On a recent visit to the Vatican Museums in Italy, we learned from Alessandra, our tour guide and a Ph.D. in art history, about the various works of Michelangelo and Raphael. She pointed out the entrance of the Vatican with sculptures of Michelangelo holding a hammer and Raphael holding a paintbrush; these sculptures reflect in many ways their work displayed inside the museums. As we entered, Alessandra also emphasized that Michelangelo’s disposition portrayed a recluse and, while his work displayed underlying spiritual faith, also revealed tension with the politics of the church. Alternatively, Raphael’s demeanor seemed joyful and his paintings were more light-hearted and engaging.
One Renaissance painting stood out to me as exceptionally thoughtful. The historian referred to it as “The Philosophies” by Raphael. The actual title of the painting In Italian is “Scuola di Atene,” which means “School of Athens,” and it is dated 1509. In this piece of work, Raphael created his image looking outward as he engaged with the greatest thinkers and artists of that century. He is so immersed in the crowd that you can only see his face and hat. Do you see him, off to the right of the painting? Throughout the museums, there are other representations from this same Raphael, engaging the crowd while looking outward.
Raphael says a lot in this painting. In particular, the two men in the center, walking down the stairs, are Plato and Aristotle – both among the greatest of the Greek philosophers. In this scene, Plato is pointing upward, symbolizing that he believes knowledge comes from ideas. Aristotle, however, is pointing toward the ground, in a sort of disagreement that knowledge comes from nature.
Below those men, Michelangelo is sitting alone, on the bottom steps and seems to be drafting some notes; his position of solitude amongst the crowd was representative of his demeanor as a sculptor and artist. In his self-portrait, Raphael shows himself as engaged fully in the crowd, which signifies in many ways how he worked collaboratively and even trained artists in his school. In this painting, Raphael highlights some of the ways these great artists engaged not only in their works and contributions to the culture, but also how they engaged – or not – with the people.
The left side of this painting shows Pythagoras, surrounded by a crowd as he reads a thick book. Behind him, resting on the column is Epicurious, seemingly doing some work. Standing to the left of Plato, talking with several people, is Socrates. Perhaps he is asking questions as he uses his hands to connect with his audience.
The right side of the painting shows the astronomers, holding what appear to be circular spheres with stars on them. They are talking with Raphael, only seen by his face and hat, and some others. Just below them, you can see Euclid, credited with discovering geometry, using a protractor to create shapes as several women observe him.
Art and art history came alive for me while visiting the Vatican Museums with Alessandra. My affections for this discipline grew in ways I had not previously imagined. Further, I enjoyed gazing upon these thoughtful pieces of beauty as a result of knowing their meanings, stories, and a bit of background on the artists and their dispositions. Good teachers who love their disciplines can make a positive impact on their students. I left my four-hour tour with Alessandra with increased wisdom and knowledge about art and art history and a greater fascination for beauty through fine arts.