New identifications in Raphael's 'School of Athens.'

Author:Bell, Daniel Orth

In the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, Raphael's School of Athens (1509-12) has long been admired as a monument to Italian Neoplatonism.(1) However, over the centuries it has posed many problems to the iconographer (Fig. 1). Beginning with Giorgio Vasari in the mid-sixteenth century, commentators have suggested that nearly every Greek philosopher and ancient scientist can be found here.(2) Yet the problem of who exactly is depicted in this grand work is compounded by the fact that Raphael did not leave any personal notes on his program, and there is no contemporary documentation to clarify the question. Nor was there any established artistic convention, either real or imaginary, in the early sixteenth century for representing these ancient philosophers. Out of necessity, therefore, Raphael virtually had to invent a completely new iconographic system for the figures he thought the most important.(3)

Art historians are in agreement that Raphael was given some kind of programmatic outline by others (no one knows precisely by whom), and with their help he examined all the pertinent sources in ancient art and literature.(4) Yet archaeological studies as we define them were still in an embryonic stage during the early years of the sixteenth century. Even the correct identifications of ancient Greek busts, which would have provided potentially ideal sources for Raphael's philosophers, were few in number, and the busts available were mostly broken and had been found without inscriptions.

Although one may presume that Raphael had seen the remnants of Greek portrait busts in Florence and Rome and that these added to his invention of the "philosopher-type" to some degree, the surprising fact is that such fragments were not investigated until 1570, when Fulvio Orsini, librarian to the Farnese, first published his rather crude findings.(5) Given this state of affairs during the years 1509-12, Raphael and his advisers could not have based the identification of any philosopher in the School of Athens solely upon the archaeological evidence.

In order to depict these historical personages as accurately as possible, Raphael and his advisers would have been forced to go in another direction: to the works of the classical authors. In addition to the well-known writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch, De vitae et moribus philosophorum of Diogenes Laertius was evidently studied with great enthusiasm.(6) The Vitae of Laertius was a biographical work then only recently translated from the Greek. Although it did not offer useful physical descriptions, it did provide a few details and anecdotes from the lives of the ancient philosophers. Chiefly from ancient sources such as Laertius, I believe that Raphael began to construct iconographic motifs for the celebrated Greeks of the School of Athens.(7)

Not every figure in this work is worthy of speculation, but it seems that the men whom Raphael clearly intended his audience to recognize are linked to specific iconography. These form the most reliable identifications: Plato and Aristotle indisputably are here, each holding a titled work; Pythagoras is in the lower left studying his tablet of harmonic proportions; Euclid is in the lower right area with his compass; near him, Ptolemy wears his crown and holds a terrestrial globe; and Zoroaster holds his starry globe. Of the important philosophers, only the alleged identification of Socrates is based upon archaeological evidence - and such an exception should raise questions.(8)

The attempts to identify Socrates in the School of Athens begin with Giovanni Bellori. In his Descrizzione of 1695, Socrates is the "bald" and Silenus-like "snub-nosed" philosopher seen in the middle of the group to the left of Plato; he is speaking in profile to the man in armor [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED].(9) As there are many philosophers in this painting who are bald, the weight of Bellori's identification actually falls upon the so-called snub nose. Notwithstanding a hypothetical bust of Socrates (ca. 1512), this identification seems highly questionable for at least two reasons. First, even if Raphael were following the literary sources for Socrates' "Silenus characteristics," these are not seen clearly here, nor, for that matter, are they seen on any other figure in the School of Athens. Second, there are no attributes or other symbolic material to confirm Bellori's identification. In spite of these serious deficiencies, historians still insist that this is Socrates because he appears to bear a slight resemblance to the Silenus-type bust.(10)

Certainly the great Socrates, whose reputation was outstripped only by Plato and Aristotle, must be depicted somewhere in the School of Athens. But once the pre-1512 "archaeological evidence" has been dismissed, all past theories seem groundless. Indeed, why would Socrates be positioned far off to the left, almost lost in a crowd? Why would he be depicted, unlike Plato and Aristotle, without any iconography, simply wearing a tunic and counting on his fingers to a man in armor?

