Ask a friend heading off to Rome what they’re going to see and the Sistine Chapel will be on the short list. When they come home, they’ll tell you that the Sistine Chapel was so magnificent. And that they got a sore neck just looking up so very long. True. But no one tells you how much bother can be involved with the Sistine experience — or how to make it hassle free.
Because if you decide to do the Sistine the old style way, you’ll be in the ticket line for an hour or more. And once you’re in that famous little Chapel, you’ll find there’s way too many people pushing against you to be completely charming.
Many smart travelers avoid the line by doing a Sistine Chapel tour. Sign up for it online, show up at the meeting spot, the ticket line is avoided. Plus there are some excellent Vatican tour guides out there.
But… But regardless of whether you take that tour or go solo, once you get in, it’s still gonna be crowded in the little chapel.
So on this trip, I tried a different tactic, the early (8 am) tour. Several tour companies provide this early entrance tour. It costs $10 or $15 more but you eliminate the crowds for that entire first hour — and see stuff you might not find otherwise. You’re not alone, several tour groups offer the early morning variation. But you avoid the real crowds.
I signed up for one the WalksOfItaly.com tours, “Pristine Sistine.” And it was great. Our guide has been doing that tour for years. He gave just the right amount of detail going from one sight to the next. Artistic, historical, biographical info that an academic would know — shared in a way that was fun and observant.
But my favorite part was him showing us to the Raphael Rooms before anyone else arrived. Sweet.
The Raphael Rooms began life in the early 1500s as a private waiting area, the place the Pope put his important visitors before the formal meeting:
The four Raphael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello) form a suite of reception rooms in the place, the public part of the papal apartments in the Palace of the Vatican. They are famous for their frescoes, painted by Raphael and his workshop. Together with Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, they are the grand fresco sequences that mark the High Renaissance in Rome. [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]
But let’s step back and put Raphael into his time. Rafael Sanzio, 8 years younger than Michelangelo, had taken a far different route than from the older painter. (Michelangelo had phenomenal luck in getting in with the Medici so young.) Raphael’s father had been a court painter, so painting was his cultural DNA. He apprenticed to Pietro Perugino, one of the best painters of the time. The young teen apprentice would have started off as studio boy who handled basic art prep and every other chore he was given.
According to Vasari, the great biographer of that age, Perugino instantly saw Raphael’s talent and soon the young man was intimately involved with the master’s painting projects:
… while Raphael studied Pietro’s style, he imitated it so exactly and in all its details that his portraits could not be distinguished from his master’s originals. [Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Artists].
Raphael was a fast learner and by the time he had finished his stint as apprentice he was on the road to Florence, the town in Italy where the art form was being reinvented. Florence was like the way San Francisco was to the Counter Culture; like how New York still is to many dancers and artists. Florence was the Renaissance.
Raphael wanders into this scene at its height. Leonardo hadn’t gone up to France yet and he enjoyed the young kid with the flowing talent. Michelangelo is already down in Rome hard at work on the Sistine. Florence in 1500 wasn’t much larger than Santa Fe is. But the entire city state was aware that something new was in the air. The Renaissance explosion was something shared by artists, writers, thinkers, architects, and the Medici themselves.
Raphael spent the next 4 years on and off in Florence, connecting with some of the best artists and thinkers of the age, mastering the fine points of Renaissance painting:
[When] This exceptional painter … saw the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo, they made him apply himself with great intensity to his studies, and, as a result, make extraordinary improvements in his art and style. [Vasari]
Then, like Michelangelo, Raphael realized that Rome was the source of the best commissions — and that he wouldn’t have trouble getting commissions. Raphael’s friend Bramante (also from Urbino) had been working for Pope Julius II and convinced the pope to give Raphael a commission. So at 25, Raphael made the journey. That commission was the first of the Raphael Rooms.
Note: By 1500, The Catholic Church was supporting the arts at a level we can’t imagine — because in an age when congregations can’t read, art becomes the tool for communication. A painting could suggest the devotion of Mary, the journey up to Calvary or the sacrifice of the saints. That’s why the church fathers were hiring. And that’s why we have all these amazing works of art. Then as now, money drives the arts.
