Wednesday, November 15, 2017



As we have seen from previous blogs, Raphael's School of Athens  painting of 1509-11 in the Vatican Stanza della Segnatura contains many philosophers from Ancient Greece as well as contemporary portraits.

An unusual exception in the entire School is the man bending over on the left, wearing a turban.

He is probably AVERROES, a Muslim philosopher from Cordoba, Spain, from the 12th century, and he is the ONLY MUSLIM depicted on this wall. Averroes was born in 1126 in Cordoba, the son of a cadi or Islamic judge. When he dies in Marrakesh in Morocco in 1198, he has written enough philosophical treatises to influence not only Thomas Aquinas but other Christian thinkers after him. His real name was Ibn Rushd, and Salmon Rushdie, the modern novelist, has his last name because of this philosopher (Rushdie's father changed his last name to Rushdie to be associated with the honor of Ibn Rushd.)
        As a Muslim believer, AVERROES wanted to reconcile the writings of Aristotle with Islam, and he writes down what he believes as a philosopher in the process. He believed in the immortality of
the human intellect, and his IDEALISM about the world of thought gave reason for Raphael to place him between Epicurus and Pythagoras on the left side of the painting with Plato and the IDEALISTS.
Here are three quotations from his works.
Two truths cannot contradict one another.
Knowledge is the conformity of the object and the intellect. (Decisive Treatise and Epistle Dedicatory)
Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hatred, and hatred leads to violence. This is the equation.

As a judge he thinks in terms of the IDEALS of JUSTICE, not justice which accommodates itself
to different situations. He also writes a treatise on medical matters unrelated to philosophy. However,
he did not believe in the immortality of the individual soul, so in that tenet he clashes with later
Christian writers. In Venice at the end of the 15th century, his works were newly published and
examined since he was known as the "Commentator," especially on Aristotle, who was just being
translated into Latin and Italian from the Greek. But his ideas about the division between philosophy and religion, though debated by later Christian writers, fit in perfectly with the division that Raphael
and Julius reenacted on the walls of the Stanza della Segnatura. The painting directly across the room from The School of Athens is known as The Disputa (see my blog entry on this painting,)but is set in opposition to Philosophy

and represents religious thinkers in history instead of philosophers. Theology as opposed to Philosophy.

While he is more recent than most of the thinkers on the wall, many of them from Greece in the 5th century, and while he is singled out by the different headgear he is wearing,

the only turban in the group, he is still included as a great thinker on a wall of eminent thinkers, and he is included in the conversation with philosophers like Parmenides whose ideas coincided with his own. Raphael has given another culture (Spain) and belief (Islam) an affirmation and value unusual in a room painted for the Pope's library and signing place in 1511. A certain vote for multiculturalism five hundred years before the philosophical term was in vogue and a sure indication that the artist believed that learning could take place anywhere, any time, in any religion.

His depiction of Averroes on the wall of the idealistic philosophers just confirms Averroes' own
belief in the immortality of the intellect.



As we explained in other blog entries, Raphael paints The School of Athens in 1509-11 in the Vatican Stanza della Segnatura for Pope Julius II. The artist divides the painting of philosophers into two groups on either side of an imaginary vertical line that runs between Plato and Aristotle in the center of the painting.

On the left of this vertical are the IDEALISTS, philosophers like Plato who believed in IDEALS or the IDEAL WORLD, the world of perfect IDEAS.(See the previous blog entry on this side.) On the right of the vertical are the philosophers who are aligned with Aristotle, the  REALISTS, thinkers who were observers of nature and who believed in approaching life with realistic thinking, thinking grounded in the earth.
Plato and Aristotle indicate the direction of their thoughts with their right hands. Plato points up to the Ideal World and Aristotle points out and over the earth.

