The Raphael Rooms
When Pope Julius II needed his library painted in 1508 he summoned to the Vatican a prodigious but untested young artist from the Town of Urbino. His name was Raffaello Santi or Raffaello Sanzio, but we know him as Raphael. Over the better part of the next ten years, he (and his workshop) dedicated himself to a series of frescoes in Julius’ apartments that would eventually lend his name to the very rooms he decorated – the Raphael Rooms. Spanning four separate spaces – the Sala di Constantino, the Stanza di Eliodoro, the Stanza della Segnatura, and the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo – Raphael’s Frescos are considered the artistic pinnacle of the Italian Renaissance alongside Michelangelo’s ceiling it the Sistine Chapel, which was painted at roughly the same time. Although some of the frescoes are valued more highly than others due to having more or less input from Raphael, they are all among the most important paintings in Italy, and indeed the world.
Visiting the Raphael Rooms: What to See
The Stanza della Segnatura
This is the first room Raphael painted and it’s also considered his masterpiece. It includes 3 frescos – The School of Athens, The Parnassus, and Disputa. Taken together, they form one of the most jaw-dropping rooms in the Vatican – especially if you can decode the symbolism packed into each work. The most famous of the three is the Scuola di Atene or School of Athens, an incredible fresco that places all of the greatest minds of antiquity into a single, perfectly-balanced scene to celebrate the union of science, philosophy, reason, and spirituality. You won’t find a better representation of the perfection of Renaissance form and ideal anywhere in the world. Keep an eye out for familiar faces in this painting – Raphael painted himself in the far right, Leonardo Da Vinci as Plato in the center, and Michelangelo as Heraclitus towards the bottom. The beauty of the room was immediately recognized in its own time – as soon as it was finished it became the official place for the pope to sign important documents, hence the name Stanza della Segnatura or Signature Room.
The Stanza di Eliodoro
In the Room of Heliodorus, Raphael dropped the larger historical perspective and focused on the glorification of the church. He painted four of the scenes from the Old Testament on the ceiling himself, but much of the other work was carried out by assistants. Employing a “workshop” of promising young painters to carry out works was a widely-used technique among many of the most prolific Renaissance artists. The obvious exception is Michelangelo who maintained no studio and, as a consequence, produced much less than many of his contemporaries. Keep a look out for Pope Julius in this room. He was nearing the end of his life as Raphael and his team were painting but that didn’t stop Raphael from including him in all of the frescoes.
The Stanza dell’Incendio Del Borgo
There is a lot more church glorification in this room but you’ll notice that the figure of the Pope changes. By the time Raphael and his team – to whom he was now entrusting the majority of the work – started painting this third room, Julius II had died and been replaced by the Medici Pope, Leo X. Honoring the various Pope Leos that came before is one of the main themes of these frescoes. That’s Leo the IV extinguishing the titular fire at the Borgo with little but a stout prayer. He’s also there conquering the Saracens in 849. Nearby Leo III crowns Charlemagne. One of the (unfortunately) notable points about this room is the inconsistency of the work. Some of the frescoes can stand alongside Raphael’s best, but others are clearly of inferior quality.
The Sala di Constantino
The Constantine Room is probably most famous for being the slightly less impressive sibling of the first three rooms. Raphael died somewhat mysteriously midway through its painting (from a fever) and his work was finished by his students. Although they were working from his drawings, as in earlier rooms, it seems that without him to look after the details, they were unable to completely uphold his divine style. The room has come to represent not only the tragic, early death of Raphael but the demise of the High Renaissance.
Tips for Visiting the Raphael Rooms
The Vatican Museums, in which the Raphael Rooms are located, are open Monday to Saturday from 9:00am. to 6:00pm. Last tickets are sold at 4:00pm. The museums are also open on the last Sunday of each month from 9 a.m. to 12:30pm. A small number of tour groups, like our Pristine Sistine tour are allowed inside before the Vatican opens to the public each day. Check the Vatican website for more information on holiday closings and special openings.
Closed: Sundays, (except the last Sunday of every month), 25th and 26th of December (Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day); January 1, 6; February 11, 22; March 19, 28; June 29 (the Feasts of St. Peter and Paul); August 15; November 1; December 8.
