We have all seen Raphael’s wonderful fresco ‘The School of Athens’ at least once. The most fortunate have been able to admire it live in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Museum. But why has its value remained unchanged over the centuries? What is “The School of Athens” really about?
This work, dating from the early 16th century, celebrates human knowledge and the conquest of beauty. At the height of the Renaissance, Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to depict a scene set in the classical world to indicate the roots of Roman civilisation. These same roots lie in the ancient Athenian culture, the first real example in the West of structured philosophy reflected in humanity.
The fresco, framed by a painted arch, depicts the most famous philosophers and mathematicians of antiquity conversing with each other like a group of friends, interweaving scientific and humanistic culture into a single body of knowledge.
All 58 are in an imaginary classical building represented in perspective, communicating the universal values of Beauty, Goodness and Truth.
In the centre we see Aristotle and Plato, the latter with his finger pointing towards the Hyperuranium, the world of ideas where Goodness and Beauty reside. To the sides and around the other 56 figures: 28 on the left and 28 on the right.
It is very interesting how the number 28 is used by the Divine Painter in “The School of Athens”. The number 28 is in fact a universal number that encapsulates the movement of life in the world. Just think of the lunar cycle, the tides, the epigenetic cycle of cells, or the hormonal cycle, all of which have 28 days. I dare say that this is a number linked to Beauty and its continuous and cyclical becoming. It is the number of the Beauty of life, of the renewal of cycles. These natural times and processes are also innate in man and, by respecting them, he becomes a perfect being in harmony with his surroundings. The geometry in which the figures are arranged symbolises Raphael’s confidence in the order of the world, a divine and intellectual order.
This fresco is undoubtedly a ‘manifesto’ of the anthropocentric conception of Renaissance man, i.e., man who dominates reality thanks to his intellectual faculties, placing himself at the centre of the universe, in a line of continuity between classical antiquity and Christianity.
Over time, ‘The School of Athens’ has stimulated various overlapping interpretations, creating the perception of a complex work with many levels of interpretation, and which has become part of the collective visual imagination. For example, a representation of the seven liberal arts has been read there, with grammar, arithmetic and music in the foreground from the left; geometry and astronomy on the right; and rhetoric and dialectic at the top.
The foundation of the Royal Philosophical School of Athens is attributed to Plato and was called the Academy, named because it stood at the gardens of Academo. It was legally organised as a religious corporation and required a commonality of life and research. It was also directed by a ‘scolarca’ elected for life by the members of the school. It was here where they studied mathematics, astronomy, and the natural sciences, but above all, the investigations were aimed at ‘man’ as an inhabitant of the polis, and all the other studies were aimed at that. It was therefore essential to investigate man and his nature, to establish his purpose and role in the universe, and to reveal his Beauty.
All this has been drastically impoverished in the current era, which favours a diametrically opposed approach to life, in which people no longer have time to ask themselves certain questions. But the truth is that we all still need answers. Therefore, even today, it is important to dedicate oneself to the study of thought from an early age. I am not just talking about high school students, but also students who attend professional schools, who need to recognise themselves on an ethical and human level in their future profession, and who, therefore, need to know themselves perhaps more than others, to be able to relate to others in a healthy and safe manner. This is also what philosophy is for.
Culture is inner wealth and helps develop potential and self-esteem, precisely because it ‘works’ in self-discovery, opens the mind, and stimulates free thinking through the method of observing the world. Philosophy means love of knowledge (phileîn> love and sophía> wisdom) that gives freedom of being.
It is in fact the origin of our political and economic order, of our sense of ethics and art, of our aims and values. This is why the advent of the scientific-technological society confronts us with the problem of utility. This philosophical question about the purpose of scientific development is indeed very important for maintaining respect for the human condition.
For technology to bring progress and not just blind development, it is necessary to reaffirm the central role not only of man, but of the entire social and ecological context to which man himself belongs. We must go back to asking questions, to reasoning about the importance of a noble education, which considers all men with the same needs, the same rights, and the same thirst for knowledge.
Having knowledge of our history allows us to understand where we came, which in turn allows us to better understand ourselves and the direction we are going.
Human beings have always pursued Beauty everywhere and have always wondered about the path that led them exactly to where they are.
All knowledge is complementary and necessary to one another. We can see this in the great thinkers of history who come from very different fields and who in their own thought reveal ‘contaminations’ of knowledge apparently far removed from their specific field. But it is precisely this ability to range from one context to another that enables them to reach such high peaks of thought and at the same time, delve deep into the human soul.
Philosophy, art, and cosmetics once again find a stimulating thread that fits in well with the principles of Humanistic Cosmetics.