Friday, September 17, 2004

Raphael's Stanze at the Vatican

Shane Richards
Honors in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Introduction

Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael Santi) was born in Urbino, Italy in 1483 on Good Friday. His father was a mediocre painter who upon Raphael's birth knew of a divine quality that his son possessed. Like the ideal Italian family situation of the day, with two parents and one son, he was raised by his parents in an environment protected from regular peasants and other "less refined" persons. At an early age, his father noticed a strong artistic ability in Raphael, not just the feeling he had at birth, and so he was sent away to study under Pietro Perugino in Perugia. Raphael studied under Perugino and learned to paint duplicates or very similar styles of Perugino's own work. Within a short time, Raphael's abilities as seen through his paintings exceeded that of Perugino's, so he decided to leave and move to Florence, a known hotspot at the time for young and flourishing Renaissance artists.

Once in Florence, Raphael immersed himself amongst the many amazing artists most notably Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. At this time, Raphael continued to grow in his abilities as he dedicatedly researched perspective and form as seen in the art which surrounded him. Much like Michelangelo, he was noted for his depth of research which included the study of his peers both of the present day and of classical times, as well as time spent researching the shape and tone of the human body. Then, at age 25, Raphael was summoned by Bramante, the Pope's architect, to come to the Vatican to tryout to paint for the Pope.

It was at this "tryout" for Pope Julius II, that an unproven Raphael first began work on the Disputa. This became the first painting in a twelve year project that included painting and designing most of the frescoes for the four upstairs Stanze rooms of the Vatican. Within the first few weeks, the Pope's admiration for Raphael's work was so great, he commissioned him to first finish the frescoes of the most famous room, the Segnatura. Upon further completion of the Segnatura, the Pope placed Raphael in charge of the design of the rest of the Stanze, most of which Raphael's students frescoed based upon his designs.

II. Description

The Room of the Segnatura (Room of the Signature) housed 220 books for Pope Julius II, and earned its name because immediately following its completion, the Pope signed many papal documents within its frescoed walls, hence, the "Room of the Signature." Upon the four walls Raphael frescoed four highly classical ideas. This room starkly contrasted the religious frescoes Michelangelo painted at the same time in the Sistine Chapel. Raphael's view of the four main classical ideas included philosophy (The School of Athens), theology (The Disputa), literal arts (Parnassus), and the justice wall.

The School of Athens

The School of Athens which lies on the wall of philosophy is the most famous and revered fresco of the Segnatura. It may even be considered one of the most influential paintings of Raphael's lifetime. The School of Athens, originally named Causarum Cognito (Knowledge of Causes), dominates the attention of the room despite being the third wall to be chronologically completed, after the Disputa and Parnassus. It takes place in the ancient Grecian city of Lyceum and depicts the most accomplished and illustrious philosophers and scientists of ancient Greece. Sadly, Raphael kept no diary and left no concrete evidence of the true identities of the characters in the fresco. The identities are both speculated and inferred by art historians based upon their features or the objects they hold in their hands. Throughout the entire painting, Raphael focuses the viewer's attention to his perspective point through the use of the movement down by following the arches as well as the balancing effect of the actors on opposite sides of the center.

The central figures which lie on either side of the point of perspective depict one of the most famous teacher student combinations, that of Plato (left) and Aristotle (right). These two men appear to be walking under the main archway and obviously can be seen leading the school. Plato is depicted holding a copy of his Timaeus. He points up towards the heavens, symbolizing his philosophies of the aetherial realm. He had strong beliefs based upon the heavens and stars in the sky and their relationship to our galaxy, most notably the sun and the earth. His philosophies form the original discoveries and hypotheses of the greater universe around us. His face appears to be almost a duplicate of the self portrait of Leonardo, which suggests that without definitive ideas of Plato's looks, Raphael chose to honor his master by painting his face in the place of an unknown one. Plato looks to be conversing with Aristotle who holds a copy of his Nichomachean ethics. In disagreement with Plato, Aristotle points to the earth to signify his beliefs in more concrete ideas based around the earth itself.

Aristotle and the men to his left are seen as proven scientific philosophers, while the men to Plato's right are less material scientists and more in belief of unproven philosophical ideas. This theme is echoed not only by the people in the painting but also the statues in the background. On the left, Apollo, the god of natural philosophy can be recognized by his symbol the lyre. This propagates the claim that these men had less of a grasp upon the realism of their philosophies. Whereas on the right side, Athena, the god of moral philosophy suggests that those on the right were moral and correct in their theories. The important feature to note is the use of purposeful balance on each side that is never ignored throughout this entire masterpiece.

