Friday, April 20, 2012

Stanza della Segnatura

Today's photos:


(Please forgive the poor quality of these photos as they are all photos of photos)


1. The ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura.

2. Parnassus (Apollo, the Muses and various literary figures).

3. School of Athens.

4. School of Athens (detail of Plato and Aristotle).

5. School of Athens (detail of Heraclitus/portrait of Michelangelo).

6. School of Athens (detail of Raphael self-portrait – Raphael on the left, his friend and fellow-artist Sodoma on the right).

7. Disputa (Disputation of the Holy Sacrament).

8. Disputa (detail of the center).




In a previous "Sights of Rome" post we discussed the famous Trevi Fountain which this year celebrates its 250th anniversary (1762-2012). There are two other renowned works of art, twice as old as the Trevi, celebrating  500 years of existence (1512-2012).  We are talking about frescoes created by two of the greatest artists of all times: Michelangelo Buonarotti and Raphael Sanzio. In the year 1512 these two artists, working almost side by side, each finished a fresco, both of which have been admired for half a millennium by the thousands of people who everyday visit the Vatican Museums. Michelangelo finished the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael the Stanza della Segnatura, one of the so-called Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums. We'll leave Michelangelo's ceiling to a later "Sights" while we discuss today Raphael's  Stanza della Segnatura.


When Giuliano Della Rovere became Pope Julius II in 1503 he refused to live in the same apartment which had been occupied by the infamous Alexander VI Borgia (1492-1503).  Instead he had a series of four rooms on the floor above the Borgia pope's quarters turned into an apartment for himself. He then hired a number of famous artists to decorate those rooms with frescoes. In 1508, at the urging of his architect, Donato Bramante, Julius called to Rome from Urbino the twenty-five year old Raphael to join that illustrious team of artists.


Raphael began work in the so-called Stanza della Segnatura, a room formerly used for affixing the official stamp or signature (segnatura) to papal documents.


A curiosity


It didn't take too many strokes of the brush before Julius realized that he had an extraordinarily gifted genius at work in the person of the young artist from Urbino. Incredibly, the Pope dismissed the rest of the team of artists and turned the entire job over to Raphael and his assistants! In fact, much of the work just finished by the other, more experienced artists was destroyed in order to give the young Raphael a free hand to fresco the entire apartment.


Raphael would work on this one room, alone for the most part, for almost four years. The three most important works in the room are called: Parnassus, Disputa and School of Athens. What follows is a brief discussion of these three incredible wall frescoes.


Parnassus takes its name from the mountain sacred to Apollo, the god of music, but also of all the arts. The wall on which Raphael was to paint this scene presented a problem to him because it contained a large window in the middle. He solved the problem simply by giving his fresco a horseshoe-shape as if it were a kind of frame of the window (photo #2).


In the very center of the fresco we see Apollo as he plays the lira da braccio, an instrument of Raphael's time similar to the violin of today. He sits beneath a Laurel tree, considered to be sacred to him.  The god is flanked on both sides by the nine Muses who represent the various arts, such as dance, history, poetry, astronomy, etc.  Other identifiable figures in the fresco include Virgil, Homer, Dante, Petrarch, Ovid and Horace.


A curiosity


Most artists depict Apollo as he plays the lyre, but Raphael chose to show him with the lira da braccio which was a very popular instrument in the early sixteenth century, a modern instrument in those days. It makes one wonder. If Raphael were painting the scene today, maybe he would have represented Apollo playing an electric guitar!


On the wall to the right of the Parnassus we see the School of Athens (photo #3), considered by many to be the best of all the frescoes in the room, la crème de la crème. The magnificent architectural setting for this scene, with its enormous vaults and dome, is thought to represent the unfinished St. Peter's Basilica.


A curiosity


Between 1508 and 1512 when Raphael was working in this room, construction of the new St. Peter's Basilica had just begun. Everything was still basically on the drawing board. Yet Raphael's architectural setting is strikingly close to how the basilica actually ended up. How did Raphael know ahead of time what it would look like? Remember that the architect of the basilica was Bramante who had used his influence with Julius II to give Raphael the commission to do the fresco. It is believed that Bramante shared his very secret plans for the basilica with his young friend who in turn used them in the fresco as a tribute to the man who had been so helpful to his career.


