School of Athens by Raphael Sanzio in the Vatican Museum, Renaissance’s reverance to Greek philosophy

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

For Renaissance, classic Greek antiquity was the ultimate model. Or, to use a Platonic concept, it was rather an anamnesis, a process of remembering the finest art produced, the fertile debates of an open and curious society. Thus, when Pope asked the 27 years old Raphael to decorate his apartments in the Vatican, the young painter turned to the Greek roots of European civilization. The theme required by the Pope was a generous one, and also inspired from Greek philosophy: kalokaghatia (a term describing the ideal of beauty and virtue in a heroic sense). The painter was to represent the ideas of Good, Truth and Beauty in an allegoric manner, that would be an occasion to evoke Music, Poetry, Philosophy, Wisdom, arts and virtues in general.
The Pope was so pleased with the frescoes made by Raphael, that he not only commissioned him the rest of the rooms – known now as Stanze di Rafaello – Raphael’s Rooms – but paintings done by other artists were erased and covered by new creations. The fresco that depicts Philosophy is known as the School of Athens, and is considered Raphael’s masterpiece and one of the finest creations in art history. The rooms communicate with one another and had different functions, the one where this painting is being intended as a library. The rooms are now emptied of furniture, so visitors can admire the works of art in their way that ends in the Sistine Chapel. Though the latter is more famous and more admired by the public and critics, I personally prefer Rapahel to Michelangelo as a painter, and consider Michelangelo an unequaled sculptor.

One can see that Raphael’s works represent a mature stage of Renaissance, with balanced proportions and subtle tones of color. The fresco known as the School of Athens is integrated in the architecture of the room and the characters themselves are placed inside a convincing setting. The perfect knowledge of perspective creates the illusion that the characters are walking towards the viewer, stepping on a marble floor, with an arch like those in Roman buildings. The statues of Athena – the goddess of Wisdom and Apollo – the sun god support the columns, while bellow the painting there is a decorative belt with other caryatids that trick the eye into believing are real sculptures instead of paintings. For the architectural details, it’s possible that Bramante helped Raphael with some advices. The building indeed looks like the a section of San Pietro’s basilica, that was under construction at the time.
The main characters are Plato and Aristotle, who seem to be in a passionate debate. Plato, is on the left, older, with a red cloak, carrying a copy of his dialogue Timaeus. On the right, Aristotle is younger, dressed in a blue cloak and holding his Ethics treatise. Some pointed out that in Aristotle’s times there were no books but scrolls, but that is a minor detail. Also, many of the philosophers represented there lived in different times, some centuries apart. It is believed that all the characters in this painting are major thinkers of ancient Greece, with some contemporary figures among them. Michelangelo, Bramante and even Raphael himself are arguably present. More probable is the presence of Persian prophet Zoroaster, revered in classical Greece as a source of wisdom. Averroes, the medieval Arab philosopher, who made Westerners rediscover classical Greek literature through his translations and commentaries, was also identified wearing a turban and with a respectful gesture when being presented a scientific discovery.
The main characters, Plato and Aristotle are viewed in a symbolic manner. Plato holds his index finger upwards, towards the sky, a sign of his theory of Ideas, that are prior to visible reality. Aristotle, holds a steady horizontal hand, remembering his more down to earth view of the Cosmos, that was understood with more rationalistic, empiric methods.
Other characters are recognized either by their classical depiction or by their gestures. Cynical philosopher Diogenes, who begged for a living and mocked his most famous contemporaries, is sprawling on the steps with a negligent blue robe, reading a page, almost in contempt of the rest of the crowd.
Pythagoras, the brilliant mathematician and mystic is writing a theory and in the same time someone is copying his findings behind his back with excitement. Surprisingly, Socrates, the master of Plato is not a character that stands out, appearing unsuccessful in convincing a group of contemporaries of his ideas.

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