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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

The Secret Raphael Room

Updated: 6 days ago

There is a room at the Vatican Museum Pinacoteca devoted to the Renaissance artist Raphael with thirteen masterpieces. I call it the secret Raphael Room because it is overlooked and underappreciated. It is quiet, spacious, and gives visitors an opportunity to spend time with the artist and his masterpieces.


This is not to be confused with the four Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museum which are on the path to the Sistine Chapel. Called the “Stanze,” which means rooms in Italian, they are a series of connecting frescoed rooms either designed by Raphael or by the master’s hand. In 2023 seven million people visited the Vatican Museums. 2024 and beyond will see the same numbers or an increase. The Stanze are crowded and difficult to appreciate his high level of mastery. Most people are passing through on the way to the highpoint of the Vatican, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.


The Vatican Museums cover a lot of territory. After clearing security, what seems like the population of a small-town veers towards the Sistine Chapel sign. Only a fraction turns to the right to enter the Pinacoteca, or picture gallery. The Pinacoteca showcases paintings and sculpture in chronological order beginning with early Christian art from the eleventh century. It is manageable with about 400 artworks and not as overwhelming as the Vatican Museum Sistine Chapel route which displays about over 19,000 artworks. I do not recommend trying to do both in one visit.


A highlight of the Pinacoteca is the darkened quiet room with three paintings by Raphael and ten tapestries designed by him. There is even a place to sit down and observe his use of colors, mastery of composition, and artistic genius. This room is a peaceful refuge from the crowds and a chance to immerse yourself in his art. On a recent visit it was so quiet even the guard was nodding off.


Raphael Room at the Vatican Pinacoteca, photo Gerriann Brower.
Raphael Room at the Vatican Pinacoteca, photo Gerriann Brower.

Meet Raphael Sanzio

A handsome, aspiring, and well-mannered artist arrived on the Florentine scene in about 1504, keen on cultivating new patrons and lucrative commissions. Rafaello Sanzio hailed from Urbino, not far from the Adriatic Sea. Born in 1483, painting ran through his blood. His artist father Giovanni Sanzio painted for the Duke of Urbino in a rich and refined court. Known today simply as Raphael, he grew up in a court with poets, a collection of works by established artists, and connections that would prove valuable in his career.


Although his father died when he was only eleven, Raphael made his way to apprentice with the painter Pietro Perugino through his father’s connections. At the time Perugino was a leading artist. Having worked for a variety of patrons, Perugino completed frescoes in the Sistine Chapel for the pope. It was a prestigious apprenticeship in Perugia and the young Raphael learned how his master ran his business, patrons, organized and ran a large shop, and of course, the techniques of fresco and panel painting. By choice or coincidence Raphael sought work in Florence at the same time Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were there working on commissions. They would be influential on the young artist’s development.


Biographer and artist Giorgio Vasari describes Raphael as endowed with grazia, grace, a gentle nature, and modesty. Easy to get along with, and popular with women, his attractive looks and charming demeanor made him a favorite with patrons and the elite. The Raphael Pinacoteca works tell his story from an early painting finished when he was twenty years old to his last and final masterpiece at age thirty-seven. The Raphael Room gives us a glimpse into his short but prolific and celebrated career.


Raphael, Coronation of the Virgin, 1503, Vatican Pinacoteca, photo Gerriann Brower.
Raphael, Coronation of the Virgin, 1503, Vatican Pinacoteca, photo Gerriann Brower.

Coronation of the Virgin

Just one year prior to his Florentine stay he completed the Coronation of the Virgin in 1503-04. The Coronation is his first documented painting in Perugia, commissioned by the Oddi family for their chapel in San Francesco al Prato. Depictions of the Virgin after her death and assumption into heaven usually divided into her death scene, her assumption into heaven, and once in heaven taking her place near her son who crowns her symbolically as a divine queen. The Coronation is split into the divine section and the earthly section with her empty sarcophagus. Apostles turn upwards in amazement as flowers miraculously spring forth from her empty tomb. Note that the earthly zone has shadows with light coming from the right while the heavenly zone has no shadows. What makes this painting successful is the ability to construct a composition with many figures without it feeling overly crowded. The stone tomb turned at an angle gives the painting a dynamic feel and creates depth. The painting would simply be plain if he aligned the tomb with the picture plane.


