Raphael’s Rooms

The four rooms known as the Stanze of Raphael formed part of the apartment situated on the second floor of the Pontifical Palace that was chosen by Julius II della Rovere (pontiff from 1503 to 1513) as his own residence and used also by his successors. The pictorial decoration was executed by Raphael and his school between 1508 and 1524.

Room of the Segnatura [1508-1511]

The Room of the Segnatura contains Raphael’s most famous frescoes. Besides being the first work executed by the great artist in the Vatican they mark the beginning of the high Renaissance. The room takes its name from the highest court of the Holy See, the “Segnatura Gratiae et Iustitiae”, which was presided over by the pontiff and used to meet in this room around the middle of the 16th century. Originally the room was used by Julius II (pontiff from 1503 to 1513) as a library and private office. The iconographic programme of the frescoes, which were painted between 1508 and 1511, is related to this function. It was certainly established by a theologian and meant to represent the three greatest categories of the human spirit: Truth, Good and Beauty. Supernatural Truth is illustrated in the Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament (theology), while rational Truth is illustrated in the School of Athens (philosophy). Good is expressed in the Cardinal and Theological Virtues and the Law. Beauty is represented in the Parnassus with Apollo and the Muses. The frescoes of the ceiling are connected with the scenes below them. The allegorical figures of Theology, Philosophy, Justice and Poetry allude in fact to the faculties of the spirit painted on the corresponding walls. Under Leo X (pontiff from 1513 to 1521) the room was used as a small study and music room, in which the pontiff also kept his collection of musical instruments. The original furnishings of the time of Julius II were removed and replaced with a new wooden wainscot, the work of Fra Giovanni da Verona. The wood covered all the walls with the exception of that of the Parnassus, where, for reasons of space, the same decoration, still visible today, was painted in fresco. The wooden wainscot was probably destroyed following the Sack of Rome in 1527 and in its place, during the pontificate of Paul III (pontiff from 1534 to 1549) a wainscot in chiaroscuro was painted by Perin del Vaga.

Disputation over the Most Holy Sacrament
On the wall opposite the School of Athens, corresponding to Theology, is the fresco of the so-called Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament, the title of which should more rightly be that of the Triumph of Religion. 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 centre) is the Triumphant Church, with patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament alternated with apostles and martyrs, seated in a hemicycle on the clouds. The personages are (from left to right for the viewer). St Peter, Adam, St John the Evangelist, David, St Laurence, Judas Maccabees, St Stephen, Moses, St James the elder, Abraham, St Paul. On the ground, at the sides of the altar on which the Most Holy Sacrament dominates, is the Militant Church. On the marble thrones closest to the altar sit four Fathers of the Latin Church: St Gregory the Great (a portrait of Julius II), St Jerome, St Ambrose and St Augustine. Some other figures have the physiognomy of historical personages. We recognize the portrait of Sixtus IV (Julius II’s uncle) in the pontiff furthest to the right, of Dante Alighieri behind him and of Fra Angelico in the monk on the extreme left.

School of Athens
The most famous philosophers of ancient times move within an imposing Renaissance architecture which is inspired by Bramante’s project for the renewal of the early Christian basilica of St Peter. Some of these are easily recognizable. In the centre Plato points upwards with a finger and holds his book Timeus in his hand, flanked by Aristotle with Ethics; Pythagoras is shown in the foreground intent on explaining the diatesseron. Diogenes is lying on the stairs with a dish, while the pessimist philosopher, Heracleitus, a portrait of Michelangelo, is leaning against a block of marble, writing on a sheet of paper. Michelangelo was in those years executing the paintings in the nearby Sistine Chapel. On the right we see Euclid, who is teaching geometry to his pupils, Zoroaster holding the heavenly sphere and Ptolemy holding the earthly sphere. The personage on the extreme right with the black beret is a self-portrait of Raphael.

Cardinal and Theological Virtues and the Law
On the wall opposite the Parnassus, corresponding to Justice, is an illustration of the Cardinal Virtues (Fortitude, Prudence and Temperance) and the Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity) in the lunette above, and below, at the sides of the window, the Delivery of the Pandects to the Emperor Justinian (on the left) and the Delivery of the Decretals to Pope Gregory IX. The pontiff is a portrait of the Pope who had commissioned the work, Julius II (pontiff from 1503 to 1513), while the cardinals beside him are Giovanni de’ Medici and Alessandro Farnese, the future Popes Leo X (pontiff from 1513 to 1521) and Paul III (pontiff from 1534 to 1549). The painting of the Delivery of the Pandects to the Emperor Justinian is by Lorenzo Lotto.

Parnassus
Beneath Poetry, Mount Parnassus is represented: the god Apollo, seated at the centre, plays the lyre surrounded by the nine Muses, protectresses of the arts, and by ancient and modern poets, among whom Homer (blind), Virgil and Dante are easily recognisable behind him, as well as the poetess Sapphos seated at the bottom left, with her name written on the scroll she holds in her left hand.

Ceiling
The ceiling is divided into four sections dedicated to each of the faculties of the spirit, represented with female allegories: Philosophy, Theology, Poetry and Justice. The same concepts are revisited and explored further in the great compositions on the surrounding walls. Philosophy corresponds to perhaps the most famous work by Raphael, the School of Athens, Theology to Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, Poetry to the Parnassus and Justice to the Cardinal and Theological Virtues and the Law.

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Room of Heliodorus [1511-1514]

This room was originally used for the private audiences of the Pope and was decorated by Raphael immediately after the Segnatura. The room’s programme is political and aims at documenting, in different historical moments from the Old Testament to medieval history, the miraculous protection bestowed by God on the Church. Faith had been threatened (Mass of Bolsena), in the person of its pontiff (Liberation of St Peter), in its site (Encounter of Leo the Great with Attila) and in its patrimony (Expulsion of Heliodorus from the temple). These were also chosen to express the political programme of Julius II (pontiff from 1503 to 1513), aimed at freeing Italy, at the time occupied by the French, to restore the temporal power under threat to the papacy. The four episodes of the Old Testament on the ceiling are the work of Raphael, while in the grotesques and in the arches there are still some parts that can be attributed to Luca Signorelli, Bramantino, Lorenzo Lotto and Cesare da Sesto. They date to the first decoration commissioned by Julius II at the beginning of his pontificate, that was interrupted and then replaced by the present one due to the pontiff’s great admiration for the first frescoes of Raphael in the adjoining room of the Segnatura.

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