphael, 1509-1511 (Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). The first rooms in the papal apartments to be decorated by Raphael was the study housing the library of Pope Julius II, in which the “Signatura gratiae” tribunal was originally located (hence the name of this room the Stanza della Segnatura). Raphael’s fresco cycle brought into harmony the spirits of Antiquity and Christianity. The humanist quadripartition of culture (theology, philosophy, poetry and justice) envisioned a parallel in the four elements believed to make up the universe (air, water, fire and earth). Each of these is represented by an allegorical painting on the walls and corresponding medallions on the vault of this room, the frescoes are: the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, the School of Athens, the Parnassus and the Virtues (Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance), respectively. The theme of wisdom was appropriately chosen for this room as it was the council chamber for the Apostolic Signatura, where most of the important papal documents were signed and sealed.

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The fresco of the School of Athens represents a large gathering of a group of ancient philosophers under a monumental building. This gigantic mural is a pictorial monument that celebrates the rational investigation of the truth. In the center are Plato and Aristotle: the first, older, carrying the book of the Timaeus and pointing upwards, to the heaven of ideas, representing the very expression of philosophical idealism, and the second, an arrogant figure, is covered with a blue cloak holding the book of Ethics leaning against his leg. Diogenes is the old figure lying on the stands.

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The School of Athens, fresco, by Raphael, 1509-1511, width at the base 770 cm (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). Toward the end of 1509, Raphael began work on the wall opposite the Disputa. This second fresco to be painted, the School of Athens, represents the truth acquired through reason and is a general depiction of philosophy. The scene takes place in classical times, as both the architecture and the garments indicate. Figures representing each subject that must be mastered in order to hold a true philosophic debate (astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and solid geometry) are depicted in concrete form. Raphael groups the solemn figures of thinkers and philosophers within a large, grandiose architectural framework characterized by a high dome, a vault with lacunar ceiling and pilasters. It is probably inspired by late Roman architecture or (as most art scholars believe) by Bramante’s own project for the new St. Peter’s Basilica. Even though the fresco includes numerous figures, they don’t crowd the environment, nor are they suffocated by it. Rather, they underline the breadth and depth of the architectural structures. Though the painting mainly celebrates classical thought, it is also dedicated to the liberal arts, symbolized by the statues of Apollo and Minerva (left and right). Grammar, Arithmetic and Music are personified by figures located in the foreground, at left. Geometry and Astronomy are personified by the figures in the foreground, at right. Behind them stand characters representing Rhetoric and Dialectic. This fresco is notable for its accurate perspective projection, which Raphael learned from Leonardo. For the composition of this fresco, Raphael also made a number of preparatory drawings.
The School of Athens (detail), fresco, by Raphael, 1509-1511 (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). Some of the ancient philosophers Raphael portrayed in this fresco bear the features of Raphael’s contemporaries. In the center of the fresco, at its architecture’s central vanishing point, are the two undisputed main subjects, the arbiters of this meeting of Philosophers and the main figures of the fresco, Plato and his student Aristotle, shown in the center, engaged in dialogue. Plato, represented old with a white beard and bare-foot, is thought to be the figure of Leonardo da Vinci, and appears pointing to the heavens reflecting on his Theory of Forms and the realms of the ideas, while Aristotle, represented in mature manhood, wearing sandals and gold-trimmed robes, points down to earth giving emphasis on the concrete particulars and the physicality of life and the present realm. Plato holds in his hand a modern (of the time) bound copy of the book of the Timaeus (a sophisticated treatment of space, time, and change, including the Earth, which guided mathematical sciences for over a millennium); Aristotle, in turn, carries his book of Nicomachean Ethics, which he denied could be reduced to a mathematical science. Michelangelo, sitting on the stairs and leaning on a block of marble in a thoughtful pose and writing, is represented as Heraclitus. This figure was the last painted when the fresco was already completed in 1511. Raphael’s allusion to Michelangelo is probably a gesture of homage to the artist, who had recently unveiled the frescoes of the Sistine Ceiling.

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On the left there is another group of philosophers with Socrates (whose head was copied from an ancient gem that is still kept in Florence) fingering syllogisms before a group of young people, among whom Alcibiades (or perhaps Alexander) stands out wearing helmet and armed. Further down another old man, perhaps Pythagoras, writes numbers on a thick book, while a young man, Archimedes, helps him by holding before him a tablet with his Principles.