You aren’t allowed to bring food or drink into the Vatican Museums. If they’re especially tasty you can leave them in the cloakroom and collect them at the end of your visit. Any food or drink that goes uncollected will be disposed of at the end of each day.
You cannot bring any bag, backpack, suitcase, or container larger that cm 40 x 35 x15 into the Vatican Museums. Similarly, you can’t enter with medium to large umbrellas, any umbrellas with spiked tips, camera tripods, signage (apart from signs used by certified guides) or walking sticks – except those required by disabled visitors. All of these items can be left in the cloakroom.
A note of the cloakroom: It’s conveniently located for entering the Vatican but not so conveniently located for exiting the Vatican. If you leave items there, you will need to circle back to the entrance after exiting.
Firearms are strictly prohibited for visitors within the Vatican and cannot be checked in the Cloakroom. Knives, scissors, and other cutting tools are permitted but must be deposited in the cloakroom as a precaution against harming the artwork inside. There is a solid precedent for this: a deranged man once attacked Michelangelo’s Pietá in St. Peter’s Basílica with a hammer.
The Vatican Museums are under constant video surveillance and any touching or tampering with artwork is strictly prohibited. Also, no laser pointers.
All tour groups are required to wear headsets for groups of 11 or more people. The use of microphones or any type of voice amplifiers is prohibited. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be able to hear yourself think inside the Vatican.
The Vatican has a dress code. Both men and women should wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees. Occasionally visitors get away with wearing a bit less but it’s best not to risk it. Hats are also not allowed.
Selfie Sticks are strictly forbidden along with flash photography. However, visitors are allowed to take non-flash photographs anywhere in the Vatican Museums besides the Sistine Chapel.
If you want to draw anything in the Raphael Rooms you have to get prior permission.
Mobile phone use is allowed in the Raphael Rooms.
Adults €16, Senior/Child €8, Student €4. In order to get a reduced ticket rate, you must have valid ID upon ticket purchase or collection (in the cast of pre-purchased tickets or tours)
The Best Time to Visit
May through September are considered the high season in Rome, with a mini high season around Easter. If you visit the Vatican Museums during these months expect crowds. Regardless of the time of year, the very best time to visit the Vatican Museums is as early as possible. Guided tours like our Complete Vatican tour will allow you to skip the line, but if you go it alone you should show up before 8:00am to get a spot at the front of the line (which can run for 3 hours). If you aren’t concerned with spending a lot of time in the Vatican Museums you can buy your tickets a half hour before the ticket office closes (3:30) but remember that the museum closes promptly at 6:00pm and the guards start clearing the museum earlier. Mercifully, the Raphael Rooms tend to attract less attention than the Sistine Chapel so, especially if you go early, you will have a chance to see them in relative peace.
The best way to reach the Vatican Museums is by taxi or Metro.
If traveling by taxi, make sure to specify to the driver that you are going to the entrance of the Vatican Museums, (Musei Vaticani) NOT the Basilica of St. Peter (Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano) which is a 15-minute walk away.
If traveling by metro, take the Metro A line to the Ottaviano stop. As you exit the stop turn left down Via Candia and turn left at Via Tunisi. At the end of the street, you’ll reach a set of steps, and at the top is the entrance to the Vatican Museums.
Remember: Unless you are traveling with a guided tour that includes St. Peter’s Basilica, the church isn’t accessible from the Museums. If you want to visit it you will have to exit the Museums, turn right, and follow the wall around to the entrance of St. Peter’s. It’s about a 15-minute walk.
Read More on our Blog
March 10, 2016
For families with a limited time frame (i.e. kids with limited attention spans) we run the Sistine Express Tour and the Vatican Highlights Tour, both of which will get you in and out before the crowds while still showing you the best that the Vatican has to offer. The ...More Info
February 24, 2016
It's common knowledge that the Catholic Church owns some of the most ornate and impressive churches in the world, but have you ever wondered what other properties they have in their portfolio? The Holy See is the organization that owns the Vatican, i.e. the smallest independent city-state in the ...More Info
December 9, 2015
Since his move to the Vatican, Pope Francis has been a font of change and renewed enthusiasm for the Catholic Church. He has worked to reform the church bureaucracy, to bring the message back to the poor and create a more inclusive church. Now, there’s something else to celebrate: ...More Info