If this figure is not Socrates, who is he? Perhaps a plausible identification of the military figure would help to identify the philosopher in profile. There are three possibilities from Greek history. Alexander the Great has been suggested, but as Raphael and his consultants would have known from Laertius and Plutarch, Socrates never met Alexander.(11) Furthermore, Alexander's favorite philosopher was Aristotle, obviously elsewhere in the composition.

The second and most common hypothesis is Alcibiades, an Athenian aristocrat known for his personal beauty, reckless military leadership, and a deservedly unethical reputation.(12) Alcibiades was said to have been a friend of Socrates, but all in all he was not a very virtuous man, and as such he does not belong in this morally edifying program.(13)

The third possibility offers a completely new hypothesis: the military figure is probably Pericles. Although he is remembered chiefly as the greatest of Athenian statesmen, ancient literature usually describes him as wearing armor, especially a helmet, supposedly to hide his misshapen head.(14) Many philosophers are mentioned as his teachers, but foremost among them was the philosopher-astronomer Anaxagoras, who is credited with perfecting Pericles' skills as an orator.(15)

Little has survived of Anaxagoras's philosophy, but one of his main theories concerned the ordering of the universe into differentiated levels of organic and inorganic matter. These levels in turn were infinitely divisible by the universal "Mind."(16) In spite of the fact that the philosopher in profile has always been identified as Socrates, if the identification of Pericles is correct, the systemic teachings of Anaxagoras better explain the gesture of a philosopher counting on his fingers to a man in armor - his most important student, the brilliant Pericles.

If Bellori's identification of Socrates is wrong, where should we look for him? Returning to the center of the composition, we notice a figure who lies at the feet of Plato and Aristotle in quiet isolation; here, I propose, is Socrates [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. Compared to most of Raphael's figures (such as Plato and Aristotle), who are rather richly dressed, this man, with his simple, bare-shouldered himation, gives the impression of far more modest tastes. He also seems to have come from an earlier era. These features accurately describe Socrates.

Although this central figure is also depicted without the Silenus characteristics, he generally conforms to Raphael's practice of idealizing from ancient sources: Socrates was a robust and dignified man, even in old age, and his dress was unusually simple; he often went barefoot and he lacked a decent cloak, although he would wear the best he owned for a symposium.(17) Perhaps his reputed indifference to a proper cloak can be seen in his casual attitude, as he lets the garment fall from his shoulders and rests on it with his elbow.

To complicate matters, however, since Vasari's time this figure on the steps has been identified repeatedly as Diogenes the Cynic, a figure of some importance though clearly of the second rank. Unfortunately, Vasari was not always a reliable source for ancient iconography, and his identification here seems to have been made solely on the presence of a cup, seen just to the left of the figure.(18) It is true that Laertius briefly mentions the bowl and cup of Diogenes, but only as objects that he threw away.(19) A cup has a much more significant role in Plato's account of the death of Socrates. He tells us that after an absurdly unjust trial, a kylix of hemlock was forced upon Socrates for teaching young Athenians - as Christ would later teach the Hebrews - to think for themselves and to question the old religious order.(20)

On the other side of this central philosopher are two well-dressed young men who thus far have eluded a convincing identification.(21) These figures can now be identified as Socrates' famous students Crito and Apollodorus, who, according to Plato, were at his bedside reacting with shock and disbelief to the impending death of their teacher. One is flinging his hands toward the reclining philosopher while the other turns and points toward Plato and Aristotle, as if looking for an explanation. If the figure on the steps were Diogenes, the gestures of these two nearby figures would have very little narrative meaning.

On the other hand, if they are seen as Crito and Apollodorus, the death of Socrates convincingly accounts for their presence and attitudes. Their positions also tend to create directional signals that seem to unite the...

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