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Kya Kennett, Dana Reid, and Nikita Milani

July 29th, 2014


Honors 230, Rome 2014
School of Athens Research Paper
The School of Athens was an important part of the early Renaissance, as it drew upon
many of the ideals of Italian Neoplatonism. Neoplatonism is the reemergence of the ideals and
philosophy set forth by the likes of thinkers such as Plato in the 3rd century CE. As a part of the
early movement of the Renaissance, considered by some scholars to be the most pure,1 The
School of Athens makes a statement, rather than tell a story. This painting, as a part of the Vatican
Museums, is an almost entirely secular, if not pagan, image. The painting brings together the
disciples of knowledge, as opposed to religion it puts humankinds accomplishments front and
center, as opposed to divine intervention. Most importantly, it shows the spread of knowledge
these philosophers interact with one another, in order to learn and understand different sciences.
The painting is an idealized form there was no way for these people to be all together at one
time interacting, so the artist Raphael has given them a space to do so. The painting itself is an
excellent example of Renaissance artwork, with its attention to perspective and therefore use of
light and distance, and the bodies of the figures appear realistic. Raphael has created an image
which epitomizes Greek philosophy, and is a symbol for human thought through the ongoing
dialogue of philosophy.2
The painting is set within one of the multiple stanzas of the papal apartments, in a stanza
called Stanza della Segnatura. This stanza has four paintings within it, depicting theology,
poetry, philosophy, and jurisprudence, the four branches of knowledge. School of Athens is a
1 Gertrude Garrigues, RAPHAEL'S SCHOOL OF ATHENS, The Journal of Speculative
Philosophy Vol. 13 no. 4 (1879): 406-420, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25667781.
2 Ibid.

renaming of the image, which was considered to be the Philosophy part of the stanza.3 Across
from it on the other wall is a highly religious painting, La Disputa, containing images of Christ,
Mary, other saints, as well as theologians. Because of this context, even due to the secular nature
of the painting it was considered appropriate for the church, as it was the reconciliation of
ancient pagan thought with the contemporary Catholic wisdom. The room was also thought to be
used as a library in the papal apartments, creating a further connection between knowledge and
theology within the room. Some scholars also believe that The School of Athens is also trying to
state that all knowledge lies within the divine, as this painting was specifically created for this
holy space.4 The painting is an example of some of the contradictions found in Italian art
throughout history there are these pagan symbols, such as Apollo and Minerva, and this
emphasis on reason, thought, and truth, while the room also attempts to be highly religious, with
the church in a way claiming responsibility for all this forthcoming knowledge.
Raphael, widely considered one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, was born in
1483 in Urbino, Italy. He apprenticed under Pietro Perugino in the city of Perugia, and later
moved to Florence in 1504, where he studied the works of Renaissance masters such as
Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Fra Bartolomeo. In 1508 Raphael came to Rome, where Pope
Julius II commissioned him for a variety of projects, including the decoration of the papal
apartments and the Stanza della Segnatura. From 1508-1511, during the same time that
Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, Raphael painted The School of Athens on one of
the walls of the Stanza della Segnatura. The painting depicts Aristotle and Plato as its central
3 Ibid.
4 Harry B. Gutman, The Medieval Content of Raphael's School of Athens. Journal of the
History of Ideas Vol. 2 no. 4(1941): 420-429, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2707020.

figures as well as a host of other philosophers from a variety of time periods, all talking and
discussing together in a calm and harmonious setting inside a great basilica, thought to be
modeled off Bramantes design for St. Peters. After completing the Stanza della Segnatura,
Raphael worked on numerous other important projects for the papacy, even directing the design
of St. Peters Basilica after Bramantes death in 1514, and was also put in charge of the
preservation of antiquities in the city. In 1520, as he was working on his final masterpiece, the
Transfiguration, Raphael died on his 37th birthday and was laid to rest in the Pantheon.5
The Renaissance during which Raphael lived was a time of rebirth; a rediscovery of the
learning and art of the ancient classical world. Through interactions and trade with the Islamic
world, Europeans reencountered the works of Plato, Aristotle, and others that had been preserved
in the great libraries of the east. The Imperial Library of Constantinople, which was founded in
the 4th century and continued in some size and form until 1453, was one such library, and its
collection of Greek and Latin texts had a direct influence upon the early years of the
Renaissance. When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, many of the Librarys books
were destroyed, but hundreds of books were also saved by Turkish soldiers, who then sold them
to Italian traders and initiated the increased spread of such texts across Western Europe. It is
estimated that seventy-five percent of the Greek classics known today were preserved thanks to
copies housed in Byzantine libraries. Similar libraries existed in Damascus, Baghdad, southern
Spain, and all throughout the Islamic world as well. Many Islamic scholars studied at and added
their own commentaries and research to these libraries, although thanks to a deadly combination
of fires, floods, the Crusades, and the Mongols, most of these institutions were destroyed during

