One of the most beautiful and best-known attractions in the history of universal culture is the fresco of “The School of Athens” located on a wall of the room of the Signatura inside the Apostolic Palaces at the Vatican. It is a magnificent work with dimensions, 770 x 500 cm, and represents all Western knowledge in the expression of philosophy.
The Room of the Signatura is so called because it was named after the ecclesiastical court that had its seat there since 1541, but it was originally shaped in its artistic form by Pope Julius II della Rovere because it was to be the seat of his personal library.
The room is part of the complex of 4 Vatican Rooms frescoed by Raphael Sanzio that were an integral part of the new apartment build by the Pope; the other rooms are called “Room of Heliodorus”, “Room of the fire in the Borgo”, and “Hall of Constantine”.
What the sacred places of culture tell us is what makes man a great being in recognition of his historical awareness and his evolution and within this great value have had two excellent minds who met for to leave us with a dazzling example of beauty and magnificence, Pope Julius II and Raphael.
In the Vatican Rooms there is the union of two enlightened minds and it is almost as if we can glimpse how what remains universal is always given by a unique and unrepeatable moment, it is like a spark, an event that cannot have something equal.
Julius II della Rovere was a warrior pope, a pope who, from a religious point of view, also left some doubts (Sodomite and father of three children), but he was perhaps the greatest patron who has ever crossed the papal throne. Certainly was he ambitious and his political ambition led him to consecrate his power with culture for his own purposes but also for his undying memory. He is the pope of the new St. Peter’s Basilica by Bramante and of the indulgences that provoked ultimately
the cataclysm between Protestant and Catholic Christians, of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, of Raphael and the Vatican Rooms. Julius II della Rovere was a humanist pope and transformed Rome into the absolute centre of the arts of the Renaissance, being an illuminating patron of the arts who influenced the centuries to come; thus the dominion of the greatness of the Church was accomplished by means of Art.
On the other hand we have a genius, we have a young painter whose roots lie in the strongly humanist and scientific and mathematic culture of Urbino, that is aimed at the search for balance and the measure of reality.
Thus was born the part closest to the personality of the pope, his private rooms entrusted to those who could best represent the balance between the world of ideas and the world of reality through the aesthetic and moral balance.
It is not by chance that Julius II leaves Michelangelo with the great task of frescoing the Sistine Chapel, which instead represents the palimpsest of religiosity, the most public and official aspect, the maximum example of the tormented relationship between man and God.
Therefore, in the Room of the Signatura, that is, of the papal library, there had to be an aesthetic representation of what best represented man’s primary duty, that is, knowledge, understanding of what we are and what surrounds us, had to be an ethical duty.
Knowledge through the “School of Athens” is a representation of a republic of philosophy and science where anyone can dwell, a world where knowledge is the highest expression and where science is secular, where no confessional constraint has dwelling, where personalities like Averroe or Epicurus find their space.
A space frescoed by Raphael that allows us to meditate on the eternal confrontation between fides et ratio, faith and reason, which raises questions about the historical discrepancies between the Church and its persecutions of men of wisdom in a world where the same fought against the mechanical printing that had been invented less than 50 years before, which later proved to be the real revolution for the growth of consciousness on a global level.
In the fresco we find 58 figures, representing the idea of rational research, philosophers and mathematicians talking to each other. Only two figures look at the observer, that of Raphael himself, who portrays himself in the group on the right around Zorastro, and the central figure dressed in white, which is supposedly Francesco Maria della Rovere, but is controversial in for art critics.
The two groups in front of them constitute almost closed and absorbed cenacles in their studies and are distinguished by the theoretical mathematicians on the left and the scientists of nature and the geometricians on the right.
The fresco shows us the exaltation of the Truth, that has been forever the quest of philosophers and scientists; it is carried out between 1509 and 1511, that is before the other rooms where Raphael will change style even after seeing finished the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. The painting is in neat contrast with that of The Dispute of the Sacrament, where faith and theology are displayed.