Recently restored, the brilliant and harmonious colors demonstrate the young artist’s mastery of balance and repetition of colors to create unity. Three figures on the lower section wear green which is echoed in the upper section with green highlights on three figures. Different values of reds are utilized on both the lower and upper section garments. The Virgin is cloaked in the most expensive color, lapis lazuli. Lapis was reserved for the most important figures in paintings and required a labor-intensive process to extract the pigment from the rock. Most lapis came from Afghanistan, where it is still sourced today.


Paintings completed before his Florence and Rome experiences closely follow the hand of his master. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the two artists in composition, color, and poses of the figures. Raphael’s figures show more variety in pose than Perugino which adds a slightly more dynamic intention. For example, instead of a figure standing stick straight, he leans one back or forward, or twists one slightly. His aim is not to merely copy the master but to improve on his master’s handling of the composition.


Raphael, Madonna del Foligno, 1511, Vatican Pinacoteca, photo Gerriann Brower.
Raphael, Madonna del Foligno, 1511, Vatican Pinacoteca, photo Gerriann Brower.

Madonna del Foligno

About the same time Michelangelo began the Sistine Ceiling, Raphael took the opportunity to move to Rome. Papal commissions were lucrative and he was well positioned to advance his career. He soon became the favorites of Pope Julius II and his successor, Pope Leo X. His first commission came from Julius to fresco his papal apartments, the Stanze, beginning in 1508 until his death. While taking on the enormous task of decorating these rooms he also accepted commissions from patrons associated with the pope or Roman elite, including this painting of the Madonna.


Raphael’s religious paintings of Madonnas are renowned for depicting the dolcezza (sweet nature) of the Virgin, although they are often not his most innovative paintings. Any visitor to Italy’s museums or churches will attest to the sheer quantity of Madonna and Child paintings, a popular devotional image. The story behind the Madonna del Foligno required Raphael to innovate on the theme due to the patron and his story. Sigismondo de’ Conti, a secretary to Pope Julius, commissioned the painting after his house was struck by lightning or a meteorite. His family was unharmed. Conti was grateful to the Madonna for her intercession in saving his family. Raphael positions Conti kneeling in red, with St. Jerome gently touching his head and gesturing to the landscape scene. St. John the Baptist stands to the left pointing upwards while St. Francis kneels.


The painting is infused with a mystical quality. The celestial angelic cloud formation surrounding Mary and child supported by angelic cherubim merges with the scene unfolding below. Foligno is a small town in Umbria, depicted in the center of the painting with a cluster of buildings in a verdant countryside. A golden arc of light surrounds the town while a fiery burst of light and flame is catapulted out of the sky towards a house. An ominous darkness surrounds the village. The Virgin inhabits the celestial zone surrounded by a sun-like mandorla. Her feet rest on the puffs of magical clouds. A putto stands in the center on earth holding a blank tablet for inscription.


Similar to the Coronation, he divides the scene into the earthly and divine. Subtle differences in his handling of composition and figures demonstrate his artistic maturation. He blends the two zones by using the cloud formations to create a unified spatial structure. Varied tones of blues harmonize the two sections without interruption. Yellow also gives the painting structure with the Madonna’s mandorla, the yellow streak of light over Foligno, and touches of yellow on earth. Raphael departs from Perugino’s standard cookie-cutter pose and gesture by providing each figure with individual features, gestures, and forms. They are no longer stock figures that stand by idly but interact in the picture. By the time he painted the Madonna he was well versed in creating multi-figure complex compositions in the Stanze, particularly the School of Athens and the Disputa.


Raphael endowed characters with individuality and expression. He was partially influenced by Leonardo and Michelangelo’s ability to manage large scale groupings as well as developing his own creative solutions. Large groups are broken up into small groups of interacting figures, a technique he utilized in the Madonna of Foligno. Roman and Greek statues also played a part in developing his visual language. Certain gestures and poses of Raphael’s figures can be traced back to his exposure to ancient art in Rome.


The Tapestries

Raphael hit pay dirt as artist to the papacy. In addition to seemingly never-ending painting commissions, Raphael was given opportunities to express his creativity in other mediums. Pope Leo X made Raphael chief architect of the new St. Peter’s in 1514. The next year he was appointed the Superintendent of Antiquities to survey ancient monuments. Raphael was also asked by Leo to design a series of tapestries for the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. No other artist had such glory and fame conferred upon him. His power and wealth were unprecedented. It must have irked Michelangelo to think his frescoed ceiling would complete for attention with his rival Raphael. To his chagrin, the tapestries were installed in the Sistine Chapel in late 1519.


Raphael, St. Paul Preaching, Tapestry, 1515-16, Vatican Pinacoteca, photo Gerriann Brower.