5 Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Raphael, accessed July 29th, 2014,


http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/491442/Raphael.

the 13th century, thus limiting the amount of direct influence between Islamic libraries and the
Renaissance of Western Europe. Even so, without the great libraries of Byzantium and the
Islamic world and their influence upon the west, Raphael would never have been aware of the
identity or philosophical ideals of any of his figures in The School of Athens, and the
Renaissance would not have been able to occur. Raphaels famous painting therefore reflects a
broader trend of interaction between cultures throughout the Mediterranean that led to the spread
of classical knowledge in Western Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries.6
Many famous Italian works of art have been influenced by the Mediterranean and the
Islamic world and Raphaels School of Athens is no exception. This influence can be seen very
clearly in the choice of recognizable figures in the painting. The figures who are depicted are
virtually all Greek, which is not too surprising given the widespread fascination in Italy during
that time with classic Greek work. The two exceptions, Averroes and Zoroaster, both of whom
are Persian, are more interesting studies to highlight outside influences in Italy.
Averroes, whose real name is Ibn Rushd, was a Persian polymath and philosopher who
lived from 1126 to 1198. He is most famous for his support and development of Aristotelian
philosophy, especially in the field of physics. Much of what is currently considered to be
Aristotelian atomism, an early concept of matter being made of infinitesimally small, indivisible
units, was actually defined by Averroes.7 During his life he made a huge impact in both Muslim
and Christian philosophical circles and was considered contentious by both for his defense of
6 Michael H. Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World, (Maryland: Scarecrow Press,
1995).
7 Ruth Glasner, Averroes' Physics: A Turning Point in Medieval Natural Philosophy, Oxford University Press
(2009).

Greek philosophy against orthodox Asharite theologians and secular principles. In Western
Europe he has been hailed as the father of secular thought and is often referred to as the
Commentator.
In School of Athens he is seen interacting with another man who is widely agreed to be
Anaxagoras, a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher who lived from 510 to 428 BC. They are depicted
interacting somewhat antagonistically, with Anaxagoras showing something to Averroes who
appears to disagree based on his irritated expression. Had the two ever had the opportunity to
meet they would have had much to disagree on, especially in terms of physics. Anaxagoras was
very involved with continuity physics, which postulates that world is made of a finite number of
materials that are present in everything or in other words that everything is in everything.8 By
his logic materials are only different because of different proportions of these fundamental
materials. This is a philosophy that Averroes would have completely and whole-heartedly
disagreed with. At the same time though they did take similar approaches to trying to determine
the nature of matter and both highly valued secular, logical arguments which is likely why Rafael
put them together.
The other Persian figure in the painting is Zoroaster, a theologian who lived from 628 to
551 BCE and is most famous for founding Zoroastrianism, a dualistic pre-Abrahamic religion
that is thought to have influenced the development of Judaism and the creation of Christianity.
He is the only person in the painting to have been directly involved with the foundation of a
religion or to be a major religious figure so it is notable that his religion is non-Abrahamic.9

8 Patricia Curd, Anaxagoras, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011),


http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=anaxagoras.