Raphael arrived in Rome in 1508 and was hired almost immediately to paint the first of what would become the Raphael Rooms. But in that universe, artists weren’t the free agents they are now. Painters relied almost exclusively on paid commissions and were expected to please the patron. So when Pope Julius II hired the 25 year old, he made it clear what he expected.
The first room Raphael worked on, called Stanza della Segnatura, tells us what the Pope was after. It has a fresco on each of the four walls and the ceiling. But two particular wall-sized frescos tell the story — once you deconstruct the visuals. The “School of Athens” and “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” are both important paintings. And both tell us why art was such a major part of the Church’s budget.
The first of these paintings shows the great philosopher/scientists of ancient Athens. This wise and harmonious group of men have Plato and his student, Aristotle, at the center. The painting is a good example of how educated Italians viewed their intellectual predecessors. And clearly, these scientists and philosophers were held in great regard. [Click on the image to give a closer look.]
But why did the pope choose to have this painting in his main reception area? As we’ll see, the pope was merely using this painting as an example of the old (i.e. pre-Catholic) approach to knowledge. So for this picture, Pope Julius just needed Raphael to invoke the idea of a gathering of Greek wise men.
Raphael wanted this fresco to be something far more. He was going to show off his chops to the money guys. So Raphael handled the pope’s requirements in a way that’s uniquely his own.
Remember, Raphael has been hanging with the top folks in Florence for the last 4 years. And to the Florence thinkers, the ancients are the cornerstone of the Renaissance. All the old philosophers were being rediscovered in Florence — and giving the Renaissance thinkers a confirmation that they were on the right track. So a painting like this was sending the thought leaders of Florence a message:
The picture has long been seen as “Raphael’s masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance.” [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]
This painting, one of Raphael’s most thoughtful, evokes the inner harmony of those ancient thinkers. This formal composition, set in some idealized temple of thought, is what the Renaissance means to Raphael.
The two central figures gesture along different dimensions: Plato vertically, upward … into the beautiful vault above; Aristotle on the horizontal plane … initiating a powerful flow of space toward viewers. It is popularly thought that their gestures indicate central aspects of their philosophies, for Plato, his Theory of Forms, and for Aristotle, his empiricist views. [Wikipedia, School of Athens]
Renaissance though includes both those philosophical impulses. And notice that for each major figure, the subject’s psyche is expressed through their physicality — a key Renaissance art principle.
Raphael also shows his personal feelings by using friends and associates as models for many of the famous Greeks. Raphael seems to have had Leonardo in mind when he painted Plato. The philosopher Heraclitus, leaning on the stone block, is a likeness of Michelangelo. And the young guy looking into the camera on the far right, that’s Raphael.
Disputation of the Holy Sacrament
On the opposite wall, the painter gives us the real vision of truth that his boss, Pope Julius II, was trying to promote:
Here we have an idealized landscape with two main structural elements, a golden Heavenly Realm and below a gathering of Church elders. If you look at this picture with the eyes of a Renaissance Catholic, you can start to decode it’s deep meaning. Each of the subjects in this scene was based on a character in the Roman Catholic universe:
In the painting, Raphael has created a scene spanning both heaven and earth. Above, Christ is surrounded by the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and various biblical figures such as Adam, Jacob and Moses. God the Father sits above Jesus, depicted reigning over the golden light of heaven, and below Christ’s feet is the Holy Spirit . [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]
Below this heavenly realm, we see the great thinkers of the Church from the past and present — including the pope that hired Raphael. Putting one’s patron into a Jesus or Mary painting was fairly common. But here Raphael is telling us more, that yes, our own living, breathing Pope Julius is part of the sacred grace and wisdom that flows down from on high.
Each painting stands on its own. But remember, in this room, two frescos with the same basic theme are facing each other. And that implied comparison signifies that the two visions of wisdom and greatness are a kind of before and after. This is how the wise Greeks did it. And they were the greatest thinkers of the ancient world. But, with “Disputation,” the pope is telling us that the Christian model of Truth goes even beyond the reality of Plato and Aristotle. Because our church’s understanding of truth stretches from priest to church elders and the pope all the way up to the Holy Trinity. That’s the not-so-secret message of this room.
