On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the death of Raffaello Sanzio, the Leo-Lev Centre also intends to pay tribute to the great Urbino artist. And being in Vinci, it does so in an unusual way compared to the interesting and incomparable exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome (unfortunately closed at the moment, as are all the museums), calling Leonardo da Vinci into question.
Raphael in the famous School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican places Leonardo da Vinci at the top of the work, in terms of importance, in the guise of the philosopher Plato with his index finger pointing upwards, as in Da Vinci’s St John the Baptist, which is ‘later’ than Raphael’s fresco: it is a declared homage to the elder Leonardo.
This is a tribute that few artists today, even more so when they are aware of the success that Raphael, who was little more than 25 years old, was already enjoying in Rome at that time, would pay to a “master” (whether he was a frequent visitor or not is of no importance) to show their gratitude for having learnt something that they could then make grow according to their own abilities, thus demonstrating great generosity of spirit. And it is right to remember Raphael as Vasari describes him:
“How large and benign heaven sometimes proves to be in accumulating in a single person the infinite riches of its treasures and all those graces and rarer gifts that in a long space of time it can share among many individuals […]”.
But even so defined on several occasions:
“Raphael painter of grace, gentleness, kindness, modesty, generosity, master of beauty…’.
In that painting, Leonardo is shown wearing a purple robe, a pink-coloured cloak, and green borders on the robe and the book “Timaeus”…
Those same colours, in homage to “Leonardo the Philosopher”, were chosen in 2018 to characterise the Book shop, the conference room and the café-restaurant area of the Leo-Lev Exhibition Centre in Piazza Carlo Pedretti in Vinci.
It is with great satisfaction that only a year later in October 2019, on the occasion of the exhibition of the restoration of the Archangel Annunciate of San Gennaro (attributed to Leonardo the younger by Carlo Pedretti), in the catalogue “If it were an Angel by Leonardo…” edited by Ilaria Boncompagni, Laura Speranza and myself, Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director General of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, wrote among other things: .
So this one by the Leo-Lev Centre, in a sort of preview, is a tribute to Raphael and his School of Athens and thus to the character he depicted, “Leonardo in the guise of the philosopher Plato”. A tribute that the Leo-Lev Centre will complete through the creation of the work “Leonardo filosofo visto da Raffaello” (Leonardo the philosopher seen by Raphael) which already has a location waiting for it, and of which I illustrate below the virtual composition to be developed, with current techniques, as an artistic work.
I also intend, at this time of “postponed” celebrations, to pay homage to Raphael, on behalf of the Leo-Lev Centre, with a study of mine (published in 2010) that did not refer directly to the artist from Urbino, but examined Raphael’s places of origin, the city of Urbino at the time of Federico da Montefeltro and Piero della Francesca, in the essay that I reproduce below in excerpt, entitled Piero della Francesca e la saggezza.
RAFFAELLO, LEONARDO AND PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA in the School of Athens
<…] In this work it has been affirmed that the message of a work of art, if it contains it, should be identified not only in the events and trends of the moment in which it was executed (sometimes characterised by a very long time span), but also in the works that precede it and, if it was a reference point for its artistic value and the charisma of the performer, above all in the works that followed it.
How could I have closed this “conjecture” without advancing another one, especially after having affirmed, albeit in a fictional key in Il segreto di Piero della Francesca (The Secret of Piero della Francesca), that Piero himself (and this is history), staying in Urbino at the home of Raphael’s father, Giovanni Santi (a modestly successful artist), had been able to instil the essence of his art, even if only through preserved sketches or testimonies, in the future famous, still adolescent, Raphael of Urbino: the artist of the mystery without mystery, as Michele Prisco effectively defines him.
In the novel The Secret of Piero della Francesca, it is speculated that the layout of the background architecture of The School of Athens, one of the frescoes begun by Raphael in 1509 for Julius II in the Vatican’s Sala della Segnatura (overlapping with regret on Raphael’s part with works by Piero della Francesca) was not, as is commonly claimed, taken from the work of Bramante, who was a pupil of Piero’s and is believed to be the young executor of part of the architecture of Piero della Francesca’s Montefeltro Altarpiece, known as the Brera Altarpiece, but directly from the preparatory cartoons for that work.
There is even speculation that the original architectural layout of Piero della Francesca’s Montefeltro Altarpiece was originally wider, about the same width as that later depicted by Raphael in the School of Athens.
Beyond this more or less fanciful hypothesis, what is indisputable is that the basic architecture of Raphael’s School of Athens, even if in a more complex elaboration, is that typical of the buildings of Leon Battista Alberti (protagonist in the Ducal Palace in Urbino together with Piero della Francesca).
But there is another element that we would like to highlight… After a long process of analysis and hypotheses, we have come to the conclusion that Piero della Francesca, not on a personal basis, but as the expression of a group, wanted to give, through his works, a philosophical indication of life, perhaps this: harmony can be achieved in this world, even more than with neo-Platonic love, through wisdom, and not of an intellectual kind, but of a practical one!
[…] I therefore believe that Piero della Francesca, and the group with whom he shared his life and his intellectual work, did not intend a form of philosophical and elitist Wisdom, but that progressive knowledge which makes you know that you “do not know or know”, as his friend Cusano (a member of the Neoplatonic Academy of the Medici) stated in Docta Ignorantia and which induces you [… ] consequently to humility, tolerance and thus to wisdom and the pursuit of knowledge; in a sort of circle, like the oroborus, which finally closes upon itself.
