Guide To the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums
Here's my guide to visiting the breathtaking Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums in Rome Italy. The Raphael Rooms are a must visit destination inside the Vatican, a highlight among a treasure trove of Vatican masterpieces.
The Raphael Rooms are a magnificent assemblage of Renaissance frescos, one of the world's most famous Renaissance interiors. Hired by Pope Julius II, a precocious young Raphael and his assistants (especially Giulio Romano) painted dramatic frescos in four rooms in the pope's apartments between 1508-24.
With this commission, Raphael exploded onto the art scene. The result was some of the most sublime paintings of the Renaissance. Raphael's frescos are just as important in art history as the Sistine Chapel. They reflect Raphael’s ever-evolving craftsmanship and quicksilver virtuosity.
The four Raphael Rooms, also called the Raphael Stanza, are: the Room of Constantine, the Room of the Signature, Room of Heliodorus, and the Room of the Fire of Borgo.
History of the Raphael Rooms
The Raphael Rooms served as the private chambers of Julius II and subsequent popes. Julius spurned the existing papal rooms occupied by Alexander VI Borgia, an infamously corrupt pope who he loathed. Instead, Julius chose rooms on the second floor of the palace above the Borgia Apartments.
Straight away, Julius hired Perugino and Luca Signorelli to decorate the rooms. Both artists had previously worked on the Sistine Chapel. In 1508, they were joined by Raphael, who was then just 20 years old.
Julius was enthralled with Raphael's test piece. He handed over the entire fresco decoration to Raphael, giving him carte blanche to start fresh. It was a bold choice, as the young Raphael had never executed frescos this complex.
The frescos by Perugino and Signorelli were destroyed. The only remaining bit is Perugino's ceiling in the Room of the Fire, left intact at Raphael's request.
Raphael rose to the challenge. He created extensive preparatory sketches for the frescoes. He later enlarged them to full scale cartoons. The cartoons were then transferred to the wet plaster.
Raphael worked on the frescos at the same time Michelangelo was frescoing the Sistine Chapel. Legend holds that Raphael clandestinely crept in at night to inspect Michelangelo's work.
Art historian Giorgio Vasari claims that seeing Michelangelo's groundbreaking work helped push and inspire Raphael. But a curmudgeonly Michelangelo called Raphael a plagiarist. He bitterly grumbled, “Everything he had in art, he had from me.”
Raphael's frescos depict famous historic and religious events. They're framed with decorated architectural elements executed by Raphael's workshop.
Beginning in 1982, a 30 year restoration project began to conserve the Raphael Rooms. The restoration was carried out one fresco at a time, so that visitors could still enjoy Raphael’s famed works.
The Artist Raphael
Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Raphael Sanzio was one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance.
Nicknamed the "Prince of Painters," Raphael's compositions were serene and harmonious. He mastered the signature techniques of the High Renaissance -- sfumato, perspective, anatomical correctness, and authentic emotionality and expression. To that, he added vivid color and clarity.
Born in Urbino, Raphael grew up in the royal court. There, he polished his manners, sharpened his wit, and cultivated important connections.
In 1504, Raphael went to Florence. There's no question that he encountered the works of both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. (Outside the Vatican, the largest collection of Raphael works is in Florence's Pitti Palace.). In Florence, Raphael's stodgy style, resembling his teacher Perugino, gave way to a more novel and complex style.
Raphael became a boy wonder and quickly gained fame. By his mid-20s, Raphael was already a star, known for his religious works and portraits.
In 1508, Raphael was called from Florence to Rome by Pope Julius II. Raphael would spend the last 12 years of his life in Rome, producing a massive volume of stunning art. Those 12 years in the Eternal City marked the apogee of Raphael's career.
In 1517, Raphael began painting the frescos in the Villa Farnesina (shown above). But “Raphael was a very amorous person,” wrote Giorgio Vasari, his first biographer.
READ: Guide To Villa Farnesina
Raphael began a torrid affair with Margherita Luti, the baker's daughter who lived down the street. She was later immortalized in his famous painting on display at Rome's Palazzo Barberini.
In 1520, Raphael died abruptly at just 37. The diagnosis back then? According to Vasari, "too much sex" with Luti caused Raphael to spike a fever. More likely, however, an over-worked Raphael died of bloodletting and pneumonia.
When news of the handsome young artist’s death broke in Rome on April 6, 1520, Pope Leo X wept. Church bells tolled all over the city. Raphael was buried in the Pantheon, after a funeral procession with one of his most famous paintings, The Transfiguration.
What To See in the Raphael Rooms
Here's my list of the top things and masterpieces to see in the Raphael Rooms. My personal three favorite paintings are School of Athens, The Expulsion of Heliodorus, and The Liberation of St. Peter.
1. Room of Constantine
The Room of Constantine is the largest of the Raphael Rooms and the most overtly political. The frescos depict the life of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the state religion.
The room was a huge banquet hall, which was the pope's venue for official meetings and festivities.
The frescoes were designed by Raphael, but executed mostly after his death by his workshop. The frescos were intended to simulate tapestries. The scenes are interspersed with depictions of enthroned popes and female personification of the virtues.
