Raphael’s feelings were undoubtedly mixed when he received his first commission from the powerful patron of the arts, Pope Julius II. At 25, Raffaello Sanzio was known throughout Italy as a rising star artist. Now he had been chosen to decorate four rooms in the Apostolic Palace, the Pope’s official residence. It was a great honor and it was sure to solidify his professional status.
Yet more prestigious frescoes, paintings of pigments mixed with wet plaster, were simultaneously being painted a few hundred yards away in the Sistine Chapel. Paradoxically, Raphaël was in the shadow of a more established and less experienced artist for this profession. Although still a budding painter, Raphael was an accomplished painter. His rival was already at the top of the artistic world as a sculptor but had never painted a major work.
No one knew what secret Michelangelo had planned for the Sistine ceiling. Raphael was determined to top anything. To do this, he turned his attention to the room that now bears the name of the courthouse that later used it, the Stanza della Segnatura (Hall of Signatures).
In Raphael’s time, the Stanza della Segnatura was the library of Pope Julius. This made it perfect for displaying artistic virtuosity while symbolizing Renaissance ideals: a synthesis of ancient ideals with Christian faith. The room could be dedicated to the “true, good, and beautiful” manifested in art and knowledge, faith and reason, and righteous living.
On the north wall “The Parnassus” celebrated literature. Homer, Virgil and Dante – the greatest epic poets of Greece, Rome and Christian Europe – come together as a trio. Dozens of writers and fictional characters join them from all sides.
On the other side of the coin is “The Cardinal and Theological Virtues”, qualities that the ancients shared with the Christians. At the top of this work, the three cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude and temperance are represented in human form with the theological virtues as cherubim. The fourth cardinal virtue, justice, was painted on the ceiling above. At bottom left and right, respectively, are Emperor Justinian and Pope Gregory IX with their codes of civil and canon law.
The west wall’s “Disputation of the Blessed Sacrament” symbolizes Christian belief and theological scholarship with numerous biblical figures, saints and popes surrounding an altar.
Each of these paintings would have solidified Raphael’s reputation. But the fresco on the fourth wall became one of the most definitive works of the High Renaissance: “The School of Athens” (1509-1511).
At the center of this work stand Plato and Aristotle, framed by arches and statues. Surrounding them is a plethora of ancient thinkers: Socrates, the mathematicians Euclid and Pythagoras, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria and many others.
The scene mixes history and symbolism, as a tribute to the great minds of the past. Many figures in the fresco capture the spirit of ancient intellectual life. Plato founded a school in Athens. For 300 years it has been a center of intellectual life for everyone in the Mediterranean. Aristotle was his pupil and friend. Many other figures in painting wrote works studied in the school of Plato, were associated with it later in history, or were contemporary with its founder.
Another level of symbolism is found in Raphael’s sitters who were prominent figures of his day. Their use implied that they were steeped in classical tradition and worthy successors to the ancients.
The use of artistic patrons was common practice and was not pure flattery. The devotion of many patrons to Renaissance humanism was deep and genuine. Their financial support made the work of the geniuses possible. But their presence in “The School of Athens” is particularly subtle. The only one we know of was included was Duke Federico II of Mantua, and he modeled a minor figure in the painting whose identity is unknown. Pope Julius II would normally have been included as patron of the work. But since he served as a model for Pope Gregory IX in “The Disputation of the Blessed Sacrament”, it was possible to leave him out.
To make a deliberate statement, Raphael used other artists as models for the philosophers and intellectuals of the work. In the Middle Ages, artists were considered workers analogous to builders, stonemasons and carpenters. Renaissance artists insisted that their work was analogous to higher pursuits such as poetry and philosophy.
No less a figure than Leonardo da Vinci was Plato’s model. Other model artists included Raphael Bramante’s teacher and his good friend Timoteo Viti. In a particularly touching homage to his rival, whom he greatly admired, Michelangelo figured prominently as Heraclitus.
He reserved the figure of the greatest artist of the ancient world, Apelles, as his self-portrait. This may have only signified a desire to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor. A bold assertiveness, however, would not have been considered derogatory to other artist-models. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael had the same respect for Apelles that we have for the Three Greats of the Renaissance. If Raphael intended to imply that he was a new Apelles, he would also have implied that only a new Apelles could rise above his greatest contemporaries.
Renaissance artists saw no conflict between intense competition and deep mutual respect. Striving to surpass the men whose genius they admired spurred them on – taking the art to ever greater heights.
The paintings of Stanza della Segnatura were not only one of the greatest products of this rivalry, but also the supreme artistic celebration of it. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo would have recognized in them the spirit they shared with their creator. It was the spirit of men who were fully aware of their dependence on the lessons learned from the giants of the past and of their own times, but who were also fully confident in their own ability to stand by them.