My brush with Raphael’s Rome: Following the Renaissance master’s trail from peerless palazzi to cool, hushed churches

  • Michael Hodges escaped the Michaelangelo crowds to follow the trail of his great rival, Raphael
  • He visited the Roman-era Pantheon where Raphael became the first artist to be interred 
  • Another highlight was Villa Farnesina which houses the maestro’s fresco, the Triumph Of Galatea

A break in Rome can be bad for you. The cobbled streets around the Forum and the Colosseum are waiting to turn an unwary ankle and five minutes in the jostling crowd craning up at Michaelangelo’s famed ceiling in the Sistine Chapel is a real pain in the neck.

Happily, there is an easier way to appreciate the wonders of central Rome. Michelangelo was an early 16th Century genius but so was his great rival Raphael, and you can follow this maestro’s trail to discover a less crowded Eternal City of Renaissance palazzi, hidden-away churches and peaceful gardens.

Start by squeezing out from the Sistine throng and up the Vatican stairs to see the frescos in its four Raphael Rooms. Unlike Michelangelo, Raphael painted much of his work at eye level. You won’t need a ladder to get as close to extraordinary works like his The Deliverance Of St Peter.

Michael Hodges followed Raphael’s trail to discover a less crowded Eternal City of Renaissance palazzi, hidden-away churches and peaceful gardens. He started at the Vatican which has four rooms decorated by the maestro. Pictured is the ceiling of the one of the rooms 

Afterwards, go to the riverside Villa Farnesina for a glimpse of what Rome was like – if you were rich – when Raphael and Michelangelo were battling it out. 

Set in an urban oasis of formal gardens, shaded benches and walkways, the villa was built by fabulously wealthy banker Agostino Chigi in 1510 to entertain princes and popes. 

Inside its fantastically decorated halls you’ll find Raphael’s fresco, the Triumph Of Galatea, where the beautiful nereid is carried across the waves in an open shell surrounded by mythical creatures.

The Chigi family’s glory days are long gone – their villa now belongs to the state – but another great Roman family, the Pamphilj, still own a palazzo. The Doria Pamphilj was purpose-built to show off their power and fine art collection. 

Previous visitors include Madonna and the Queen, and among the masterpieces they admired is Raphael’s 1517 Double Portrait of two friends in conversation, turning towards the viewer as if they have interrupted their conversation.

Resting place: Pictured here is the Roman-era Pantheon, where Raphael was interred. Michael says the domed temple has been a must-see for 1,900 years

Masterpiece: Michael visited the ‘fantastically decorated’ Villa Farnesina where he saw Raphael’s Triumph Of Galatea (pictured) 

How good was Raphael? Well, he was the first artist to be interred in the Pantheon. This Roman-era domed temple has been a must-see for 1,900 years and, compared to, say, the Colosseum, visiting is hassle-free with no entry charge.

Later, wander along atmospheric side-streets behind the grand Piazza Navona and seek out the church of Santa Maria della Pace, scene of one of art’s most audacious hit jobs. 

Five hundred years ago, when the Sistine chapel was half-finished, Michelangelo went away on business and Raphael sneaked in and looked at the sketches. 

You can see the result on the right as you go into the church. The cast of Raphael’s sublime fresco, The Five Sybils Receiving Instruction From Angels, appear to have stepped off the Sistine ceiling.

Raphael was open about his pleasures. His famous portrait of his favourite mistress, La Fornarina, hangs in the gallery of ancient art, housed in yet another palazzo, the Barberini. 

Openly erotic rather than enigmatic, like the Mona Lisa, La Fornarina (The Baker’s Daughter) is even easier to see right now as it is a star of the brilliant once-in-a-generation Raphael show at the National Gallery in London, which runs until July 31.

If by this time you’re all out of puff, Francesco Borromini’s famed wide-stepped stairway to the Barberini Piazza is designed to ease visitors on horseback up to the top in a gentle spiral. 

Treasure trove: Villa Borghese (above) houses sculptures by Bernini, works by Caravaggio and Raphael’s The Disposition Of Christ, the painting which established his genius in public in 1507

Raphael designed the Chigi chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo (pictured). Michael says here you can enjoy his work without having to jostle for space 

It works on foot too. The slopes are also easy-going on the gentle hill to the Borghese Gardens. Get a Metro to Flamino and wander up to 198 acres of landscaped woodland, lawns and faux temples. 

At its heart, you’ll find the 17th Century Villa Borghese, with sumptuous interiors, sculptures by Bernini, works by Caravaggio and Raphael’s The Disposition Of Christ, showing Jesus being taken from the Cross, the painting which established his genius in public in 1507.

Come back down the hill towards Piazza del Popolo, then step out of the sun into the quiet cool of Santa Maria del Popolo. You are back with Raphael, who created the church’s Chigi chapel (yes, them again). In the chapel’s dome, a mosaic of God The Creator, designed by Raphael, looks down on the sinners below. Gaze up and enjoy. No one is going to jostle you.

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