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The School of Athens (detail), fresco, by Raphael, 1509-1511 (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). The group of philosophers on the left foreground of the School of Athens strongly recall figures from Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi. Within this group Raphael represented Anaximander (the first on the left in the foreground, crouching, wearing a yellow robe and writing on a sheet of paper), Pythagoras (sitting just next to Anaximander, writing on a large book) and Archimedes, to the left of Pythagoras and displaying his Principle drawn on a tablet; also Alcibiades or Alexander the Great (in the background, standing and wearing helmet and armor) and Antisthenes or Xenophon standing to his left wearing a black hat and a burgundy robe, appear listening to Socrates (wearing an olive green robe); to the far left wearing a green hat and behind a small putto is the head of possibly Zeno of Citium; Parmenides stands to the right wearing yellow and red robes and holding an open book; Averroes is leaning behind Pythagoras and wearing a turban and a green robe; and possibly Epicurus or Democritus to the left, leaning against a pedestal and wearing a crown of leaves on his head.

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On the right another philosopher, Euclid, explains something, marking a figure with a compass; at the end of this group the painters themselves, Raphael and Sodoma, are portrayed. The other characters close to Raphael’s self-portrait have not been identified; it is assumed that Ptolemy is the king with a crown who carries a sphere in his hand (because Ptolemy was confused at that time with some of the last Egyptian pharaohs), and Zoroaster, the one who shows the celestial sphere in his right hand.

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The School of Athens (detail), fresco, by Raphael, 1509-1511 (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). Raphael portrayed Bramante as Euclid (in the foreground, leaning over a tablet and holding a compass) and also included a self-portrait at the extreme right, with a dark hat standing behind his friend Sodoma.

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If the didactic center of this fresco is represented by the gestures of Plato and Aristotle, the artistic center is the background. That architecture is neither Greek nor Roman. It is the architecture designed by Raphael’s friend, Bramante, similar to what was being built those days during the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica. The amplitude of this space in which Greek philosophers breathe is admirable. This spatial grandeur expresses Raphael’s admiration for the heroes of ancient culture. The composition is admirably arranged, and yet in the midst of that portrayal of the laborious human thought there is no real peace: the figures stir as if inquiring and searching in every way, only old Plato expresses majestic calm.

In the frescoes for the Stanza della Segnatura, Raphael was clearly influenced by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that Michelangelo was painting at the time. Vasari said Bramante secretly let him in to observe the work in progress. Raphael, strongly impacted by Michelangelo’s work, took inspiration from it and even included a portrait of Michelangelo himself, as Heraclitus, in the School of Athens, a figure that seems to be clearly inspired by Michelangelo’s Sibyls and ignudi on the roof of the Sistine. Other figures in this fresco and in others from this room show the same influences, but still consistent with the development of Raphael’s own style.

The answers to the philosophical inquiries posed in the School of Athens are found on the opposite wall, where the militant and triumphant Church appears glorified: it is the scene called the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament.

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Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (La Disputa), fresco, by Raphael, 1509-1510, width at the base: 770 cm (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). The first composition Raphael executed for the Vatican stanze was the so-called Disputa, the traditional name for what is really an Adoration of the Sacrament. The fresco can be seen as a portrayal of the Church Militant below, and the Church Triumphant above. The painting is built around the monstrance containing the consecrated Host, located on the altar. Figures representing the Triumphant Church and the Militant Church are arranged in two semicircles, one above the other, and venerate the Host. God the Father, bathed in celestial glory, blesses the crowd of biblical and ecclesiastical figures from the top of the composition. Immediately below we have the Deësis, the resurrected Christ sits on a throne of clouds between the Virgin (bowed in adoration) and St. John the Baptist (who, according to iconographic tradition, points to Christ). Prophets and saints of the Old and New Testament are seated around this central group on a semicircular bank of clouds similar to that which constitutes the throne of Christ. Below Christ’s feet is the Holy Spirit, to whose sides are books of the four Gospels held open by putti. At the bottom of the picture space, inserted in a vast landscape dominated by the altar and the eucharist, are saints, popes, bishops, priests and the mass of the faithful. They represent the Church which has acted, and which continues to act, in the world, and which contemplates the glory of the Trinity with the eyes of the mind. Bramante leans on the balustrade at left; the young man standing near him has been identified as Francesco Maria Della Rovere; Pope Julius II, who personifies Gregory the Great, is seated near the altar to the left. For this composition, Raphael produced numerous sketches, studies and drawings containing notable differences in pose to the definitive fresco.

