The "School of Athens" is one of the most perfect paintings ever made, as well as an extraordinarily complex text investigated as an interpretative rebus from the most subtle exegetes of figurative art. Luca Bortolotti tells us about it
An occasional circumstance recently gave me the opportunity to return to reflect on the so-called Athens School. It is, of course, one of the highest and most representative figurative texts of Renaissance art, but at the same time it is also the most popular image of Raphael, whose fifth centenary of death is celebrated today. Come to think of it, among the titans of our figurative tradition, Raphael is perhaps the one who boasts the least number of authentically popular works, as if the miraculously balanced perfection of his art spread evenly over all his works, but prevented a small handful of them from standing out absolutely from the others. If there is one exception, this is represented by the School of Athens: an image so familiar that it risks, like other equally "iconic" masterpieces, no longer really being carefully observed, but from time to time loved, deified, investigated as an interpretative rebus or philosophical text and even scaled down, parodied and exploited as a pop image (similarly to the Mona Lisa).
On closer inspection, it is not difficult to understand why: the School of Athens, as well as constituting an exceptional distillate of pictorial virtue, is a work in a certain sense very "simple" to enjoy, with its structural clarity, its welcoming majesty, devoid of Michelangelo's subjugating "terribleness", its naturally contemptuous harmony, the grace apparently effortlessly achieved and diffused on each of the figures that populate the scene. But at the same time it is an astonishingly rich and sophisticated image, of an admirable compositional and conceptual complexity, the result of a highly studied elaboration and an infinitesimal calibration of every gesture, expression, posture, architectural and spatial detail; authentic and, after all, the only direct heir to the compositional mastery of Leonardo's Last Supper (as made explicit by the wonderful preparatory cartoon kept at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan). The School of Athens is a masterpiece above all discussion and, sic et simpliciter, one of the most perfect pictorial works ever made, a happy summit of the Renaissance figurative civilization; but it is also an extraordinarily complex text, whose possible meanings - evident, hidden, hidden or impenetrable - have occupied for centuries the most subtle exegetes of figurative art, not only art historians, but also philosophers, philologists and cultural historians.
The Athens School
Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana
RAFFAELLO BEFORE ROME
There is no need to dwell on the well-known facts at length. Pope Julius II Della Rovere (pontiff from 1503 to his death in 1513) summoned Raffaello from Urbino in 1508 (according to Vasari's testimony, at the suggestion of his fellow-citizen Donato Bramante, then superintendent of the Pontifical Factory and in charge of the St. Peter's Basilica building site) to involve him in the new pictorial decoration of a series of rooms in the Vatican Palace, for which some of the greatest artists of the time had already been recruited, including Perugino and Signorelli (both already at work over twenty years earlier in the frescoes on the side walls of the Sistine Chapel) and then Sodoma, Baldassarre Peruzzi, Bramantino and Lorenzo Lotto. In short, Julius II, a temperament of proverbial energy, dazzled by the young artist's talent, decided to entrust the entire undertaking to Raphael, giving the kiss off to all the other great painters already involved in the work, just as he would not hesitate to demolish the frescoes by Piero della Francesca, commissioned by Pope Pius II a few decades earlier, which decorated other rooms in the Vatican Palaces.
Raphael had a brief, albeit brilliant, career behind him, spent between his early days in the Marche region, at the school of his father Giovanni Santi, his first rehearsals in Umbria (under the aegis of maestro Pietro Perugino) and his consistent, but not yet overwhelming affirmation on the Florentine square: let's say that Raphael was already much more than a promise, but not yet a "big shot" on the "Italian" art scene at the beginning of the 16th century. Nevertheless, he had behind him commissions of a certain caliber and a considerable nucleus of executed works, which were immediately considered masterpieces and never ceased to be so. Just as a reminder, starting in 1504 (when Raphael was little more than twenty years old), at least the Marriage of the Virgin of the Brera Picture Gallery, the Madonna of the Goldfinch of the Uffizi, the so-called Belle Jardiniere of the Louvre, the couple of portraits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni of Palazzo Pitti and the Deposition of the Galleria Borghese, dated 1507.
