The papal apartments that are now known as “Raphael’s Rooms” were commissioned by Pope Julius II upon his election to the papal throne. Rather than live in the rooms of his predecessor, Pope Alexander VI Borgia, whom Julius detested, Pope Julius collected a team of artists, including Raphael, to redecorate previously unused chambers. Raphael was soon put in charge of the whole project.
The Room of Heliodorus was the second of the papal apartments to be decorated. Its walls are frescoed with events chosen to convey a dual message: of God’s protection of the Church and of Julius II’s desire to “free Italy” from its current French occupation. The fresco from which this room takes its name, Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, depicts a Biblical episode wherein a Syrian named Heliodorus is sent to the Temple in Jerusalem to take its treasure. The high priest of the temple calls on God for protection, and God sends a horsemen and two youths to banish Heliodorus.
Pope Julius II is seen on the left, witnessing the event, while Heliodorus is knocked to the floor with the spilled gold in the right corner of the work. The implicit characterization of the French as the thieving Heliodorus would not have been lost on the fresco’s contemporary viewers.
Also in this room is the Encounter of Leo the Great with Attila, which was completed after Pope Julius II’s death. The portrait of his successor, Pope Leo X, appears twice in this fresco: once as Leo the Great and once as a cardinal. According to legend, St. Peter and St. Paul appeared during this momentous meeting, and it was this appearance that dissuaded Attila from invading Italy. (As typical of portraits of St. Peter, he is depicted holding keys; while St. Paul is identifiable via his pointed beard.) Once again, the underlying message to the French, that God protects Rome from foreign invaders, would have been very potent to contemporaries.
It is the Room of the Segnatura, however, that houses Raphael’s most famous frescoes, including his School of Athens. Julius II used this room as his study/library, and it is this use that the frescoes are meant to reflect.
The School of Athens celebrates philosophers, focusing on Plato and Aristotle, who represent the two schools of thought: idealism and realism. Plato, holding his Timaeus, is pointing to the heaven as the source of knowledge while Aristotle, holding his Ethics, points to the earth.
Allegedly, Plato is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. His gesture to the sky was closely associated with Da Vinci, appearing throughout his work, including in his famous depiction of The Last Supper, located in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.
The Room of the Fire in the Borgo was decorated after Pope Julius II’s death in 1513. The new pontiff, Pope Leo X, took over the commission given to Raphael and made significant changes. One of those changes was to dedicate this room to the pope’s namesakes, Leo III and Leo IV. Thus, the paintings include the Crowning of Charlemagne, which depicts the crowning of Charlemagne by the Pope in the year AD 800, the Justification of Leo III, the oath taken by Leo III that reaffirmed the principle that the pope is answerable to God alone, and the Battle of Ostia when, in AD 849, the papal armies were pitted against Muslim forces.
The Fire in the Borgo depicts the fire that broke out in AD 847 in front of St. Peter’s, in an area known as the Borgo. Allegedly, the efforts of a mass of people to put the fire out had no effect until Pope Leo IV appeared at a window in the Vatican Palace and imparted a blessing. At that moment, the fire was miraculously extinguished.
Leo IV can be seen in the background, giving his blessing while in the left foreground is a group of figures inspired by Virgil’s homeric epic Aeneid. In the Aeneid, the hero Aeneas flees his home city of Troy as the Greeks burn it to the ground. Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, on his back while his young son, Ascanius, runs alongside him. After escaping Troy, Aeneas leads the surviving Trojans on a treacherous search for a new homeland, eventually settling in what would one day become Rome. Allegedly, the mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, are Aeneas’ descendants. It is in this way that Virgil ties Rome and its founding to a prestigious and ancient culture. (During Rome’s early history, many, including Greeks, thought of Rome as an uncultured back-water. Apparently, even the Romans felt like they had something to prove.)
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