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At the top, on the rainbow, symbol of the covenant, is the Father surrounded by angels; below are Jesus with his Mother and Saint John the Baptist; then, 12 righteous chosen: Peter, David, Lorenzo, Adam, Paul, etc., the first citizens of the holy heavenly empire sit at each side. From this group the Holy Spirit descends in the center, while on the ground, another group of various figures portrayed in the open air, contemplates and glorifies the Host, placed in a monstrance on a small altar with the initials of Julius II. We don’t have a safe interpretation of all these figures; it seems to portray, in the corners of the altar, the four doctors of the Western Church: Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory I and Jerome. Next to the latter is Gregory the Great, and closest to him are Thomas Aquinas, the Franciscan Bonaventure, Dante, wearing his characteristic laurel crown, perhaps Fra Angelico and, surprisingly, Savonarola, burned as a heretic a few years before . All appear ecstatic, full of meekness, of faith in the humanity of Christ, and here glorified under the sublime image of the host, and in the unity and relationship of the earthly Church with the divine cohort that appears in heaven.

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Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (La Disputa) (detail), fresco, by Raphael, 1509-1510 (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). Following a 15th century tradition, Raphael placed portraits of famous personalities, both living and dead, among the people in the crowd. In this detail, Dante is visible on the right, distinguished by a crown of laurel. The presence of Savonarola (the hooded monk hidden on the back) seems strange, but may be explained by the fact that Julius II revoked Pope Alexander VI’s condemnation of Savonarola (Julius was an adversary of Alexander, who was a Borgia).

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The other two walls in the room are intended to show the protection provided by the Church to the highest meditations of humanity. On one side is the Parnassus, a beautiful group with the Muses and Apollo in the center, gathered in the forest where the ‘source of inspiration’ springs. The great poets have been admitted to this sublime choir: Sappho in the foreground, beyond Dante, Ariosto and Petrarch.

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The Parnassus, fresco, by Raphael, 1509-1510, width at base 670 cm (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). Raphael began this third composition at the end of 1509 or the beginning of 1510. It was probably the second wall of the Stanza della Segnatura to be painted after La Disputa and before The School of Athens. It represents Parnassus, the dwelling place of Apollo and the Muses and the home of poetry, according to classical myth, they are surrounded by nine poets from antiquity, and nine contemporary poets. Apollo plays a Renaissance lira da braccio and sits under a laurel grove with the nine Muses. The most eminent classical and contemporary poets are depicted together in a harmonic ascending and descending movement from left to right. Homer (wearing a deep blue robe and looking to the sky) is flanked by Dante (left) and Virgil (right), Ovid and Horace are next to Sappho in the foreground, sitting at the left with her head turned to the left and holding a scroll bearing her name, while from the “ranks” of moderns we can identify Petrarch (the hidden figure wearing a laurel crown to the left of the left side tree), Boccaccio and Ariosto; Ennius is seated above them (in yellow robe), listening to the song of the blind Homer. For his portrayal of Homer, Raphael used the face of Laocoön from the classical sculpture Laocoön and His Sons, excavated in 1506. Compositional harmony and visual counterpoint characterize the fresco: the groups of figures are bound together by continuous lines and the single characters are represented in opposed but corresponding poses. The window below the fresco frames the view of Mons Vaticanus (Vatican Hill), believed to be sacred to Apollo.

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The two opposite frescoes, next to the window, are dedicated to the Cardinal Virtues and Jurisprudence: Justinian promulgating the Pandects (on the left) and Gregory IX publishing the Decretals (on the right) representing, respectively, Civil Law and Canon Law, perhaps as metaphors for human and divine law.

