Raphael’s "The School of Athens"

School of Athens-detailThe School of Athens is Raphael’s famous fresco in the Apostolic Palace in Vatican. Less than a dozen figures on this large fresco have been identified beyond doubt, a small few of them in the right corner. According to Frank Keim of the University of Ulm, that corner of the picture features the dispute between the geocentric and the heliocentric theory. According to Keim, the beardless young man in white gown is Copernicus, the crowned man holding a terrestrial globe is Ptolemy, the bearded man in white gown holding a celestial sphere is not Zarathustra, as usually suggested, but Seleucus of Babylonia (Seleucus of Seleucia), a zealous supporter of the heliocentric theory of Aristarchus of Samos. Both Seleucus and Ptolemy look intently at Copernicus, who in turn seems to look at Aristarchus, portrayed as a bearded man in dark purple gown in the upper row, pointing discretely at the celestial sphere held by Seleucus. Aristarchus’ isolation on the picture suggests that he had few or no followers in antiquity, or at any rate during his lifetime. Also, the figure to his left, jabbing him with a stick, Keim surmises, is the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes of Assos, who wrote a treatise against Aristarchus accusing him of impiety (cf. Plutarch, De facie in orbe lunae 923A). Report of Keim’s finidings in Der Spiegel 6/2009 [pdf].

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5 Responses to Raphael’s "The School of Athens"

  1. JRB says:

    Interesting. Maybe I’m missing something very fundamental, but isn’t there a problem of chronology with this? The school of athens would have been completed sometime late 1509 or early 1510. My understanding is that the only thing Copernicus would have written about a heliocentric system anywhere near that time was a brief outline written sometime before 1514 ( the Commentariolus). The outline was supposedly distributed only to his closest friends and seems unlikely to have been in wide circulation, if even written, before the completion of the fresco. How would Raphael (or whomever he may have had as an advisor) have known who Copernicus was? And even if he did, why would he have thought highly enough of him to place him at the crux of a dispute between Ptolemy and Seleucus?

    • Thanks for your comment. I understand that it is unclear when exactly The School of Athens was started and finished. My google search shows that the predominant dates are 1510-1512. Now we know that Copernicus lived and studied in Italy from 1496 to 1503. We also know that he was the assistant of Domenico Maria Novara, the leading astronomer in Bologna, with whom Copernicus made his first astronomical observations. Novara made some bold claims against the Ptolemaic system which may have sent Copernicus on the right path. Furthermore, we know that he spent some months in Rome in the second half of 1500, where he lectured on mathematics before a large audience. The heliocentric theory of the heavens, it is believed, was developed between 1503, when Copernicus left Italy, to about 1513 when the Commentariolus was written and circulated. So chronology does not seem to rule out Frank Kaum’s hypothesis.

  2. JRB says:

    Great points Pavel. Part of my disbelief of Kaum’s hypothesis, which I briefly mentioned, is the high standing accorded to Copernicus by Raphael. It strikes me as a bit of historical myopia to place Copernicus in the position of the ultimate “judge” between Ptolemy and Seleucus, especially in 1510. Why not Novara, who was already outspoken against the Ptolemaic system, as you mentioned? I think if the School of Athens had been painted in 1545, it’s a much different discussion, but as is, it seems slighly dubious to assign such “intellectual heavyweight” status to Copernicus so early. Going out on a limb a bit, it also seems slightly out of tune with the focus of the fresco. Depending on which interpretations you read concerning the identity of the figures in the fresco, there are very few contemporaries of Raphael depicted. Those who are depicted are done in the guise of a classical figure, eg, Da Vinci as Plato, Michelangelo as Heraclitus, Bramante as Euclid, etc. Other than the self portrait of Raphael, an argument could be made that Copernicus would be the only contemporary depicted as himself in the fresco.

    The bottom line is that this hypothesis is fascinating because it is impossible to prove either way!

    • I appreciate your scepticism and I applaud your point about the inordinately high standing accorded to the figure Kaum identifies as Copernicus at the time when Copernicus was relatively obscure.
      Novara is an unlikely candidate because he wasn’t an “outspoken against the Ptolemaic system”. Rather, he made some claims that gestured towards untenability of the Ptolemaic system, nothing more.
      Also, we are not in position to say that “Copernicus would be the only contemporary depicted as himself in the fresco”, since so many figures have been as yet entirelly unidentified or only controversially identified. Certainly the figure of Copernicus, on Kaum’s hypothesis, is very young, roughly of the age of Copernicus when lecturing in Rome (27). Could it be Pico della Mirandola? Or Nicholas of Cusa?

  3. JRB says:

    You are absolutely correct that we can’t affirm or deny any likenesses in the fresco other than Plato and Aristotle, which is why I prefaced my comment by saying that I was going out on a limb. The most common assignment of the white robed figure I’ve read about is of Perugino, Raphael’s master for a time. That has always struck me as a bit odd, especially as it appears that Ptolemy and Zoroaster/Seleucus are gazing at that figure. Hard to envision a scenario where Perugino would draw that attention from those figures.

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