In the last blog we identified some of the philosophers associated with Plato on the left side.
Here we will identify some of the philosophers on the right side of the vertical who are more realistic,
like Aristotle. 
ARISTOTLE (384-322B.C.) - holds his beautifully foreshortened right hand out in front of his body
as if to caress the earth, the source of his knowledge. With his left hand he holds his own book, The
Nichomachaean Ethics, ETICA, (ETHICS in Italian,) as it is spelled on the pages of the book itself. This book of Aristotle's is about human morality, what kind of morals are acceptable here on earth,
what kind of social behavior will lead to a happy life.

He is presented looking at Plato and appears to be in discussion about his own philosophical
direction, a realistic assessment of what can be observed in life, without resorting to what could possibly be the most perfect ideas assembled by human beings. He seems to be arguing that it
is more important to concentrate on what IS, rather than what COULD BE.

He is a REALIST, and the philosophers on his side of the dividing line are also REALISTIC
Scroll to right to see entire scene.
From the left to right:
DIOGENES (404-323 B.C.) An Ancient Greek philosopher who lived in Corinth without a dwelling, he was perhaps the most famous homeless man in ancient history. Diogenes was a CYNIC, a philosopher who was skeptical of all philosophies. He regarded all humans as hypocrites, dissembling and obstructing the genuine truth. He understood the importance of the later story of the "emperor's new clothes." He believed in saying exactly what he observed, regardless of the diplomacy of manners.

A separate blog entry is spent on this figure and the figure next to him, who is Alexander the Great,
the famous king of Macedonia who conquered an empire. Raphael includes a scene described in
Plutarch's Life of Alexander the Great.  Diogenes here is elegantly splayed over the steps in front of
the Greek temple that Raphael has painted. He is barefoot and half-naked, with a blue tunic and grey-purple cloak. In his relation to the king next to him, he displays indifference, proving that he is unmoved by status, wealth, or royal connections. He observes the shadow of Alexander
that falls on his reading and objects to his presence because Alexander is "blocking his sun." This
philosopher's relation to nature is direct; he is living on the ground and commenting on the information that comes to him by way of his senses. He is the ultimate REALIST.  Whereas Aristotle
believed that human beings had a duty to behave sensibly with each other as part of a moral philosophy that led to a happy life, Diogenes does not give a hoot about anybody's pretentious rules
that help society along; he believes in confronting the truth on the ground, literally.
The last philosophers I can identify on Aristotle's side are in two groupings; the first is a small group of students gathered around a blackboard on the ground with their teacher, EUCLID, who is a
portrait of BRAMANTE. EUCLID bends over towards the students; he holds a geometer's compass, with which he makes a diagram of overlapping triangles:
Since BRAMANTE (1444-1514) was the architect working on the project of rebuilding St. Peter's basilica during the years when Raphael was painting his fresco, Raphael includes him here as the great practical mathematician who used math to solve basic construction problems.  Bramante was also a mentor to Raphael and happened to be from Urbino, where Raphael was born, and was related to Raphael, so his inclusion in the painting is an obvious compliment to the great architect chosen by Raphael's patron, Julius II, to build the biggest church in Christendom. The pupils around Bramante are not given famous identities, are just there to support Bramante's identification as the REALIST, EUCLID, whose geometry influenced mathematicians up until our own day.
EUCLID was a Greek mathematician who lived in Alexandria, Egypt between the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C. His most famous book was called the ELEMENTS in which he outlines mathematical principles that he has observed about lines, rectangles, triangles, and the relationships of these practical concepts. He is placed in the School painting as a counterpoint to Pythagoras, whose
mathematical theories had less to do with how to understand building and more to do with pure theory. Because Euclid's ideas were important to architects, Bramante is a perfect portrait for his head.
The second grouping is four men who seem to turn towards each other as if in discussion. Next to Euclid are two standing philosophers whose ideas derived from observation of nature; these are the REALISTS ZOROASTER and PTOLEMY.

