Now that the restoration work on Raphael’s “Parnassus” in the Stanza della Segnatura, which began last summer, is complete, it is easier to understand what Vasari meant when he wrote about Pope Julius II admiring Raphael’s first attempts in his new apartment and thereafter thinking nothing of “throwing out” the frescos by other masters, ancient and modern, like Piero della Francesca. The current restoration work has revealed the fresco to be in an excellent state of preservation, in fact to be about eighty percent intact.
The cleaning of the “Parnassus” is part of a complete programme to restore Raphael’s large lunettes in the papal apartments. After the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo, work moved to the Stanza della Segnatura, where the cleaning of the “School of Athens” was completed last spring.
Preliminary investigations were carried out with the aid of new electronic equipment presented to the department. Ultra-violet and infra-red photographs produced a complete picture of the whole fresco, the detail being added later. The “Parnassus” has undergone regular maintenance and cleaning on average about three times a century since it was first painted. In the 1950s Deoclecio Redig De Campos investigated behind the plaster bearing Raphael’s fresco. He succeeded in identifying restoration work by Bramante and decorations dating from before Raphael’s fresco. During the cleaning of the “Parnassus”, De Campos detached whole pieces of plaster exactly where the Castalian fountain is painted, leaving large horizontal cracks. Enrico Guidi explains: “Not content with removing the layers of accumulated grime, restorers in the past have added heavy layers of re-painting which succeeded, in fact, in protecting the original membrane of paint, leaving it almost intact. Because the fresco is painted on a wall that receives no direct light, the colours have been brightened up by emphasising the changing shadows, obtained by Raphael with the lightest, fastest touch and, particularly in the case of the faces, a very fine brush. Until now, however, all those involved in restoring the fresco, including De Campos, have used very dark pigment and hatched shading, which have caused the painting to lose a lot of its legibility. Originally the sky was a more intense blue, obtained by spreading dry lapis lazuli over a coloured fresco base, and then removing the lapis. We still need to carry out tests to find out the exact number of days taken to complete the whole work” he says, referring to the “giornata”, the amount of wet plaster which could be painted within one day. “The number stands at present at twenty-seven, including the vault”.
In his “Parnassus”, Raphael demonstrated the virtuosity of his composition and all his technical skill; he used a very swift method of application, resolving problems as they arose, and therefore requiring very few assistants. The hands of his assistants can only be spotted on the drapery and in a few other relatively unimportant places. The figure of Apollo was painted in a single day, the god’s face being sketched in with two lines quickly etched into the fresh plaster. This technique illustrates the difference between Raphael and the other favourite painter of Julius II, Michelangelo, busy at the time painting the frescos in the Sistine Chapel. The liveliness of Raphael’s faces is also striking, some of them idealised and some of them portraits of his contemporaries, a juxtaposition also to be found in the “School of Athens” and the “Mass of Bolsena”.
The restoration will also assist in establishing the chronology of the fresco. Arnold Nesselrath, who has directed the cleaning, explains: “At present the sequence most favoured runs “Dispute of the Sacrament”, “Parnassus” and “School of Athens”—placed in this order on stylistic grounds by Bellori. I personally favour the suggestion made about ten years ago by Bram Kempers and Matthias Winner, that there are strong reasons for returning to Vasari’s contention that the “School of Athens” was the first fresco painted by Raphael. Meanwhile we have established the fact that the “Parnassus” was the third fresco to have been painted in that room”. The series of booklets on recent restorations, to be published by the Patrons of Art in the Vatican Museums, is about to bring out the first volume, Raphael’s School of Athens by Nesselrath.