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The School of Athens—The Moment Eternal
While most take for granted that all things fade in significance over time, Raphael's The School of Athens stands in opposition to this belief. The School of Athens, painted in 1508 C.E., depicts a gathering of ancient philosophers, mathematicians, statesmen, and astronomers. Although some might appreciate the fine details of the painting and others might admire the composition, the use of “identity fluidity” is one of the most important components of the painting: its employment here extends the meaning of the piece. I came across the term “identity fluidity” while reading Kelly Grovier’s article, “The School of Athens: A detail hidden in a masterpiece,” in which he argues that Heraclitus's inkpot represents the fluidity of identity, and thematically brings The School of Athens to completion (Grovier). In this essay, I define “identity fluidity” as the physical attributes and characteristics of each figure in the fresco which can identify him as one or more types of thinker or artist. “Identity fluidity” aids the viewer in his recollection of the great thinkers because the process of identification resembles that of memory recall.
When looking at The School of Athens and trying to discern each figure’s identity, carefully observe all the details, physical attributes, and symbols associated with each figure. Match these representative symbols to your imagined representation of the figure, or to other paintings of which you’ve learned or heard. Through this recall process, you may unearth several historical figures with similar features to the painted figure. To find your final match among these options, you may remember each of these people by once again going through their detailed facial features and symbolic gestures. Similar to the process of recall, another use of visual representations to transfer information to people is called Knowledge Visualization (Xiong). Knowledge Visualization states that different people might have multiple interpretations of the meaning of a single visualization (Ibid). By inciting the process of Knowledge Visualization, The School of Athens engages interactions between the painting and the viewers by encouraging the viewer to refresh and strengthen her memories of many important people and events. The School of Athens utilizes identity fluidity to help the viewer better remember the great thinkers. The painting captures the gathering of the great thinkers and their ongoing discussion of knowledge from different eras to produce a combination of moments across time.
A key element in The School of Athens is the fluidity of personal identity. Raphael employs a one-point perspective to draw the viewer’s attention to the center of the painting and engage the viewer to recognize various important people while strengthening the viewer’s memories of the great thinkers through Knowledge Visualization. Take a look at the figure in the center of the fresco. He carries Plato’s book Timaeus and is therefore widely considered to be Plato. However, in his essay, Grovier notes that Raphael “embodies an intense compression of shifting personalities” by incorporating symbols such as Leonardo da Vinci’s beard and Saint Thomas’ hand gesture from da Vinci’s The Last Supper within his rendition of Plato. Down below Plato is Heraclitus, who sits near the middle of the bottom of the staircase. He resembles Raphael’s respected competitor, Michelangelo (Grovier). As Jessica Stewart mentions in her article, “The Story Behind Raphael’s Masterpiece ‘The School of Athens’,” “Long thought to be a portrait of Michelangelo himself, the brooding nature would have matched the artist's character” (Stewart). Moreover, the style in which Raphael painted the figures references Michelangelo's own method: the especially Michelangelo-esque figure of Heraclitus is large, heavy, and brightly colored. The personality conveyed through his brooding posture suggests both Michelangelo and Heraclitus (Ibid). The use of these elements to code one person as multiple different historical figures helps the viewer to re-recognize and memorize the iconography of the great thinkers. Furthermore, they show that the power of identity fluidity that meaningful symbolization can be transferred from one painting to another to represent the same characteristic or beliefs of different people.
As proven above, identity fluidity remains a tool of representation: as time goes on, famous figures appear vague and similar to us as our memory of them fades. However, it remains possible that Raphael utilized the vague identity of such figures to interact with the viewers, encouraging them to imagine knowledge as integrated like memories in the viewers’ brains. As Data Visualization Researcher Cindy Xiong says in her article, “Same Data, Multiple Perspectives: Curse of Expertise in Visual Data Communication,” “A visualization is like a collection of… illusions.” The visual knowledge inside one’s brain is combined and stored for convenience until it needs to be, when it is unpacked and parsed. In addition to reinvigorating the viewer’s memory of important figures throughout human history, Raphael also conveys the idea that the knowledge within the human brain is synthesized: just as the identities of each figure, and the larger gathering of all these figures, from Heraclitus to Plato to Ptolemy, all overlap in The School of Athens.