[…] Often the alternative to tolerance, love and wisdom have been (and are): abuse, violence and anger. This is why Piero della Francesca’s message, if it really wants to communicate what we have identified, is even more important than his work itself, which thus becomes masterly, suggestive, exemplary, ‘admirable’, a highly original vehicle, whether conscious or unconscious, for an even nobler purpose, in that it is ‘universal’.
The fact that these values are not still relevant and necessary in today’s world, and therefore are not universal values with no space or time, has yet to be demonstrated. I am so convinced of this that I may have subjectively ‘intended’ to give this key to Piero della Francesca’s work. But the symbol, in art, in literature, in everyday life, does not always retain its message and often even takes on a totally opposite one. This is why I believe it is important to investigate and confront the roots of its interpretation. An example of this is the ‘ominous’ meaning taken on, for example, by the swastika after Nazism, and its opposite ‘vital and sunny’ meaning in antiquity.
Returning to Raphael’s School of Athens, there is no doubt, according to the current interpretation, that in it the intention is apparently to exalt the role of ancient Greek philosophy in general and, by placing the figure of Plato at the centre (it is assumed in the guise of Leonardo da Vinci) to exalt Neo-Platonism (the philosophy of feeling and the soul), even though the philosopher walks alongside Aristotle (the philosopher of science and matter), of whom he was a teacher. It is said of Raphael that he is ‘the painter of immediacy’. In his works there are no hidden enigmas as in Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation and the works of Dürer, Parmigianino or Giorgione. Generally speaking, this may be so, but are we sure that this applies in absolute terms and in particular to The School of Athens?
In addition to the underlying architecture, which links this work to that of Piero della Francesca and to the working group to which the then young Bramante belonged (who was involved in the projects for St. Peter’s at a mature age and seems to have been instrumental in Raphael’s coming to Rome. Raphael would in turn be the architect of the Fabbrica di San Pietro for just six years, after Bramante’s death in 1514 and his own in 1520), there are other elements in common between the two artists. If Piero’s message is that of “wisdom”, then also the two painted sculptures that dominate the whole scene of the School of Athens on the sides, contribute to create a “coincidence” with the presumed message of Piero’s work: they are in fact the images of Apollo, the solar god and god of light, and Minerva, goddess of wisdom.
In addition, there are three figures in the painting that seem to be more important than the others and that are ‘signalled’ with the index finger of the hand by as many characters. Even the one in the centre (Plato) is further characterised by his arm pointing upwards and his hand with the index finger raised, an expedient that Leonardo (after Botticelli in La Calunnia of 1491-95 and Raphael in the School of Athens of 1509-11) adopted in Saint John the Baptist, perhaps to express and indicate ‘the truth’.
The first of the three figures is on the left, the lower figure seated with his head resting on his elbow, with a pensive and melancholically saturnine attitude (it seems to have been added to the painting at a later date): it is the representation of Heraclitus and the face is that of Michelangelo.
The second figure is the one on the right, at the bottom, bent over a blackboard (as in Jacopo de’ Barbari’s portrait of Luca Pacioli and Guidubaldo Montefeltro) intent on explaining a geometry: it is Euclid and according to Vasari it has the face of Bramante, Leonardo’s friend and patron of Raphael, who is portrayed, looking towards the observer, on the far right side of the work.
The third figure, signalled by a character resting his hand on the shoulder of another, placed in the centre, with his index finger raised, is the one above the height difference, at the top, beyond the staircase of three steps (three, as in Giorgione’s Three Philosophers): it is Plato with the likeness of Leonardo advancing towards the centre, as he converses with Aristotle. The latter has a closed book in his hand and is pointing at something in front of him.
If we combine these three indices, there is a figure that remains in the middle of that triangle. A figure that seems to be secondary but instead, even if dimly lying on the central step, is at the “centre” of the entire painting: it is Diogenes, alone, with his book open, a sign of acquired knowledge, even if intent on reading it.
Is it possible that this character is Piero della Francesca (of whom it is believed that Raphael had the opportunity in Rome to see the works executed for Pope Pius II Piccolomini and ‘directed’ by Cardinal Cusano, before the fire that destroyed them) represented in the guise of Diogenes?
I would like this to be the case, because of the gratitude owed to the artist (and intellectual) Piero della Francesca by Raphael. As well as many others, even if less directly than the Urbino artist (and I do not exclude Leonardo…), to the work of Piero della Francesca.
And perhaps it is not only gratitude or appreciation, but also the desire to “doctrinally” and with intellectual refinement (typical of Raphael) bring together two shy and solitary characters such as Piero della Francesca and Diogenes.
Two characters with many similar character traits united by the “search for man” and above all because Diogenes and Piero della Francesca, beyond the presumed meanings of Raphael’s work, although wandering in the dark, one in the night, the other in the onset of blindness, and both in solitude, nevertheless illuminated those who met them.
Raphael, after his sudden disappearance due to an insistent fever that in a few days led to his death at the age of 37 (by one analogy among many possible, identical to that of Pushkin, considered, despite his young age, the founder of contemporary Russian literature) was buried like a king in the Pantheon in Rome.
On his tomb are the following verses attributed to a poet friend of Raphael or the humanist Pietro Bembo:
I hope that the author of the epitaph was not a friend of Raphael because (unlike Bramante’s knowledge of his friend Leonardo when he depicted him as the philosopher Heraclitus) he did not describe him well. If there is one character who never competed with Nature, and only wanted to delicately express its beauty, it is Raphael. I would therefore like to exalt, especially in this historical moment, how much Raphael was able to interpret and represent Nature and the beauty it expresses also through woman, femininity; how much, equally, to exalt the gift of kindness that was a much praised and remembered characteristic of the artist… But perhaps we shall return to this.