If you have been to the Vatican museums and wandered through the halls taking in the vast assortment of art and sculpture, then surely you have also happened upon the “Raphael” rooms located on the second floor of the Vatican Palace.
In 1509 through 1511, Raphael Sanzio from Urbino, a rock-star of painters at the time, along with Leonardo and Michelangelo, was called to Rome to work for Pope Julius II. Julius was elected pope in 1503 after one of the shortest conclaves—due to the fact he bribed everyone. He was a lover of war, who led his own armies; and a lover of art, commissioning some of the greatest works in history: Raphael’s decorated rooms in the Vatican and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. These works of art exemplify the High Renaissance fresco technique.
Pope Julius hoped to outshine the early Renaissance paintings in the Borgia Apartments of his predecessor Pope Alexander VI in the rooms directly below his. To this end, he tasked Raphael with decorating his private chambers. It was a gutsy move on his part to request Raphael paint such a grand scheme of frescos, just as it had been for him to ask Michelangelo to design the fresco cycle in the Sistine chapel. Neither artist had prior experience working in fresco; Raphael was known for small portraits and religious paintings on wood and altarpieces, and Michelangelo was comfortable working in stone.
But perhaps, both artists who really didn’t like each other very much excelled in producing stellar work precisely because of their rivalry—neither wanted to fail and rose brilliantly to the challenge.
Most notably Raphael’s fresco “The School of Athens” located in the Stanza della Segnatura which was to be Julius’ library, is a glowing example of the marriage of art, philosophy, and science the premise for the entire Italian Renaissance movement. It seems apropos to decorate the Pope’s study with portraits of great thinkers. Anyone entering the room would have been impressed by the extreme culture and breadth of knowledge of the new Pope.
The painting is comprised of groupings of figures to illustrate the history of philosophy and the various ways of viewing the world as developed by the ancient Greek Philosophers.
The figures are set in an elaborate architectural setting, and the first characters the viewer beholds are the figures of Plato and Aristotle. They hold center stage framed by the arc behind them.
As the viewer’s eye moves around the complex panoply, he will begin to notice other notable thinkers. To the left of Plato is Socrates, recognizable from an ancient portrait bust of the philosopher that Raphael is said to have used as his guide. He is pictured talking with his students, the general Alcibiades, and Aeschines of Sphettus.
In the lower-left, Pythagoras—known for his mathematical and scientific discoveries—writes in a book, as one of his assistants holds a diagram on a blackboard.
On the opposite side, Euclid, the father of geometry, is depicted bent over and drawing with a compass. Next to him is the astronomer Ptolemy, who holds up a terrestrial globe in his hand.
One of his students peeks out at the viewer, and it is none other than Raphael himself who paints himself into the picture!
In the foreground, sprawled out on the steps of the temple, is the figure of Diogenes, the founder of the Cynic philosophy. He is shown apart from the others as he believed in living a simple life avoiding cultural conventions.
Interestingly, another isolated figure to the left of Diogenes is shown in the classical “thinker” position. This brooding hulk of a man is thought to be the philosopher Heraclitus who eschewed his privileged life to live a lonely one as a philosopher. He was considered a misanthrope because of his general hatred, dislike, and distrust of the human species—as a result, he was prone to melancholy and referred to as the “Weeping Philosopher.”
It is long thought that the figure of the brooding Heraclitus is a portrait of Michelangelo,
who was renowned for his grumpiness.
Oh, to have been a fly on that fresco when Michelangelo got a gander of Raphael’s painting for the first time! But, he might have felt even more incensed when Raphael—the personal favorite of the Pope for his engaging ways—when an ambassador mistakenly announced the Sistine Chapel had been decorated by Raphael.
But in the end, Michelangelo had the last say. He lived to be eighty-eight and continued to work in the Vatican—even planned the massive dome over St. Peters. On the other hand, Raphael died at the age of thirty-seven reportedly from a sexual disease he contracted from his mistress.
Raphael’s funeral was quite extravagant attended by huge crowds. He was buried in the Pantheon and on his tomb is engraved in Latin: “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”
There were no tributes from Michelangelo, however. In his forties at the time, instead, he would later write a letter accusing Raphael of plagiarism, complaining everything Raphael knew about art, he got from Michelangelo.