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The Cardinal Virtues, fresco, by Raphael and his workshop, 1511, width at the base 660 cm (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). The lunette above the window represents the Cardinal Virtues. The volumetric modelling of these three figures suggests the influence of Michelangelo. Fortitude, dressed in armor (left), sits in the shade of an oak tree (the oak tree symbolizes strength and alludes to the Della Rovere family to which Pope Julius II belonged). Fortitude’s seated posture and the folds of her clothing are copied directly from a model Raphael had seen of Michelangelo’s Moses. Prudence is placed on the highest step of the base. She has two faces: one of a young woman who looks at her reflection in a mirror handed to her by a winged putto; the other, of an old man, the symbol of old age, of which prudence is the chief quality. Finally, Temperance is represented holding a pair of reins. The allegory was intended to include the figure of Justice as well. But Justice, being considered superior to the other virtues from a hierarchical point of view, is represented separately in one of the medallions of the vault. The three winged putti symbolize the theological virtues (Charity, gathering the fruits of the oak; Hope, in the center with a flaming torch; and Faith, at the extreme right, pointing toward the sky). Two additional putti complete the composition, giving the whole scene a free and graceful movement. The other two frescoes found lower on the wall also portray scenes concerning the law. To the left of the window is a fresco designed by Raphael but executed by his studio. It depicts the Emperor Justinian receiving the civil code known as the Pandects of the Corpus Juris Civilis from Tribonian, they were important documents of Roman Civil Law that had been brought into accordance with Canon (Church) Law. To the right of the window, Pope Gregory IX (as portrayed by Julius II) receives the code of canon law known as the Decretals from Raymond of Penyafort. Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, later to be Leo X, is standing on the pope’s far left.

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From this Stanza della Segnatura follows the Room of Heliodorus (Stanza di Eliodoro), because one of its large frescoes is intended to illustrate the biblical account of the punishment of said general of the king of Syria who tried to steal the treasures of the temple of Jerusalem. In the foreground, on the right, appears the group of the Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, who has been knocked down to the ground by three soldiers who are pursuing him (far right), while glasses and gold roll on the ground, because, as the own Book of Maccabees says, “who has his habitation in heaven, protects the holy place and exterminates those who want to harm it”. On the left, a group of women, representing the Christian people, contemplate in horror that exemplary punishment, while the Pope, in his high chair, turns his eyes to the other side, convinced of the force that he represents and that will end up humiliating everyone who intends to violate the holy temple.

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View of the Stanza di Eliodoro frescoes by Raphael, 1511-1514 (Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). After the completion of the Stanza della Segnatura, Raphael began the decoration of the adjacent room, later called the Stanza di Eliodoro, after the subject of one of the frescoes painted there. This fresco cycle was painted between September 1511 and June 1514. Julius II died during this period and his successor, Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent) wanted the last scenes to be completed. The program for this room was not a traditional one: the subjects were developed specifically for this room and for Julius II personally. The general theme is that of God’s intervention in human destiny and it is presented through four stories, two from the Acts of Apostles and the Apocrypha (The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple; The Liberation of St. Peter) and two from Church history (The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila; The Mass at Bolsena). The vaults of the ceiling represent episodes of divine intervention in the history of Israel (the Burning Bush, the Announcement of the Flood to Noah, Jacob’s Dream, the Sacrifice of Isaac). In these frescoes, Raphael enhanced his compositions by breaking up the symmetry and the enclosed rhythm he displayed in the frescoes of the Stanza della Segnatura with more lively and colorful effects thus maximizing the frescoes’ expressive effects. He represented fewer, larger figures so that their actions and emotions have more direct impact on the viewers, and he used theatrical lighting effects to spotlight certain figures and heighten tension.
The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, fresco, by Raphael, 1511-1512, width at the base 750 cm (Stanza di Eliodoro, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). The focal point of this scene is no longer at the center like in the School of Athens. Rather, it is shifted to the right. Here Heliodorus and his followers, profaning the Temple of Jerusalem, are driven out by an armed rider and by two running figures. In the depiction of the rider and the two hovering youths, Raphael follows exactly the text from Maccabees in the Apocrypha. The horse is based on Leonardo’s design for the Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. In the center, the expanse of the wide nave, illuminated by the reflections of light in the vault, is a more effective space-determining motif than the large patches of blue sky which appeared through the coffered ceiling in the School of Athens.
At the extreme left, Pope Julius II dominates the bystanders, and he reappears in subsequent scenes as well. In the center the high priest Onias of the Temple in Jerusalem is praying, the priest looks much like Julius II. Answering the prayers of the high priest Onias, God sends a horseman assisted by two youths to drive Heliodorus out of the temple who had been ordered by the king of Syria to seize the treasure preserved in the Holy place. The menorah standing by the priest in the center shows that this event, from the Old Testament, occurs in a synagogue. Together with the fresco depicting the Mass at Bolsena (see picture below), the events portrayed seem to highlight the Counter-Reformation efforts to underscore the sacredness of the services, including sacraments, occurring inside church buildings.
The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (detail), fresco, by Raphael, 1511-1512 (Stanza di Eliodoro, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). At the left of this fresco, Raphael’s patron, Pope Julius II witnesses the scene from his litter. He is surrounded by widows and orphans grouped together. This group in the fresco includes a self-portrait of Raphael as a member of the Papal retinue, to the left, right below the Pope’s left hand.