These commissions would not have been possible without a large and functional studio. Raphael could not single handedly fresco the papal apartments and houses of the richest in Rome, design the largest church in Christendom, paint portraits and religious works, take an inventory of ancient monuments in Rome, plus design tapestries. He formed an approach that customized work according to the patron’s needs and expectations by cultivating a culture of innovation in his workshop. He hired artists with specialized skill sets. Raphael did not expect his studio artists to imitate him, instead he expected them to innovate and problem solve. This was not standard operating procedure in the sixteenth century. His business model was more collaborative than imitative.


The ten tapestries depict the Acts of the Apostles, focusing on Saints Paul and Peter. These are massive and vary in size with the largest over sixteen by twenty feet.  Raphael was not a weaver. Northern European countries had skilled weavers able to convert Raphael’s designs into luxury wall hangings. Tapestries were more expensive than paintings and considered luxury items. They were usually not under foot, but hung on walls. To illustrate their expense, the cost of the tapestries was five time more than what Julius II paid Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Ceiling, completed only a few years prior. Weaving was labor intensive. A group of weavers would work together at the loom on a project. A weaver might be able to produce one inch of product a day – that was fast weaving. A complex area, like a face, might go slower with only one-third of an inch woven in a day.


Raphael designed the cartoons along with his workshop artists in highly finished colors to guide the craftsmen in transferring the design to the loom. The cartoons, some of which survive today, are the same size as the finished tapestries. He took great care to make many preliminary drawings and create individual scenes for each wall hanging. Cartoon design took place about 1515-16 and weaving took place between 1516-20 in the skilled workshop of Pieter van Aelst in Brussels.

To fully understand and appreciate the tapestries it is helpful to visualize where they were originally hung and how they fit in with the scope of the Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel frescoes and tapestries work together to convey messages formed by three different popes. There are four masterpieces in the Sistine Chapel: the frescoes on the lower walls from the late 1400s, Michelangelo’s vault from 1508-12, Raphael’s tapestries (no longer on the walls) and Michelangelo’s Last Judgement on the altar wall begun in 1536. Each of the three fresco cycles and tapestries embody characteristics of the artists and era in which they were created. The lower walls embody aspects of the late fifteenth century, the vault and tapestries the apex of the Roman Renaissance, and the Last Judgement a turning point at the end of the Renaissance.


The tapestries were placed directly below the fifteenth century wall frescoes. Made of wool and silk with a palette of yellows, blues, and red, the scenes complimented the Florentine frescoes in size of the figures and scenes directly above it when hung in place. The gold and silver filament threads woven throughout Raphael’s tapestries brought highlights and definition to the finished products. The metallic threads help to differentiate light and dark, shadow and form. Unlike a brushstroke on a canvas, a weaver cannot blend colors. Some tapestries have a woven border with pagan motifs and bronze like medallions as seen in St. Paul Preaching and the Healing of the Lame Man.


Prior to Raphael’s inventive designs, tapestries were highly ornamental with floral or geometric designs and not usually composed of a large narrative scene. Space and depth were not easily rendered on a loom. Raphael challenged the weavers to make colorful scenes with a natural sense of depth through perspective and architectural elements. He intended the wall hangings to look more like paintings. They were also intended to function like frescoes would as a series of narrative scenes hung below the fifteenth century frescoes in the chapel with Michelangelo’s ceiling above. Pope Leo and Raphael devised a novel concept to create a tapestry series to enhance the existing frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.


Transfiguration

Raphael’s final masterpiece is the focal point of the Raphael Room. Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici commissioned Raphael to paint an altarpiece for his archepiscopal church in Narbonne, southern France. However, the painting never made it to its intended location. Raphael took great care to craft a compelling narrative, intertwining two gospel stories into one. His skill is evidenced in the complexity of the composition, how he uses color for unity and emphasis, and dramatic poses to emphasize the events.


Raphael, Transfiguration, 1519-20, Vatican Pinacoteca, photo Gerriann Brower.


The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) recount two tales, one after the another in the texts, first of Jesus revealing his divinity to the apostles on Mount Tabor and then the miracle of curing a boy. Here Raphael has chosen to combine the two gospel stories as one narrative. Matthew 17 writes that Jesus took three disciples, Peter, James, and John, to a high mountain where he transformed his earthly being to a radiant one with a bright light. Moses and Elijah appeared with him. A voice from a cloud said, “This is my Son whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him (17:5).” The disciples fell to the ground, afraid. The next story in Matthew (17: 14-21) relates the story of the demon-possessed boy. The father brought the boy to the disciples who were unsuccessful in curing him. Jesus immediately cast out the demon, rebuking the disciples who did not have enough faith to perform the miracle. 