ZOROASTER - was an Iranian magus or magician (1700-1000 BC) who wrote a treatise on Nature in Old Avestan, the language of Persia. He holds an orb with the constellations on it because he believed in predicting human events by observing the stars in their alignments. He saw people's fates as intimately tied up with astronomical connections. Although we might see him as straddling the world of the Idealists and the world of the Realists, from Raphael and Julius II's perspective, he was a thinker who observed the stars and made his findings known to others to improve their lots in life, hence he is placed among the REALISTS.

PTOLEMY is the great map-maker, the first maker of a map of the known world in history (it stretched from Britain to Malaysia.) Ptolemy, like Euclid, lived in Alexandria, Egypt, but at a much later date, from around 100 A.D. to 170 A.D. His treatise on Geography, in which his world map can be found,is probably his best-known work.Here he holds an orb of the earth on which we see the outline of the continent of Africa and the Middle East. While today we might not see him as a philosopher, but rather as a Geographer, he is a REALIST insofar as he observes the world around him and wishes to document that world in a practical way in order to help others see how the world is shaped.
In another blog I explain the reason he is given a crown, even though he was never a king or part of the royal family.
And the two last figures in the second grouping are the painters whose work appeared on the wall.
SODOMA (1477-1549) at the far right was the man asked to paint that wall in the Stanza before Raphael began his project for the School of Athens. In order to finish his fresco Raphael had to paint over Sodoma's painting already there, effectively eliminating it. (Sodoma was probably then employed as an assistant to Raphael in the completion of the wall of philosophy.) Raphael pays him back very diplomatically by allowing SODOMA's figure to paint over the self-portrait of the artist himself.
RAPHAEL (1483-1520) chooses to place himself among the REALISTS, not among the IDEALISTS. He was a diplomatic, engaging, extrovert, and tried to please people with his efforts to acknowledge them. His portraits of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bramante, and Sodoma included in the painting of the most famous philosophers in the world were his way of paying homage to the men he admired and looked up to.

He understood that complimenting other people was a way to ensure his own success. He was a
REALIST and understood himself well. He was not like Leonardo or Michelangelo; he did not live
in the world of ideas that kept him apart from the rest of society, as they did. He liked people and 
enjoyed the company of interesting minds, and his self-portrait in the usual place for artist's self-portraits since Masaccio (see another blog entry,) on the right and looking out, is intended to make
the viewer see that he is part of a group, not a figure singled out like Leonardo or Michelangelo.

He places his mentor and relative, Bramante, near him, as a way of acknowledging their connection.
And he is realistic enough to know that giving Bramante the privilege of great teacher in his painting
would help ensure that Bramante would give back to him later, as he did when he made Raphael
the director of the works at St. Peter's before he died in 1514.

For Raphael, in fact, the entire composition is one huge CONVERSATION. He likes the idea that humans converse with other humans and that that conversation can be extended throughout history
if we learn to read and can read about the ideas that other humans (men in this case) have had during their own lifetimes. The life of the mind is elegant and exciting and companionable. His own enjoyment of company and the exchange of ideas is evident in the ease and confidence of gestures he
conveys in the figures of the philosophers in the scene which he has constructed in an ancient temple.
His philosophers may prefer the company of those who are IDEALISTS OR REALISTS, but ultimately, they are all humans who participate in the discourse of ideas, the conversation that makes life worth living.
His vision of the realm of the philosophers is one peopled with beautiful figures whose bodies are displayed in "la bella figura" in groups communicating in a humanly constructed space where the men are are so interested in the ideas delivered either by other humans or by books or through blackboards that they do not take up arms; none of them are fighting. They are engaged in the excitement of the one idea that unites them all, the excitement of LEARNING.

Some of the figures even have electrified hair from the excitement!

You couldn't ask for a more perfect university or a more realistic one.