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Another wall of the Stanza di Eliodoro was also painted during the pontificate of Julius II: the lunette over the window that represents the Mass at Bolsena. The event to which this fresco refers was ancient, but a very vivid memory of it was still remembered in Rome. In the 13th century a priest, while celebrating mass in the church of Santa Cristina of Bolsena, questioned the real presence of the body of Christ in the Eucharist, and when breaking the Host, it dropped some small amount of blood.

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The Mass at Bolsena, fresco, by Raphael, 1512, width at the base 660 cm (Stanza di Eliodoro, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). The portrayed event is the basis of the Catholic ceremony of the Corpus Domini. In 1263 a Bohemian priest, troubled by doubts about the doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the body and blood of Christ are present in the Eucharist), started out on a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way he celebrated mass at Bolsena, and during the consecration the Eucharist began, miraculously, to bleed. Each time he wiped the blood away with a cloth a cross of blood would reappear on the Host, a miracle that swept away the priest’s doubts. The cloth became a venerated relic and was later kept at Orvieto Cathedral. The following year, in 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi to celebrate this miraculous event. Raphael represents the priest, the protagonist of the event, close to the center of the composition. As he raises the Host, two devotees lean over the semicircular screen which forms the background of the scene. This is a further attempt by Raphael to represent figures in a more dynamic way. Pope Julius appears at the right of the scene, a symbol of ecclesiastical authority’s presence during, and approval of, the miracle. The Pope’s attendants (four cardinals, all relatives of Julius) stand one step below and behind him. The Pope’s daughter Felice della Rovere, was portrayed on the left at the bottom of the steps, in profile, in dark clothes and dark hair. The asymmetry of the composition regards time as well as space: the excitement of the figures at the left represents a reaction to the supernatural event, which they witness; the stillness of the Pope and his attendants indicates their spiritual presence, achieved through a meditative evocation of the event.

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Raphael represented this miracle with extraordinary dignity: the door frame forms a kind of raised stage, which is reached by some steps; at the top we can see the priest of Bolsena celebrating mass, while Pope Julius II attends on his knees; behind him are his family members and below a group of papal guards in their colorful garments, red and green, beautifully depicted.

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The Mass at Bolsena (detail), fresco, by Raphael, 1512 (Stanza di Eliodoro, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). In this fresco, Raphael also included a self-portrait as one of the Swiss Guards with his flamboyant clothes in the lower right, he is the one facing out with bound-up hair.

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The decorative program of these first two rooms was projected by a nephew of Pico della Mirandola; it represented the effort to reconcile rational Aristotelian philosophy and Platonic or intuitive philosophy, which was the craze of 16th century humanists.

Also in this second room, opposite the Heliodorus fresco, the episode of the Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila was represented. The King of the Huns recoils at the sight of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, who appear to defend the Pope, and who is already the corpulent figure of Leo X, the new Pope who succeeded Julius II, whose face had already been painted by Raphael in the last cardinal on the left accompanying Leo the Great. Thus, in the same composition the features of the new pontiff appear twice.

