SARONNO, Italy - There are four rooms known as the Stanze of Raphael that form the public part of the Papal apartment at the Palace of the Vatican. They were commissioned by a man who was called the ‘Terrible Pope’, and the ‘Warrior Pope’, a man who had little sympathy for his enemies but who also was one of the Renaissance’s most influential patrons of the arts, Pope Julius II.
When Julius II became Pope in 1503, he fervently wanted to restore Rome to its former glory was singularly blessed in having two of the greatest architects of all time at his disposal. The first, Michelangelo, whom he put to work on the Sistine Chapel in spite of his furious objections, and the second, a young painter from Urbino, Rafaello Sanzio, known simply as Raphael, who had no objections to working for the Pope at all.
|Pope Julius II The Terrible|
It was Donato Bramante, a famous Italian architect and painter best known for his work on St. Peter's Basilica, who told Julius about Raphael’s genius. He said the young painter was equal in every way to Michelangelo, which piqued the Pope’s interest. Julius, who genuinely loved art, had inherited a set of rooms that had been beautifully frescoed, but unfortunately they bore the imprint of his arch enemy, the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI.
Pope Julius decided to move to another floor and be free of the Borgia influences. With Michelangelo totally immersed in the Sistine Chapel, the Pope turned to the young Raphael, realizing that with the talented young painter he had a real opportunity to make his own mark on the Vatican and possibly eclipse the fame of the Borgia. The pope offered Raphael the opportunity to fresco his newly chosen private apartment never imagining that his painter would become far more famous than he.
|Detail of the Disputa|
The first room in the papal apartments to be decorated by Raphael was the study in which the "Signatura Gratiae" tribunal was originally located (Stanza della Segnatura). Each wall is decorated with an allegorical painting of one of the four elements that make up the universe: air, water, fire and earth. The first, started sometime in 1508, is the Disputa, or Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, an Adoration of the Sacrament. Then, toward the end of 1509, Raphael began work on the second fresco, the School of Athen, which represents the truth acquired through reason. One year later he began the third composition which represents Parnassus, the dwelling place of Apollo and the Muses and, according to classical myth, the birthplace of poetry, while the two scenes on the fourth wall contain the Cardinal Virtues.
|Expulsion of Heliodorus|
The room known as the Stanza d'Eliodoro, was painted sometime around 1511, after Raphael had seen the first half of the Sistine Chapel. This is a political work, reflecting Julius' obsessive hatred of the French and his determination to drive them out of Italy. Julius appears in person at the left, a majestic figure, while his enemies ore destroyed by heavenly intervention.
In The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, Raphael illustrated the biblical episode from II Maccabees (3:21-28), the story of Heliodorus who was sent to seize the treasure kept in the Temple of Jerusalem but was stopped when the prayers of the temple priest were answered by angels who flogged the intruder and chased him from the temple.
The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila illustrating the legendary encounter between the Pope and Hun conqueror, and the Deliverance of Saint Peter, showing how Saint Peter was liberated from prison by an angel, and symbolizes the power of the Vicar of Christ to escape human restraints are shown on the other two walls.
|Vision of the Cross|
The fresco of The Vision of the Cross in the Sala di Constantino tells the legendary story of a great cross appearing to Constantine as he marched to confront his pagan rival Maxentius, son of the Roman Emperor Maximian and his wife Eutropia.
The other frescoes in the Sala are The Donation of Constantine, inspired by the famous forged documents that granted the Popes sovereignty over their territorial dominions, and The Baptism of Constantine, which was not painted by Raphael but by Gianfrancesco Penni, and shows the emperor on his deathbed.
|Fire in the Borgo|
The Stanza of the Fire in the Borgo was named for an event documented in the Liber Ponticalis regarding a fire that broke out in a Borgo near the Vatican in 847. The fire was contained by Pope Leo IV when he made the sign of the cross and the raging fire was extinguished. This room was orignially prepared as a music room for Julius' successor, Leo X which is why the frescos depict events from the lives of Popes Leo III and Leo IV.
The other paintings in the room are The Oath of Leo III, an oath of purgation which he took on December 23, 800 AD, in connection with charges brought against him by the nephews of his predecessor Pope Hadrian I, The Coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III, showing Charlemagne being crowned Imperator Romanorum (Roman Emperor) on Christmas Day in the year 800, and The Battle of Ostia, celebrating the naval victory of Leo IV over the Saracens at Ostia in 849.
While this is only the most superficial of explanations for these wondrous works of art, I hope that in some small way they tweak your interest to explore their stories and other treasures found not only at the Vatican, but throughout Italy.