This post is our final in the series about Raphael rooms in the Vatican, the work which forever immortalised Raphael as one of the greatest painters ever. The fresco Battle of Ostia, or Battaglia di Ostia in Italian, is featured in the Room of Constantine and takes its name from the naval battle of 849 between Saracen pirates and the city states of Papal, Neapolitan, Amalfitan and Gaetan, otherwise known as the Italian league. The battle ended with a win to the league, who managed to fend off the attack from the pirates – all, of course, with help from God as embodied through the Pope. The irony of the whole situation was that the pirates were mostly Muslim, and arguably, they all pray to the same God… so God choosing between Abraham’s differing offspring? Nevertheless, the painting is a beautiful example of classical High Renaissance artwork.

The Raphael painting depicts the battle as it took place off the city of Ostia, which at the time was undergoing much needed regeneration of its defensive sea walls. The city, and much of southern Italy, had for years been under attack from an advancing Muslim-Arab force, with one famous instance being the conquest of Sicily in 827, and the subsequent sacking of Rome in 846 when several basilicas, including the famed Saint Peter’s, lost their treasures to the invaders. With the historical wounds fresh in their mind, the Christian coalition (the parallels are scary, aren’t they?) massed off Sardinia, where Pope Leo IV came out to bless the troops before battle. The Pope can be seen in the middle left of the Raphael oil painting, ostensibly looking skywards to God for help. In the background, meanwhile, the pirate ships have appeared and the start of the battle is shown with what historians believe were Neapolitan galleys, Italy’s finest vessels at the time.

As history will have it, the battle was actually interrupted about midway by a typical Mediterranean storm. The storm cleaved the two warring sides apart, with the Italians managing to find the safety of port given the Saracens had sailed further for the engagement. As a result, the Saracens were scattered, and once the storm had passed the Italian League reunited and proceeded to systematically destroy or capture all the remaining vessels they could find. As the history books have recorded, the prisoners were later used in construction gangs to build things such as the Leonine Wall, still part of the modern-day Vatican Hill. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, we guess!

In other Raphael news, even though the great painter’s artworks have been accessible for more than 490 years, this year will mark the first year a Raphael painting has been shown in Australia. Ah yes, the poor Aussies, stuck there in the great south land…The Raphael artwork that is being shown is Saint Sebastian (c. 1501-02) a portrait of the Saint, noted for his holy serene look while holding a single arrow between thumb and forefinger. The oil painting is unique because in most depictions of the Saint, the poor Sebastian is riddled with arrows and wounds – what you’d expect from the unfortunate patron saint for soldiers, plagues and arrows. The Raphael painting is on show at the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition Renaissance: Raphael, Botticelli, Bellini, Titian; 15th & 16th century Italian paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo until April 4.