Raphael's School of Athens

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Casey Goff
ARTHS 3392
Dr. B. Bonario
November 12, 2012

Analysis of “The School of Athens” by Raphael
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Raphael, the youngest of the three great artists who defined the Italian High Renaissance, was born in the small yet artistically significant Central Italian city of Urbino. It seems that Raphael attained his natural gift of creativity from his father who was a poet and a painter. Orphaned at an early age, Raphael was sent to be an apprentice to the distinguished painter Perugino, and by the tender age of twenty-one had flourished into an impeccable artist with talent surpassing that of his mentor. Over the course of the next four years, Raphael lived and worked in Florence alongside Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo. Raphael could not escape the imminent influence of these two legendary artists. By 1508, Raphael’s reputation had already been established and at the age of twenty-five he was summoned by Pope Julius II to decorate the walls of the papal apartments in the Vatican Palace, which happened to be just steps away from where Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling was in progress. This commission allowed for the creation of the world-renowned fresco titled, The School of Athens. This work is revered as one of Raphael’s greatest achievements and possibly the greatest achievement of the High Renaissance period. This commission would bring Raphael deserved recognition and notoriety and ultimately led to him becoming the leading painter in all of Rome. The School of Athens is a painting of world-renowned stature because of its impeccable harmony, which was characteristic of Raphael’s work. In order to understand the influence of this piece one must recognize Raphael’s overall achievement here: he successfully created a scene of nearly sixty figures, each individual and alive, that yet combines in a design that is harmonious, clear, and befitting the classic importance and dignity of its subject. Harmony is created in part by the use of contrasting elements. Most obvious of these elements would be the differing philosophical ideas of the two principal characters, Plato and Aristotle. Plato is shown pointing upward suggesting his emphasis on the existence of a spiritual realm beyond the physical world. The gesture is a reference to, “Plato’s interest in the world of ideas, a meta-world that exists beyond our comprehension of reality” (Crenshaw 126). On the other hand, Aristotle gestures his hand downward stressing his belief that the physical world is the basis of all knowledge and understanding. Plato carries the Timaeus, one of his dialogues that explains his belief in the reality of a world of ideal forms which exists beyond the material universe. Aristotle is shown holding his famous Niomachian Ethics that illustrates his belief that knowledge is only gained through empirical observation and experience of the material world. The two figures are further differentiated by their sense of movement and their age. Plato appears to be an older gentleman who seems to be moving with an air of patience and grace while Aristotle is a younger man who seems to be moving forward with a greater sense of urgency and energy. The picture is then divided neatly in half, the idealists or “thinkers who concerned themselves with ideas and abstract concepts” (Crenshaw 126) are on the left side with Plato. To the left of Plato in a dark green robe, Socrates can be seen engaging in an argument amongst a circle of his disciples enumerating points on his fingers, “in a classic visualization of the Socratic argumentation technique” (Crenshaw 126). Socrates was an influential and revolutionary Grecian philosopher whose work was meant to show how argument, debate, and discussion could help man to understand and resolve difficult issues. Although the notion that this figure is indeed Socrates has been widely accepted for generations, a new idea has recently emerged among art historians. These...
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