Vision of the Cross
This is the first scene in the room on a narrow wall. Vision of the Cross depicts the vision of Constantine, wherein he sees a cross that causes him to convert to Christianity.
The scene is set in Constantine's military camp as he is about to do battle with Maxentius. The clouds part and angels bear a blood stained cross.
Battle of the Milvian Bridge
This is the largest and most famous fresco in the Room of Constantine. The tumultuous battle scene takes place after the vision. It's a complicated composition and almost difficult to decipher what's transpiring.
Constantine triumphs over his rival Maxentius even though he is outmanned. The climax of the battle is shown. Constantine is triumphant in golden armor on his white steed. Maxentius sinks into the Tiber River with his horse.
Donation of Constantine
This fresco depicts the "Donation of Constantine," a document on which popes based broad claims of spiritual and secular power. In the 15th century, the imperial document was revealed to be a medieval forgery. The painting ignores this inconvenient fact and asserts the church's rightful possession of lands.
In it, the pope is enthroned under a red baldachino. He bears the features of Clement VII. Constantine hands him a golden statuette, a symbol of the city of Rome. This scene is set in a remarkable likeness of the nave of the old St. Peter's Basilica (destroyed in the 16th century).
Baptism of Constantine
This painting depicts a legend, the baptism of Constantine. There's no documentation that this event ever occurred. At the center of the picture, Constantine kneels before Pope Sylvester I, who also has the features of Pope Clement VII.
2. Room of the Signature | Stanza della Segnatura
This room was intended to be Julius II’s study and private library. In the 15th century, it was traditional to decorate a library with frescos of great thinkers. Raphael enshrined this idea with massive compositions that reflected philosophy, theology, literature, and jurisprudence.
There were 244 manuscripts in the library. They were organized on wood shelves running around the perimeter of the room.
The painted and gilded ceiling of the room is an illusionistic masterpiece. At the center is the papal coat of arms.
There are four women in the roundels. They represent the subject matter of the books. The most recognizable one is the figure of Justice holding a sword and scales, above the books on law.
In the frescos, the skies are all connected. It's as if you walk into a single landscaped space.
School of Athens
The School of Athens is the undisputed star of the Raphael Rooms. School of Athens is Raphael's most famous and beloved painting. The painting has come to symbolize the marriage of art, philosophy, and science -- a hallmark of the Italian Renaissance.
In it, an idealized throng of the great philosophers from the classical world are gathered together, despite living at different times. The cast members converse, argue, scribble, read, and declaim on a sprawling film-like set. The viewer is fully engulfed in the painting, in theatrical style.
The painting has long barrel vaulted architectural elements. It's reminiscent of what Raphael's friend and mentor Bramante was doing at St. Peter's Basilica. The figures walk toward an assemblage of theologians, scientists, and philosophers.
The two figures in the center are Plato (on the left) and his pupil Aristotle (on the right). Plato, who points his finger in the air, may have the face of Leonardo da Vinci, the famed Renaissance master. (Even then, Leonardo was portrayed like Dumbledore.)
Plato and Aristotle are placed directly under the archway and in the fresco’s vanishing point. This was a compositional trick to draw the viewer’s eye to the central part of the painting, while simultaneously opening up a deep vista in the room.
Raphael also included a portrait of Bramante as Euclid, drawing on a chalkboard. In the lower left hand corner, Pythagorus scribbles in a notebook.
Michelangelo is depicted as the brooding figure of Heraclitus. The figure wasn't part of the original full scale 26 x 9 feet cartoon design, which is located in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan. The figure was added two years later, after Michelangelo had triumphed with the Sistine Chapel frescos.
One of my favorite portraits is of Diogenes, the cynical philosopher. He's set apart sprawled on the steps ignoring the proceedings. There's even a self portrait of Raphael, looking out with a black cap on the far right side.
Disputation over the Holy Sacrament
The Disputation is one of Raphael's most extraordinary paintings. It depicts the glorification of Christan faith and the sacrament. The fresco shows the occupants of the Catholic Church underneath the span of heaven.
The sacred altar sits in the center, the host in a monstrance (a vessel for an object of piety). Cardinal and popes surround the altar. Wearing a laurel wreath, Dante appears as both poet and theologian.
In the celestial zone, which floats on a cloud, you see the Holy Trinity. Christ is in white appearing against a medallion of golden rays. You can see the wounds from his sacrificial death.
Below are the theologians. What the figures are "disputing" is the nature of the wafer inside the monstrous. Is it a symbol of Christ or is it Christ? Pope Julius II decided it was Christ, launching the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation wherein the host becomes the body of Christ.
Apollo on Mount Parnassus
Parnassus was reputedly the home of the god Apollo. He was regarded as the god of poetry. The central figure in this fresco depicts Apollo, seated below a laurel tree and signified by the lyre he holds.
Apollo is surrounded by the nine Muses, from whom all artistic interpretation flows. He looks upward toward the female personification of poetry on the ceiling roundel. Apollo is surrounded by Homer, Dante, and Sappho.
