Honors in Rome - Summer 2006
The Renaissance: a rebirth, a revival of learning and culture. In Italy, Rome and Florence were the seats of this rebirth, both cities seeing a massive influx of art that reflect the papal throne. The climax of the Renaissance period culminated in the production of masterpieces, known as High Renaissance art, that are to this day studied worldwide.
Known as the papa terribile, Pope Julius II, nephew of Sixtus IV, of the della Rovere family ascended the papal throne in 1503 (Szabo 73). Like his uncle, Julius aimed to regain land lost to foreigners, reinforce the power of the Church and strengthen a united Christian state. Julius was notoriously temperamental but also a patron of the arts and the fact that under his papal reign so many masterpieces were commissioned and completed is a testament to his success as a Renaissance pope (Joost-Gaugier).
Not wanting to live in the same quarters as his predecessor Alexander VI Borgia, Julius chose to redecorate four rooms on the floor above, which would later be known as the Raphael Stanze. However, at the time of this commission the rooms already contained work by Signorelli, Perugino and Peruzzi (Hersey 129). In late 1508, with the recommendation of Bramante, Pope Julius II summoned the young and unknown Raphael Santi of Urbino to join the team of painters already working in the Vatican. The pope was so greatly impressed with Raphael’s work upon his arrival that he released almost all the other painters in favor of the new comer (Szabo 74).
Between the years 1508 and 1524 Raphael and his team of assistants and pupils painted the frescos that cover the walls of the Stanze. Each individual stanza aims to achieve and overall, they are representations of the papal reigns of Julius II, Leo V and Clement VII. In the end, it was this commission that thrust Raphael, then a very young painter, forward into international prominence (Joost-Gaugier).
Located on the second floor of the Pontifical Palace the four rooms of Raphael’s Stanze form an apartment chosen and used by Guiliano della Rovere, Pope Julius II and later by other popes. The four rooms, Sala di Constantino, Stanza d’Eliodoro, Stanza dell’Incendio and Stanza della Segnatura, form a rectangular-like shape that today is situated among the Vatican Museums.
Sala di Constantino
Sala di Constantino, the largest of the four and last to be completed, depicts the triumph of Christianity over Paganism which is easily identifiable by simply looking at the main fresco gracing the ceiling that shows a crucifix standing tall above a destroyed pagan sculpture. This theme is shown through the use of Constantine, the first Christian emperor to officially recognize the Christian faith, as the protagonist on all the walls (Thoenes). The frescos show scenes from his life and include the Vision of the Cross, The Battle at Milvian Bridge, The Baptism of Constantine and The Donation of Constantine. Painted between 1517 and 1524 the room was finished after the death of both Julius II and Raphael, under Pope Clement VII and because of this, the room was finished by his workshop and therefore is not held in the same regard as the others.
Like with the Sala di Constantino, Raphael hardly participated in the painting of the Stanza dell’Incendio, and once again his workshop completed the majority of the work between 1514 and 1517. For this reason this stanza is not considered a masterpiece of Raphael, however, it does receive attention because of his preliminary involvement. Overall the frescos refer to the pontifical policies of Leo X through historical episodes and of course the pope appears as the principal figure in the four events from the life of Leo III and Leo IV, all alluding to events in his own reign (Baldini 126, de Campos 68-69). Taking place as if on stage, the Fire in the Borgo is an episode taken from the Liber Pontificalis (book of the popes) and shows the miracle in which Pope Leo IV extinguishes a fire that broke out in the Borgo area outside of the Vatican in 847. Also mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis, The Battle of Ostia shows the military victory won by Leo IV in 849 and alludes to the war plans of the pope and to the military defense works which he had built along the coast of the papal state (de Campos 74).
