The School of Athens

The School of Athens What is this? In the Stanza Della Segnatura, So richly signed by Raphael in fresco, Hugely balanced, facing the ``Disputa,'' ``The School of Athens'' calls us to our lessons. Repose of geometries - see the statues balanced, See Plato, Aristotle absolutely balanced. Slivers of sky (one sliver mocks the fresco, Lunette within lunette), arches and walls: A perfect, mathematic tension Of figures and forms, a school, a building Structurally sound, a place, a painting In which the best learning can happen. Enormous energy of intellect Within repose - caged here, The beautiful beast of mind - Socrates casing the joints of his fingers For possible arguments, Plato gesturing upwards, Archimedes, surrounded by enraptured students, Playing at starry pentangles, Heraclitus inscribing Ionian riddles, Blue-robed Diogenes pondering, maybe, a road map, Pythagoras working at music and math, Aspasia gazing at us with something like fear. At last, arresting the eye, Aristotle's fine hand At the very heart of the picture, preaching its earthy sermon, Saying, the beauty of forms happens here.

Here? Here in the painting? Here in the world? We move away from Raphael's strict room Into a world where Diogenes did not discover His honest man. Into a world Of less-than-enraptured students and teachers, A falling away from moonstruck vision, Of wonder ...

Aspasia - beautiful, anxious, safe only in the painting - That uppity woman was harried into her grave. COMMENT:

THE initial pressure to compose the poem ``The School of Athens'' was an exterior one. Some years ago I struck a bargain with Tom Auffenberg, a good friend of mine who teaches art history. Periodically Tom asks me to write a poem based on a painting. I do so.

I dawdled in writing the commissioned poem about Raphael's painting, but, when at last I began, I started by looking long and hard at the painting, trying to discern in its colors and lines something that would lead me to images and, perhaps, a plan. I looked at the painting's splendid structure in the hope of gleaning a structure of my own. As I looked, I tried to understand what Raphael's masterpiece meant to me.

There is something frightening, almost dizzying, about the coming-into-being of meaning. If we face the fact that we must make the meanings, that they are not served up to us on silver platters, we may find that fact fearful. Perhaps no meaning will come. Perhaps what does come will be spurious, laughable. Perhaps Raphael means nothing to us. Perhaps we are dullards upon whom significance is wasted.

After I had looked at the painting, I read about it in Will Durant's ``The Renaissance''; the Time-Life book entitled ``Vatican Museums''; and H.W. Janson's ``History of Art.'' From Durant I got a delightfully described partial catalog of the figures in the painting.

But what was its meaning for me? What were those figures saying to me? Wordsworth says that what the world means to us is half created and half perceived. I agree. The structure of my poem grew out of my observation of the painting, but how deeply the painting itself is implicated in my poem is a mystery.

What came was this: I saw a pedagogical paradise, a place based on Athens but dreamed by Raphael, in which learning does not lead to bloodshed or apathy but is, rather, full of the very best kind of passion and wonder.

There is in the painting the sense of community, the sense of our being in the business of knowing together, of people walking, as Auden said, hand in hand, but not, thank goodness, in step. In the poem's first movement I bring us into the room, up to the wall which is the painting. I imagine that the scene pictured is a kind of earthly paradise of learning.

THE second movement provides a partial catalog of the dramatis personae eruditae. The mention of Aristotle's ``earthly sermon'' arrests the viewer's eye, sending the speaker and his little group (the ``we'') back into the world, out of the paradise, into a place where learning isn't so clean, so disinterested. Diogenes doesn't find his honest man. Aspasia is punished for being a brainy woman. Finally this vision of paradise has dark implications for us; for we can't live on the wall of Raphael's making.

[ expanded caption to photograph: ]

At center of the painting two figures stand. On the left Plato, rendered in the likeness of Leonardo da Vinci, raises his right hand. In the fourth century BC Plato established an Academy for the systematic pursuit of philosophical and scientific research. ``Platonic'' has come to mean ``personal love based on care for intellectual growth.''

Beside him, resting his book Ethics on his thigh, is Aristotle, Plato's student for 20 years and later the teacher of Alexander the Great. Aristotle is noted for his works on logic, metaphysics, ethics, politics (and practically everything else).

Left of Plato stands his friend and teacher Socrates, counting off arguments on his fingers. One of the world's great teachers, Socrates wrote nothing. He taught by posing questions which led students to logical conclusions already known to the teacher.

Seated before a chalkboard held by a youth, Pythagoras, Greek philosopher and mathematician, writes music which, he believed, helped purify the soul. All math students memorize his theorem: the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

Behind Pythagoras stands Aspasia, Pericles' mistress known for her cleverness. A woman of Miletus, she could not marry Pericles due to Athenian citizenship laws and was prosecuted for impiety by political enemies. Unlike Socrates, who was tried on the same charge, she was acquitted. (Condemned in a political trial, he drank the hemlock.)

Center foreground, jotting notes on a marble block, sits Heraclitus, a philosopher who believed that man's first task is to understand the principles controling him and his environment; he saw these as the underlying connections between opposites. His likeness resembles Michelangelo (1475 to 1564), a contemporary of Raphael (1483 to 1520) who painted this fresco.

On the steps sprawls Diogenes. Known for asceticism and showmanship, he carried a lantern in daylight seeking an honest man. He dressed like a vagabond and, says legend, lived in a tub.

In the right foreground drawing with a compass on a chalkboard is Archimedes, a Greek mathematician and inventor of Sicilian origin. Making a discovery he once shouted: ``Eureka!'' (``I have found it!''). The water screw he invented is still used in irrigating fields.

Behind this figure stand two astronomers, holding globes. Facing forward is Zoroaster (sixth or seventh century BC), the Persian religious teacher, founder of Zoroastrianism. The crowned figure is Ptolemy (second century AD), a geographer who lived in Alexandria.

Behind Ptolemy, a young man gazes at the viewer. He's identified as none other than Raphael himself, only 26 years of age, when he painted this fresco which is in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican in Rome.

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