The marriage of the Virgin, 1504
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera
THE "SIGNATURE" ROOM: THE MAIN HISTORICAL DATA
Regarding the original destination of the so-called Stanza della Segnatura, we know both from a letter of Pietro Bembo dated 20 January 1513 (in which he praises the private library of Julius II, Epistularum familiarum libri VI, Venice, Scotus, 1552, pg. 188), and from documents of an accounting nature dated March 1509 (relating to the payment for the works carried out by Lorenzo Lotto and Sodoma), that it was almost certainly the private library of Julius II, distinct from the Vatican Apostolic Library located on the ground floor of the papal palace. The use of the room as a library is then confirmed by the absence of a fireplace, the design of the floor and the fact that the base was later decorated, under Leo X, and was therefore until then covered with wooden shelving.
The environment takes its name from the main court of the Holy See, the "Segnatura Gratiae et Iustitiae", presided over by the pontiff himself. Since 1513, shortly after the death of Julius II and the election to the papal throne of Leo X Medici, the master of apostolic ceremonies Paris de Grassi already designated the room by the name by which it is still known today. As was usual and logical in fresco decorations, Raphael began from the vault and then gradually descended to the walls. On the vault stand out the pontifical coat of arms, placed in the centre, and the four roundels each with the image of an allegorical female figure: Justice, Theology, Poetry and Philosophy, each closely connected with the great frescoes below. The roundels are the perfect prelude to the cycle, capable of ensuring full unity and iconographic coherence to the entire pictorial decoration of the room.
The first wall fresco to be executed was the so-called Dispute of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which in the complex articulation of its countless figures represents a majestic allegorical representation of Theology. The so-called School of Athens, placed exactly opposite the Dispute, was the last fresco executed by Raffello, at the end of the room, in close thematic relationship with the round above of Philosophy, depicted with two ponderous tomes, respectively entitled "MORALIS" and "NATURALIS", while the two cherubs at the sides hold the inscription "CAUSARUM COGNITIO".
The Dispute of the Sacrament of the Eucharist
The first fresco painted by Raphael in the Vatican Rooms
Vatican City, Signatura Room in the Papal Palaces
CHARACTERS PORTRAYED, TITLE AND MANY INTERPRETATIONS
Over the centuries there has been an unceasing commitment to recognize both the eminent philosophers and thinkers of the classical tradition represented by Raffello, and the historical, intellectual and artistic personalities contemporary to him who would lend their appearance to the effigy of some of those. Clearly, Raphael's ability to confer physiognomic individuality and expressive characterization to the faces scattered on the scene has triggered an endless game of couples, producing a flood of attempts to match the ancient essays depicted, mostly of arbitrary identification, with the modern "actors" employed by Raphael to lend them the appearance, often the result of pure suggestion. In short, the most certain recognitions concern first of all Leonardo da Vinci, whose unmistakable face was used by Raphael to portray Plato, right in the middle of the scene, who holds his famous Dialogo del Timeo with his left hand while with his right hand he points to the sky, alluding to the hyperuranic world of ideas. Next to him is Aristotle, who points to the earth, a clear reference to the world of reality and experience, and holds the book of Nicomachean Ethics in his hand. In his face it is customary to traditionally recognize the painter and architect Bastiano da Sangallo, albeit with less obvious elements.
The Athens School, detail with Plato and Aristotle
Vatican City, Signatura Room in the Papal Palaces
Below them, with their torn clothes, is Diogenes; to the right of their shoulders, with the globe and the crown, we recognize Ptolemy, next to whom Raphael has inserted his self-portrait; at the bottom left, seated and intent on copying a tablet with geometric figures, is Pythagoras; finally, to the left of Plato, we recognize the typical profile of Socrates. In the essay stooped to the right, intent on drawing circles with the compass, we can usually identify Archimedes or Euclid alternately, while we can generally recognize Michelangelo in the guise of Heraclitus in the isolated figure seated in the centre of the scene (absent in the preparatory cartoon of the Ambrosiana and therefore added directly during the creation of the fresco).
