One of the most popular attractions of the Vatican Museums, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, will be closed to the public over the next few weeks, as cardinals gather there to elect the successor of Pope Benedict XVI.
But visitors will be able to find some artistic consolation by lingering in the rooms that Raphael painted in the second-floor apartment of the Pontifical palace used by Pope Julius II (and his successors until the mid-16th century). Their 30-year restoration has been completed.
The restoration campaign brought new insights into how Raphael worked, including how he transferred his drawings from a nearly 9-yard-wide cartoon onto the walls, the methods he used to apply plaster, how quickly he painted, and the organization of his workshop. One example: a recipe Raphael invented to copy the stucco of antiquity that he saw on an underground visit to Nero’s palace buried under the Colle Oppio in Rome.
“Raphael was a very adventurous artist and continually experimented, so from this point of view these frescoes are more unique than Michelangelo’s,” said professor Arnold Nesselrath, delegate for the scientific department and laboratories of the Vatican Museums, and the only member of the original restoration team still involved.
The restoration also provided clues to understanding more mundane aspects of the period. Some beans found inside a small hole in the fresco of the “Fire in the Borgo,” painted from 1514 to 1517, suggests that it didn’t take long for these legumes, indigenous to the Americas and imported by Columbus some 20 years earlier, to become part of the common man’s diet in Europe.
“Sadly, they were cooked,” making it impossible to replant them and replicate their taste, Nesselrath said during a preview tour of the frescoes.
One fresco at a time
Begun in 1982, the restoration was carried out one fresco at a time so that visitors could continue to see Raphael’s famed works.
Restorers now believe that significant traces of the earlier frescoes remain, including the fresco depicting the delivery of the Pandects (a legal code) to the Emperor Justinian, in the Room of the Segnatura, now attributed to the Renaissance artist Lorenzo Lotto, who had been drafted by Julius II before Raphael was brought in. Lotto ended up working in Raphael’s workshop on several frescoes, Nesselrath said.
The restoration of several frescoes was funded by the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, an association founded in 1982 after an exhibition of Vatican paintings toured the United States.
“They help us to fund restorations and keep the Vatican beautiful and young and attractive, despite the wear and tear to the museums caused by 5 million visitors a year,” said the Rev. Mark Haydu, the group’s international coordinator. A list of projects is drafted each year – the Borgia apartments are a recent addition, for example – and money is set aside for restoration.
Tests will be undertaken this year, with a proper project planned for next year, for the restoration of the Room of Constantine, a huge banquet hall whose frescoes were designed by Raphael but executed mostly after his death, in 1520, by his workshop, Nesselrath said.