One of the most significant elements of the fresco is the white figure in the small group on the left, most likely Francesco Maria della Rovere, Julius II’s nephew and the only one for whom the Pope committed the sin of nepotism by appointing him captain general of the Church.
But some accredited critics see this figure as Hypatia, a woman scientist from ancient neo-platonic Greece, killed by a crowd of Christians making her become a martyr of freedom of thought.
The philosopher Giovanni Reale described her like this:
“…a correspondence (not only in the configuration but also in the position) of this character with that of the wingless angel in human clothes in the fresco of the Dispute. The beautiful young white dress, in an almost hieratic attitude, is an emblematic symbol of the Greek ephebe that cultivates philosophy and embodies the Greek kalokagathia, that is, the “beauty/goodness”, the supreme ideal of a virtuous man for the Hellenic spirit. »”
And the Austrian art historian Konrad Oberhuber:
““…« The cardboard shows out of any discussion that it is an ideal figure and not a portrait […]. The white disciple, who stares at us with his strange eyes and hovers before us almost unreal, is the living expression of that ideal of Beauty and Goodness, and therefore of True, the core of the philosophical currents. »
So this androgynous figure is definitely considered as an ideal representation, with an introspective relationship that borders on the mysterious, the mystical, perhaps the esoteric.
A current of contemporary studies claims a sort of veiled esotericism of Raphael, which if they found a reliable source would be sensational, although there is some element of doubt because the great Urbino artist was part of the initiatory Order of love. This Order, like others of its kind, understood Christianity as an initiatory way (accessible to a few), capable of making personal evolutionary transmutations of the bases of individual knowledge.
It is certain, therefore, that in the “School of Athens”, so called later by Protestant clergy, Raphael had the support of his clients in the subject, but he allowed many of his humanist beliefs to flow into this painting
As a bearer of rational geometric synthesis in harmony with the idea of the man who built his own balanced world, Raphael frames the representation in a grandiose architectural structure, in which the focus are a succession of perspective references in which the fire are the figures of Aristotle and Plato.
Our great Urbino artist finds himself frescoing the Vatican rooms, the private rooms of a King- pope, a leader more accustomed to temporal power than to religious action. It is a relationship of great friendship, a relationship of human understanding precisely because the profound metaphysical and religious sense of a great pope must be represented by a gentle, fairy, divine hand. A sense that must be the example of the search for the election of the conscience of man towards the truth. Classical culture together with reason is a road that the Church cannot abandon, as a temporal power it has the mission of affirming itself among states, as a guide, as a spiritual power must persevere in the balance between science and faith. Times are rough, wars are looming, from then the rising of Protestant reform is only a few years ahead, that will carry the seed of a new culture, new techniques that illuminate the world for knowledge and the Church must find its own dimension as a sublime guide.
Humanism is a dream of freedom, it is a dream that goes beyond all obscurantism, it is an example of spiritual and moral erudition.
Raphael and Julius II were in symbiosis, believing that God could be reached through beauty, beauty was an earthly search, an experience of examples that make the world around us a better place. The power of Julius II’s sword was the means to defend a world of perfection, a world in which faith and reason are the expression of God’s will.
Raphael began his adventure when he was 25 years old, at the same time is also called Michelangelo who was 33 years old to create the Sistine Chapel; the man from Urbino, symbol of beauty, will die only 12 years later and from there on Rome will no longer be the same.
Raphael was held in high esteem by his colleagues with whom he was often confronted; he had so many commitments that Vasari described him as follows: “It did not remain, however, with all this to follow the order that he had begun of the Pope’s rooms, and of the rooms; in which he continually kept people who with his own drawings carried out the work in front of him and he continually reviewing everything, made up for all those best artists that he could with such a heavy duty”.
Julius II was a great visionary and Raphael was the genius who traced the legacy with a paintbrush!