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The Largest-Ever Raphael Exhibition Will Reopen in Rome on June 2

By Laura Itzkowitz

May 1, 2020

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Within Rome’s Vatican Museums, Raphael’s Rooms include four famous rooms painted by the Italian Renaissance master during the 16th century.

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Within Rome’s Vatican Museums, Raphael’s Rooms include four famous rooms painted by the Italian Renaissance master during the 16th century.

The landmark exhibit was forced to close in spring to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Now, here’s how you can still see the expansive collection—and where else to find Raphael’s art (online) 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.

For the 500th anniversary of his passing, Rome amassed the largest-ever exhibition of his work with more than 200 paintings, drawings, and other works on display at the Scuderie del Quirinale, a venue featuring large-scale art exhibits. Unfortunately, when Italy went into lockdown on March 8 to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the exhibition—which sold approximately 70,000 online tickets before doors even opened to the public—was forced to close after just three days in operation. (The exhibition, which was organized in conjunction with Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and gathers works on loan from the Louvre, the British Museum, and Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery, among others, was scheduled to run from March 5 through June 2, 2020.)

Now, however, as many European museums begin to reopen after coronavirus lockdowns, the quincentennial Raphael exhibition is slated to reopen in Rome from June 2 through August 30. Tickets for the show need to be booked online in advance, and upon entry, visitors will be organized into groups of six, then escorted through the exhibition with a guard who will “chaperone” each 80-minute visit, according to Scuderie del Quirinale officials.

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For those who won’t be able to catch the exhibit in Italy, the Scuderie del Quirinale has made its landmark Raffaello 1520–1483 exhibition availabe online for Italian art enthusiasts at home (much like many other international museums offering online tours amid travel restrictions and coronavirus shutdowns). A 13-minute video uploaded to the Quirinale website takes viewers on a virtual tour through 10 rooms in the Rome gallery that are currently filled with Raphael’s works—but entirely empty of people. The walk-through footage includes narration about the exhibit in Italian and English, exploring separate themes that vary room to room, such as “poems and painting” and “a young Raphael.” (One room is even centered around a life-sized reproduction of Raphael’s tomb copied from the nearby Pantheon.) 

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More than 15 additional videos focus on aspects of Raphael’s work in further detail, outlining topics such as the relationships between Raphael and his clients, who often became the artist’s friends, or the presence of nature in Raphael’s paintings, which regularly offered hidden meanings. These topic-specific videos are led by the museum’s curators and Italian art scholars, and feature commentary in Italian only (but you can opt for subtitles).

The Scuderie del Quirinale isn’t the only place you can see Raphael’s work in Rome—even virtually. Here are a few others to visit online right now or in the future, 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—virtually, for now

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. 

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(While Rome’s Vatican Museums remain closed to the public until June 1, you can currently take a virtual 360-degree tour of Raphael’s Rooms within the famous site, host to the Italian Renaissance artist’s magnum opus, The School of Athens.)

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

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.

(Starting May 6, a special webcam will give viewers a virtual peek at Raphael’s Villa Farnesina masterpiece through the Villa Farnesina and the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei websites.)

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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.”

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

This article originally appeared online on February 27, 2020; it was updated on May 26, 2020, to include current information.

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