Zoroaster is shown speaking with another known figure, Ptolemy. Ptolemy lived from 90
to 168 CE and was a very famous geographer and astronomer.10 In School of Athens, Zoroaster is
shown holding a globe with stars on it and Ptolemy a globe of the Earth. This is to show the way
that Zoroaster was concerned primarily with the heavenly sphere and Ptolemy with the earthly
sphere. It is interesting to see the two of them engaged in conversation since they were both
concerned with understanding the truth of the world but approached the problem in completely
opposing ways.
When examining the figures in The School of Athens it is also important to note the
figures that do not or may not represent specific people. Most of these figures are the classical
statues that line the walls. Their function is obvious; they provide the atmosphere of dignity and
wealth associated with large classical statues while also watching or gesturing to the known
figures to draw the viewers attention to them further. Other anonymous figures are more
contentious though. Particular attention has been paid to the three figures on the left side of the
painting who are all looking out at the viewer: a baby, a young boy, and a person of
indeterminate gender. There are a lot of theories about their significance given that the only other
figure looking out at the viewer is Raphael himself. Some theories say that they are
personifications of an abstract concept such as grammar or learning while others say that they are

9 Encyclopdia Britannica Online, Zoroaster, accessed July 29th 2014,


http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/658060/Zoroaster.
10 Encyclopdia Britannica Online, "Ptolemy," accessed July 29th, 2014,
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/482098/Ptolemy.

meant to be specific people at various ages.11 No one has been able to come to a firm conclusion
though due to Raphaels death merely 10 years after completing the painting.
Unfortunately, questions about the identities and purposes of the figures, known and
anonymous, are common. There is an abundance of theories about many of them. For example,
some sources claim that the person in white looking out at the viewer is actually a woman and
Hypatia, a Greco-Egyptian philosopher from the fourth century. However, due to the lack of
evidence and the fact that Hypatia would not have had blonde hair, this claim has been disputed.
Even thoroughly studied figures cant escape the controversy. There has been debate about the
identity of Socrates as the man in green near the top left, since it was initially based only on his
characteristic snub nose rather than specific iconography like many of the others. Some think
that instead Socrates is meant to be the man lying on the steps in the center, who has long been
believed to be Diogenes (Bell)12. Without specific, recognizable iconography, there is no way to
be certain about the identity of many of the figures, which must be kept in mind when analyzing
the painting as a whole.
The Greek and Persian philosophers depicted in the painting all lived around the 3rd
century CE, making it hard for Raphael, in the 16th century, to have a good idea of what any of
them looked like. In order to paint them, he modeled many of the philosophers off of his
contemporaries, such as Leonardo DaVinci, himself, other artists and philosophers of his time,
11 Daniel M. Unger, The pope, the painter, and the dynamics of social standing in the Stanza
della Segnatura. Renaissance Studies Vol. 26 no. 2 (2011): 269287,
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/doi/10.1111/j.14774658.2011.00728.x/full
12 Daniel Orth Bell, "New Identifications in Raphael's School of Athens," The Art Bulletin Vol.
77 no. 4 (1995): 638-646, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3046140.

and most famously Michelangelo. In doing so, he paid them a great tribute, as it was a great
compliment during the Renaissance to be used as a model for a reincarnation for a great
philosopher hero of antiquity.13 In order to connect each of these figures with their identity, he
uses iconography, such as tools of education or their known clothing books by Plato and
Aristotle are held in their respective hands, and other educational tools, such as a globe. The
importance of cross-cultural interaction can be seen again in these symbols, as these ideas and
tools were coming from different corners of the known world in order to interact. Raphael is
attempting to continue the dialogue of the ancient philosophers through his contemporaries
during the Renaissance.
The School of Athens is one of many examples of interactions between Italy and the
Mediterranean, which continue to this day. Examples of how these interactions are continued can
be seen in many day-to-day experiences had as a student on this trip. Each person has their own
personal interactions, which in some ways reflect those seen in The School of Athens.
With the World Cup this summer being displayed on every TV in Italy, even non-soccer
fans were paying attention to the game. A record-breaking global audience of almost one billion
people was watching this years World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina, and a record
number of 618,725 tweets-per-minute were also posted during the game. Truly deserving its title
of the worlds sport, soccer is both watched and played in every nation on earth, and in a vast
majority of these countries it is the primary national sport. I had the wonderful opportunity last
Friday, July 18th, to join in the worlds sport at a soccer match with some of the refugee center
visitors at Piazza Vittorio. I, three classmates, and our friends from the refugee center were on
13 Harry B. Gutman, The Medieval Content of Raphael's School of Athens. Journal of the
History of Ideas Vol. 2 no. 4(1941): 420-429, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2707020.

