The “Vatican Rooms” were actually the apartments of Pope Julius II (1503-1513), who did not want to live in the rooms inhabited by his predecessor Alexander VI and frescoed by Pinturicchio, and, therefore, moved to the floor above into a wing built by Nicholas V in the 15th century. More famous artists such as Raphael’s master, Perugino, had already worked on the rooms, but Pope Julius II gave Raphael (1483-1520) complete license and he erased all previous work.
The rooms were painted in this chronological order: Room of the Segnatura in 1508-1511, Room of Heliodorus in 1511-1514, Room of the Fire in the Borgo in 1514-1517 and Room of Constantine in 1517-1524. This description will follow the compulsory route sequence. The Room of Constantine was on the most part painted by Raphael’s pupils after the master died suddenly on April 6th, 1520. Among the most important painters of the cycle, we quote Giulio Romano and Francesco Penni. The episodes depicted are: the “Baptism of Constantine”, in the Basilica of St John Lateran, right of the entrance; the “Vision of the Cross” on the opposite wall; the “Battle at Milvio Bridge” on the wall opposite the windows showing Constantine with the cross that foretold his victory over the pagan Maxentius and finally, the “Donation of Constantine”, set inside St Peter’s, is on the window side of the room, showing the act which supposedly gave origin to the Church State (this actually occurred in 756, when Pippin, king of the Franks, gave the Holy See the lands of Central Italy).
The ceiling was painted by Tommaso Laureti in 1585 and shows the “Triumph of Christianity” over paganism, represented by the statue that has fallen and broken. Next the visitor enters the most ancient part of the 2nd century Pontifical Palace; the Room of the Chiaroscuri was frescoed in the second decade of the 16th century using Raphael’s drawings, while the Niccolina Chapel, private chapel of Nicholas V, was painted between 1447 and 1451 by Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk devoted to miniatures, who depicted here the Stories of Saint Stephen and Saint
Going back to the Rooms, there is the Room of Heliodorus, which was the first to be painted by Raphael, between 1511 and 1514. Here its recurring theme of God assisting mankind glorifies the Church’s spiritual and temporal power. The “Mass of Bolsena” represents a miracle, which supposedly occurred in 1263, when drops of blood fell from the Host, convincing a Bohemian priest about the transubstantiation (transformation) of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. Julius II, who commissioned the work, is shown taking part in the mass. The “Expulsion of Heliodorus” from the Temple of Jerusalem represents the sacredness of Church property: Heliodorus, after stealing the treasure in the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem, is captured by Gods’ messengers, while a group of people including Julius II watch the scene. Compared to the “School of Athens”, discussed later on, the empty central space of the painting and the dark colours are surely influenced by the Venetian painting of the period. The “Liberation of Saint Peter “ is also painted in dark tones; in fact it is one of the first Italian night scenes in art history.
The fresco has three scenes: the angel asking Saint Peter to follow him (centre), Saint Peter escaping and the angel (right), the guards waking up in a magnificent moonlight (left).