Raphael and The School of Athens

From Will Durant’s Heroes of History, abbreviated from his Story of Civilization volume 5, The Renaissance. Read more WillDurant.com

Raphael was born in 1483 to Giovanni Santi, the leading painter of Urbino. he was named after the fairest of the archangels and grew up in the odor of art. From that happy youth he passed to Perugia, where, in three years under Perugino, he learned to paint pious Madonnas.

Then Pinturicchio lured him to Siena and taught him that a woman could be a goddess of beauty without being the Mother of God. The pagan side of Raphael – which would later enliven the bathroom of a cardinal with rosy nudes – developed in the amiable artist along with the piety that would produce The Sistine Madonna.

In 1508 he received at Florence a call from Julius II to come work for him in Rome. He was glad to go, for Rome, not Florence, was now the exciting and stimulating center of the Renaissance. Julius had found in the Vatican some administrative rooms whose walls seemed to call for fresh decoration.

In consultation with theologians and scholars, a plan was devised to illustrate the union of religion and philosophy, of classic culture and Christianity, of Church and State, in the civilization of the Renaissance.

Raphael worked on the project for four-and-a-half years, with almost religious care and dedication. On one wall, he pictured the persons of the Christian Trinity, with Mary near them; in a cloud around them Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Peter and Paul, and other heroes of the Testaments, binding them in all illuminating continuity of the two religions; cherubim and seraphim weaving through space as if on the wings of song; below them theologians and philosophers debating the doctrine of the Eucharist; and the human characters so individualized as to make each figure a biography. All this Disputa del Sacramento by a youth of twenty-eight.

But could this happy condotterie of the brush represent with equal force and grandeur the role of science and philosophy among men? We have no evidence that Raphael had ever done much reading; he spoke with his brush and listened with his eyes; he lived in a world of form and color in which words were trivial things unless they issued in the significant actions of men and women.

He must have prepared himself by hurried study, by dipping into Plato and Diogenes Laertius and Marsilio Ficinio, and by humble conversation with learned men, to rise now to his supreme conception. The School of Athens – half a hundred figures summing up rich centuries of Greek thought, and all gathered in an immortal moment under the coffered arch of a massive pagan portico.

There, on the wall directly facing the apotheosis of theology in the Disputa, is the glorification of philosophy: Plato of the Jovelike brow, deep eyes, flowing white hair and beard, with a finger pointing upward to his perfect state; Aristotle walking quietly beside him, thirty years younger, handsome and cheerful, holding out his hand with a downward palm, as if to bring his master’s soaring idealism back to earth and the possible;

Socrates counting off his arguments on his fingers, with armed Alcibiades listening to him lovingly; Pythagoras trying to imprison in harmonic tables the music of the spheres; a fair lady who might be Aspasia; Heracleitus writing Ephesian riddles; Diogenes lying carelessly disrobed on the marble steps;

Archimedes drawing geometries on a slate for four absorbed youths; Ptolemy and Zoroaster bandying globes; a boy at the left running up eagerly with books, surely seeking an autograph; an assiduous lad seated in a corner taking notes; peeking out at the left, little Federigo of Mantua, Julius’ pet; Bramante again; and hiding modestly, almost unseen, Raphael himself, now sprouting a mustache.

There are many more, about whose identity we shall let leisurely pundits dispute; all in all, such a parliament of wisdom had never been painted, perhaps never been conceived before. And not a word about heresy, no philosophers burned at the stake;

Here, under the protection of a pope too great to fuss about the difference between one error and another, the young Christian has suddenly brought all these pagans together, painted them in their own character and with remarkable understanding and sympathy, and placed them where the theologians colds see them and exchange fallibilities, and where the pope, between one document and another, might contemplate the cooperative process and creation of human thought.

This painting and the Disuputa are the ideal of the Renaissance – pagan antiquity and Christian faith living together in one room and harmony. These rival panels, in the sum of their conception, composition, and harmony, were to be surpassed only by Michelangelo, Tintoretto, and Veronese, and equaled by none in representing the marriage of Pericles’ Greece and Leo’s Rome.

Almost at the same time (1508-12) as Raphael’s work for Julius II (1505-12), the culminating figure of the Renaissance, under the same papal scrutiny, painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.