Colour restored to Vatican’s Raphaels

After more than a decade, restoration of the monumental fresco cycle has finally been completed


After more than 10 years of waiting, visitors to the Vatican can once again see the frescoes by Raphael that adorn the walls of the Room of Heliodorus. It is one of four “Stanze” or “rooms” that formed the private apartments of Pope Julius II; all are decorated with a monumental cycle of frescoes by the artist. Conservators recently completed work on The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila, 1512-14, the last fresco in the room in need of restoration. These “Stanze”, along with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, 1508-12, are arguably the most important frescoes from the High Renaissance and one of the highlights of the Vatican Museums.

Not just by Raphael

The Room of Heliodorus contains scenes from the Old Testament painted on the ceiling as well as four major frescoes by Raphael—The Mass at Bolsena, 1512, The Deliverance of St Peter, 1514, The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, 1511-12, and The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila, which depicts the decisive meeting in AD452 in which Pope Leo the Great convinced Attila the Hun to abandon plans to sack Rome. Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, explains that the restoration, which began in 2002, “consisted mainly of restoring the original balance of colour, which was heavily altered by a number of conservation projects over the centuries”. Paolo Violini, the head of the conservation team, says that restorers working in the 1950s cleaned certain figures in Raphael’s compositions while leaving others. This has created chiaroscuro effects that the artist did not intend. For example, previous work done to the figure of the angel in The Deliverance of St Peter “made it seem as if the light was coming from behind him, when in fact Raphael meant him to be the light source”. The cleaning process also enabled the team to understand more about how the frescoes were painted. Although The Mass at Bolsena and The Deliverance of St Peter were painted single-handedly by Raphael, experts have detected the hand of at least one assistant in the other two frescoes.

Generous patronage

According to Sandro Barbagallo, the assistant to the director of the Vatican Museums’ historic collections department, the restoration was carried out in-house by the Vatican’s own Laboratori di Restauro Pitture dei Musei Vaticani and supported by the Laboratorio di Diagnostica, also part of the Vatican’s conservation arm. Although Barbagallo could not disclose the cost of the project, he says that restoration projects carried out by the Vatican tend to cost, on average, around a third of the cost of similar projects in major Italian museums, because the Vatican does not outsource any part of its projects. Instead, it relies on its own scientists, historians and conservators. Money is raised through its fundraising network, the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, which has chapters all over the world. As a result, work can be carried out within budget and without having to award portions to different (and competing) external organisations.

The project was paid for by Florence D’Urso, a former member of the New York chapter of the Vatican patrons who died in April 2012. She is one of only three people to have been given the Michelangelo Award, an honour reserved for only the most generous patrons of the Vatican Museums. She previously sponsored the restoration of Perugino’s Moses Leaving to Egypt, around 1482, in the Sistine Chapel, and pieces by Fra Angelico in the Niccoline Chapel.

Future projects

The Vatican conservation team has already set its sights on restoring the frescoes in the Hall of Constantine, the largest of the “Stanze”. These were painted by the school of Raphael from 1523 onwards, after the artist’s death in 1520. Tests will be carried out on the figure of Constantine in The Battle of the Milvian Bridge, 1520-24, to determine what work needs to be done. The project is expected to last around five years and will be funded by the Vatican patrons.