This integration of knowledge and visual symbols is not the only combined element in The School of Athens. Raphael’s painting technique itself was influenced by both Da Vinci and Michelangelo. When Raphael met the two artists, he was influenced by each one’s distinct painting style; Raphael combined both methods of painting with his own in The School of Athens (Cullen). When Raphael painted the Room of the Segnatura, where The School of Athens is located, his techniques changed throughout the process. At the beginning of the painting, Raphael built up his figures in the traditional Umbrian way by painting flesh colors on a translucent green-tinted base (Murphy). But by the end of the painting process, the flesh of the figures is more liquid, unified, brighter, and weightier than that of the figures in the first half of the painting. This style is probably learned from Michelangelo (Ibid). Just as the viewers examine the combined characteristic of the figures in his painting, only through a careful search will they discern the different painting styles associated with the artistic signatures, even identities, of Raphael and Michelangelo. Even before he learned from Michelangelo, Raphael was inspired by da Vinci in his composition of the fresco. Raphael learned the Florentine method of building the composition with pyramidal figure masses from da Vinci (Luebering). Thus, the figures are all grouped together but each figure’s shape remains distinct (Ibid). In addition, Raphael's lighting techniques were influenced by Da Vinci. He acquired skill in Da Vinci’s chiaroscuro but used a rather moderate rather than strong contrast between light and dark. He was particularly influenced by his sfumato, using extremely fine, soft shading to delineate forms and features (Ibid). Despite these two strong influences, Raphael developed his own style (Ibid). This idea of combining painting styles refers back to the previous point: both the likenesses of the figures to Raphael’s contemporaries and the manner in which those figures are composed and painted, remind the viewer of Michelangelo and da Vinci’s masterful contributions to the art of painting. In eliding the identities of many thinkers into one figure, identity fluidity represents the integration of artistic knowledge. Thus Raphael’s painting style itself becomes an instance of identity fluidity.
As time has multiplied the avenues by which Raphael's life and paintings can be appreciated, Raphael’s renown has only increased as time has multiplied the avenues by which his life and paintings can be appreciated. Raphael and his art have survived the test of time. The art community still celebrates the centuries after their completion, and they themselves continue to inspire the creation of more artworks. The 500th anniversary of Raphael's death, 2020, has been celebrated by many museums and galleries around the world. Boston’s famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened an exhibition last autumn of Raphael’s portrait of Tommaso Inghirami, a Renaissance humanist and orator (“Portrait of Tommaso Inghirami, Known as ‘Phaedra.’”). The Scuderie del Quirinale, in Rome, exhibited Raphael’s famous work Uffizi. In autumn, the National Gallery in London opened an exhibition to uncover Raphael’s career. The restoration of one of the Raphael Rooms at the Vatican, Hall of Constantine, was finished by the spring of 2020 to commemorate the master. However, because of the coronavirus, many museums are closed: thus, patrons cannot go to museums to appreciate the pieces in person. Nevertheless, the difficulty of making an in-person trip to museums and Raphael’s tomb to commemorate him has not diminished people’s passion for Raphael. Certain museums, like the Scuderie, have opened virtual tours so patrons can continue to appreciate the beauty of his work from home. Moreover, Scuderie produced a video that recaps the highlights of its exhibition for English-speaking tourists who were unable to attend the exhibition in person (“A Walk in the Exhibition”).