Starting by moving to the right, Diogenes can be seen sitting on the steps with a beggar's chalice by his knee. He appears to be deep in thought and his face depicts a very cynical attitude which Diogenes was famous for. Many art historians praise Raphael for this figure because of the use of depth that can be seen by Diogenes' pose on the steps. His figure seems to provide the best example of Raphael's improved use of perspective and movement in his work. Also, Raphael is praised for the immense detail and the appropriate lack of clothing. For a figure such as Diogenes, Raphael would have first taken sketches of a model in the same position, then used that sketch to create such a real image that in this case, showboats to his students and scholars his amazing abilities. Further to his right, Strabo can be seen holding the earth. He is famous for his geography and knowledge of the earth as a whole, even in the ancient Grecian times. His identity is in question, but most historians believe that this in fact is Strabo because a copy of his book translated to Latin in 1450 was contained in the library of Julius II. Right next to Strabo looking the away from the viewer Ptolemy also is holding a celestial sphere, but unlike Strabo's, Ptolemy's appears to be in motion. They appear to be in conversation and it can be assumed that Raphael painted the globes differently to contrast each philosophers dissimilarities. The person on the bottom right appears to be either Euclid or Archimedes with four students surrounding him. The main figure is bending over with a pair of dividers on a stone tablet. He appears to be teaching the four students around him. The significance of this portion of the fresco is based around the idea that each student resembles the four different stages of learning. Starting from left to right, the first student studies intently the literal meaning of the work. The next student appears to be an apprentice, the next person looks to be dawning comprehension, and the last student seems to be in anticipation of the outcome. The expressions and movements of these four actors truly epitomize the greatness and purpose of Raphael's form.

Raphael placed his self-portrait in very near the right edge of the painting. Only his head is visible, and his expression looks exactly like the one on his self portrait that hangs in the Uffizi in Florence. He looks directly out of the painting and down towards the viewer, the only person in the school directly to do so. This suggests that he looks at every viewer almost begging for a response and a reaction to his work. This practice was used by many painters throughout the Renaissance so that the viewer would feel open to criticize and make judgments upon their masterpiece.

To the left of center, sitting on the steps, Heraclitus is depicted with his head resting on his hand in deep thought. Many believe that Raphael added Heraclitus late, because he was not depicted in the preliminary cartoon of the painting that still exists today. Also, the body shows an almost perfect copy of what Michelangelo was believed to look like during that time period when he painted the Sistine Chapel. This was another attempt to honor one of Raphael's masters, much like he did with Leonardo and the face of Plato. However, with this figure, Raphael goes further, by depicting Michelangelo's face as well as his infamous leather shoes that rumor says he never took off.

Above him and to the left, the only face of a woman clothed in white robes can be seen almost glancing out of the painting. This person has been hypothesized to be either the Pope's nephew Francesco Rovere or the female Hypatia. Many believe that Raphael truly painted Hypatia despite quarrels by the college of cardinals that her beliefs counter those of the truly faithful. Raphael, an infamously passionate lover, supposedly claimed of the only female in the school "(She is the) most famous student in the school...and cannot be removed." This discrepancy leads many historians to believe that he disguised her and hid her into the fresco so that only those who knew him would know her true identity. Pythagoras is seen kneeling in the bottom left hand of the painting. Pythagoras on the left and Euclid on the right provide the balance that Raphael purposely intended on opposite sides of the point of perspective. Pythagoras can be seen with a representation of his mathematical harmony which was believed to be half science and half religious mathematics. He is holding a blackboard with the numbers 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = X (10), the sacred number. He was painted opposite Euclid because his philosophies are more secretive and more philosophical, while Euclid left remnants of physical geometry that are still recognized today. Just to the left of Plato, Socrates is depicted teaching a young person, maybe Alexander the Great or some other young student of classic Greece.

Truly, this masterpiece dominates the focus of the Room of the Segnatura. Never before had such an amazing group of classical thinkers been brought together on one canvas or in one gathering place. To stand in this room, Pope Julius II felt the same feeling that present day museum goers do, of sheer amazement and awe of the great conglomeration of classical thinkers encapsulated on one immense fresco. The sum of the parts of this painting come together to create a much more powerful statement than that of the singular elements. Much like many other Renaissance paintings, this theme of perspective and proper weighting makes an enormous statement to those patrons lucky enough to view it.

