Raphael Rooms: Vatican Museum
Papal Apartments and Museum, Famous for Wall/Ceiling Fresco Paintings by Raffaello Santi.

Detail from, The School of Athens
(1509-11), in the ‘Raphael Rooms’.
Regarded by critics as one of the
greatest Renaissance paintings.
Stanze di Raffaello are part of
the museum complex of the Vatican
Palace, whose unique collection of
Renaissance paintings, sculptures,
tapestries and other works of art make
it one of the world's best art museums.

Uffizi Gallery Florence
Pitti Palace, Florence
Doria Pamphilj Gallery
Capodimonte Museum, Naples
Venice Academy Gallery
Reina Sofia, Madrid
Prado Museum Madrid
Mauritshuis Art Museum
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Raphael Rooms (c.1508-20)

The four Raphael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello), belonging to the Vatican Museums in Rome, visited by over 4 million people a year, are named after the great High Renaissance painter who decorated them. Also sometimes referred to by art historians as "the papal apartments", these four Stanze di Raffaello, consist of: the Room of the Signature (Stanza della Segnatura), the Room of Heliodorus (Stanza di Eliodoro), the Room of the Borgo Fire (Stanza dell'incendio del Borgo), and the Room of Constantine (Sala di Costantino). All four are world famous for the fresco paintings on their walls and ceilings, painted by Raphael and members of his workshop, and are among the finest art museums in Europe.

Cultural Legacy

In terms of doctrinal content and stylistic development, the Raphael Rooms contain the richest series of High Renaissance painting ever produced in one location. Along with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes (and Raphael's Loggias), they house the grand program of mural painting that marks the apogee of the Renaissance in Rome, and include some of the most famous examples of religious art.

However, unlike both sets of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel (viz, the Genesis ceiling and Last Judgment altar wall), which were painted entirely by the solitary Michelangelo, a number of the frescos in the Raphael Rooms - especially in the Room of the Borgo Fire and the Room of Constantine, were the work of Raphael's assistants, notably Giulio Romano (c.1499-1546).

Detail from, The School of Athens
showing Plato and Aristotle.

Before visiting the Raphael Rooms
in the Vatican Museums, see:
Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art.

National Gallery London
Tate Gallery
Courtauld Gallery
British Royal Art Collection
Victoria & Albert Museum
Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts
Strasbourg Museum of Fine Arts
Musee Conde, Chantilly
Louvre Museum

Pontiffs occupying the Vatican
while the Raphael Rooms were
being decorated include:
Alexander VI (1492-1503)
Pius III (1503)
Julius II (1503-1513)
Leo X (1513-1521)
Adrian VI (1522-1523)
Clement VII (1523-1534)

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For the chronology and dates
see: History of Art Timeline.

For the finest canvases, see:
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Finest Art Museums in America.



The Raphael Rooms were part of the Vatican Palace suite selected by Pope Julius II (1503-13) as his personal residence. Three of the rooms had formerly been the residence of Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455); the larger fourth room, dated back to the 13th century Pope Nicholas III (1277-80).

The rooms had originally been decorated by Early Renaissance artists during the preceding Alexander VI and Pius III papacies (c.1490-1503), including Piero della Francesca (1420-92), Bramantino (1460-1530), Fra' Bartolomeo della Gatta (1472-1517), and Luca Signorelli (1445-1523). Then, when Julius II became pontiff, he called upon Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi) (1477-1549), Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556) and Pietro Perugino (1450-1523) to complete the work.

Raphael Commissioned by Pope Julius II

It was only when he was still not satisfied that Julius, perhaps on the advice of the architect Donato Bramante (1444-1514), commissioned the precocious young genius Raphael (Raffaello Santi) to take over the project, beginning with the Room of the Signature. When Raphael arrived in Rome in early 1508, he ordered all previous frescoes destroyed. This signalled the start of the most beautiful and harmonious series of Renaissance murals ever painted. It would occupy Raphael on and off until his premature death from fever in 1520, on his 37th birthday - a death that plunged Leo X and his entire papal court into grief. Pope Leo X had continued the fresco program after the death of Julius in 1513. With Raphael gone, it was left to his assistants Raffaellino del Colle, Gianfrancesco Penni (1496-1536), and Giulio Romano (c.1499-1546) to complete the frescoes in the Room of Constantine.