Work on the Stanza d’Eliodoro, second to be painted, began during the final year of Julius’ papal reign and was completed in the second year of Leo X’s. Painted between 1512 and 1514 the four episodes were selected from biblical and ecclesiastical history. This stanza, commissioned by the pope as he returned defeated from military campaigns in France and northern Italy, is intended to show how in times of doubt and in seemingly hopeless situations God will triumph (de Campos 34). The Expulsion of Heliodorus shows Heliodorus, a Syrian officer who, on the orders of King Seleucus, tried to plunder the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem and depicts what ensues after the failed attempt. The Liberation of St. Peter portrays the first pope to be cast into prison by Herod in Jerusalem and uses light illuminations to capture the viewer’s eye, focusing on the angel and Jesus Christ (34-35). The fresco of The Mass of Bolsena honors the miracle in which at mass in 1263 the consecrated host began to bleed and thereby convinced the doubtful priest of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. While in the Repulse of Attila, the only fresco in the room not to be completed under Julius, Pope Leo I is at the Italian frontier and persuades Attila the Hun to turn back (52). Playing an essential part in each wall of the Stanza d’Eliodoro God can be found symbolically portrayed. For example He can be seen through the pope, an angel or as the consecrated host.
Stanza della Segnatura
The first, most well-known and famous stanza is the Stanza della Segnatura painted between 1508 and 1511 that contains four of Raphael’s masterpieces, The Disputa, The School of Athens, Justice and Parnassus. Intended to be used by Julius as a library each of these four frescos respectively represents: Theology, philosophy, law and poetry. For each he developed extensive figure groups that occupy the walls to their fullest extent and in the end, they serve as very early monumental examples of the High Renaissance style in painting (Langkals 35, Hersey 129).
Representing the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament The Disputa (theology) may also serve as a reminder of a Vatican disputation of 1452, in which Francesco della Rovere, Julius’ uncle and future pope Sixtus IV, defended the Corpus Christi as singularly holy. In the right foreground Sixtus appears as the standing figure of the pope in the gold robe while Julius is sitting to the left of the altar without a beard (Thoenes 38-39). In the center of the fresco, on the altar, stands the monstrance containing the consecrated host, the embodiment of the mystery of the Eucharist surrounded by individuals from church history and anonymous figures. Above all is God the Father surrounded by the golden rays and just below in the heavens appears the Trinity, the focal point of this fresco with prophets, apostles and saints on either side. At the feet of Christ is the dove of the Holy Spirit with four angels holding open the four books of the Gospels (de Campos 9, Hersey 136, Joost-Gaughier 66-67). The Disputa is thought to show Christianity’s triumph over and transformation of, the sources of thought portrayed in The School of Athens, opposite (Hersey, 135).
The School of Athens
The most famous fresco of the room is The School of Athens (philosophy) which houses pagan thinkers and scholars. The school is an open, spacious building decorated with reliefs and statues of the gods, including states of Apollo and Minerva in the niches. In the center of the fresco stand the two main thinkers of the school, Plato, holding his Timaeus under his arm and pointing upward at the realm of ideas, and Aristotle gesturing toward the earthly domain with his Ethics in his other hand (Thoenes 42-43). Next to Plato on the left is Socrates conversing with Athenian citizens and in front, writing, is Pythagoras surrounded by a group of students. On the right in the foreground is Bramante as Euclid explaining geometry to his pupils. On the edge of Euclid’s gown are the letters RVSM meaning Raphael Urbinas Sua Manu—“Raphael of Urbino, by his hand”, a tribute from the grateful pupil to his master. Raphael appears on the far right and can be spotted because he is looking out to the observers of the painting. Many others grace this composition, including Ptolemy holding a terrestrial sphere; Zoroaster carrying a celestial sphere and Francesco Maria della Rovere in a white cloak on the left (Thoenes 42-43, Hersey 132-135). Added in later is Michelangelo as a somber Heraclitus who leans against a block of marble as if mocking him.
This beautifully executed fresco blends together the classical thinkers into a dramatic and theatrical scene under which books from the great scholars would have been kept. The way in which Raphael so effortlessly brings together the group is an example of Renaisssance art at its greatest (Hall 1).
The Justice (law) wall is divided into three separate frescos together representing civil law, canon law and divine law (Joost-Gaugier 136-144). The scenes on either side of the central window represent civil and ecclesiastical law and together illustrate jurisprudence, the philosophy or science of law. The scene on the left shows Emperor Justinian accepting the Digest, the first part of the body of Roman civil law (corpus juris civilis), from its author, Byzantine jurist Tribonianus (Hersey 141). While on the right, Raymund of Penafort is presenting Pope Gregory IX with the Liber Extra of the Decretals, a collection of papal decress forming the basic of canon law (corpus juris canonici). The lunette above contains the seated figures of Fortitude, Prudence and Temperance or the three cardinal virtues. Also contained in the lunette are three putti representing the theological virtues—chastity, hope and faith. Raphael has given the pope the features of Julius II; standing behind him are cardinals de’ Medici and Farnese, the future popes Leo X and Paul II—half a century of Vatican history (Thoenes 43-44).
