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Raphael's last paintings unveiled: A discovery made during a Vatican Museums restoration

The Vatican Museums unveil the final paintings of the Renaissance master Raphael Sanzio, which were discovered during the restoration of the frescoes in the Vatican’s Hall of Constantine.

By Paolo Ondarza

The allegories of Justice (Latin: Iustitia) and Friendship (Comitas) likely represent the last work of Raphael before his death in 1520.

These two figures were painted in oil alongside the frescos in the Hall of Constantine in the Vatican.

The exceptional discovery is the result of a careful restoration begun in March 2015. Restoration work has so far been executed on three of walls of the great Hall, which measures 18 by 12 meters with a height of about 13 meters. The Hall of Constantine was destined by Pope Leo X (Medici) for meetings with representatives and diplomats.

Team of experts

Restoration efforts have been carried out over the past 5 years by the Restoration Laboratory of the Vatican Museums with the support of the Patrons of the Arts. Francesca Persegati leads the composed of experts coordinated by Fabio Piacentini under the scientific direction of Guido Cornini.

The paintings were meant to be unveiled on 20 April during an international conference to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Raphael's death.

Due to the coronavirus emergency, the event was cancelled.

The canvases which had covered the paintings were removed on the morning of Wednesday, 13 May, in the presence of the director of the Vatican Museums, Barbara Jatta, and about 20 other people, including technicians and experts.

Justice and Friendship

The upcoming reopening of the Vatican Museums will soon allow visitors to admire the beauty of the shapes and colors that characterize the Hall of Constantine.

The two female figures brought to life by Raphael’s hand stand out: Iustitia and Comitas.

The paintings are part of an iconographic cycle dedicated to Constantine, and painted before Raphael’s sudden death at the age of 37. The surrounding frescos were completed by the master’s students and collaborators, most notably Giulio Romano and Giovan Francesco Penni.

Masterful technique

The peculiarity of the Justice and Friendship painting lies in the technique employed: oil painting on bare wall.

Beneath the wall’s surface, numerous nails were discovered which anchored a layer of rosin, or Greek pitch, to the wall. Raphael spread the material on the wall while hot and then covered it with a thin layer of white plaster, to prepare for the application of the paint.

Precise cleaning methods

The people carrying out the restorations in the Vatican Museums used precise cleaning methods to allow the extraordinary colours and Raphael’s unmistakable chromatic tone to clearly emerge.

Museum visitors will soon be able to appreciate all the iridescent, transparent, and nuanced beauty created by the Italian Renaissance master.

Continuing restoration

The restoration of the Hall of Constantine – which also included the vault – will continue as of this summer with the fourth and final wall, where the disciples of Raphael Sanzio frescoed “The Donation of Rome”.

17 May 2020, 15:00