Room of the Signature (Stanza della Segnatura) (Painted 1508-1511)

Used originally by Julius II as a library and private office, this room is called the Room of the Signature, because as soon as the work was completed, the most important papal documents were signed and sealed here. The humanist iconographic theme of the room's fine art is worldly and spiritual wisdom and incorporates both Christian teaching and Greek philosophy. It pictorializes the three noblest categories of the human spirit: Truth, Goodness and Beauty. In the paintings, Raphael rejects abstractions and allegories, preferring to rely on famous personalities to pictorialize the universal concepts of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Supernatural Truth is illustrated in the Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament, while rational Truth is in The School of Athens - one of the most famous paintings in the whole of Renaissance art. Goodness is in the Theological and Cardinal Virtues and in Law, both ecclesistical (St Raymond of Penafort Presenting the Decretals to Gregory IX) and civil (The Emperor Justinian Handling the Pandects to Trebonius). Beauty is represented in the Parnassus with Apollo and the Muses. On the ceiling, Raphael painted four medallions depicting Philosophy, Theology, Justice and Poetry.

See also our article: How To Appreciate Paintings.

Room of Heliodorus (Stanza di Eliodoro) (Painted 1512-1514)

Named after one of its frescoes, and originally used for private papal audiences, the room's pictorial theme is the glorification of the Church, illustrated by different historical scenes from the Old Testament to medieval history, showing the miraculous protection bestowed by God on the Church. Faith in God is restored (Mass of Bolsena), the pontiff himself is freed (Liberation of St Peter), papal nobility is contrasted with barbarian agitation (Meeting of Leo the Great with Attila) and Church property is emphasized as sacred (Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple). The iconography also alludes to the military and political agenda of Julius II who wanted to liberate Italy from French occupation: in all the frescoes, the person of Pope Julius II is flatteringly included, as a principal or observer. (Raphael even altered one of these figures to resemble Leo X after the death of Julius.) Some of the ceiling paintings in the Room of Heliodorus - notably the four episodes of the Old Testament - are by Raphael himself, but he relied quite heavily on his assistants to paint this area. Moreover, in the grotesques and arches there are still some traces of works by Luca Signorelli, Bramantino and Lorenzo Lotto.

Room of the Borgo Fire (Stanza dell'incendio del Borgo) (1514-1517)

In this room, named after its principal fresco, Raphael further develops the theme started in the Room of Heliodorus, except that the events depicted have the Medici Pope Leo X as the participant, rather than Julius II (died 1513). Due to his additional responsibilities in Rome - as Superintendent of Antiquities and chief architect of the new St Peter's Basilica - Raphael entrusted most of the painting (both design and execution) to his assistants, particularly Giulio Romano. Also, he left untouched the Holy Trinity frescoes on the ceiling. They had been completed in 1507, the year before Raphael arrived in Rome, by Perugino. The paintings in the Room of the Fire in the Borgo illustrate Leo X's ambitions using incidents (chronicled in the Liber Pontificalis) from the lives of Leo III (Coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III and Oath of Leo III) and Leo IV (Fire in the Borgo and the Battle of Ostia). Fire in the Borgo shows Leo IV extinguishing a huge fire in 847 with a solemn blessing; The Battle of Ostia shows Leo IV defeating the Saracens in 849; Coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III and Oath of Leo III are much weaker compositions.

Room of Constantine (Sala di Costantino) (Painted 1517-1524)

Named after the last major Roman Emperor Constantine (306-337), the first Roman ruler to officially recognize the Christian faith, the room is decorated with four episodes of his life depicting the defeat of paganism and the triumph of Christianity. The paintings were executed by Raphael's assistants from his original drawings, but are really only a reminder of his style. The four paintings are: The Battle at the Milvian Bridge - which dominates everything in the room - in which Constantine defeats Maxentius; The Vision of the Cross, depicting the legendary story of a Christian cross appearing to Constantine as he briefed his troops before the battle against Maxentius; The Donation of Rome, which recounts the story of Constantine's gift of temporal power to Pope Silvester I; The Baptism of Constantine, a hesitant and weak composition. Raphael died in 1520, midway through the decoration of this chamber. Within a few years the High Renaissance would be over, Rome would be sacked by a foreign army, and Mannerism would be the new artistic creed.

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