Ptolemy and Strabo and Their Conversation with Appeles and Protogenes: Cosmography and Painting in Raphael's 'School of Athens.'

Article excerpt

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. …