3. Room of Heliodorus
The Room of Heliodorus was recently restored in 2020, the last of the Raphael Rooms to be conserved. Now, you can see the room's vibrant colors, exposed after centuries of grime. Julius used the room for his private audiences.
The decoration was intended to reflect the power of the church and the protection granted by Christ. The room's name derives from the fresco depicting the expulsion of Heliodorus.
The Expulsion of Heliodorus
This painting tells an Old Testament story. Helidodus was a successor of Alexander the Great. Heliodorus stole a precious treasure from the Temple of Jerusalem. But before he could abscond with it, he was attacked by heavenly messengers and his theft thwarted.
Raphael depicts the moment with high drama and theatrical lighting effects. Heliodorus lies on the floors, felled by blows.
The fresco colors are extraordinary. They were likely inspired by Michelangelo's vivid colors in the Sistine Chapel.
The Miracle of Bolsena
On the other wall is the Miracle of Bolsena. This fresco depicts the miracle of the host in 1264. A skeptical priest was convinced when blood miraculously dripped from the host. Bread doesn't bleed; only flesh can bleed.
In skillful fashion, Raphael worked around an intrusive door. He raised the altar area and gave it a columned architectural backdrop.
Fictive stairs lead up both sides. Raphael placed the congregation and pope's retinue in the lower level on the two sides.
The Liberation of St. Peter
This is one of my favorite paintings in the Raphael Rooms. The frescos depict the liberation of St. Peter from jail. An angel, surrounded by bright light, comes at night to rescue him. She leads him out of prison without the guards noticing.
This theme of liberation also exalted Pope Julius, who was busy liberating Rome from its oppressors.
This fresco showed off Raphael's virtuosity as a painter of night scenes. The gloom and doom of the dungeon contrasts with the blazing light of the angel, which enhances her otherworldly nature. The angel isn't in front of the light; she is the light.
The light even bounces off the guards' armor. On the left, there's a beautiful crescent moon, with clouds drifting by. This helps illuminate the painting internally.
Pope Leo the Great Turns Away Attila the Hun
This painting shows the meeting of Pope Leo the Great with Attila, king of the Huns, who wanted to pillage Rome. This event actually took place in the northern town of Mantua. But Raphael sets it in Rome, with the Colosseum in the background.
At the center of the picture is Attila. He leans back on his horse as he witnesses the miracle of St. Peter and St. Paul appearing to save the pope. With this celestial protection at the ready, Pope Leo stares down the mighty army and orders them to halt simply by raising his right hand.
The pope is in gold astride his horse. The fresco is an actual portrait of the pope.
The pope also appears as the cardinal on the left. The pope was elevated while the painting was being executed. The most famous portrait of Pope Leo is one by Raphael in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
4. Room of the Fire in the Borgo
The Room of the Fire was the last room Raphael worked on. It was Pope Leo's dining room.
Most people don't stop in this room. But there's one beautiful painting you should see, Fire in the Borgo. It was co-executed by Raphael and his favorite pupil Giulio Romano. Romano would go on to establish his fame with the frescos of Te Palace in Mantua.
The miraculous events depicted in the painting took place in 847 during the reign of Pope Leo IV. A fire raged and threatened to destroy the Borgo neighborhood, located between the old St. Peter's Basilica and Castle Sant'Angelo.
In the foreground of the painting, there's anarchy. The pope steps out to give a blessing from the papal loggia. This blessing caused the fire to burn out and saved the citizens.
It's a dramatically rendered scene. Emotions are on display. Romano makes the musculature of the figures stand out, a feature of Mannerism.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Raphael Rooms at the Vatican
The Raphael Rooms are included with your general admission ticket to the Vatican Museums. They are located on the second floor of the Vatican Palace (third floor for Americans), overlooking the south side of the Belvedere Courtyard.
The Raphael Rooms are on the route to the Sistine Chapel. But it's easy to miss them because they are a detour away from the Sistine Chapel. The guard may even direct you into the chapel. Just be vigilant and follow signs to the Raphael Rooms.
If you are planning on booking a tour of the Vatican Museums, make sure the tour includes a visit to the Raphael Rooms. The rooms aren't on every tour itinerary.
If it isn't on your tour, you may want to leave your group before it goes into St. Peter's Basilica. Once you're in the basilica, you can't backtrack to the Raphael Rooms or the museums in general.
Address: Viale Vaticano, 00165 Rome
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
Entry fee: € 17. € 21 if purchased online, which is recommended. On the last Sunday of each month, the Vatican Museums can be visited free of admission charge from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. But it will likely be packed.
Pro tips: There's also a strict dress code at the Vatican -- no shorts, no hats, no bare shoulders. Be forewarned, if you're there in the summer, there's no air conditioning and it can feel suffocating.
How to get to the Vatican: The Vatican museums can be accessed by foot, metro, or bus. You can literally just walk right in. The metro stops are Ottaviano an Cipro. Or take bus #40 or 64. If you arrive at St. Peter's Basilica first, it's a 15 minute walk to get to the actual Vatican entrance.
I hope you've enjoyed my guide to the Raphael Rooms. You may enjoy these other travel guides and resources for Rome and the Vatican:
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