In the center of dozens of characters in the painting stand the two great Greek philosophers, Plato on the left and Aristotle on the right (photo #4). Raphael gave to Plato the features of Leonardo da Vinci, one of several of his contemporaries he chose to honor in this way. Notice that Plato is pointing toward the heavens with his right hand, indicating in this way his speculative philosophy and the world of ideas. Aristotle, Plato's student and the teacher of Alexander the Great, holds his right hand extended between Heaven and Earth to indicate the practical nature of his philosophy, or perhaps to indicate that Virtue lies between the two extremes (In medio stat virtus).


Various other individuals among the dozens of characters in the fresco can be identified, including Socrates, Epicurus, Pythagoras and a self-portrait of the artist himself next to his friend and fellow-artist Sodoma (photo #6). My personal favorite is the figure of Heraclitus (photo # 5) who sits alone writing at a table in the center of the scene. This is Raphael's tribute to Michelangelo, not only in the facial features, but also in the bulging, muscular limbs, typical of Michelangelo's style.


A curiosity


In the original preparatory drawing of this scene, the Heraclitus-Michelangelo figure was not present; it was added after the fresco was finished. Why? Remember, at this same time Michelangelo is working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel just a few yards away from the papal apartment. At a certain point Julius II forced Michelangelo to remove the scaffolding from the ceiling to reveal the unfinished fresco. Very few people besides the Pope were allowed in to see what Michelangelo had been working on out of sight behind the scaffolding. One of the privileged few was Raphael.  The young artist was so moved and impressed by what he saw that he returned to his painting and added to his fresco the figure of Heraclitus, giving him the face of Michelangelo as well as the muscular body style used by him in his Sistine Chapel figures.


The third major fresco in this room is called Disputa, or Disputation on the Holy Sacrament (photo #7). Raphael's purpose here was to glorify Catholicism in general and the Eucharist in particular. He arranged his painting on two parallel levels. The upper level represents Heaven and the lower level depicts the Church on Earth.


In a straight line in the center, from top to bottom, we see God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in the upper level (photo #8). Directly below them, in the lower level is a monstrance with the Eucharist resting on an altar. The connection between Heaven and the Church on Earth is made clear.


Three angels stand on either side of God the Father, while God the Son is flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist. On either side of the Dove of the Holy Spirit are two cherubs, each one holding an open book of the Gospels. Among the other figures in the upper level we can recognize from the left: St. Peter, Adam, St. John the Evangelist, David and St. Lawrence. On the right we see St. Paul, Abraham, St. James, Moses and St. Stephen. Among the recognizable figures in the lower level we can see from the left, Fra Angelico, Bramante, Pope St. Gregory the Great and St. Jerome. On the right we recognize Savonarola, Dante, Pope Sixtus IV, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.


A curiosity


It may seem strange to see Savonarola represented among the faithful on Earth. After all, the Dominican monk was excommunicated by Alexander VI for heresy and treason in his inflammatory preaching. He refused to be reconciled with the Church because of the corruption he saw in it, and as a result was burned at the stake in Florence in 1498. It was only ten years after this that Raphael was painting this fresco. Surely he would not have included Savonarola in the scene without the express permission of Pope Julius. This may be a clear sign that the rehabilitation of Savonarola was already underway. Also, it is quite possible that Julius allowed this in order to show his contempt for Alexander VI.


When you find yourself in this incredible room, do not fail to look up at the magnificent ceiling (photo #1). Some of it was painted before Raphael's arrival and was spared the destruction which happened to most of the previous work. However, the most outstanding parts of the ceiling are the work of Raphael himself.  These are the four circular paintings alternating with the four rectangular paintings which surround the small center space.


A postscript


Raphael, who died in 1520 at the age of 38, is buried in the Pantheon in Rome. For more about his tomb and the incredibly beautiful inscription on it, see The Sights of Rome, Chapter 16, The Pantheon.


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