The Sala Ducale is in the oldest part of the Vatican Apostolic Palace, built during the time of Popes Innocent II (1198-1216) and Nicolas III (1277-1280). The space was used for ofﬁcial ceremonies to receive important personalities, such as the “Dukes of highest power,” thus resulting in its name, the Ducal Hall. It was also used as a public Consistory, wherein the solemn assembly of the cardinals headed by the Pope would gather together to discuss and deliberate on topics such as beatiﬁcations and sanctiﬁcations (these were also open to other clergy and laity).
Originally the hall was divided into two distinct spaces: the second and third chambers. The second chamber, adjacent to the Sala Regia, served as a sort of lobby or waiting room, and the third chamber was where the ceremonies were actually held. The hall is still reserved for ceremonial occasions in the Apostolic Palace. Initially upon entering the hall, what is immediately striking to the eye is the spectacular arch, dressed in sumptuous drapery. The illusion of fabric upheld by putti, or little cherubs, is actually a creative work in stucco by the great sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). The artist was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667), and entrusted the physical execution to Antonio Raggi (1624-1686), one of his most valuable aids. This resultant grandiose scene is not only exquisite in its Baroque taste, but also a genius execution by Bernini to successfully unify the two areas and mask the distinct aesthetic and architectural irregularities existing between the two zones. The old separation between the second and third chambers is, however, still evident in the decorations of the vaults and walls, which remain different for each of the two environments.
They were completed at different times as a result of various pontiffs commissioning the work. These incongruences are visible even if the wide use of grotesques to connect the landscapes, mythological scenes, putti, and allegorical ﬁgures throughout the room give a certain harmony to the whole.
As for the third room, in 1555, Paul IV (1555-1559) entrusted to artist G.P. Venale the decorations of the grotesques, as recalled in the inscription in his family coat of arms. His fresco work of landscapes within oval geometries with almost a Flemish ﬂair was inspired by the work of Matteo da Siena (1533-1588), a landscape and grotesque painter who had an active role in the Gallery of the Maps. The frieze with the stories of Phaedrus, in which appears grotesques and the Medici Coat of Arms, was the work of an artist who worked closely with Giovanni da Udine (1487-1561) and was commissioned by Pius IV (1559-1565), a Medici Pope.
The second chamber, on the other hand, has its vault divided into three panes. The great Medici emblem dominates the center pane, bearing reference to the pontiﬁcate of Pius IV. Meanwhile, the two panels facing the room of the vestments and the Sala Regia were painted by Lorenzo Sabbatini(1530-1576) and Raffaellino da Reggio(1550-1578), respectively. Both panels illustrate the story of Hercules. The two artists also worked for Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585), who is invoked through dragon-like elements constituting the coat of arms. The frieze of landscapes and allegorical ﬁgures underlying the vault that the holy pontiff also commissioned are attributed to Ceasar Arbasi the Piedmont (1540-1614).
After the aforementioned strategy of Bernini in the 17th century to create a single magniﬁcent room suited to the demands of the papal court, the installation of the ﬂoor should not be disregarded. The unique geometric marble polychrome design was completed under the pontiﬁcate of Benedict XV (1914-1922). His reign also witnessed the grotesque decoration of the walls and two landscapes in the lunette of the third chamber.