In the series of rooms in the Vatican palace, of which one contains Parnassus, and another the Expulsion of Heliodorus and the Liberation of Peter, there is a room, the first of the series, which is called the Room of the Great Fire, because it contains a large picture of the Conflagration in the Borgo.

The Borgo is that quarter of Rome where the Vatican stands, and in the ninth century there was, one day, a great fire there. It was said that the fire was put out by the Pope of that time, Leo IV., who stood in a portico connected with the church of St. Peter, and made the sign of the cross.

Raphael was bidden make a painting upon one wall of the room, which should represent the scene, and in his characteristic fashion he made it to be not merely a copy of what he might suppose the scene to have been; he introduced a poetic element, which at once made the piece a work of great imagination.

A poet, who was describing such an event, might use an illustration from some other great historic fire. He might have said in effect: "In this burning of the Borgo, men could have been seen carrying the aged away on their shoulders, as when in ancient times Troy was burned, and Æneas bore his father Anchises away from the falling timbers."

This is exactly what Raphael did in painting. In the background of the picture is seen Pope Leo IV. with his clergy, in the portico of the old church of St. Peter's. The Pope's hand is raised, making the sign of the cross; on the steps of the church are the people who have fled to it for refuge. On each side of the foreground are burning houses. Men are busy putting out the fire, and women are bringing them water. Other men and women and children are escaping from the flames, and some are heroically saving the weak and helpless.

It is amongst these last that Raphael has placed the group called the Flight of Æneas. The Trojan bears on his shoulders his father, the old, blind Anchises. Behind is Creusa, the wife of Æneas, looking back with terror upon the burning city, and by the side of Æneas is his young son Iulus, looking up into his face with a trusting gaze.

Vatican Palace, Rome

Some one of Raphael's friends had no doubt told him the story, or read it to him out of Virgil's Æneid, which was one of the favorite books in that day, when men were delighting in the recovery of the great poetry of Greece and Rome. Here is a part of the story as told by Virgil in the translation by C. P. Cranch:—

"But when I reached my old paternal home,
My father, whom I wished to bear away
To the high mountains, and who first of all
I sought, refused to lengthen out his life,
And suffer exile, now that Troy was lost.
'O ye,' he said, 'whose blood is full of life,
Whose solid strength in youthful vigor stands,—
Plan ye your flight! But if the heavenly powers
Had destined me to live, they would have kept
For me these seats. Enough, more than enough,
That one destruction I have seen, and I
Survive the captured city. Go ye then,
Bidding this frame farewell—thus, lying thus
Extended on the earth! I shall find death
From some hand.'
'O father, dost thou think
That I can go and leave thee here alone?
Comes such bad counsel from my father's lips?
If't is the pleasure of the gods that naught
From the whole city should be left, and this
Is thy determined thought and wish, to add
To perishing Troy thyself and all thy kin,—
The gate lies open for that death desired.'"

So saying, Æneas calls for his arms, resolved to remain with Father Anchises fighting the Greeks to the death. Thereupon Creusa his wife begins to weep, begging him not to leave her and her little boy Iulus to perish in the flames. In the midst of her lamentations a sacred omen is given, in the appearance of lambent flames playing about the head of Iulus. Anchises is convinced of the will of the gods.