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Monday, January 22, 2018

The School of Athens (in depth)

The School of Athens, 1508-11, Raphael
Raphaello de Sanzio,
Self-portrait, 1506
Just about everyone has heard of the Renaissance, the period in Italian art of some forty years from roughly 1480 to 1520. And anyone familiar with the arts is no doubt familiar with the half-dozen or so landmark painting masterpieces produced during this period (or shortly before or after it). They would include at least one each from what I've termed the "big three" of the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael--artists so prominent their first names alone should suffice. Two of the three lived long, productive lives while the third, Raphael de Sanzio died young. Born in 1483, he died suddenly (on his birthday, no less) in 1520 at the age of thirty-seven, his lifetime perfectly coinciding with the Italian High Renaissance. We're all too familiar with Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling and Leonar-do's Mona Lisa. But Raphael's comparable fresco, The School of Athens (top), located in the Vatican's Stanza della Segnatura is as underexposed as the other two are overexposed.

A "Who's Who" of Greek philosophy with likely names in black and Raphael's possible models in red.
The School of Athens shows Plato and Aristotle in conversation. Plato, on the left, upwards while Aristotle, on the right, points down. The here and elsewhere, heaven and earth are the subject of these discussions. The fresco, painted between 1508 and 1511 (dates vary) conveys an impressive synthesis of the world-view of the two great Greek philosophers that was formed in the course of the 15th-century and would have been completely inconceivable just a century earlier. This was the result of the rediscovery of Plato which took place in Florence thanks to the efforts of the Platonic Academy and the activities of Marsilio Ficino and his circle. Restored to his master's side, Aristotle, who had never suffered the same neglect, could now speak, and his words took on a new significance.

The elder Plato walks alongside Aristotle.
School of Athens (detail). Leonardo is said
to have served as the model for Plato.
Plato lived in Athens during the 5th-century BC. He was a disciple of Pythagoras' school of philosophy which interpreted the universe as a mathematical system. Plato believed that a link existed between mathematics and music, and understood the heavenly bodies as entities separated by rhythmic intervals similar to those found in music. The heavenly spheres followed the same principles of harmony as those applied in music--heavenly music (so to speak). According to Plato, the entire world of creation, which we perceive with our senses is merely the shadow of the real world--a world of godly causality--the world of music. Further, he believed that only those minds which have been trained in the contemplative use of reason could know the only true world, a world of pure harmony. If that sounds pretty "deep," it is, and Plato's teaching was as much a lost cause in Europe during the Middle Ages as the study and knowledge of the Greek language itself. Apart from individual quotes used by Latin authors, all that was known of Plato's work was the Latin translation of the treatise on mathematics, the Timaeus (an anachronistic bound edition which Raphael depicts Plato holding under his arm).

Zoroaster, Ptolemy, Raphael as Apelles, and Perugino or Timoteo Viti as Protogenes, are arrayed on the right as followers of Aristotle.
Plato was Aristotle's mentor, but he moved away from his teacher's ideas in that he believed it possible for man to understand the laws of the universe with his senses and study them with the help of logic. Aristotelian mind is not contemplative in itself. The main doctrine of the medieval church was based on established Aristotelian thinking, which influenced biblical interpretation and the understanding of the relationship between God and man. Logical mind games were something of an intellectual passion among the medieval schools of theology. Moreover, they were completely comparable to those we know today, which have led to the invention of the computer. The problem was, having been engulfed by logic, left a degree of uncertainty with respect to the body of Aristotle's teaching. In an attempt to explain the world, Aristotelian reason tended to lose itself in a roomful of mirrors.

Cosimo de' Medici, 1545,
Agnolo Mariano
The revival of Platoism began its slow spread in the city of Florence when Manuel Chrysolaras from Greece was invited to give a series of lectures at the University of Florence sometime in the early years of the 15th-century. Chryso-laras' student circle included the young Cosimo de' Medici (right). He and others who were interested in the study of philosophy, gathered around Ambrogio Traversari in the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The young Cosimo was also a member of that group. Traversari, the general prior of the Camaldoese monks was one of the few men of his time who was fluent in both Latin and Greek. He set about trans-forming the Monastery of Camaldoli, high up in the Casentin mountains, into a workshop for the translation of classical authors. Cosimo withdrew from his phil-osophical studies at the age of forty following the death of his father, Giovanni de Medici in 1429. He was obliged to take over the family business. However, he continued to buy books and spend part of his vast fortune on the support of humanists and their work. One such project carried out with Cosimo's financial aid was a search by Poggio Bracciolino and Niccolo Niccoli of Europe's monastery libraries for the ancient classical texts, which had been preserved for centuries thanks to the efforts of the Benedictines. In 1437, Cosimo de' Medici was present at the Council of Ferrara which brought representatives of the two great Christian churches--Greek and Roman--together in a last-ditch attempt at reunification. There Cosimo met the Greek scholars from the Byzantine delegation and the Emperor of Constantinople, John VIII Palaiologos.

And on the left, the school of Socrates (in the tan robe, a follower of Plato), The School of Athens (detail),  Raphael.
When the town of Ferrara was no longer able to accommodate the Council, Cosimo offered to foot the cost for it to continue in Florence. This single, magnanimous, yet seemingly incidental gesture was enough to change the course of European intellectual history. The Greek scholars who moved to Florence with the Byzantine delegation were the main impetus for "the new Plato." There followed a series of memorable lectures by Georgis Gemisto Plethon at the University of Florence, which was attended by all the humanist scholars living in the city at the time. The importance of the lectures by Plethon, who was over eighty years old at the time, was connected with the fact that Plato's dialogs had already reached Italy a decade earlier thanks to the efforts of Giovanni Aurispa. Aurispa, a humanist, was a bibliophile antique dealer who was constantly on the road between Constantinople and Rome. He had managed to save a considerable number of classical works.

Raphael's School of Athens (right) as seen in the Stanza della Segnatura.
The Cardinal Virtues, also by Raphael, is on the left.

Raphael's rival, Michelangelo,
depicted as Heraclitus,
School of Athens (detail).

Cosimo de' Medici commissioned a young man named Ficino with the task of translating Plato and hence starting a Plato Academy. Ficino translated the Hymns of Orpheus and several other Greek works into Latin. In 1464, he be-gan translating Plato's dialogs. Cosimo was first able to read Plato's words from Ficino's translation while on his deathbed. The Platonic Academy (Euro-pe's first modern academy, was truly es-tablished through the efforts of the small group gathered around Cosimo's death-bed listening to Ficino's translations. It's hard to overemphasized the influence of the Plato in 15th-century Florence on the fine arts and their flowering during the golden age of the Tuscan city. The works of Sandro Botticelli such as his Adoration of the Magi (below), from 1475, are not generally intepreted as a rendering of the Platonic mythology in painting. However, the art of Domenico Ghirlandaio (bottom), who reached the summit of his artistic career in Florence, appears to be based on the philosophy of Plato. Yet the sublime tranquility of the figures rendered by both artists with their imperturbable calm mark them as "ideal" in the Platonic sense. A generation later, Raphael's The School of Athens was one of the direct results of the birth of Cosimo de' Medici's Plato Academy.

Adoration of the Magi, 1475, Sandro Botticelli
Zachariah in the Temple (detail), by Domenico
Ghirlandaio, depicts four humanist philosophers
under the patronage of the Medici.


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