Writing only forty years after the completion of the so-called School of Athens [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] for the private library of Julius II, now known as the Stanza della Segnatura, Giorgio Vasari outlined the main features of this large fresco painting by Raphael. Though historians have been puzzled by Vasari's confusion of the School of Athens with its complementary neighbor, the Disputa,(1) he is nonetheless quite specific about certain characters in the former. He accords special attention to the group of four men at the lower right, on Aristotle's side of the painting [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. They are closely associated with the mathematician who bends forward, now generally regarded as Euclid in the guise, Vasari noted, of Bramante. Vasari only names two of the group of four near Euclid, identifying the man with his back turned and a globe in his hand as Zoroaster and the young man to his right who wears a black cap as a self-portrait of Raphael. He is silent regarding the identities of the bearded older man who, also holding a globe, faces the man seen from the back and the beholder, as he is about the man standing next to Raphael. The very careful attention accorded by Giovanni Pietro Bellori to this fresco in 1695 essentially repeats Vasari's interpretation for this group of four figures: the man with his back to us is Zoroaster and standing to his right is Raphael. The other two figures remain unidentified.(2)
In modern times the man with his back to us has come to be regarded as Ptolemy. Since then, and rather incredibly, the name of Zoroaster was simply transferred by most historians to the older man with the grey beard seen full face (though some believe him to represent Baldassare Castiglione).(3) No reason has ever been offered to explain why Zoroaster, not an Athenian, a Greek, or a philosopher, would be a required presence in a scene that takes place under the supervision of a statue of Athena and one dedicated to the great philosophers of Greek antiquity. Nor has an explanation ever been offered respecting why astrology and magic, those much-discussed Renaissance concerns which were distinguished from astronomy and the natural sciences by scholars, would be important to this scene while they play no other visible role in this elegant chamber exemplary of the major intellectual disciplines. Dante, obviously very important for this chamber as he is accorded the distinct honor of being the only hero represented twice, never mentions Zoroaster. The fact that humanist references to Zoroaster stress his ties with Platonists would, further, suggest his association with Plato's rather than Aristotle's side of the painting; so also do humanist writings fail to explain Zoroaster's close proximity to Euclid.(4) Zoroaster is not particularly connected with Neopythagoreanism, which is important for the Stanza della Segnatura.(5) Last but not least, Julius had no known interest in Zoroastrianism, and no such works on the subject in his library.(6)
No one has ever explained why the man with the beard carries a globe, or what the two globes might mean for this part of the painting. Nor have the two men with globes, who face each other and thus must be considered to form a contrast within a unity, been linked with each other or with their two onlooking neighbors. Modern scholarship has failed to suggest why these auxiliary participants should be painters and why contemporary Italians such as Raphael and "Perugino" or Raphael and "Sodoma" would have been considered appropriate choices in a display of the great Greek philosophers.(7)
Indeed, the latest writer on the subject of the School of Athens considers the identification of the man with the beard as Zoroaster among the "indisputable" characters of the fresco. He is as silent about the question of the proximity of Renaissance painters to "Zoroaster" and Ptolemy as he is about the relation of the entire group to Euclid.(8)
It will be the aim of this paper to reconsider the two men in the lower foreground who hold globes in order to suggest their role in the fresco: through this their identities will emerge. The possible role of their companions to the far right, and thus their identities, may then be reconsidered.
Because we now know that the Stanza della Segnatura was founded as the private library of Julius II, we are in a better position to understand its pictorial program.(9) Surely not incidental to the sudden emergence of a wholly new type and scale of art on the part of its young painter, Raphael, is the fact that the appointment of its chief librarian, the already eminent humanist Tommaso Inghirami, coincided with the inauguration of its frescoed program.(10) As over forty books are pictorially represented in this chamber, the strong attachment of the School of Athens to the library of Julius is clear. Though Julius did not read Greek, the contents of his library, presumably assembled in large part by his librarian, included many Greek works in Latin translation. Keeping this in mind as we reconsider this painting, we see not an ad hoc distribution of characters whose identities can be discovered by ad hoc designations (as has tended to be the case ever since Vasari's time), but rather a close-knit interrelationship of authors and issues that were clear to early Cinquecento Roman humanism at the papal court. In this sense, the waves of movement must be viewed as waves of related intellectual, as well as physical and geometrical, movement. Into this picture, all of whose known characters are Greek, are fitted at the lower right, on Aristotle's side of the painting and in closest proximity to Euclid who demonstrates the faculty of geometry, the four characters who are the subject of this study.
