The four rooms known as Raphael Rooms, or more commonly Stanze (stanza is Italian for room), are, together with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, the legacy of the High Renaissance in Rome, and certainly a must-see for whomever happens to be travelling to the city.
The rooms were originally meant as a suite of apartments for Pope Julius II , and, as it is obviously stated by the name, they were frescoed by the great painter Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, that is, Raphael. Although the walls of these rooms already hosted frescoes by important Renaissance painters such as Piero della Francesca, Julius II had little no remorse in having them repainted as he chose the rooms as his new apartments, not willing to live in those that had been the apartments of his predecessor (and rival), Alexander VI.
From the moment of his arrival in the Vatican, Raphael worked at the Stanze until his death in 1520, and with the help of his apprentices he decorated the four rooms that served as papal apartments for several years: the Stanza della Segnatura ("Room of the Signatura"), the Stanza di Eliodoro ("Room of Heliodorus"), the Stanza dell'Incendio del Borgo ("The Room of the Fire in the Borgo") and the Sala di Costantino ("Hall of Constantine"), rooms that are now, luckily for all the visitors, among the areas of the Vatican Palace that are open to the public.
Stanza della Segnatura
This room is named after Vatican's highest court, the "Segnatura Gratiae et Iustitiae", which used to gather here. The room was the first one to be painted by Raphael, between 1509 and 1511. The frescoes where meant to celebrate theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, and poetry, and, according to the Renaissance costum, the communion between Christianity and the Greek philosophy. It is in this very room that is hosted what is possibly the most famous of Raphael's frescoes: The school of Athens, on the east wall. On the three other walls we find: The Disputation of the Sacrament, The Cardinal and Theological Virtues and The Parnassus. The vault was painted by Raphael as well, with similar themes.
Stanza di Eliodoro
The room of the Signatura had not been completed yet that Raphael was already designing the decorations for the next room, which was realized between the second half of 1511 and 1514. That was not an easy moment for the State of the Vatican, that had lost territory to France and was threatened by foreign armies. The theme chosen for this private room (an audience chamber), was then the one of the protection God had granted to his Church on Earth. The scenes are now more dramatically and somberly enlighten, the colors thicker and darker and the compositions more asymmetric. The four frescoes on the walls are The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, The Mass at Bolsena, The Meeting of Pope Leo I and Attila, and The Deliverance of Saint Peter from Prison, while for the vault Raphael chose to represent four episodes from the Bible.
Stanza dell'Incendio di Borgo
In this room, more than in any other room before, the help of Raphael's assistants was substantial, as the artist had been being increasingly more busy with other projects. Painted between 1514 and 1517, this was the third and last room where Raphael worked personally. The idea behind the series of frescoes in this room is to glorify the person of Pope Leon X, the new pope that had succeeded to Julius II, through the narration of episodes from the lives of two of his predecessors that went by the same name, Leon III and Leon IV, with continuous references and links to the age of Leon X. The room is named after the fresco on the south wall – probably the only one to be personally painted by Raphael, at least in part, and to be realized under his supervision – that is L'Incendio di Borgo (The fire in the Borgo), where Pope Leon IV, making the sign of the cross, miraculously manages to extinguish the fire that was burning down Borgo, a district of Rome near the Vatican. The frescoes on the other walls are: The Oath of Leo III, The Coronation of Charlemagne, and The Battle of Ostia, while on the vault Raphael maintained the frescoes realized by Perugino in 1504.
Sala di Costantino
For this fourth and last room, Raphael only had the time to design the narrative scheme of the stanza before his death in 1520. Both the composition of the paintings and their realization was left to his apprentices, that completed the work in 1524, under Pope Clement VII. The theme for the room is the life of the Roman Emperor Constantine, meant as a metaphor of the victory of Christianity over paganism. The frescoes are: The Vision of the Cross, The Battle of Milvian Bridge, The Baptism of Constantine and The Donation of Constantine. These frescoes are less famous than the ones of the other rooms, probably because they were not created by the genius of Raphael but only by the apprentices of his school. The original ceiling, which was made out of wood, was later replaced with a frescoed vault in 1582 under Gregory XIII.
During their stay in the Vatican, Raphael and his apprentices also worked on other spaces, like the Vatican Loggias (three rooms on three different floors of the Vatican Palace) and the Sala dei Chiaroscuri (where Raphael's painting have gone destroyed though), but these smaller rooms are only open to academics and researchers, and not to the general visitors.