The Disputa

On the wall opposite the School of Athens, Raphael painted the other large and historically famous painting of the Disputa (The Disputation of the Blessed Sacrament) to depict the wall of theology. The point of perspective in this painting lies obviously enough where the blessed host is levitated above a golden chalice-like object. The four main figures displayed in the middle of the second tier of the painting show Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist, and above Jesus' head, the figure of God the Father. They provide a striking image that jumps out of the fresco and forces the viewer to realize the linear importance of God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Host.

The three levels of this painting depict the three different levels of divinity. The bottom row contains mortal and less divine historical members of the Church, the second level depicts divine prophets and Saints such as Peter and Paul. This row also includes Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist. The third row shows the completely divine and heavenly layer of the Church including God the Father and a few angels. Together, this contains the most influential members of the Church throughout its entire existence. They seem to be together to argue about the Eucharist and other issues of precedence to the Church. Of the people in the second level of divinity, those seen on the right came from the Old Testament of the Bible, while those on the left are from the New Testament. This provides that balance that Raphael valued so greatly in the paintings in this room. Each person must balance an equally meaningful person on the other side of the painting. Of those seen in the lowest level, two mortals are pictured (from the time it was painted). Those are Bramante who leans on a balustrade at the far left of the painting, and Pope Julius II who can be seen in the middle of the people to the right of the Eucharist. This painting is often criticized because it was the first completed in the room, before Raphael improved. However, it still personifies Raphael's amazing skills at the beginning of his career. He truly conveys the decorum and stateliness that classicizes the Roman court. Even though this early work doesn't provide the same depth and movement that he became so famous for later in his career, it does show the beginning of his mimicking of the praised styles of his peers.

The Parnassus

In between the Disputa and the School of Athens, the Parnassus provides an insight into the literary arts housed in the library of Julius II. The second painting completed in the Segnatura, Parnassus, depicts a group of poets on a famous Greek mountain above the city Delphi. The ancient classical world of Antiquity is displayed on this wall with the centermost character of the painting being that of Apollo. The muses which surround Apollo exaggerate the beauty of the ancient classical muses. Apollo is seen playing a nine string violin, one string for each of the muses which surround him. This fresco seems to bridge the gap in the ability of Raphael from the Disputa to the School of Athens. Improvements can be seen in the improved classical look of the figures. They appear to be more dignified in their posture and movement than the characters of the theology wall.

The balance provided in this fresco may be seen by the two characters nearest to the doorway. On the left, Sappho introduces the fresco with a sense of grandeur. She holds a scroll that contains her name. She is noted for her slow and easy gesture that depicts an unmatched strength and classicism anywhere else in Raphael's work. She offers a better introduction into the painting than the Disputa, because she is a much stronger figure than Bramante is in the Disputa. The poet opposite the Sappho leads us out of Parnassus and into the School. It also bridges the gap from the beautiful divinity of the theology wall and Sappho, to the more realistic and philosophical wall of the School of Athens.

The Wall of Justice

The Wall of Justice, the fourth and final wall in the Segnatura contains far fewer links to classical times and receives much less praise than the walls that surround it. In the peak of the wall, the three cardinal virtues are depicted by the women sitting with the angels. Those include fortitude, temperance, and obviously, justice. These three women are surrounded by three angels which signify faith, hope, and charity. On the lower right of the wall, canon law is depicted with the faces of Pope Julius II, and his two favorite cardinals of the time who later became Popes Clement VII, and Paul III. On the left side, Pope Julius II is seen at an earlier age symbolizing civil law by the oak branch that is included in the fresco. Raphael returns again to the balance between opposing sides of his paintings, in this case the balance between civil and canon law

III. Function

This room exemplifies the vast improvement in Raphael's abilities between the years 1508 and 1512. The vast changes between the figures in the Disputa and the School of Athens show the influence that Raphael was allowed by painting the Segnatura at the same time that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is believed that Raphael spent hours on end studying and observing the great works of Michelangelo just a few hundred feet away. Just like early in his career, Raphael was a master of studying and then replicating the works of those with better style and form than his own. In fact, Michelangelo described Raphael's conception as only the median of idealization, meaning that Raphael had to study and work harder than most to achieve his success. Most of the functionality of this room was stated above in the large description of the work.

