November 2, 2016

Face To Face With The Geniuses Of The Renaissance In The Raphael Rooms


We all know about Michelangelo and his artistic achievements in the Sistine Chapel. But while Michelangelo was covering the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with prophets, sibyls and stories from the Bible, another artist was working on his own masterpieces… just a few rooms away — and he was a favorite of the pope. His name was Raphael and, although very young, he was able to compete with the master of the masters: Michelangelo Buonarroti. After roaming around northern Italy and spending several years in Florence, Raphael came to the Eternal City, where he immediately won the commission of a lifetime — to paint the papal apartments in the Vatican. Although he was only in his mid-twenties, Raphael was already being recognized as one of the most talented painters of the age, and he was chosen by Pope Julius II for the daunting task of decorating his private rooms.


In terms of importance and scale, nothing Raphael had done before came close. He was now tasked with painting every wall and ceiling of four large rooms in the Vatican, which the Pope may have intended to surpass the grandeur of Alexander Borgia’s rooms. Raphael didn’t disappoint. He was hard at work on the rooms – which later came to be known as the “Raphael Rooms” – for several years. When Pope Julius II died in 1513, Raphael formed a close relationship with Julius’s successor, Pope Leo X, and continued to work on the frescoes that today you can admire during one of the many Vatican tour available.


Of the four rooms he decorated, The School of Athens is the most famous painting, and arguably one of Raphael’s greatest achievements as an artist. This iconic fresco, which has been described as “the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance”, depicts a large group of philosophers gathered on the steps of a grand building. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and Diogenes are just some of the famous figures that have been identified, 

although art historians continue to debate over the identities of some of the figures. Raphael also included portraits of some important contemporary artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci as Plato and Michelangelo as Heraclitus, and of course himself, highlighting the link between Renaissance Italy and Ancient Greece, thus powerfully creating a sense of unity and continuity that spans the centuries.

Although each fresco in this particular room is said to represent a distinct branch of knowledge, in the School of Athens Raphael seems to recognize the connection between different kinds of genius. The harmonious composition and setting also suggests that Raphael saw parallels and even unity between paganism and Christianity. The building is reminiscent of a cathedral or basilica, yet features statues of pagan gods.


But the School of Athens is just one of the many paintings to be found in the Raphael Rooms, and part of a greater scheme: the whole point here was to reinforce and restate the papal authority, his spiritual and temporal power. Some other famous frescoes besides the School of Athens are the so-called The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, and the atmospheric Deliverance of St Peter, both following the ratio described above. From an artistic point of view, the latter is easily overlooked due to its position above a door, but it’s perhaps one of Raphael’s most beautiful works, as he depicts an intimate, moonlit scene where St Peter is freed from prison by an angel. It is noticeable here that Raphael somehow anticipates Caravaggio‘s study and use of light, then known as chiaroscuro technique.

The Raphael Rooms are also remarkable for their variety. In addition to the Christian scenes, there are paintings with pagan themes (The Cardinal Virtues) and frescoes depicting historical events (The Fire in the Borgo, in which Raphael was particularly influenced by Michelangelo’s grandiose style). It’s only when you visit the Vatican that you can truly appreciate the full extent of Raphael’s extraordinary, visionary talent. Although, some other frescoes by Raphael can also be admired at Villa Farnesina in Rome. Particularly memorable here, his depiction of Galatea (on the right).


Many impatient visitors rush through the Raphael Rooms on their way to the Sistine Chapel, but it’s worth lingering a while to admire these stunning masterpieces, and learn the story of their composition. An expert tour guide here would be particularly useful, to make a sense out of a visually overwhelming experience. The options are many and most tour operators offer group or Vatican private tours that you can choose from. This way you’ll have the chance to see the Raphael Rooms for yourself, and understand why the young man from Urbino became, so quickly, the favorite of the Pope and beloved by his adopted city.