The walls of these small chambers, called the Stanze di Raffaello, show the final stages of Raphael’s fast but short-lived progress. Seen in chronological order, they reveal how steadily he was outgrowing those faults for which modern critics have denounced him, and, learning intelligently from his contemporaries, was extending his command over pictorial form. Gone, or fast disappearing, are the bland, insipid, smiling faces of his early Madonnas, the mincing, languid postures of Perugino’s saints, the facile swirls of line, the monotonous pyramidal designs, and the hard superficial coloring. Instead, a little of the soft richness of the new Venetian coloring is captured; designs become refreshingly irregular, bodies are more vigorous, linear rhythms are more briskly varied, and faces are more severely, unsentimentally modelled. In particular, there is a steadily growing power of composing many solid figures into complex designs in deep space.
In the Stanza della Segnatura, the earliest of these rooms, the Parnassus is still full of simpering smiles and affected, theatrical gestures, which repel modern taste in spite of the decorative charm of a dancing, lilting flow of line. Both this and the Disputation are rather tiresomely symmetrical, especially the latter, with its obvious theatrical pattern of con-verging spokes and semi-circles, neatly fitted together in three tiers. But the individual figures are drawn with more spirited, varied attitudes and faces, in a more interestingly broken rhythm of line. Even the neat symmetry of pattern, one should add, is not necessarily a fault, but only uncongenial to the modern spirit. It expresses rather the Greek love of perfect, balanced proportion, and the medieval conception of a small, unchanging, ordered universe of heaven and earth.
But Raphael was sensitive to the restless, experimental spirit of his time, and little by little his designs express this altered mood. The School of Athens, done shortly after the Disputation, resembles it in being basically symmetrical, and in being built up of long straight lines, semi-circles and swirls that converge and recede toward the center. But its interrelation of parts is less obvious, tight and static; more irregular and animated. The earthly philosophers that people its steps are more diffusely and casually scattered, as separate individuals, or as detached small groups with various objects of interest. Their main outlines still flow together in undulating unison, but with still more variety and dissymmetry in detail. Each has a more roomy bit of space to move in, and the whole group lives in a wider atmosphere of spacious arches and rotundas. Faces and attitudes are vigorous, expressive, diverse. Some are still the typically Raphaelesque ideals of lithe, hard-muscled youthstatuesque, graceful, regular in feature; but the monotony of too much perfection is now prevented by many other faces, ruggedly irregular. In short, the picture still has enough of Raphael’s early charm and suavity to please without cloying, along with a mature command over expressive, rhythmic figure-drawing and dynamic, unified deep-space design.
The later pictures show him experimenting boldly with a variety of new effects, moving always away from academic tightness and over-sweetness toward the austere and unconventional. The Mass of Bolsena (in the Stanza di Eliodoro), though conventional in pattern, contains some of his richest painting of colors and textures. The Deliverance of St. Peter from Prison is full of daring lights and shadows, of angular, foreshortened figures, steel-clad, reflecting in fantastic glows and glitters a radiance that comes at once from torch-light, from a lurid sky without, and from angelic auras in a darkened cell. In the Stanza dell’ Incendio we pass to the pictures executed by other hands from Raphael’s designs. As one might expect, their interest lies principally in the composition, the execution of lighting and textures being baldly monotonous. The Conflagration of the Borgo shows him venturing into the field of Michelangelo with powerfully knotted, straining nude bodies, and fore-shadowing Tintoretto with a bizarrely unsymmetrical de-sign, intricately subdivided into planes at various angles in space. In the frescoes in the Sala di Costantino, whatever Raphael contributed through preliminary sketches is lost in the pretentious vulgarity of his followers who executed them.