Monday, November 13, 2017



The School of Athens is a painting that is meant to illustrate the abstract notion of PHILOSOPHY
in a room painted for Pope Julius II between 1509-11 in the Vatican in Rome. Each wall of the room is devoted to a different discipline; the other three walls have paintings with the subjects of THEOLOGY, POETRY, and LAW.  In order to understand Raphael's School of Athens painting, identification of the most important philosophical figures is important.
In the next image I have written the identifications in black letters over the heads of the main people in the scene.

(Scroll to the right to see the entire scene.) Raphael imagines the wall of PHILOSOPHY as a gathering of great minds from Ancient Greece, Spain, Persia, and contemporary Rome. As I have explained in the blog on the architecture of the scene, Raphael divides the groups of philosophers into two types: IDEALISTS and REALISTS. The IDEALISTS are on the left of the central vertical line and the REALISTS are on the right.
 on the left:                                                                       on the right:

PLATO (LEONARDO)                                                   ARISTOTLE
SOCRATES                                                                     DIOGENES
ALCIBIADES                                                                 ALEXANDER the GREAT
EPICURUS                                                                      ZOROASTER
AVERROES                                                                     EUCLID (BRAMANTE)
PYTHAGORAS                                                               PTOLEMY
PARMENIDES                                                                 RAPHAEL

(scroll back up if the letters are not large enough)

This division of the scene in two is emphasized by the two main central characters, PLATO and
ARISTOTLE, who walk together under three central arches, one above and two behind them.                                      

PLATO, whose head is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, points upward with his right hand to the world of ideas that lies outside the realm of reality. With his left hand he holds his own book,
TIMEO, the TIMAEUS, in which he discusses the world of ideas and the notion of perfection
in all aspects of human life, especially the eternal nature of the human soul and the perfect universe in which humans could live. Plato was a Greek philosopher (428-347 B.C.) who was a pupil of Socrates; he writes down the ideas which he remembers from lectures given by Socrates in Athens;
because he is responsible for the writing, he is more influential on later thinkers than Socrates himself.

 For the portrait of Plato, Raphael seems to have relied on Leonardo's red-chalk self-portrait drawing that is now in Turin in the Royal Library. It
is not an identical copy, but
the three-quarter view is the
same and features such as
the long nose, mustache, and
beard are similar. Raphael's
Leonardo seems more worried and has a nose with
straighter lines at the end.

Aristotle holds his right hand parallel to the ground and out in front of him, to suggest that he is a
REALIST, that his philosophical thinking is grounded in the earth and what is able to be observed
in the world. He holds with his left hand his own book of the Nichomachaean Ethics, here labelled
In the book Aristotle discusses moral philosophy, what kind of behavior is acceptable here on earth.  Some scholars have suggested that Aristotle's face is also a portrait, perhaps Giuliano da Sangallo.

PLATO and ARISTOTLE seem to be talking to each other and speaking about the differences in their viewpoints. In this blog entry we will limit ourselves to the left side of the painting, to the IDEALISTS. WHO ARE THE IDEALISTS?

SOCRATES (470-399 B.C.) was Plato's teacher, as we have said, and he is shown to the left at the top of the stairs, ticking off logical arguments with his fingers:
Socrates' facial features are known because of ancient busts of him, this one on the right in the Louvre.
 He is easy to identify because he has a nose
like the actor Karl Malden:

To the left of him in the group and listening intently is a man dressed in warrior armor, with helmet and sword; he is ALCIBIADES (450-404 B.C.,) a Greek general who was a great follower of SOCRATES.
Although technically Alcibiades is not a writer, he was such an avid devotee of Socrates' ideas of
perfect government and ideal life, that he is not out of place here next to the great teacher.
Below the steps on the left side of the painting we have, from left to right:
EPICURUS (341-270 B.C.) wears grape vines in his hair and seems to be checking on a recipe for good food, the philosophy of pursuit of perfect pleasure being his IDEAL; his belief in an eternal universe places him among the IDEALISTS.

