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Originally published August 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 27, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Decades-long restoration of Raphael frescoes almost completed

As visitors ooh and aah at the vivid hues revealed by the cleaning of Michelangelo's frescoed ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, some of the...

The Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — As visitors ooh and aah at the vivid hues revealed by the cleaning of Michelangelo's frescoed ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, some of the greatest work of a fellow Renaissance giant has been quietly restored to glory a few rooms away.

Now, nearly 30 years after work began, the restoration of Raphael's frescoes in the rooms named after him in the Vatican Museums is approaching completion.

Restorers said in recent interviews that their work in the Raphael Stanzas has brought insights into how the artist worked, from mistakes he made in mixing plaster to how he transferred his exquisite designs from small pieces of paper to the sprawling walls of papal apartments.

They also found a few surprises, including a remnant of a 500-year-old lunch, and a tantalizing hand print on the wall, although it may never be known if it is the artist's.

Up on scaffolding hidden by white sheeting, restorers are now working on "Heliodorus driven out of the Temple," in the Stanza of Heliodorus, considered Raphael's most extraordinary achievement. This room holds "the painting legacy of Raphael," said Maurizio De Luca, in charge of painting restoration at the Vatican Museums. "You feel a maturity that you don't feel" in his earlier work in the set of four rooms.

When Raphael was only 25, he was called to Rome from Florence in 1508 by Pope Julius II to decorate the pontiff's apartment in the Apostolic Palace. Julius didn't want to have anything to do with what had been the apartment, one floor below, of his virtual predecessor, Alexander VI, of the notorious Borgia clan. Coming between the two pontiffs chronologically was Pius III, who reigned only a couple of weeks in 1503.

Restorers expect to be done within a year in the Heliodorus Stanza, which includes a fresco of an angel bathed in bright light and waking a sleeping, imprisoned St. Peter. They found a spot of red paint on the angel's nose, probably the result of an accidental brush stroke by one of Raphael's workmen.

One of the restorers, Paolo Violini, running his hand across "Heliodorus driven out of the Temple," fingered a hole left by a compass used by Raphael's crew as they transferred the outlines of his design for the fresco to the wall.

"Colors are in pretty good shape because it was a fresco of exceptional quality," said Violini.

But walls show cracks and evidence of swelling, a reflection of the changes later pontiffs made to their rooms, including not infrequent moving of chimneys.

Cleaning the frescoes in the first room tackled by Raphael, the Stanza of the Signatura, turned up evidence of problems he had when first handling the mix of ingredients Roman artists used in plaster for frescoes.

The Rome school used volcanic rock, including from near Mount Vesuvius, instead of the sand used in northern Italy, and Raphael apparently learned the hard way — judging by cracks left in the upper part of his "The School of Athens" fresco — that he had to change the mixture of the plaster ingredients, said De Luca.

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It was while working on the "Athens" fresco in the Signatura Stanza — painted from 1508 to 1511 — that restorers found a bean, "probably from the lunch of one of the plasterers," said De Luca.

The Stanza of the Borgo Fire was the first room to be restored. Cleaning in the last room, the Hall of Constantine, is expected to be completed in about three years. Most of the frescoes there were done after Raphael's death in 1520 but followed his design.

The Vatican Museums declined to release a photo of the Raphael rooms restored thus far.

A family from New York donated the approximately $500,000 needed for the restoration of the Heliodorus Room, said the Rev. Allen Duston, an American Dominican who is the first full-time fundraiser at the Museums.

Duston declined to identify the family. The cleaned-up Sistine Chapel was unveiled in 1999 after a two-decade restoration.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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