Holbein's Mastery
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The Rise of Renaissance Perspective: Page 2

The Rise of Renaissance Perspective

Undoubtedly Raphael’s best-known ‘prospettiva’ is the ‘School of Athens’, a fresco painted on one wall of the Raphaelle Stanze at the Vatican in 1510 (Figs. 4 & 6). It is a pre-eminent example of the perspective construction, evoking a strong sense of both depth and classical spirit. The historian Vasari (1550) comments that Bramante, the architect of St. Peter’s Cathedral under construction next door, "instructed Raphael of Urbino in many points of architecture and sketched for him the buildings which he later drew in the perspective in the Pope's chamber, representing Mount Parnassus [i.e., ‘The School of Athens’]. Here Raphael drew Bramante measuring with a compass” [at lower right].
Despite this help, Raphael must have had considerable understanding of the construction to be able to execute the imposingly complex vaulting on the curved arches, which are in faultless perspective. He also took over the commission as chief architect of St. Peter’s on Bramante’s death. The two were evidently very much on a par, and the need for Bramante’s assistance has been questioned (Lieberman, 1996), especially in light of the excellent perspective in Raphael’s (1503) ‘Annunciation’.

Fig. 4. Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ (1510), depicting a host of ancient philosophers in a perspective setting. There is no full agreement on the identities of the participants, but the most plausible are given here. Plato (left center) is a portrait of Leonardo, passing his knowledge to his pupil Aristotle, whose outstretched hand forms the center of the composition. To Plato’s right is Socrates, holding forth to a group of his pupils including the hero Alcibiades, Xenaphon, and Aeschines. Pythogoras is writing a book in the left foreground, while behind him are Alberti as Zeno and Tommaso Inghirami as Epicurus. In the center, Michelangelo as Democritus is writing at the table in front of a declamatory Parmenides, with Diogenes reclining on the steps. In the right foreground Euclid (a portrait of Raphael’s master, Bramante) stoops to demonstrate a theorem of a six-pointed star, while Ptolemy holds the celestial sphere and Zoroaster with a gold crown holds the earth and looks back at Raphael’s self-portrait in the black velvet cap, next to his colleague at the Vatican, the painter Giovanni Bazzi (Il Sodoma). Behind them are Heraclitus and possibly the blind poet Homer. In the far background over Aristotle’s left shoulder are two figures closely resembling the portraits of the artists Masaccio (with the dark hair) and his master Masolino (with the white beard).

The ‘School of Athens’ is deliberately, one might say gloriously, anachronistic in its congregation of the generations of ancient philosophers onto a single stage. Those that have been positively identified using accurate historical evidence include: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Alcibiades, Paremenides, Diogenes, Epicurus and Zeno. The cast has geographical reach, including Zoroaster from as far as Persia, Ptolemy from Egypt and a Turkish figure behind Pythagoras who has been identified as Averroës, the Arabian commentator on Aristotle’s works.

Much of the inspiration for this painting derived from the integrative philosophy of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), younger son of the Count of La Mirandola and Concordia. He studied at the universities of Bologna, Ferrara, Padua and Paris, mastering Italian, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew. Pico's reverence for prisca theologia (ancient wisdom) drew him to the Florentine Platonic Academy established by Marsilio Ficino under the aegis and encouragement of the great Cosimo de Medici. His awareness of the universality of truth led him to reject such humanist tendencies as the emphasis upon oratorical style over philosophical reason and the exclusive dependence on ancient Greece for inspiration. Pico studied Zoroaster and Moses, Orpheus and Pythagoras, Christian theology, Islamic philosophy and the Hebrew Qabbalah. Ficino translated Plato into Latin and Pico studied his works avidly. When agents of the Medicis brought the Hermetic writings to Florence, Pico urged Ficino to translate them, holding that they contained the root of wisdom and the synthesis of philosophy, science and religion. Pico himself single-handedly brought the Qabbalah into the heart of the Renaissance.

Even beyond the philosophical reach, psychological depth is incorporated into Raphael’s painting by the use of portraits of many of Raphael’s famous contemporaries as the embodiments of the ancient philosophers. The major figures of the papal reconstruction of that time were the papal architect Bramante, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Inghirami (the papal librarian), Bazzi, and Leon Battista Alberti. All are captured for posterity in the form of an appropriate philosopher (see figure caption). One can only imagine what a great time Raphael must have had matching his friends and colleagues to this august assemblage. In one sense, it resembles Shakespearean comedies, where everyone is playing someone else and the audience delights in the levels of deception and double-entendre.

Raphael’s friend, Bazzi, is described by Rowland (1996) as “a painter from the Sienese hinterland who was universally known as ‘Il Sodoma’ (The Sodomite), given him for his habit of living among young boys - ‘and he willingly answered to it’ Vasari declares. . . . By the time he was guiding Raphael through the intricacies of Papal Rome, the wild man had settled into a comfortable married life with a growing brigade of children.” From this portrait, one would have to say that Bazzi still has quite a glint in his eye, and seems to be looking meaningfully at whomever may be depicted as representing Ptolemy, holding the sphere of the heavens. In turn, Ptolemy seems to be staring pointedly at Bazzi, as though to defuse a joke that Bazzi had just made. Raphael and Zoroaster are also looking in the same direction, making quite a focus of attention of Bazzi rather than the twinned spheres that embody the philosophical topic of the painting.

In the same vein, Bramante is shown in a surprisingly awkward pose at the center of the group on the right side, bending over to emphasize his completely bald pate. The animated figures around him are meant to represent the studious pupils of Euclid, but they seem far too angelic for this role, resembling rather the consorts of Bazzi. This interacting circle of ragazzi seem almost to be dissimulating their fascination with the simple compass measurement being made by the crouching Euclid. One wonders whether Raphael is playing the role of the young Mozart here, making light of the labors of his superiors.

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