Raphael constructed three levels in the composition: the divine figures at the top, the three writhing disciples on the middle ground, and the figures in the foreground. A white cloud envelops Jesus and the two Old Testament figures as they float above the mountain. Each of the three disciples show their individual fear with a different pose, gesture, and emotion. The lower level can be divided into two groups with the apostles on the left and the father and possessed boy on the right. A triangular composition unites the figures with a lighter palette drawing the eye to Jesus and a darker palette closer to the earth. The eye moves easily between the two foreground groups as Raphael created some spacing between the events in the foreground. The outstretched arms of the figures pointing up and across aid the viewer in drawing their attention to Jesus and back down to the ground.  His virtuoso dramatic lighting foreshadows an impact on future artists such as Caravaggio.


He adapted Michelangelo’s Sistine colors in the lower half of the painting to contrast with the lighter, brighter colors of the divine. St. Andrew on the lower left holding a book and twisting with his left arm and right foot foreshortened into the viewer’s space is a phrase taken from Michelangelo, as is the dynamic turn of the boy. Even with this monumental altarpiece measuring over fourteen feet high Raphael gives each figure its own expression and visage. There is no repetition of pose or features, with the overall impression of a unified and effective painting.

Raphael took the viewer’s sight line into account. When placed at the high altar, with a similar effect in the Vatican Museum, the viewer would look parallel to the figures on the lower portion, with the boy twisting towards the viewer. This gives emphasis to the emotions of the disciples and the boy’s group. It also enhances the levitation effect of Jesus and the Old Testament figures, who appear floating above the viewer. Previous depictions of Jesus levitating pale in comparison to Raphael’s version.


Raphael’s drawings tell us about his creative process. The painting has a different composition. Christ was originally placed on earth, not levitating above ground. The demonic child was added later in the preparation process. Extant drawings show he made careful sketches of the heads and hands of figures with precision to distinguish individual figures. Many changes took place between the process of the drawings and the final painting. Placing the two scenes together harmoniously was rare if not unprecedented, and difficult to pull off effectively.


Scholars and admirers agree with the summation Vasari expressed in his admiration over four hundred years ago: “And in this scene Raphael truly created figures and heads which were not only extraordinarily beautiful but were so novel, varied, and striking that it is the common opinion of artisans that this work, among all the paintings he completed, is the most famous, the most beautiful, and the most inspired.”* As a synthesizer of Perugino, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, Raphael cemented his place in Renaissance art.


Each of these three paintings utilize a divine and earthly zone in the composition. Seventeen years separate the Coronation from the Transfiguration. Raphael gained sophistication and experience in handling scenes with two zones, multiple figures, and creating a sense of drama in the figures.


A Great Sadness

Raphael never married. He was a confirmed bachelor. Vasari remarked he was a very amorous man who was always quick to serve women’s desires. Vasari recounts the end of Raphael’s short and productive life. “Raphael secretly attended to his love affairs and pursued his amorous pleasure beyond all moderation, and on one occasion he happened to be even more immoderate than usual; having returned home, for that reason, with a very high fever, his doctors thought he had become overheated, and since he did not admit to them the excesses he had committed, his doctors imprudently bled him in such a way that he grew weak and felt faint…”** A legend evolved that Raphael died because he loved women too much.


Raphael’s Tomb, Pantheon, Rome, photo Gerriann Brower.
Raphael’s Tomb, Pantheon, Rome, photo Gerriann Brower.

He died at thirty-seven years old on the day he was born, April 6, which was Good Friday. Raphael requested his funeral be held at the Pantheon with the Transfiguration at the head of his bier. Vasari remarks “the sign of his dead body and this living painting filled the soul of everyone looking with grief.”** His funeral was public with intense mourning at his early death. He was entombed in the Pantheon the next day, an honor reserved for very few.


*Vasari, 330.

**Vasari, 336.


Sources

Faietti, Marzia, Matteo Lafranconi, et al, editors. Raphael 1520-1483. Skira, 2020.

 

La Malfa, Claudia. Raphael and the Antique. Reaktion Books, 2020.

 

Hall, Marcia, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Raphael. Cambridge University Press, 2008.


Henry. Tom, David Ekserdjian, Matthias Wivel. Raphael. National Gallery London, 2022.


Talvacchia, Bette. Raphael. Phaidon, 2007.


Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Translated by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford University Press, 1991.

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