Restorers Were Cleaning Walls In The Vatican When They Uncovered The Work Of A 500-Year-Old Master

Although Vatican City is the world’s smallest country, it has one of the most stunning collections of Old Masters art anywhere on the planet. However, the impressive array of works – which include those by the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci – require constant care to keep them looking their best.

Take Vatican City’s arguably most famous artwork, for example: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, created between 1508 and 1512. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, the exquisitely detailed paintings were in sore need of restoration at the time of a 1979 investigation.

After analysis, the ceiling was found to have been stained by the smoke from thousands of candles; it had also suffered at the hands of water leakage. Fortunately, though, Michelangelo’s work had stood the test of time well, even with its coating of grime and grease.

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And with that, a restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescos went ahead, with the procedure taking an incredible 19 years. At the end, moreover, the luminous colors that had been hidden by the coating of dirt were finally revealed. And the result was praised in some quarters.

And with that, a restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescos went ahead, with the procedure taking an incredible 19 years. At the end, moreover, the luminous colors that had been hidden by the coating of dirt were finally revealed. And the result was praised in some quarters.

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Then in March 2015 conservation and restoration began on the stunning frescoes in the Apostolic Palace’s Hall of Constantine, which had originally been painted by artists from Raphael’s workshop. In fact, the Old Master and his assistants completed frescos in four areas of the Palace; as a consequence, these spaces have come to be known as the Raphael Rooms.

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Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, to give him his full name, was born in 1483 in the Italian city of Urbino, where his father was a court painter. By the time Raphael was 11, however, both of his parents had passed away, and so he was brought up by his father’s second wife.

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And Raphael showed talent as an artist from an early age; he is even said to have helped his father in his work. Furthermore, while details of Raphael’s training as an artist are somewhat murky, he was likely apprenticed to a master while still young. In particular, he probably worked as an assistant to the Umbrian artist Pietro Perugino from about 1500.

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The first known piece of Raphael’s art was an altarpiece completed in 1501 for the Church of Sant’Agostino at Città di Castello, a city about 40 miles from Urbino. And success seems to have come relatively swiftly for the young apprentice, as he was subsequently commissioned to carry out work in other churches in the vicinity and at the Siena Cathedral.

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Then in 1508 Raphael and members of his studio were summoned by Pope Julius II to Rome. There, they worked on the four rooms at the Vatican Palace mentioned earlier, with a brief to completely redecorate the interior of each space. This was a significant honor for an artist so young; at the time, Raphael was still only 25 or so.

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In fact, Raphael is widely acknowledged as one of the trinity of great artists of the High Renaissance in Italy. The other two are Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci – eminent company indeed. However, Michelangelo, who had eight years on Raphael, is said to have intensely disliked the younger artist; perhaps he was jealous of Raphael’s youthful success.

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And one of the four rooms that Raphael and his workers decorated was the Sala di Constantino, or Hall of Constantine, named for the Roman emperor Constantine. Constantine was in power from 306 to 337 and was distinguished by the fact that he was the first ruler of his kind to convert to Christianity – although not until he was near death. He was and remains a revered figure within the Catholic Church.

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Raphael first started work on the Room of the Signatura, which was where Julius II kept his library. This space not only housed a collection of books, but it also acted as a storehouse for significant Vatican documents. And the first fresco to which Raphael can put his name is the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, shown above. The piece portrays both the worldly and the heavenly church.

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Raphael then went on to paint the Room of Heliodorus – a private area that the Pope likely used for audiences. This was followed by the third of the four chambers, the Fire in the Borgo Room. It was named for the story of an earlier Pope extinguishing a serious fire in Rome by making the sign of the cross.

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This left the largest room, the Hall of Constantine, to do. And by the time this project was due to start, Pope Julius II had died, being succeeded by Pope Leo X. Unfortunately, though, there had also been another important death in the interim – that of Raphael himself, at the tragically young age of 37 on Good Friday in 1520.

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Raphael’s passing meant that, for many years, it was believed that he had never touched the Hall of Constantine. Rather, the frescoes there were thought to be the work of members of his studio and other artists. But a stunning find during the restoration of the hall has turned that idea on its head.

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Indeed, it turns out that two of the figures in the elaborate frescos on the Hall of Constantine’s walls are now believed to have been painted by Raphael himself rather than by one of his assistants. However, this state of affairs did not become apparent until restoration work on the hall got under way.

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In 2017 the Italian newspaper La Stampa quoted one of the conservators, Fabio Piacentini, as saying, “By analyzing the painting, we realized that it is certainly by the great master Raphael. He painted in oil on the wall, which is a really special technique. The cleaning and removal of centuries of previous restorations revealed the typical pictorial features of the master.”

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One of the two newly discovered figures represents Justice; the other depicts Friendship. Justice is shown here, while Friendship is shown above the next paragraph of this article. And while the use of oil to paint a fresco is itself unusual, the Vatican Museums’ Arnold Nesselrath has seemingly implied that we can still chalk the works up to the Renaissance master himself. Nesselrath told La Stampa, “Raphael was a great adventurer in painting and was always trying something different.”

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Still, there’s a haunting truth about these two figures; they’re very likely to have been the final works that Raphael painted before his untimely death. And now we can only speculate about what further masterpieces the artist would have left us had he lived longer.

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