I’m wishing Raphael Happy Birthday a few days late. My news feed was buzzing this weekend with everyone’s favourite Raphael paintings, which is what alerted me this oversight. The good news is that it’s unlikely Raphael will mind my tardiness. Interesting note, one that I’ll be reminded of every Easter weekend from now on, Raphael was born and died on Good Friday, 37 years apart. Rumour has it his death was preceded by an uncontrollable fever that broke out during an evening of amorous pleasure with his model and mistress, Margarita Luti. Afterwards, not wanting to disclose the nature of his illness, he was given the wrong medication and died just a week later. Even 16th century historian Georgio Vasari recounted that Raphael was brought down by his excessive passion. There are worse ways to live and die, I suppose. Although how dreadful for poor Margarita.
Anyways, in honour of the 532nd birthday of the illustrious Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance, I’ll add my favourite Raphael painting to the internet buzz as well. Mine is The School of Athens. I studied The School of Athens from my textbook last semester but had never seen the painting in print, en situ. Context makes all the difference. As magnificent as School of Athens is viewed separately, seeing it as a fresco within the Vatican makes it even more so. It’s impossible to understand the scale otherwise. (School of Athens is on the right hand wall within the semi dome)
Pope Julius II commissioned for The School of Athens for the papal library in 1509. It’s part of a series of themed frescos depicting distinct branches of knowledge; Philosophy, Poetry (including music) Theology and Justice. School of Athens is an imaginary academy featuring some of the world’s greatest philosophers and thinkers from ancient Rome/Greece to the 15th century. It’s long been seen as Raphael’s masterpiece, embodying the classical spirit of the Renaissance. I think it’s best understood in context of the surrounding frescoes, rather than on its own. With the 15th century thrust toward humanism, it was important for the Pope to be regarded as balanced and progressive, embracing all the arts.
This close up details some of the philosophers and thinkers that Raphael portrayed, with Plato and Aristotle as central figures. I appreciated the inclusion of Hypatia, second century mathematician, philosopher and astronomer, and the only woman included in the academy. (Hypatia came to a rather fateful end; dragged naked through the streets by the christians, then while still alive, had her flesh scraped off with oyster shells. Nasty tale.) It’s been suggested that Raphael used Michelangelo as physical inspiration for Heracutus and Leonardo DaVinci as inspiration for Plato.
Vasari noted that Raphael also included himself in the painting, to the far right, next to Zoroaster. You can only see a portion of his face in the pic above, but note the close up below. Raphael is in the in the centre, staring out at us, full eye contact.) Nothing like a little self promotion. On a side note, it wasn’t unusual for Renaissance painters to include figures based on real people in their work. Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel at the same time as Raphael was painting the Vatican Library. Rather famously, Michelangelo portrayed the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena (who had criticized Michelangelo’s work) as the god of the underworld in the Last Judgement, with donkey ears and a snake biting his groin. Such is the power of the artist. But I’m afraid I’m off on another goose chase. And the Sistine Chapel is a story of its own.
What strikes me about The School of Athens, aside from my appreciation of Raphael’s artistic skill and the fresco’s theme, is the enormous amount of planning that must have gone into the prep work. Imagine having to decide who to include in the imaginary academy, where to place them, how to dress them, how their expressions will appear, who they’re interacting with – you get the picture. The composition of the fresco is a study in itself. The architecture would have been no easy task to execute either, especially on such a large-scale. It’s hardly a wonder that it took the then twenty-five year old Raphael two years to complete the masterpiece, which ranks alongside the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.
And so, Happy Belated Raphael. Five hundred years later, your contribution to the art world still amazes and awes.