AVERROES (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198) leans to the right in a turban, and at first glance, seems to be looking over Pythagoras' shoulder to see what he is writing, but in a closer view, he is seen to be staring at Parmenides' writing, which makes more sense. AVERROES was a Muslim philosopher from 12th century Spain who is interested in the immortality of intellectual life, so he is appropriate on the side of the idealists, and since PARMENIDES (born 515 B.C. in Greece) was a believer in existence as eternal and unchanging, they make an appropriate pairing.

The standing figure in white in between Averroes and Parmenides has been identified variously as Francesco Maria della Rovere, the nephew of Pope Julius II or as Hypatia, a female philosopher from Alexandria. Since the only women in the fresco seem to be bas-reliefs or statues, I find it unlikely this person is female. But it is equally hard to establish this as a portrait of Francesco Maria della Rovere, whose portrait was painted by Raphael 5 years earlier with dark hair:

As FRANCESCO MARIA DELLA ROVERE (1490-1538) was made Captain of the Papal Armies in 1509, just when this painting was being painted, it makes sense that Raphael would include Julius' nephew as a compliment to his patron, and the fact that he stands just below the other great ancient general, Alcibiades, suggests he is placed on this side for that reason.
But what qualifies Francesco Maria for a post among the idealistic philosophers? Did he have idealistic plans for Julius' role in the Vatican States? Another scholar may shed light on this identification.

Moving to the bottom row on this left side of the painting, we find PYTHAGORAS.
PYTHAGORAS (570-495 B.C.)was an ancient Greek philosopher who wanted to explore PURE MATH and PURE MUSIC, especially the concept of how to achieve PERFECT HARMONY through certain intervals in musical notes (intervals we see depicted on the blackboard in front of him):

And the last person to be painted on the whole wall of the fresco, below Plato and to the right of Parmenides, is the philosopher HERACLITUS, who is given stone-cutter's boots, a block of marble to lean on, and an inkwell for the writing he is doing on a piece of paper on the block.

HERACLITUS (535-475 B.C.)  believed in flux and reflux, the eternal quality of change; his famous phrase was, "You never step in the same river twice." Perhaps his left boot is thrust forward in the picture plane to remind us of his saying. He is also a portrait of  MICHELANGELO (1475-1564,) the sculptor, the stone cutter, who was a poet, hence the writing. Vasari tells us that Bramante let Raphael into the Sistine Chapel to see the painting that Michelangelo had finished there, and after Raphael's realization that Michelangelo was a great painter of large, muscular figures, he comes back and inserts this figure to pay homage to the man who had been painting down the hall. (The plaster layer of this section is added later, which supports this theory.) The head certainly resembles bronze portraits of Michelangelo by his pupil, Daniele da Volterra:

In Raphael's version of him he looks as though he is thinking of a word for his poem, but
when we zoom in, he is actually eyeing the partial block of marble under the foot of Parmenides,
and the block seems to have a caricature of a fish drawn on the side of it:

Raphael understood that even when painting, Michelangelo wanted to be sculpting. Even in the sonnet he writes about painting the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo says, "non sendo in loco bon ne io pittore."("not being in a good place and not being a painter" - my trans.) Raphael is so taken with the grandeur of Michelangelo that he paints him twice in the room, once here and once on the wall of Poetry:

Is Michelangelo a philosopher, yes, insofar as his poetry is philosophical and his artworks tackle large ideas. Is he an IDEALIST? Yes, his desire for perfection makes him irascible and difficult to interact with, and he expects much of himself and also of others; he wants perfection in life and in his art. Raphael knew the greatness of his mind and of his abilities in painting, sculpture, and architecture, and he recorded him as a colossal figure at the front and near center of his composition:
He is larger than Plato and Aristotle, larger than Diogenes and Parmenides; Raphael saw the vast talent of this man and his thinking and presented him physically as a giant among the giants.

He dominates both sides of the painting.
And now we will turn, in another blog, to the right side and the philosopher-realists.