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The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila, fresco, by Raphael and workshop, 1513-1514, base: 750 cm (Stanza di Eliodoro, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). In the last episode of the Stanza di Eliodoro, Raphael returns to the symmetrical compositional type of the Stanza della Segnatura. The painting represents Pope Leo the Great who, with the assistance of God, prevented the Huns from attacking Rome. In AD 452 Pope Leo I managed to halt Attila the Hun, on his way to invade Rome, at the river Mincio near Mantua. The Eternal City was thus saved from destruction. In the fresco, Leo X, in the figure of his namesake, is riding with great dignity in the company of his retinue towards the Huns, who are galloping into the picture from the right. A mere wave of Leo’s hand is enough to repel them. The scene is divided into two parts: at left the Pope and his attendants, poised and solemn, offer a gesture of peace to the Huns. Above them, Saints Peter and Paul brandish a sword. At right, Attila and his attendants, also on horseback, are frightened to death at the view of the two saints, whose figures are counterbalanced by an armed foot soldier. In the background are Rome and Mount Mario, on which a fire is blazing. Though Raphael is mostly attributed for the creation of The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila, his assistants painted much of it, as he directed, and they continued to finish the project even after his early death. Some of the accredited assistants include: Raffaellino del Colle, Giulio Romano, and Gianfrancesco Penni.
The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila (detail), fresco, by Raphael and workshop, 1513-1514 (Stanza di Eliodoro, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). The figure of the Pope on horseback was originally intended to represent Julius II, but this Della Rovere Pope died before the completion of the fresco, and consequently his portrait was substituted by that of his successor Leo X. Leo X also appears as cardinal, the one on the far left. The left half of the fresco was mainly executed by Raphael, with only minimal work by his students.

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The other wall of the room also alludes to the divine protection granted to the pontificate; it represents the Deliverance of Saint Peter, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, with a central window with a grill, from which intense light radiates.

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The Deliverance of St. Peter, fresco, by Raphael and Giulio Romano, 1514, width at base 660 cm (Stanza di Eliodoro, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). The story in the New Testament says that King Herod took Peter prisoner and intended to have him killed. In prison the Apostle was chained to two guards, but an angel of the Lord freed him despite the close watch. The fresco is dated 1514 on two painted tablets in the picture. Its composition clearly reflects the order and unity of the Mass at Bolsena (see picture before). But the story is broken down into three distinct episodes, taken from the Acts of the Apostles. The first (left) shows the dismay of the guards; the second (center) the appearance of the Angel of Freedom in the saint’s cell; the third (right), the bewildered Peter led by the hand of the divine messenger. The barred cell is on an upper level (like the altar in the Mass) and is reached by steps to the left and right. A group of agitated figures occupies the stairway at the left. Here, a soldier, whose armor reflects the light of the moon, asks his sleepy and bewildered comrades what is going on. At right, the angel leads the stunned and still-sleepy St. Peter past another sleeping guard. Here, for the first time, Raphael attempts a “night effect”, using both the natural light of the moon and the autonomous light of the angel. Raphael’s assistants played a greater role in painting the fresco cycles of the Eliodoro room than in the Stanza della Segnatura. This is clearly a consequence of the growing number of commissions which were granted to Raphael. The hand of Giulio Romano, one of his most faithful pupils, is visible in this fresco. This painting is the last fresco in the Stanze di Rafaello that can be attributed to Raphael with any certainty. The large fresco cycles later commissioned to him (except for the Sibyls of the church of Santa Maria della Pace) were entrusted mainly to his assistants.

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Perhaps the third room (the Stanza dell’incendio del Borgo or Room of the Fire in the Borgo) wasn’t painted by Raphael himself, who probably did nothing more than the preparatory cartoons, which were in turn developed by his pupils. The fresco that has given its name to this room represents the Fire in the Borgo, an old fire, which had been miraculously extinguished by the papal blessing. The pontiffs are no longer only the protégés of the heavenly powers, but they work miracles themselves. This composition doesn’t have that admirable order and proportion of all its components as in the frescoes of the previous rooms. Their figures are all loosely drawn: tall and corpulent women that carry water to put out the fire; supplicating matrons with their arms raised, as if they were niobids; a man carrying another, way older, on his shoulders and looking very much like the illustration in Virgil’s text when he narrates the flight of Aeneas from a burning Troy, with his father on his back and his young son following along.