The Athens School, detail with Michelangelo as Heraclitus
Vatican City, Signatura Room in the Papal Palaces
The solemnity and simplicity of the architecture in which the scene is set is a fully mature outcome of the mathematical-based perspective culture developed during the previous century, as well as a clear testimony of Raphael's archaeological inspiration, resulting from an in-depth live study of Roman monuments. Bramante's influence is evident in particular in the project for the tribune of St. Peter's Basilica, with a Greek cross plan and a central dome, to the point that, as is well known, Vasari suggested (albeit with generic arguments) that Bramante was responsible for the design of the architecture that houses the vast gathering of thinkers, scholars and artists. Raphael's interest in architecture, after all, would have been fully realized at Bramante's death in 1514, when he succeeded him as head of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, and would have characterized his entire last phase of production, ending up even surpassing the painting activity, increasingly delegated to the direct intervention of his brilliant students.
The Athens School, detail with Pythagoras
Vatican City, Signatura Room in the Papal Palaces
THE TITLE, CONTENTS AND CONSTRUCTION OF THE IMAGE
The title of School of Athens only became established at the beginning of the seventeenth century, a century after the execution of the fresco. It has often been discussed and refuted in the endless critical literature that has always dealt with this capital work, without however succeeding in replacing it in the common consciousness with one of similar effectiveness: in recognition, if not of its descriptive precision, at least of its evocative capacity. Moreover, it would not be easy to assign a title corresponding in a strict way to what we see represented in a scene so articulated and populated with characters, in no way referable to a precise iconographic tradition. One could say that Raphael literally invented a narrative context, setting up a paradoxical set, which in its transcendental classicism combines metaphysical abstraction and realism of the staging. As in a complex photographic shot, the composition fixes the figures in an organic and synchronic whole, subordinated to the unity of time and space of the shot. The sequentiality and temporal coplanarity of the narration codified in the fresco cycles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is here surpassed and fused within a design system of masterly coherence.
Even if a title that would return more appropriately the powerful symbolic value embodied by the fresco should insist on the theme of the allegory of Philosophy or the metaphorical celebration of reason that illuminates the world and guides the minds of sages, the suggestion returned by the fictitious title with which it is universally known returns, albeit anti-historically, a substantial aspect of Raphaelesque compositional invention: its tableau vivant narrative realism, which fixes a perfect moment (to say it with Lessing), at the same time absolutely ideal but also perfectly verisimilar, which could actually correspond to the walk of two eminent thinkers of ancient Greece who discuss the greatest systems surrounded by their students and young colleagues in the grandiose environments of a classical academy.
In this sense, the brilliant parody of archaeological fashion designed by Joshua Reynolds on the model of the School of Athens (Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland), beyond the sulphurous caricatured intent - which does not spare classicism and Raphael himself - manages to catch the mark in a more subtle sense, recognizing not only the various symbolic levels that characterize the Vatican fresco, but also its pre-iconographic linearity and therefore the dimension of reality that can be read directly in it, even in the absence of the appropriate reading instructions provided by the iconological commentary.
