article 75: Stanza

After the Sistine Chapel, the most famous room in the Vatican’s precincts is the Stanza della Segnatura in the papal palace. It is named after the highest pontifical court, which sat there in the mid-16th century. Before that it had been the studiolo and music room of Pope Leo X. It was also where he kept his collection of instruments – perhaps including the Vincentius harpsichord, now at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena and known to have been owned by the melomane pontifex. Marc’Antonio Cavazzoni dal gravicembalo, whom the Pope “kept very close to him” according to a contemporary source, will have been a frequent guest (see Article 7 on this site and fig. 1 below). But that is far from being the reason tourists and art lovers come to see the room.

It is the grandest of the four stanze frescoed by Raphael and contains, among other masterpieces, his most famous work, “The School of Athens”. At its lower right corner a section of a rectangle destroys the symmetry of the painted arch which vaults the composition (fig. 2). Annoying double doors to the adjoining Stanza di Eliodoro had to be reckoned with. These are always open to the flow of humanity, so the visitor never sees what the Medici Pope saw when Cavazzoni was entertaining him: a quartet of intarsia panels (fig. 3).

These and two other sets were executed by Giovanni da Verona, the greatest ebenist of the period, possibly in part to designs by Raphael. At the top left we see a classical architectural fantasy. On the right a cruel practical joke perpetrated by His Holiness is depicted. The Medici Pope had received an albino elephant named Annone from the king of Portugal. The trained pachyderm became a great favorite at the papal court. In 1514 a presumptuous poetaster named Cosimo Baraballo was told he was to be crowned poet laureate on the Capitoline Hill. He proudly took his place under a baldachin on Annone’s back and was processing through the streets of Rome on his way to glory when Annone suddenly bolted and dumped his burden in the gutter.

The lower left panel gets down to the business of music-making, showing a harp and three recorders. To its right, a spinetta with unusual curved sides seems to float in the air and exit its frame together with some music books, coming toward the viewer in a premonition of Baroque illusion. Some of the other surviving door panels, which include lutes, a set of reeds and a viola da gamba, exhibit this phenomenon, but not to such an extent. I like to think it reflects the glorious role the harpsichord family then played in the Vatican’s most intimate reaches.

November 24, 2022

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