"Raphael received a hearty welcome from Pope Julius, and in the chamber of the Segnatura he painted... Aristotle and Plato, with the Ethics and Timaeus respectively, and a group of philosophers in a ring about them. Indescribably fine are those astrologers and geometricians drawing figures and characters with their sextants. ... The next figure, with his back turned and a globe in his hand, is a portrait of Zoroaster. Beside him is Raphael himself, drawn with the help of a mirror. He is a very modest-looking young man, of graceful and pleasant mien, wearing a black cap on his head. ... The minor considerations, which are numerous, are well thought out, and the composition of the entire scene, which is admirably portioned out, show Raphael's determination to hold the field, without a rival, against all who wielded the brush. He further adorned his work with a perspective and many figures, so delicately and finely finished that Pope Julius caused all the other works of the other masters, both old and new, to be destroyed, that Raphael alone might have the glory of replacing what had been done."
It so happened that Pope Julius II summoned 27-year-old rising artist Raffaello Sanzio to Rome in 1508 on the recommendation of Vatican architect Donato Bramante - fellow Renaissance man and, like Raphael, from the village of Urbino. Enthused by the combination of the young man's clarity of vision and his maD skillZ, Jules commissioned Raph to render frescoes on the walls of the Stanza della Segnatura (Bibiotheca Iulia - Julius' library) in the palace of the Vatican.

The walls of this room were over the next two years (1509-1511) decorated by Raphael according to the four humanist themes and concerns of the High Renaissance: theology (along the wall featuring what is now known as the Disputà, or Disputation of the Holy Sacrament), poetry (bearing the Parnassus - Apollo, the Muses and poets of the epic past and notable present), justice (on the ceiling) (and its Virtues: Fortitude, Prudence and Temperance) and philosophy, the wall that concerns us here, where from 1509 to 1510 Raphael lovingly produced the Scuola di Atene - translated from Italian, the School of Athens.

This fresco presents a large open space, akin to the agora at the cultural height (c.420 BC) of Classical Athens - but recontextualized, modeled on Constantine's basilica in the Roman Forum and beefed up by statues of Apollo and Minerva (Athens smathens - we are in Rome here, don't forget) overseeing the proceedings before them. (Raphael will play a number of space- and time-bending tricks in this painting: this is just the first of them.) Inhabiting this space are strings of men, credibly arranged in the naturalistic composition that no one before Raphael had been able to successfully pull off - unlike other contemporary dramatic staged crowd scenes they're not posing for an audience; they're merely going about their business of discourse and dialectic while you happen to be catching a sideways glance of their affairs as you pass by.

And who exactly are these men? I liked the phrase "sages from different epochs ... arranged as colleagues in a timeless academy." 1 Really, Raphael took the old "if you could only invite 30 of the best minds from Ancient Greece to a dinner party, who would make the invite list?" game to a whole new level, putting a great crowd of great men (who were certainly at no point all alive at the same time) in his fresco.

    In the centre of the composition are two transcendent figures striding towards the viewer from the back, lost in discussion. On the left is the old man Plato, perennially concerned for lofty abstracts and indicating this not only by holding a copy of his Timmaeus in one hand but also by gesturing meaningfully towards the sky above them (gloriously leading your view to follow, pulled by the blue expanse hinted at through the unblocked arch they pass through). Accompanying this fellow is his student The Philosopher, aka Aristotle, similarly armed with a copy of his own Nicomachean Ethics and defusing his teacher's potent body language by indicating the ground (and by that, his down-to-earth philosomophizin') with the outspread fingers from his suppressing palm.

    Good enough fellows, but just try breaking into their conversation long enough to get one of them to pass the salt! Let's hobnob and see who else we can find in this mess of mentality. Sprawled on the stairs by Aristotle's feet is the Dog, Diogenes, who seems more engrossed reading something he (no doubt) picked up off the street than in interacting with the brains bobbing around him. A few more steps down from Plato's toes is to be found a very constipated-looking Heraclitus leaning on a box with a notepad - no doubt employing the old engineer's adage of using a pen and slide rule to work it out.

    A clutch of people off to our left from the starting duo reveal what are reputedly (a very grumpy-looking) Xenophon, Eschines (or, uh, maybe Alexander the Great?) and Alcibiades either hanging on the words of or being infuriated by everyone's favourite gadfly, Socrates in his olive toga. Below them, what is supposed to be either Parmenides, Xenocrates or Aristoxenes - whoever he is, he seems to be cribbing notes from a book Pythagoras is busy scribbling in, while Averroës is just letting his wandering eyes do the work from over Pythagoras' shoulder. Off to the far left, old man Zeno faces off with the giddily grape-leaf-crowned Epicurus - who seems to be all the happier for preferring a paradox-free lifestyle.

    At the front right, a gaggle of nobodies seem absolutely enthused by watching Euclid messing around with a compass. Behind him the geographer Ptolemy (a back view) casually hefts a terrestrial globe to counter the celestial one Zoroaster carries. Maybe when the painting's done they'll head down to the courts and see who's better at free throws. (And yes I know that Zoroaster wasn't Greek, but someone go tell Raphael that. Besides, if no one made a fuss over Averroës I don't see why they should now!)

Though that's the end of the likely (or at least possibly-provable) associations between figures in the painting and cherished historical personages of Antiquity (I for one have this powerful feeling that the ominous gentleman in the dark toga at Minerva's feet has got an incredible story to tell - if only someone can just figure out who he is), there are interesting connections yet to be made between actual people and people portrayed in this painting!
    Signing this work in the gold border of the robe of Euclid (who, you may be pleased to learn, is modelled on Bramante - the same guy who got Raphael this gig in the first place!) was just not enough for Raphael. In a supreme display of justifiable arrogance, he actually put himself in this painting among these esteemed peers, looking out at us over Ptolemy's shoulder in the lower right. Defraying this gesture mildly, he also includes next to him in the flowing white garment Sodoma (aka Giovanni Antonio Bazzi), a painter who'd done some prep work on this chamber with Baldassare Peruzzi (not pictured) before Raphael got a chance to move in and make it his own.

    Yet Raphael was acutely aware that he was tapping into a very special zeitgeist and wasn't working in a vacuum. Some of the arguably greatest artistic talents ever were active in his neck of the woods at that time, and he felt it might only be appropriate to bring them with him into the elites club this painting represented. Neck of the woods HELL - some of them were actually working on other commissions in the very same building at the time! I mean, granted - it's a huge building, but how often do you get Raphael and Michelangelo working under the same roof? Indeed, after observing Mike's outstanding work on the first half of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 1511, Raph went back on his original design and added him in as Heraclitus.

    If this bold equation of contemporary geniuses to cornerstones of western civilization turns your crank, you may also be thrilled to know that Plato is portrayed here with the face of Leonardo da Vinci. But shh, don't tell anyone.

The School of Athens (all titles here, keep in mind, being applied retroactively and in translation) underwent a cleaning and restoration process ending April 22, 1996, courtesy of Mrs. Henry J. Gaisman and her pocketbook, and led by Enrico Guidi. An energizing surprise to the restoration crew was the finding that there was almost a straight line of hand prints in the plaster of the work - almost certainly Raphael's. If he put not only his time and signature but his image and physical imprint into this work, it makes you wonder perhaps what else of him went into it.

1 http://www.vatican.va/museums/patrons/documents/vm_pat_doc_12101999_raphael_en.html

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