Shown in this fresco is the mythological mountain, Parnassus, of Apollo and the muses that is representative of poetry. Apollo, god of music, poetry and fine arts, is playing the lyre surrounded by the nine muses each attributed to a different art or science and 18 Greek, Latin and Italian writers, for example Dante, Homer and Virgil. The lyre is an ancient Greek instrument and is synonymous with lyric poetry. Also making an appearance is Sappho, known through the words of Plato as the Tenth Muse, in the right foreground (Joost-Gaughier 117-119). The arrangement of the figures, with the use of delicate and bright colors, is unforced, harmonious, their faces measure, not caught up in the heated argument in the Disputa (Thoenes 39-42).
The program of the Stanza della Segnatura is reinforced by the use of the accompanying frescos on the ceiling. The four disciplines are represented as patterns of four, which serve as the basic structure for the arrangement of circular and rectangular frescos (Joost-Gaugier 43). Above The Disputa is theology, a noble woman in a red gown bearing the colors of the theological virtues: white for faith, green for hope and red for charity. Also, she holds a book a book in her left hand while with her other gestures to the crowd of saints and theologians in the fresco below. Representing justice is a women wearing blue drapery with representations of the four elements. Over the School of Athens is philosophy who holds two books, one entitled moralis and the other naturalis. With a book in her right and a lyre in her left poetry can be found above Parnassus with an inscription (translated) of “she is inspired by god” (Hersey 142-143). Between theology and justice The Fall of Adam Eve is found, between justice and philosophy the Judgment of Solomon and between poetry and theology Apollo and Marsyas (143-144).
The purpose of the stanze is simple: private papal rooms. The specific use, whether as a dining room, library or reception room, changed over the papacies (de Campos 7). However, it is important for us to remember that each has its own distinct message or theme that was used by the reigning pope to establish their power and that of the Church.
In the Sala di Constantino Leo X used its decoration to show the supremacy of the Church and the end of antiquity. Likewise, in the Stanza dell’Incendio illustrates moments in papal history that illustrates Rome’s dominance in the world during the 9th century drawing parallels between then and the 16th century. Once again in the Stanza d’Eliodoro, painted under Julius II, the triumph of God over hardship is the focus, representative of troubles he faced in his own reign and in the end was successful. And therefore this piece is intended to confirm the authority of the pope and their papacy. Lastly, the Stanza della Segnatura functions as a categorized library but nonetheless is incredibly impressive and could have been used simply used to show the papal power in the realm of knowledge. Although not as obvious as the others this stanza does work as a symbol of power. It is made evident in The Disputa where God triumphs over the philosophical knowledge from his high location in the fresco.
All of the rooms work consistently with the goals of the popes. For example, in Stanza d’Eliodoro, commissioned by Julius, God is shown after returning from military campaigns Therefore he intended to show how in times of doubt and in seemingly hopeless situations God will triumph. They reflect the desire of a powerful and united stated under the Church and the goal to drive foreigners off papal lands. Lastly, remaining areas on the wall are covered with symbols of the papal families and their coat of arms.
To this day, the Raphael Stanze function as veneration of Christianity, the Church and its pope. The themes illustrated in the frescos are still important to the Church and the triumph of God is ever present in the 21st century as it was in the sixteenth. Also, the rooms function as a source of study and analysis especially of Renaissance art. Raphael’s work in the Vatican rooms is considered an exemplary example of the style, colors and brushwork attributed to the Renaissance period.
Baldini, Nicoletta. Raphael. New York, NY. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2005. p. 114-131
De Campos, d. Redig. Raphael in the Stanze. Milan, Italy. Aldo Martello Editore.
Ed. Hall, Marcia. Raphael’s School of Athens. Cambridge University Press, 1997. p. 1-48.
Hersey, George. High Renaissance art in St. Peter’s and the Vatican. Chicago, 1993. p. 129-158.
Ed. Szabo, Danko. I, Raphael. Prestel Verlag, 2004.
Zangkals, Alexander. Raphael. Lifelines. Prestel Verlag, 2004.