Insights to Art
Raphael's School of Athens (cartoon)

Raphael, School of Athens (cartoon) - Ambrosiana Gallery, Milan

Raphael, Cartoon for the School of Athens, Ambrosiana Gallery, Milan, drawn 1510
Raphael, Cartoon for the School of Athens (1510; 186cm x 59cm)

The Purpose of a Cartoon and its Pin-Pricks
A cartoon (from the Italian cartone, literally "a large paper sheet") is a preparatory drawing of a planned fresco. Cartoons were generally made for two main reasons. Firstly they could demonstrate the composition to whoever was commissioning the fresco, and secondly they provided a point of reference for the work in hand. Frescos, it must be remembered, were painted section by section into wet plaster, and therefore overall planning beforehand was essential. The cartoon would also be used to copy key outlines onto the wall where the fresco was to be painted. This was generally done by pricking the cartoon, placing a section on the wet plaster and dusting (the technical term is "poncing") it with a small bag filled with charcoal dust so that the marks of the pin-prick holes would be visible to the artist. In Raphael's Cartoon for the School of Athens, the pin-prick holes are very visible.

The Uniqueness of the School of Athens Cartoon
Cartoons were obviously a means to an end, an artist's tool. As a result, most cartoons, just like other preparatory drawings, were thrown away as soon as the fresco was finished. No other compositional studies have survived for Raphael's School of Athens, but more by chance than anything else we have an almost complete cartoon for the work. Artists did not always prepare such full-scale cartoons for their frescos, at times they might work from smaller sketches, or just prepare cartoons for more important sections of the work. In his School of Athens, however, Raphael was developing new ideas of composition, lighting and shading, requiring a much broader vision of the finished work. Note, for instance, how the two key philosophers in the centre of the work are the true focal points, despite their relative small size. This is the first large-size cartoon that survives, the only full-scale Renaissance cartoon in existence, a unique insight into one of Raphael's most famous works.

The School of Athens in Milan, the School of Athens in Rome
The Cartoon for the School of Athens (in Italian Cartone per la Scuola di Atene) was bought by Cardinal Borromeo for his collection in Milan in 1625, though he had been trying to get his hands on it since 1610, exactly 100 years after Raphael (1483-1520, Raffaello Sanzio in Italian) finished his fresco of the School of Athens in the Vatican, Rome. A comparison of the two versions shows just how closely the cartoon - drawn with charcoal and white lead on joined sheets of paper - resembles the lower part of the Rome fresco. The upper section of the fresco was possibly done from a separate cartoon or from smaller drawings. Many details from the lower section, such as the figure of a scholar shown here, are almost identical.

Raphael, School of Athens, cartoon, detail, Ambrosiana Gallery, Milan, drawn 1510   Raphael, School of Athens, fresco, detail, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican, Rome, painted 1510-13    
Raphael, School of Athens (detail, cartoon and fresco)

Greek Philosophers for the Pope's Library
In 1509 Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to fresco his personal library, the room being known as the Stanza della Segnatura since it was where the Pope signed acts of grace. The Renaissance interest in Imperial Rome led the Pope to want to imitate the Roman practice of decorating libraries with portraits of great writers and thinkers. Rather than painting simple sets of portraits, Raphael expanded on this idea and came up with four large wall paintings representing theology, philosophy, poetry and law. The fresco depicting philosophy, the School of Athens, brings together famous Greek philosophers from different ages in an ideal academy of thought.

Who's Who in the Fresco
Many of the figures in the School of Athens can be identified quite clearly. At the very centre of the composition, at the top of the steps in the light archway, stand Plato and Aristotle. Plato points to the heavens, a symbolic gesture indicating his high source of inspiration, while he clutches his treatise on the origins of the world in his other hand. Next to him is Aristotle, his pupil, holding a copy of his Ethics with his other hand outstretched implying his insistence on moral teaching, his palm facing the ground to suggest the idea that the natural sciences are at the basis of all learning. Plato and Aristotle represented the two main schools of thought that influenced Renaissance thinkers, and the other philosophers illustrated are grouped according to whether they were closer in their ideas to one or other of these two key principles. Some of the other main philosophers that have been identified include:

Raphael, School of Athens, fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican, Rome, painted 1510-13
Raphael, School of Athens, Vatican, Rome (1510-13)

Borrowed Faces
In one or two cases (Socrates is a good example), we know that Raphael based his faces on ancient Greek busts of the philosophers themselves, but in most cases there is no telling what facial features the philosophers might have had. Therefore, like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Raphael borrowed the faces of his contemporaries for a number of the figures in his fresco. Plato is believed to be a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, Euclid (or Archimedes) is very probably a likeness of the architect Bramante, and Zoroaster is thought to be the scholar Pietro Bembo. Other faces have been identified as members of the nobility, such as Duke Federico Gonzaga (standing behind Euclid). Still other borrowed faces are only to be found in the fresco, the whole figures being absent in the cartoon.

The Missing Elements in the Cartoon
Although the cartoon and fresco are extremely similar, Raphael allowed himself "manoeuvring room" in the cartoon to make changes and additions. Apart from the background architecture, which eloquently contains statues of the gods Apollo (on the left, the protector of the arts) and Minerva (on the right, the defender of intelligence), the main addition in the fresco is the large figure of Heraclitus in the centre foreground. There are also a few other additional secondary characters (especially on Aristotle's left), the philosophers on Plato's right are arranged differently, and Euclid's slate is only blank in the cartoon. Along with others, some of whose identities are now lost to us, Raphael has also included a self-portrait in the fresco, where the cartoon has an evident blank space on the extreme right beside the column. The large figure of Heraclitus deserves a final mention, even though it is not to be found in the cartoon. Added well after the rest of the fresco had been finished, Raphael borrowed another contemporary face for his portrait of Heraclitus, that of Michelangelo.

© Nigel J. Ross, 2004




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