But of course, Raphael isn’t a painter of platitudes. The kid took a basic commission and turned it into one of the masterpieces of the High Renaissance. And he was able to give both paintings a level of thoughtful grace that transcends technique and message:
The compositions, though very carefully conceived in drawings, achieve “sprezzatura”, a term invented by his [Raphael’s] friend Castiglione, who defined it as “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless …” [Wikipedia, Raphael]
Each painting evokes a specific aspect of human thought, each character manifests their humanity in their physicality and character. And together the paintings give us an intriguing insight into the Italian thought of the time.
Other Paintings – Deliverance of St. Peter
“Disputation of the Sacrament” and the “School of Athens” give Pope Julius’ basic paradigm. But the other paintings in these private chambers expand on that basic paradigm.
The Deliverance of St. Peter, painted around a window bay in the Stanza di Eliodoro, shows the story of Saint Peter being liberated by an angel for Herod‘s prison. The painting is in three parts — kinda like a comic that’s been drawn to scale. In the left panel, the guards (in Renaissance armor) are awakened to see a strange light emanating from Peter’s cell. Top center shows us the angel freeing Peter from chains. And the right panel shows them walking past the slumbering guards.
The whole thing is a wonderfully dramatic retelling of an incident in Acts 12. The painting reminds the viewer that the Church has harnessed a higher power works in ways beyond our human understanding. Peter was the foundation on which the Church was built and this image brings the power of that relationship home.
The painting is also infused with Rafael’s special magic. The angel is managing the prison guards like a Jedi knight. The escape is handled with the simplicity of parable and the transcendent elegance that Raphael embodies.
Expulsion of Heliodorus
The other major work in this room is called, “The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple”:
It illustrates the biblical episode from 2 Maccabees (3:21-28). Heliodorus is ordered by Seleucus IV Philopator, the king of Syria, to seize the treasure preserved in the Temple in Jerusalem…. But the money had been reserved for widows and orphans and God sent down a horseman to drive him [Heliodorus] from the temple. [Wikipedia]
Notice that among the poor widows and orphans is a bearded man on a raised litter — who looks just like Pope Julius II. But the more important part of the message from our sponsors is don’t steal from the church or else.
There’s also an interesting stylistic issue associated with this fresco. Notice the intense physical dynamism in this painting, especially on the right side. Angels flying through the air, a horse rears up, Heliodorus is punished. This is not the overly balanced composition we’ve seen in Raphael’s earlier work. At this point in his life, Raphael’s starting to stretch his craft in new directions.
The fresco was painted between 1511 and 1512. And we know that Raphael studied Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel even before it was completed in 1512. Raphael’s friend, Bramante, gave him access to the Sistine Chapel without Michelangelo’s approval. And, according to Vasari, Michelangelo was fiercely angry about that.
The Sistine Chapel paintings were a watershed moment in the Renaissance, a formal effort by Michelangelo to inject physical dynamism and immediacy into what was then a fairly static medium. The Expulsion of Heliodorus shows Raphael’s experimentation. But Raphael’s women don’t have the broad-shouldered muscularity you see in the Sistine Chapel women. And his color palette has it’s usual subtlety. As always, Raphael integrated new ideas in a way that was uniquely his own.
After The Expulsion of Heliodorus, Raphael continued his explorations far beyond the Raphael Rooms — especially in terms of his ability to explore human experience through the medium. Earlier, when he studied Leonardo’s work in Florence, Raphael didn’t have the life experience. He couldn’t touch the level of portraiture we see in Mona Lisa. But Raphael’s later work is moving in that direction.
By 1520, Raphael was dead; dead at 37. Renaissance painters mostly followed the lead of Michelangelo towards Mannerism. The balance and harmony of Raphael wasn’t punchy and it was just too hard for most painters to pull off. Eventually Mannerism got more over-the-top and ornate and… Baroque.
But Raphael continued to be studied by leading painters well into the 19th Century. The great Joshua Reynolds summed up the importance of Raphael from the mid-1700s perspective:
The excellency of this extraordinary man lay in the propriety, beauty, and majesty of his characters, his judicious contrivance of his composition, correctness of drawing, purity of taste, and the skilful accommodation of other men’s conceptions to his own purpose. Nobody excelled him in that judgment, with which he united to his own observations on nature, the energy of Michael Angelo, and the beauty and simplicity of the antique. [Wikipedia, Raphael]