Thursday, June 26, 2008

School of Athens

Communities of artists, particularly painters, when they are grouped together are often referred to as belonging to the same school. Most often artistic schools are named after the place where the artists were from or one of the leading artists in the group. It seems as though there have been artistic schools named after half of the cities in Italy: Florence, Venice, Padua.

One artist who inspired a following that was named for him was Raphael. Raphael's works can be found all over Rome. At the Barberini gallery there is a painting called "La Fornarina" that is said to have been his lover as painted by him. At the Borghese Gallery, one can see both "Young Woman with Unicorn" and "The Deposition of Christ." The Vatican Museums contain some of Raphael's most celebrated work. Aside from "The School of Athens" pictured above, the Vatican Museums also have "The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament" and "The Transfiguration of Christ."

Some artistic schools, like that of Raphael, are created around great artistry, but not necessarily as an act of premedidated creation by the artists themselves. In fact, many times the label of "The School of..." is an anarchronistic term inscribed over a set of works that seem to hang together in some important historical way. In Raphael's painting, "The School of Athens," an intellectual school is being overtly created through his art. The term itself is an example of an anachronistic label. Many of the thinkers depicted did not exist in the same place or at the same time. Zoroaster, depicted the bottom left, would never have been in the same place as Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy to whom he is supposedly talking. The reverence for these classical figures was a central expression of the Renaissance and depicting them in the same room with important Christian images was part of Pope Julius II's project of incorporating the pursuit of knowledge into the Catholic Church's agenda.

Raphael's painting thus makes us aware of the politics of a such a label as "The School of..." That label is imbued with a lot of power. Depending upon the value associated with the school being identified, the label can enhance or devalue the works of certain artists and thinkers. It can also group together or tear apart certain artists and thinkers who may have other ideas about how their work relates to the work of others. It is interesting to find that even metaphorical schools cannot escape force of politics.

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