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View of the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo frescoes by Raphael, 1514-1517 (Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). Between 1514 and 1517 Raphael and his workshop frescoed the walls of the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo at Leo X’s behest. The scenes depicted clearly relate to the new pope. They consist of four episodes from the history of the church during the Carolingian age, each of which has a pope named Leo, this includes the stories of the popes Leo III and Leo IV, and in each case the papal protagonist named Leo has Leo X’s facial features. In these frescoes, the illustration of themes drawn from the past mixes with the celebration of the political projects of the present Pope’s reconciliation with France. This room was prepared as a music room for Pope Leo X. Though the Fire in the Borgo scene was based on Raphael’s mature designs it was executed by his assistants, who painted the other three scenes without his guidance.
The Fire in the Borgo, fresco, by Giulio Romano, following an original design by Raphael, 1514, width at base: 670 cm (Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). The Fire in the Borgo is the most complex of the four episodes frescoed in the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo. It is full of references to classical antiquity, to medieval architecture at the time of the affirmation of the Church, and to themes used by contemporary artists. It celebrates the intercession of Leo IV, by whose grace a fire which spread through the Borgo, a popular section of Rome near the Basilica of St. Peter, was extinguished. The event depicted happened in AD 847 and is documented in the “Liber Pontificalis” (a collection of early papal biographies). Pope Leo IV managed miraculously to halt the raging fire, which was threatening an area of the city, by his benediction from the loggia of Old St Peter’s. The structure of the composition is complex: two colonnades of clear classical derivation define a square. The Pope, who again bears the features of Leo X, Raphael’s patron, blesses the frightened crowd from a gallery located beyond the colonnades. The façade of old St. Peter’s appears behind him, in the background. While those in the foreground are desperately trying to put out the fire, the female figure in yellow with her back to us is begging them to look at the only effective source of help, the pope. In this fresco, Raphael clearly was concentrating on richer, more varied, but less harmonious compositional solutions than those of his previous paintings for the stanze. The figure groups express great formal beauty, but they lack harmonious relationships and remain pure examples of episodical representation. The group in the left foreground, for example (made up of an old man on the shoulders of a young man, and a child), may be drawn from the episode of the Aeneid in which Aeneas escapes with his father, Anchises and his son, Ascanius. The woman with children in the center of the fresco and the water carrier at right, whose clothes blow in the wind, represent similar stereotypes. The male nude descending from the wall at the left recalls the heroic figures of Michelangelo. Nevertheless, the scene is highly effective and demonstrates Raphael’s skill as an illustrator, although this fresco was largely executed by his assistants, most likely by Giulio Romano.
The Oath of Leo III, fresco, by Raphael’s workshop, 1516-1517 (Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). In this fresco, Pope Leo III is taking the oath of purification at the altar of St. Peter’s in 800; he did so to clear himself of false charges in front of Charlemagne and a Roman ecclesiastical assembly. The assembled bishops declared that they could not judge the pope, after which Leo took an oath of purgation of his own free will.
The Coronation of Charlemagne, fresco, by Raphael’s workshop, 1516-1517, width at the base 670 cm (Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). Charlemagne was crowned Imperator Romanorum by Leo III in AD 800 in the Vatican Basilica. In the fresco the Emperor has the features of the French king, Francis I, who had been on the throne since 1515. The reason for this is that Leo X, unlike his predecessor, was seeking a political alliance with the French, and this was a way of honoring Francis I. Though Raphael made the designs for the composition, the fresco was probably painted by Gianfrancesco Penni.
The Battle of Ostia, fresco, by Raphael’s workshop, 1514-1515, width at base 770 cm (Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). In AD 849 the Arab fleet attacked the papal forces, but was destroyed by a storm. On the left, Leo IV, in the figure of Leo X, can be seen giving thanks. The scene is probably a reference to Leo’s intentions to mount a crusade against the Turks (Saracens). This fresco was executed by Raphael’s workshop assistants.

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The last of the rooms to be decorated, the Sala di Constantino, is a large hall in the pope’s residence that was used in the Renaissance for banquets, audiences, and receptions. In 1519, Pope Leo X commissioned new decoration for the room from Raphael. The plan was to revive the old theme of a series of popes but also to supplement it with four large scenes from the history of the Roman emperor Constantine. The episodes with the emperor were to fill the center of the walls as illusionistic tapestries with a total of eight popes from the early Christian period, depicted sitting on thrones under baldachins, on either side, flanked in turn by two virtues or personifications. By the time of his death in April 1520, Raphael had managed to produce drawings for the paintings on two walls (The Vision of the Cross and The Battle of the Milvian Bridge). On the basis of Raphael’s sketches his pupils Giulio Romano, Giovanni Francesco Penni and Raffaellino del Colle began the frescoes that year. The work was coordinated by Giulio Romano. At the time of Leo X’s death in late 1521 more than half the hall had been decorated. Leo’s successor, Hadrian IV, did not complete the project. Only in 1523, when Clement VII, Leo X’s cousin, became pope, were Giulio and Penni able to continue the decoration, which they concluded in late summer 1524. They painted the two additional scenes, the Baptism of Constantine and the Donation of Rome.

