Giulio Romano (c. 1499–1546) was chief assistant to the great Italian master Raphael (1483–1520). Raphael had been called to Rome by Pope Julius II in 1508 to help redecorate the papal apartments in the Vatican. This was a time of furious artistic activity in Rome; Pope Julius had razed the basilica of old St. Peter’s and was rebuilding it; he planned a vast extension to the Vatican palace and a monumental secular law court. Pope Julius commissioned new an to decorate the extensions on a scale emulating the ancient Roman emperors.

Michelangelo was already at work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling when the 26-year-old Raphael arrived—probably at the request of Donato Bramante, the great architect of the new St. Peter’s.

Julius II was so pleased with Raphael’s first results that he decided to obliterate all work of other artists in the papal suite—except for a ceiling frescoed by Perugino, Raphael’s teacher. Julius II and his successor, Leo X, eventually gave the task of redecorating four rooms to the exuberant young Raphael.

Begun around 1519, the Hall of Constantine was the last room in this series to be frescoed. Raphael must have created the basic decorative scheme and supplied detailed studies and preparatory drawings for at least part of the scene depicting the victory of Constantine at the Mulvian Bridge. But, in the full flower of his talent and power, Raphael suddenly died at age 37.

The execution of the “Battle at the Mulvian Bridge” fell to Giulio Romano, who inherited Raphael’s incomplete designs as well as the direction of his large workshop. By the end of 1521, working now under the patronage of the aristocratic and cultured Medici pope, Leo X, Giulio finished painting more than half the room. Work was interrupted by Leo X’s death and nothing was done during the subsequent shon reign of Adrian VI. The decoration was finally completed in 1524 after another Medici, Clement VII, ascended to the papacy.

Contemporary sources describe the room as a banqueting hall. It was also used as an audience hall for official visitors. It is now called the Hall of Constantine because four large narrative scenes on the walls depict Constantine embracing and defending the Faith and submitting to the authoriry of the Church. In addition to the “Battle at the Mulvian Bridge,” which covers the largest wall in the room (right wall, photo of fresco), there is the “Vision of Constantine” (left wall, photo of fresco), as well as the “Baptism of Constantine” and the “Donation of Rome,” which are not visible in the photo.

Constantine exemplified a secular ruler who had forged a peaceful coexistence with the papacy by acknowledging the supremacy of the Church. Constantine’s vision and the battle at the Mulvian Bridge were fitting themes for a room in which the pope received visiting heads of state. The choice of the Constantine epic to decorate this room may also reflect the concern of the papal court in 1519 with the election of a new Holy Roman Emperor who was regarded as the successor to Constantine. The frescoes in the Hall of Constantine would remind the new emperor or any visiting head of state of his position vis-à-vis the Pope.

The frescoes are flavored by Raphael’s and Giulio Romano’s keen interest in archaeological exactitude. The composition of the great battle scene is based directly on Roman sarcophagi depicting similar themes. In the “Vision of Constantine,” Constantine assumes a pose typically used by Greek and Roman sculptors to show an emperor talking to his troops. Certain details in the background, such as the Mausoleum of Hadrian and the Pyramid of Caius Cestius (both in the background of the “Vision of Constantine”), are borrowed from ancient coins. The entire room gives the illusion of historical events unrolling on a tapestry before us and before the popes enthroned in the corners of the room. The popes depicted in the Hall of Constantine ruled at the time of Constantine and the other early Christian emperors.