one team, facing off against a group of younger Afghani boys on the other. A variety of
languages (none of them English) could be heard throughout the game. The younger boys were
shouting to each other in Italian, while our team of older men, who were mainly Afghani and
Pakistani, were calling out in a language I didnt recognize, but might have been Urdu. Since I
could speak neither, it was hard to figure out exactly what was going on during the game, but
that didnt stop us from having fun. It didnt matter to anyone that most of the players were of
different ethnicities, religions, and nationalities and that we didnt even all speak the same
language; what mattered was the game. Personally, although this may be due to my own
ineptness with language, I couldnt even tell apart who had been born and raised in Italy, who
had lived here for years, and who had only been here for a few weeks or months. Whatever
negativity native Italians may sometimes feel towards immigrants, or immigrants may feel
towards native Italians, those feelings are forgotten when it comes to the international sport of
soccer, because no matter where in the world or whichever part of the Mediterranean a player
may come from, everyone is regarded equally in the melting pot of culture that defines this sport.
One of the central themes of School of Athens is the communication of knowledge across
time and cultures. In modern Rome this is extremely important still in many places such as the
Joel Nafuma Refugee Center. Communication is of the utmost importance due to the language
barriers that many of the refugees face. They often come to Italy with no knowledge of the area
and unable to speak Italian or English. In that case they rely on other refugees who speak the
same language to help them adjust to life in Italy and access vital resources. I asked virtually
every refugee who I spoke to how they heard about the Center and every single one of them told
me that they were told about it by a friend. Few organizations have the resources to advertise so
they rely almost exclusively on word of mouth. The information spreads quickly though. I spoke

with several men who had arrived in Italy less than a week ago by themselves but still made it to
the Center. Its very impressive how quickly knowledge is passed around in those circles, often
facilitated by men who speak a large number of languages and are capable of bridging the gap
between ethnic groups who speak different languages.
Porta Portese market is an enormous flea-market that is held every Sunday, attracting a
variety of people in the area, from locals to tourists to immigrants. When walking around this
market, I was amazed by the variety of things I heard, saw, smelt, and touched. The market, like
the many other markets that have come before it, is a place of cross-cultural interaction and
education. Some of the most interesting stands to look at held books, in many different
languages, in so many different topics. One stand I saw had tiny translation dictionaries. Another
common sight was stands which held books and other products from one specific country. One
place in particular stands out to me an Egyptian man, who was selling many different Islamic
goods. The amalgamation of so many different cultures and knowledge, in one space which is
accessible by so many, is an incredible feat.
This market is a much more realistic example of where cross-cultural education happens
today, but also in history places of commerce and trade spread ideas across geographical gaps.
No place like that painted by Raphael in The School of Athens could exist instead, the type of
interactions which led to the important jumps in human knowledge took place through places
like this market. This market is also an example of the next step of the spread of knowledge
books sold to common people, the amassing of knowledge in different languages, the interactions
of variety of people which allow for new knowledge. The spread of goods go hand in hand with
the spread of knowledge.

Bibliography
Bell, Daniel Orth. 1995. "New Identifications in Raphael's School of Athens." The Art Bulletin
Vol. 77 (4): 638-646. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3046140.
Curd, Patricia. 2011. Anaxagoras. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=anaxagoras
Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Raphael. Accessed July 29th, 2014.
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/491442/Raphael.
Encyclopdia Britannica Online. "Ptolemy." Accessed July 29th, 2014.
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/482098/Ptolemy.
Encyclopdia Britannica Online. Zoroaster. Accessed July 29th 2014.
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/658060/Zoroaster.
Garrigues, Gertrude. 1879. RAPHAEL'S SCHOOL OF ATHENS. The Journal of
Speculative Philosophy Vol. 13 (4): 406-420. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25667781.

Glasner, Ruth. 2009. Averroes' Physics: A Turning Point in Medieval Natural Philosophy.
Oxford University Press.
Gutman, Harry B. 1941. The Medieval Content of Raphael's School of Athens. Journal of
the History of Ideas Vol. 2 (4): 420-429. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2707020.
Harris, Michael H. History of Libraries in the Western World. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1995.
Unger, Daniel M. 2011. The pope, the painter, and the dynamics of social standing in the Stanza
della Segnatura. Renaissance Studies Vol. 26 (2): 269287.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/doi/10.1111/j.14774658.2011.00728.x/full