Although Raphael was a Renaissance artist, his story and art continue to inspire artists today. One of many works inspired by Raphael's The School of Athens is Arnold Friberg's painting, Nephi Subdues His Rebellious Brothers. Neima Jahromi argues that there are similarities between the gestures of Nephi in Nephi Subdues His Rebellious Brothers, and Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens. In Friberg’s painting, Nephi stands on a rock and subdues his brothers with his outstretched right hand, palm facing down. Similarly, in Raphael’s The School of Athens, Aristotle reaches his right arm directly out toward the viewer and the rest of the great thinkers who stand on the stairs below him. Friberg's gesture of Nephi might be inspired by the gesture of Raphael’s depiction of Aristotle, implying that the two could hold similar beliefs. In particular, Friberg's painting suggests that Aristotle and Nephi have similar philosophies. Indeed, Raphael’s paintings joined the Western canon of European painting tradition in which certain gestures often carry specific and shared meanings. This further explains Friberg’s potential implication of Nephi’s philosophy.
Some believe that The School of Athens illustrates Heraclitus's assertion that “you cannot step into the same river twice.” The painting, however, captures the liveliness of a gathering of great thinkers and artists in a representation of eternal space. The foundation of our knowledge today is the combined knowledge of all the greats from the past who created the fundamental theories of our society—such as the Pythagorean theorem, the Natural Law theory, and the Theory of Evolution—all from great thinkers throughout time, represented by figures in The School of Athens. The process of knowledge-making is ongoing. As a result, knowledge still exists in the present: debates persist in academia to this day, including in such ancient fields as Classics. Every field of study today is engaged in just the same kind of interchange that Aristotle, Heraclitus, and various other thinkers of antiquity are represented as engaging in the fresco. As these fields have been synthesized to form our present intellectual context, they formed to make our society today. The existence of The School of Athens is always present because it represents Western philosophies. The painting shows how great thinkers’ knowledge combine together, in a manner just as entwined as the fluidity of the representation of their identities.
Raphael influenced society such that artists and art lovers still appreciate and respect him and his artworks long after his death. Raphael’s celebration never stopped. As time strengthened Raphael in our mind, it also modified the way people commemorate him. While Heraclitus believed that time changes all things—and it certainly changed the works of masters that Raphael portrayed—it has only increased the fame of Raphael. Raphael’s The School of Athens demonstrates the evolution of our society by drawing on a socio-historic combination of knowledge and identities of people from the past and present. This intangible cultural heritage endows us with a kind of eternality by which we process our continuous social development. Only through this timeless combination and clear understanding of our past and present selves will we achieve important decisions that contribute to our society with insight commensurate with its inspiration: A room of people who make decisions that will influence the whole of civilization.
Grovier, Kelly. “The School of Athens: A Detail Hidden in a Masterpiece.”
BBC Culture. BBC, September 10, 2020. bbc.com/culture/article/20200910-the-school-of-athens-a-detail-hidden-in-a-masterpiece.
Luebering, J.E. “Move to Florence of Raphael.” Encyclopædia Britannica.
Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed December 2020. britannica.com/biography/Raphael-Italian-painter-and-architect/Move-to-Florence.
Murphy, Cullen. “Inside the Epic Restoration of the Vatican's Raphael Rooms.” Become an FT
subscriber to read | Financial Times. Financial Times, January 17, 2020. ft.com/content/a01a5b44-372d-11ea-a6d3-9a26f8c3cba4.
“Portrait of Tommaso Inghirami, Known as ‘Phaedra.’” Artworks | Uffizi Galleries. Accessed
December 2020. uffizi.it/en/artworks/fedra-portrait-raphael.
Stewart, Jessica. “The Story Behind Raphael's Masterpiece 'The School of Athens'.” My Modern Met,
September 8, 2020. mymodernmet.com/school-of-athens-raphael/.
“A Walk in the Exhibition.” YouTube. YouTube, Accessed December 2020.
Xiong, Cindy. “Same Data, Multiple Perspectives: Curse of Knowledge in Visual Data
Communication.” Medium. Multiple Views: Visualization Research Explained, December 2, 2019.medium.com/multiple-views-visualization-research-explained/same-data-multiple-perspectives-curse-of-knowledge-in-visual-data-communication-d827c381f936.