Raphael's Painting School of Athens 1509 11 Essay

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Raphael's painting "School of Athens" 1509-11

Raphael's triumph of Renaissance humanism and Neo-Platonic thought

One of the great Renaissance artist Raphael's works for Pope Julius II was not a religious piece of art, but a work that mimicked classical antiquity. The great painting the School of Athens depicts an idealized vision of great, classical Greek philosophers and scientists interacting with one another before a symbolic representation of 'Dame Philosophy.' All of the figures represent the people whose work was to provide the intellectual cornerstone for so much of the Renaissance's great scientific and artistic innovations. Interestingly, Raphael left no notes about the painting as to the identity of the various philosophers depicted, suggesting that it was assumed that his audience would know who they were. 16th century commentator and biographer Giorgio Vasari said that nearly every Greek philosopher and ancient scientist of note can be found in the painting if one looks closely enough (Bell 1995). The painting was seen as a triumph both of symbolism and shows substantial innovations in making a crowd scene comprehensible, dynamic, ideal and yet palpably human.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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But subsequent students have found the representations more opaque in their identities and more open to interpretation. They point out that when Raphael crated the work, there was no established artistic convention for what these individuals looked like -- after all, these were the days before photography, and the great philosophers, unlike the gods, were seldom subjects of great art. Finding out the identity of the figures may have been part of the intentional visual delight or 'puzzle' of the painting. Out of necessity, Raphael had to use his imagination to create images out of whole cloth, and to his credit many of the images are so indelible they have become fixed in the cultural consciousness, fodder for everything from subsequent art to parodies advertisements. We assume Plato looks like Raphael's Plato, even though we have no clues from Plato's own era to suggest what Plato actually looked like. The work is sublimely concrete as well as idealized in terms of the indelible images it creates -- the work was meant to be a visualization of knowledge, a merging together of art and philosophy across time, anachronistically bringing together philosophers from across the ages so Raphael's art could be in dialogue with ancient thought. Sixty-six philosophers make up the work, and, significantly in terms of the Renaissance's emphasis on the human, they are more predominant than the symbolic and idealized representation of 'Dame Philosophy' on the throne before them (Most 1996, 155). Although she is seated on high, she looks more shadowy compared to the vivid crowd scene, with its dynamic interactions below her.

Some figures are easier to identify than others. Plato, for example, holds a copy of one of his most famous works, the dialogue Timaeus. He is shown pointing upwards, probably in reference to his philosophy's stress on the ethereal world of heavenly, pure forms. Raphael chose to honor Leonardo da Vinci by using the artist as his physical model for this bearded, rather aesthetic-looking Plato. Searching the figures to see what fellow artists Raphael as models is another point of speculation of many scholars -- for example, one of the figures thought to be based on Michelangelo -- and is said to be suffering from gout (Espinel 1999)!

In contrast, to Plato's heavenly gaze, Aristotle, with his polar-opposite focus on practical, empirical knowledge vs. Platonism's idealism, clutches his volume on Ethics. Aristotle holds his palm flat out, facing the earth as if grasping something terrestrial. Other clearly representative images are the philosopher of the 'music of the spheres,' Pythagoras, who studies a tablet on harmonic proportions. The founder of geometry, Euclid has a compass and Ptolemy holds a globe (Joost-Gaugier 1997). Some of these implements, particularly the globe, look more like objects from Raphael's era than the subject's own time. Raphael's images are anatomically correct and striking, but historical and physical realism is not his goal, instead he wishes to create a sense of idealism about these men in the gazer's mind, not the sense that they are just ordinary human beings. Glorification of their human achievements is the aim.

The meshing together of different figures from history shows the symbolic nature of the work -- a figure alternately attributed as Diogenes the Cynic or Socrates sits… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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