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The Largest Raphael Exhibition Ever Is Opening This Spring in Rome

By Laura Itzkowitz


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Visitors to the Vatican Museums can access Raphael’s Rooms, four rooms the Renaissance master and those in his school painted in the 16th century.

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Visitors to the Vatican Museums can access Raphael’s Rooms, four rooms the Renaissance master and those in his school painted in the 16th century.

Here’s where to see the expansive collection—and where else to find Raphael’s art throughout the Eternal City.

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Renaissance master Raffaello Sanzio (you know him simply as “Raphael”) lived a short but prolific life. By the time he was 25 years old, the Urbino-born artist had already apprenticed with Perugino and done a stint in Florence, before Pope Julius II called him to the Eternal City to start creating paintings and frescoes at the Vatican. In Rome he became one of the era’s most in-demand artists, overseeing almost all of the papacy’s artistic projects. In the span of a few years, his style matured from that of a talented young artist to that of a true master painter and entrepreneur who managed a large workshop of artists, architects, and archeologists before his early death in 1520.

Now, for the 500th anniversary of his passing, Rome will mount the largest-ever exhibition of his work. More than 200 paintings, drawings, and other works will be on display at the Scuderie del Quirinale, a venue featuring large-scale art exhibits, from March 5 through June 2. Organized in conjunction with the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the exhibition will gather works on loan from the Louvre, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the British Museum, the Prado, the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna, the National Archeological Museum in Naples, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille, among others. Tickets are available online, and this is definitely a show you’ll want to book in advance.  

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But the Scuderie del Quirinale isn’t the only place to see Raphael’s work. Here are a few others to visit after the exhibition closes, or if you want to see work at its origin source.

A wealthy banker hired Raphael to paint parts of Villa Farnesina.

Where else to see Raphael’s work in Rome 

If you want a better understanding of Raphael in the context in which he worked, you need to visit the villas and churches he anointed with incredible frescoes. First stop: Raphael’s Rooms at the Vatican, a stunning visual display of the artist’s mastery and the pope’s wealth. Although Raphael was originally commissioned to decorate one of the four rooms in the papal apartments, Pope Julius eventually hired him to complete all four, the last of which he left unfinished when he died of a fever at age 37. You could spend hours here, almost never making it to the Sistine Chapel, poring over the detail in his rendition of the famed School of Athens and The Parnassus, spotting cameos of Renaissance poets and thinkers within the frescoes’ casts of characters. Three of the rooms have been restored, and the last one is set to be completed this year as part of the 500th anniversary celebration.  

“When I’m in the Raphael Rooms, I understand the political, cultural, and philosophical context that Raphael brilliantly represented in his art as if I was hurled 500 years into the past,” says Fulvio De Bonis, cofounder of Imago Artis Travel, which offers bespoke Raphael-themed tours of Rome. “I have fun discovering the messages hidden behind the characters’ faces, including his self-portrait in The School of Athens. 

“La Fornarina” by Raphael, usually on display at Palazzo Barberini, will be part of the exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale.

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Less than a mile down river lies Villa Farnesina, a palace built by the wealthy Sienese banker Agostino Chigi. He initially hired Raphael to paint the Triumph of Galatea, a beautiful nymph riding a seashell pulled by dolphins; later, to celebrate his marriage, he commissioned Raphael to paint the ceiling of the grand loggia, which depicts the wedding of Cupid and Psyche. This is where Raphael’s mastery of composition and human form are fully on display—look up and you’ll see Zeus and Jupiter as well as the lovers Cupid and Psyche surrounded by other gods, angels, and cherubs.

There are two smaller churches where you can see Raphael’s work, and once you’ve seen his frescoes at the Vatican and Villa Farnesina, you’ll surely appreciate them even more. Agostino Chigi commissioned him to paint the Four Sibyls for the Chigi Altar inside the tiny church of Santa Maria della Pace just behind Piazza Navona. Looking up at them, you can admire his delicate touch and the grace with which he imbued human faces. And perhaps influenced by Michelangelo’s work at the Sistine Chapel—which he spied clandestinely with the help of the architect Bramante—he painted the prophet Isaiah in the Basilica of Sant’Agostino.

You can easily walk from one to the other before visiting the Pantheon, where he’s buried in a tomb with an inscription that reads, “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

. . . And at other museums

Four other museums in Rome have works by Raphael in their collections. 

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Galleria Borghese has the Deposition of Christ, Portrait of a Man (possibly Francesco Maria della Rovere or the poet and painter Aquilano), and the Portrait of a Lady with Unicorn. La Fornarina, a portrait of Raphael’s lover Margherita Luti, resides at the Galleria Barberini, and Galleria Doria Pamphilj—an under-the-radar museum inside the palace of the aristocratic Pamphilj family—has Raphael’s Double Portrait

At the Vatican Museums, travelers can also see The Transfiguration, as well as a handful of other paintings and tapestries.

Editor’s Notes:

  • Portrait of a Lady with Unicorn and La Fornarina will be on view at the Scuderie del Quirinale during the exhibition from March 5 to June 2. 
  • Rome is located in the central Italian region of Lazio. Due to the outbreak of coronavirus (officially known as COVID-19) in the northern part of Italy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending practicing enhanced precautions for travel in the country. Here’s what you need to know about how the coronavirus outbreak impacts international travelers.

>>Next: Plan Your Trip with AFAR’s Guide to Rome