Part two of our MTM series goes to this epic fresco of the Italian Renaissance. The School of Athens is philosophy idealized. Those of us who have dreamed about the ancient schools of thought have this image as a reference.
Raphael was part of the great triad of masters of the time, alongside Michelangelo and da Vinci. He was considered the ideal painter: one with impeccable technique, universal talent and absolute self-control. We could even say he was too good and too pure – after all, the most memorable painters always have a touch of ego and eccentricity within.
The piece is a fresco, which means it was painted on a mural. More precisely, it was painted on the walls of the Stanza della Segnatura, a library within the Pope’s residence. A private library. Imagine having one of the most famous works of art in human history just chilling on your library wall, a room you probably barely spend any time in. It also had three other giant frescoes – one for each wall – which were all painted by Raphael. Together, they represent the Four Branches of Human Knowledge:
As you can imagine, The School of Athens represents the first of those. But what we think of as philosophy today is not exactly what it used to be. In ancient times, philosophy and science were one and the same. All mathematicians, physicists, astronomers and the like, were considered philosophers.
But let’s talk about the fresco.
It’s very busy. There are a lot of things going on at once, and it is hard to rest your eyes on a single spot… with one big exception. At the very center of the painting stand two legendary men: Plato and Aristotle. Not only do they get to stand right in the middle, but they also divide the room into two sides.
On the left is Plato. He was Aristotle’s teacher, so it only makes sense that he is the older of the two (also, fun fact, he is modeled after Leonardo da Vinci). On the right is, well, Aristotle. We can be certain that it is them because each is holding a copy of one of their famous books. Plato is holding Timaeus and Aristotle is carrying The Ethics.
That’s pretty much where the similarities end. From here on it’s all a clash of ideas.
Plato has always been more concerned with ideals than he has been with the physical world. He put forth his famous Theory of Forms, in which he theorized the existence of a realm filled with perfect concepts. Let me explain.
(Skip over this if you don’t really care about the old man and his world of mathematical perfection)
Whatever it is that you think about, Plato believed there was an ideal version of that. An ideal education system, an ideal friendship, an ideal body. Even an ideal chair. He thought these things actually existed in a world beyond ours. I guess you could think of this as “Plato’s heaven”, if that helps you understand the concept. Plato called these ideals “forms” because, in art, a form is a perfect model made by the teacher that the student tries to recreate.
From a more pragmatic perspective, the Theory of Forms tells you that you should spend some time thinking about what that ideal is. Because if you know what the thing should look like, you will also know when the thing doesn’t look like that. If you know what an ideal relationship looks like, you will recognize the flaws in yours. If you know what an ideal education system looks like, you will be more likely to know what is wrong with ours.
What really drives this home is that Plato is pointing to the sky (the theoretical) and wearing the colors of the weightless: purple (representing the Aether) and red (representing fire).
Aristotle did not agree with Plato on many things, particularly on the supernatural world. That is why, in contrast, he has his palm looking down and is wearing very earthly colors (brown and blue for soil and water). He is all about this world, not other ones.
What is also important is that these two figures divide the painting in half. On the left are people whose study is more related to the work of Plato, and on the right are those more close to Aristotle. As the two walk towards the stairs, plenty of people seem very interested to what each one has to say. But even beyond the nosy listeners, the people further left and back still follow this distinction. For example:
Bottom left. You see that guy who is frantically writing something? That’s Pythagoras. We only really know him for his theorem, but the man did a lot more than that. He discovered laws of harmony in mathematics and music. Ethereal stuff. See? Just like Plato.
Opposite of him is a man with terrible back posture that seems to be teaching geometry to some students. That is Euclid, the geometrician, drawing and measuring the real world. The physical. Just like Aristotle.
The same opposition takes place at the top.
On the left is a statue of Apollo, god of music, light and rationality (though I am sure you already know that because you’ve read my article on Embracing your Demons). He is connected to the platonic ideal.
On the right, however, we have Athena, the goddess of war, politics and wisdom, and therefore related to the practicals affair of Man.
My favorite figure in the whole fresco is Diogenes. He is the man in blue that is nonchalantly laying back on the stairs, presumably reading a paper. If you don’t know who Diogenes was, you are missing out. I will abstain myself for now because I think he deserves his own article – after all, he was the ultimate embodiment of not giving a f*ck.
What about yours? Look around the painting – what catches your eye? Take some time to appreciate it. The School of Athens is a fresco like no other, a reminder of the awe, elegance and authority that knowledge and its pursuit bring to our lives.