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View of the Sala di Constantino frescoes by Raphael’s workshop, 1519-1524 (Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). The theme of the Sala di Costantino is the Church’s rightful possession of lands supposedly donated to it by the Emperor Constantine in submission to the will of God. Since the deed of the Donation of Constantine had been proved to be a forgery dating from AD 750, Pope Leo X was here attempting to re-establish the Church’s rightful claim. Its paintings were not begun until Pope Julius and, indeed Raphael himself, had died. The room is dedicated to the victory of Christianity over paganism.
Vision of the Cross, fresco, by Gianfrancesco Penni, Giulio Romano and Raffaellino del Colle after drawings by Raphael, 1520-1524 (Sala di Constantino, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). The vision of the Cross appeared to Constantine in the sky on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, with the words, “In this sign thou shalt conquer”, a prophecy that was to prove true the next day when Constantine was victorious at Pons Milvius. The enthroned Pope Clement I at the right bears the features of Leo X which connects the prophecy from the early Christian past to the present world of the pope who commissioned the painting. After Raphael’s death in 1520, members of his workshop Gianfrancesco Penni, Giulio Romano and Raffaellino del Colle worked together to finish the commission. This already Mannerist painting is a crowded and confused menagerie of images, including a dragon, a dwarf, two popes, and various symbols. Proportions among the soldiers appear confused, with some dwarfed by more distant figures.
The Battle of the Milvian Bridge, fresco, by Giulio Romano and Raphael’s workshop after drawings by Raphael, 1520-1524 (Sala di Constantino, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). Leo X attached great importance to the new decorative scheme in this room for it was meant to confirm the Church’s legitimate claim to secular territory. The papacy, like the whole Vatican State, was founded on a gift of Emperor Constantine, who was said to have granted the Eternal City to the papacy. Raphael’s design satisfied the interests of Church politics, which were undoubtedly in the forefront of Leo X’s mind. This fresco, shows the battle that took place on 28 October 312 between the Roman Emperors Constantine I and Maxentius. Legend says that Constantine had a dream where a cross appeared in the heavens; a voice told him he would win the battle of Ponte Milvio if he used the cross as his standard. The cross became his standard and he won the battle, and attributed his victory to the god of Christianity.
Baptism of Constantine, fresco, by Gianfrancesco Penni, 1520-1524 (Sala di Constantino, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). Pope Clement VII altered previous Pope Leo X’s thematic plan for the remaining of the decorations of the Sala di Constantino. The new scenes desired for the two remaining walls were the Baptism of Constantine and the Donation of Rome. The scenes permitted Clement to appear in the story in the form of a portrait in the same way his cousin Leo X had done before him in the Stanze. It is Clement who, as Pope Sylvester I, baptizes Emperor Constantine in the Baptistery of the St. John Lateran and thereby frees him of sin and guilt. To the right of the baptism scene Clement VII is enthroned in a portrait in the role of Leo I, appropriately accompanied by the personifications of Innocence and Truth. While attempting to portray the control and serenity typical of the High Renaissance, the crowded scene demonstrates the Mannerist style gaining momentum towards depictions with complexity and discordance.
The Donation of Constantine (also known as Donation of Rome), fresco, by Gianfrancesco Penni or Giulio Romano, 1520-1524 (Sala di Constantino, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). In this fresco in particular, the people are moved into the foreground as spectators: men, women, and children, young and old, the healthy and the ill, all of them greet the event with curiosity and joy. The scene was inspired by the famous forged documents that supposedly granted the Popes sovereignty over Rome’s territorial dominions. The painting particularly depicts an apocryphal historical event: Emperor Constantine kneels before Pope Sylvester I and offers the Pope and his successors control of the city of Rome and the entire Western Roman Empire. The depiction of Sylvester is modeled after Pope Clement VII who was in office when the fresco was executed. The painting (anachronistically) shows the interior of the original Saint Peter’s Basilica, which was in the process of being rebuilt at the time the painting was made.

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These compositions from the Raphael rooms have served for centuries as a model for decorative paintings of historical nature; they mark the beginning of the academic style, proportionate, balanced, and composed of equal masses. Likewise, thanks to their large scale and complexity, they have been considered from the very moment of their creation as among the supreme works of the style of the High Renaissance and the “classical art” of post-antiquity West.

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