There can be no doubt that the figure seen from the back is indeed the celebrated Greek mathematician-cosmographer Ptolemy of Alexandria.(11) Good reason to regard this character as a secure member of the School of Athens lies in the fact that he wears a crown, an indication of the confusion in Renaissance times of this renowned polymath - sometimes called "King" Ptolemy - with the dynasty of Macedonian kings of the same name who ruled Egypt from 323 to 30 B.C [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 3, 4 OMITTED].(12) The particular crown that Ptolemy wears, however, is unique in Renaissance painting, suggesting that Raphael had already acquired at this time strong archaeological interests.(13) By holding a globe, Ptolemy is clearly identified with geography. The globe he holds is terrestrial, not celestial. While this might be confusing to a twentieth-century viewer, it provides confirmation that the man seen from the back must be Ptolemy.
Though the Almagest is now widely considered to be the greatest work of Ptolemy, its complicated mathematics and astronomical charts were less appealing to medieval scholars than his Geography (written ca. AD 150), a work only partially known during late medieval times. Nonetheless Ptolemy had the high regard of Boccaccio as well as a place in Dante's Limbo of Great Antique Spirits (where, as Raphael probably knew, Dante placed Ptolemy next to Euclid).(14) It was during the very early Renaissance that Ptolemy's great geographical work was rediscovered and received its first complete Latin translation. The powerful effect it exerted made him known in Renaissance times primarily as a geographer rather than as an astronomer. While the Almagest did not receive its first printing until 1515,(15) by that year at least twelve editions of the Geography were in print.(16) Indeed, the advanced humanistic curriculum in Renaissance schools included the study of Ptolemy as early as 1459.(17)
Humanist interest in this work was already under way in 1405 when Leonardo Bruni deposited a manuscript of the Geography with Niccolo Niccoli, an event that introduced Florence to discussions of the "new"geographical sciences.(18) This work, which describes a terrestrial globe, was the first in antiquity to propose the domination of earthly land masses (previously thought to be mere islands surrounded by a dominating sea) as well as the first to delineate the length and breadth of regions of the known world through the use of coordinates, or latitudes and longitudes.(19) Book 7 of Ptolemy's Geography includes instructions for constructing a globe, showing the inhabited world on a grid. Book 8 contains descriptions of twenty-six terrestrial maps identifying Europe, Asia, and Africa.
While it is not known that original papyrus rolls contained actual maps - since none survive - late medieval manuscripts of this work dating from ca. 1300 to well into the fifteenth century do contain painted maps. The first complete Latin translation of this work was undertaken by the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras while he was apostolic secretary to Gregory XII, and completed by Iacopo Angeli da Scarperia (Jacopo d'Angelo), also an apostolic secretary, who translated its title as the Cosmographia.(20) This new translation was the one that began to circulate in about 1405. More than forty fifteenth-century manuscripts of the Cosmographia survive, suggesting its enormous popularity and the acceleration of its influence on humanists.(21) In his private library - the Stanza della Segnatura - Julius II owned a manuscript of Ptolemy's Cosmographia bound in red.(22)
The first printing of Ptolemy's great geographical work occurred in Vicenza in 1473, and the first with engraved maps was printed in Bologna in 1477.(23) A magnificent Roman edition with twenty-seven superb engraved maps appeared in 1478, to be reprinted in editions of 1490, 1507, and 1508.(24) Christopher Columbus owned a copy of the 1478 edition.(25) Replete with magnificent engraved maps, the Cosmographia of Ptolemy achieved renewed popularity throughout the Cinquecento, as its many subsequent printed editions testify.(26)
The special relevance of this work to the Stanza della Segnatura has gone without notice. The 1508 Roman edition, published in the very year of the Stanza's planning, when Raphael began work on the Disputa - whose iconography is surely related to the expansion of Christianity because of the discovery of new lands around the globe, including the New World(27) - added an engraved map not previously present and bearing a different title page. It refers to an account of the New World by Marcus Beneventanus, with the world map, titled "Nova Tabula," the first in any edition of Ptolemy's Cosmographia to introduce the New …