IV. Patron

The Segnatura and the School of Athens define the return to classical idealism that was so prevalent during the time of the Renaissance. For the purpose of the library of Julius II and following the artistic norms, the room itself was meant to force the viewer to one specific point in the room. In this case, the center of the ceiling is the point where Raphael combines the singular pieces of the walls and paintings on the way up to the center to link the whole room in one powerful statement. The walls were chosen with a deliberate purpose, by putting theology and philosophy, and literary art and justice on opposite walls, Raphael brought the viewer's attention upwards to the linkage between opposing themes. The path between theology and philosophy are greatly contrasting but provide two separate avenues of truth, one through faith, the other through reason and observation. Following the same idea of opposites coming together, art and law show how discipline and inspiration become a temple of the human mind.

In the spaces on the way up to the center, Raphael painted four blends between the two adjacent themes. Between theology and law, the Temptation of Adam depicts the divine judgement of man.

Likewise, between law and philosophy, the Judgment of Solomon shows the combination of a philosopher king as well as a judge in the human form.

Another reference to the Platonic doctrine of harmony in astronomy can be seen above the walls of philosophy and art.

Between the last two walls, art and theology, the Flaying of Marsyas depicts the consequence of challenging divine authority. Above each wall is a painting of each of the four traits which depict in an even more direct way the themes of the books originally housed against their walls. Above them, the center medallion displays a crest surrounded by angels. The ultimate goal of this room was to combine these four traits to their relationship to the heavens above. Like most religiously commissioned pieces, they lead the viewer's eyes to the heavens, but Raphael achieved this in a much more classical way rather than in a purely biblically way like Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

V. Conclusion

Obviously, this room provides the modern viewer with a unique experience due to the amazing artistic abilities of Raphael. Unlike his later works which he often sketched out but had his students finish, the Segnatura provides a great example of a work entirely completed by Raphael. It also shows from wall to wall the speedy maturation of one of the most renowned artists of the Renaissance. Since Raphael only lived twelve years after beginning of the Segnatura and only eight years after its completion, this room houses a large chunk of Raphael’s life. Obviously, he worked on other pieces than just this room at the same time, but like Lisa said, this room really made Raphael a “Rock Star” of the Renaissance. Visitors today should consider themselves lucky to be able to see scenes of the original great thinkers in the same room as some of the most famous biblical figures including Jesus himself. It will be continuously visited because the people in the painting are continuously studied and revered for their amazing contributions to modern society. At the time of its completion, the characters had already survived over 1,500 years of scrutiny. This sense of timelessness and perseverance of ideas from that period of time through the Renaissance to today makes it hard to believe the painting could ever go out of style or grace with museum goers, art historians, and philosophers everywhere.

VI. Personal Observations

When assigned this topic I hardly had any idea how prominent a place Raphael had in the Renaissance. As a poorly studied art historian, I could only name Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci off the top of my head as famous artists from the Renaissance. One google query later, and I realized that I was given the opportunity to study one of the greatest artists of all time, who packed some amazing works of art into his short 37 year life. At a quick glance, the School of Athens can be praised for its great detail and stellar use of perspective. I had no idea the can of worms that could be opened by trying to figure out the identities of the characters. I couldn't believe the great detail that Raphael purposely went to in an effort to achieve perfect balance. The relationship between the walls to promote a powerful conglomeration of ideas combined with the faces in the paintings being intentionally painted to make reference to the famous books which were stored on the rooms shelves floored me. When Pope Julius II walked into this library in 1512, he was just as lucky as I felt the day we went on the tour. Pictures and websites do Raphael no justice with regards to the immense size and power that the walls emanate into a rather small room. I found it most interesting to study the progression in ability inspired by Michelangelo that can be noticed by even the worst art-eye. Also, I felt the inclusion of his two great masters faces into the painting was similar to the way that great athletes, actors, and musicians praise their teachers when given the chance after being honored themselves. I feel so rewarded for spending the time to learn in great depth the power of the amazing Room of the Segnatura.

VII. Bibliography

Freedberg, Sydney, Raphael's Frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura

Hersey, George, The Stanze, Chapter 5 in High Renaissance Art in St. Peter's and the Vatican. Chicago, 1993

Lahanas, Michael, The School of Athens

Michelangelo and Raphael in the Vatican, Vatican Polygot Press. Vatican City

Shearman, John, The Vatican Stanze: Functions and Decoration, Oxford University Press. London, England 1972

Vesari, The Lives of the Artists: The Life of Raphael of Urbino