Parody of the Athens School, 1751
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland
I would like to close by proposing a daring and even daring ideal connection with one of the greatest achievements of nineteenth-century painting, L'atelier du peintre by Gustave Courbet, today at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (knowing that such a relationship would not have been too welcome to its author). Raphael is certainly not the first name that comes to mind when thinking of Courbet (and vice versa, of course), and the occasional association between the champion of nineteenth-century social realism and the apollonian spearhead of Renaissance classicism may indeed appear disconcerting. Yet Courbet's monumental masterpiece, an eternally investigated, discussed and celebrated emblem of his art, was icastically defined by the author, with an antithesis as striking as it is punctual, "Allégorie réelle": a diction that sounds like an apparent oxymoron, but which, mutatis mutandis, could surprisingly also be applied to the fresco in the Signatura Room here. Indeed, Courbet's large canvas shows a studied coexistence between the realistic transparency of the figurative motifs represented and a sophisticated allegorical intentionality, patiently designed and the result of long preparation. Courbet's work presents an artist at work in his workshop, flanked by his model and surrounded by figures that a naive but not illegitimate reading could undoubtedly mean as friends, critics, clients and more or less occasional acquaintances of the artist. As in Raphael's great fresco, Courbet naturally goes much further than this and carefully selects faces of contemporary personalities (all connected to his biography and not as illustrious as those chosen by his supreme predecessor) that are recognizable as such, but are invested with an additional allegorical meaning, on which the complex, and at times cryptic, allegorical project of the artist is built.
L'atelier du peintre, 1854/1855
Paris, Musée d'Orsay
PRECOCITY AND RIPENESS OF RAFFAELLO
In reflecting on the School of Athens what I find most astonishing is the youth of Raphael - twenty-six years old at the time of the performance of the Dispute and a little older when he created the School of Athens - in the face of the complexity of conception and maturity of the fresco. He managed, in fact, to return with total magisterium and above all possible reservations a particularly ambitious iconographic program, which certainly had to be conceived and suggested by Pope Della Rovere himself (as Paolo Giovio, Raphael's first biographer, stated explicitly a few years later) and then developed with the support of the theologians of the papal court, first and foremost the Augustinian Egidio da Viterbo. This concert of minds was able to imprint on the content of the image a vision of a Neoplatonic structure, naturally tempered in its more markedly pagan aspects and reflected in a picture of Christian syncretism, compatible with the place for which the work was intended (although, we recall, it was almost certainly a private setting), which Raphael, not even thirty years old, was able to translate into a universal and perfect image.
Such an exceptionally early maturity would have led Raphael in the following 12 years, and until his death in his 37th year of life, to measure himself in the city with all fields of artistic creation; to design, manage and supervise the realization of artistic sites of exceptional importance and complexity by a formidable team of young talents, which as we know aligned, among others, Giulio Romano, Perin del Vaga, Polidoro da Caravaggio, Giovanni da Udine: except for the latter, a gang of young people. A similar degree of precocity, fully concretized on all parameters of artistic expression, in fact has very few real terms of comparison in any field of Western artistic tradition: indeed I would say that in a comparable degree only one comes to mind, the Mozart of the great works of his last creative season, who composed the Marriage of Figaro and the Don Giovanni at the turn of 30 years: the most perfect operas of the Western musical tradition, in which he was able to infuse (with the help of Abbot Da Ponte who provided him with the librettos) a surprising level of understanding of human nature, translating it into a no less perfect dramaturgical and musical fabric.
UNIVERSALITY OF RAFFAELLO
In the School of Athens the values that linked the Renaissance to classical antiquity are exalted, outlining the main lines of the modern age. The formidable synthesis made by Raffello in this celebration and declaration of faith in thought, dialogue, transmission and growth of knowledge, blends speculative and téchne tradition, Christianity and classicism, theology and philosophy, art and science. The message of the School of Athens appears more alive than ever today that the citadel of rationality appears threatened by the increasingly uncontrolled spread of pseudo-knowledge, or even by the mockery and explicit denial of the values of knowledge, culture and science, constitutive of our civilization.
Our Lady of Goldfinch
Florence, Uffizi Galleries, 1505 /1506
La Belle Jardiniere, 1507
Paris, Louvre Museum
Agnolo and Maddalena Doni
Florence, Uffizi Galleries, 1504 /1507
Rome, Borghese Gallery