This post continues our running series of Raphael Rooms in the Vatican. Raphael completed four rooms in total during his short-lived employment in Rome, frescoes of which are considered the highlights of his oeuvre. This week we are examining the final two frescoes in the Stanza painted by Raphael’s workshop with the intended use as a music room for Julius’ successor, Leo X. Thus the paintings feature events from the lives of Popes Leo III and Leo IV. The frescoes in the Fire in the Borgo also have a unique standing: they were all based on designs made by Raphael, but were all completed by his protégés and assistants. Let us now examine the next fresco which grants the room its name, The Fire in the Borgo.
The Fire in the Borgo is by far the most intricate of the four frescoes in the Stanza dell’Incendio di Borgo, packed with medieval architecture, references to myths and classical antiquity and also allusions to popular themes used by contemporary artists of the age. The fresco celebrates the intercession of Leo IV, who by popular account recorded in the Liber Pontificalis, a collection of early papal biographies, controlled a great fire which had spread through the Borgo, a part of Rome near the Basilica of St Peter. The alleged event occurred in AD 847, when the pope uttered a benediction from the Old St Peter’s loggia, which stopped the fire and allowed it to be extinguished, saving a great amount of lives and property.
While Raphael designed the fresco, the majority of Raphael scholars believe his noted apprentice, and later master in his own right, Giulio Romano, actually painted the work. What is indisputable, however, is the richness and variation in composition contained in the scene. The many group figures articulate an older, formal beauty, at the same time lacking the genuine harmony of artistic relationship, thus remaining excellent examples of episodically acceptable and sound representation. The figures also maintain a heavy link to ancient Greek and Roman mythology: for example, the image of an old man on the shoulders of a young man is interpreted as a clear reference to the Aeneid, where Aeneas escapes with his father and son, Anchises and Ascanius. A contemporary reference to Michelangelo can also be found in the nude descending from the wall on the left, showing the all the artistic prowess of Raphael’s workshop.
Another aspect of the fresco to appreciate is its overall structural composition. Raphael utilised two colonnades of classical designs to define a central square for the viewer to focus on, even though the majority of the detail and action of the painting can be found to either side. One should not be deceived, however, by this apparent slight: The Pope is featured in the middle, blessing the crowd while battling the hellish flames. This holy theme is reinforced with the façade of old St Peter’s in the background. Much like Christ is always in the background and willing to aid, so is the Pope – that notion is clearly lost on the escapees in the foreground, bar one woman in yellow who begs the crowd to turn to the Pope, reminiscent of a biblical tale from the New Testament. We would all do well to remember the fresco, particular those in the southern hemisphere in the heat of summer – and possible forest fires.