Étiquette : Spain


Raphael 1520-2020: What Humanity can learn from « The School of Athens »

On the occasion of the five-hundredth anniversary of the death of the Italian painter Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), several exhibitions are honoring this artist, notably in Rome, Milan, Urbino, Belgrade, Washington, Pasadena, London, and Chantilly in France.

The master is honored, but what do we really know about the intention and meaning of his work?


Raphael, portrait of a young boy.

There is no doubt that in the collective mind of the West, Raphael, along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, appears as one of the most brilliant artists and even as the best embodiment of the « Italian Renaissance”.

Although he died at the age of 37, Raphael was able to reveal his immense talent to the world, in particular by giving birth, between 1509 and 1511, to several monumental frescoes in the Vatican, the most famous of which, 7.7 meters long and 5 meters high, is known as The School of Athens.

The viewer finds himself inside a building that brings together the thoughts of all mankind: united in a timeless space, fifty philosophers, mathematicians and astronomers of all ages meet to discuss their vision of man and nature.

French National Assembly.

The image of this fresco embodies so powerfully the « ideal » of a democratic republic, that in France, during the February 1848 revolution, the painting representing Louis Philippe (till then hanging behind the President of the National Assembly) was taken down and replaced by a representation of Raphael’s fresco, in the form of a tapestry from the Manufacture des Gobelins, produced between 1683 and 1688 at the request of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the founder of the French Academy of Sciences.

Then, in France, arrived the idea that Raphael, being « the Prince of painters », embodied « the ultimate artist ». Superior to Rubens or Titian, Raphael was thought to have achieved the subtle « synthesis » between the « divine grace » of a Leonardo da Vinci and the « silent strength » of a Michelangelo. What more can be said ? A true observation as long as one looks only at the purity of the « forms » and thus of the « style ». Adored or hated, Raphael was erected in France as a model to be imitated by every young talent attending our Academies of Fine Arts.

Hence, for five centuries, artists, historians and connoisseurs have not ceased to comment and often to confront each other, not on the intention or the meaning of the artist’s works, but on his style! In a way akin to some of our contemporaries who adore Star Wars and its special effects without paying attention to the ideology that, underhandedly, this TV series conveys…

For this brand of historians, « iconography », that branch of art history which is interested in the subjects represented, in the possible interpretations of the compositions or particular details, is only really useful to appreciate the « more primitive » paintings, that is to say that of the « Northern Schools »…

One knows well, especially in France, that once the « form » takes the appearance of perfection, it does not matter what the content is! This or that writer tells abject horrors, but « it is so well written! »

The good news is that in the last twenty years or so, a handful of leading historians and especially female art historians, have undertaken and published in depth new research.

I am thanking in particular of Marcia Hall (Temple University), Ingrid D. Rowland (University of Chicago), Reverend Timothy Verdon (Florence and Stanford), Jesuit historian John William O’Malley, and especially Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier.

The latter’s book Raphael’s Stanza della Signatura, Meaning and Invention (Cambridge University Press, 2002), which I was able to read (thanks to the pandemic lockdown), allowed me to adjust some of the leads and intuitions I had summarized in 2000 in, let’s be honest, a rather messy note.

If my work had consisted in trying to give some coherence to what is in the public domain, through their assiduous archival work in the Vatican and elsewhere, these historians, for whom neither Latin nor Greek have any secrets, have largely contributed to shed new light on the political, philosophical, cultural and religious context that contributed to the genesis of Raphael’s work.

Enriched by these readings, I have tried here, in a methodical way, to « make readable » what is rightly considered Raphael’s major work, The School of Athens.

Instead of identifying and commenting from the outset on the figures we see in the Stanza della Segnatura (« Room of the Segnatura” of the Vatican in Rome), I have chosen first to sketch a few backgrounds that serve as “eye-openers” to penetrate this work. For, in order to detect the painter’s intentions, actions and feelings, it is essential to penetrate the spirit of the epoch that engendered the artist’s: those days political and economic challenges, the cultural heritage of Rome and the Church, a close-up on the pope who commissioned the work, the philosophical convictions of the advisors who dictated the theme of the work, etc.

However, if all this seems too tedious for you dear reader, or if you are just eager to familiarize yourself with the work, nothing prevents you from going back and forth between the deciphering of the frescoes at the end of this article (Guided visit) and the contextualization that precedes them.

Cleaning our eyeglasses

General view of two of Raphael’s four frescoes decorating the Chamber of the Signature.

To see the world as it is, let’s wipe our glasses and stop looking at the tint of our glasses. For as is often the case, what « prevents » the viewer from penetrating a work, from seeing its intention and meaning, is not what his eyes see as such, but the preconceived ideas that prevents him from looking at the outside world. Learning to see usually starts by challenging some of our preconceptions.

1. It’s not a easel painting! Since the 16th century, we Europeans have been thinking in terms of « easel paintings » (as opposed to mural). The artist paints on a support, a wooden panel or a canvas, which the client then hangs on the wall. However, The School of Athens, as such, is not a « painting » of this type, but simply, in the strict sense, a part or a « detail » of what we would call today, « an installation ». I explain myself. What constitutes the work here is the whole of the frescoes and decorations covering the ceiling, the floor and the four walls of the room! We will explain them to you. The viewer is, in a way, inside a cube that the artist has tried to make appear as a sphere. So, to « explain » the meaning of The School of Athens, in isolation from the rest and without demonstrating the thematic and symbolic interconnections with the iconography of the other walls, the ceiling and the floor, is not only an exercise in futility but utter incompetence.

2. Error of title! Neither at the time of its commission, nor at the time of its realization or in the words of Raphael, the fresco carried the name “School of Athens”! That name was given later. Everything indicates that the entire room covered with frescoes was to express a divine harmony uniting Philosophy (The School of Athens), Theology (on the opposite side), Poetry (on its right side) and Justice (on its left side). We will come back to that.

3. The theme is not the artist’s choice!
The only person who met both Raphael and Pope Julius II during his lifetime was the physician Paolo Giovio (1483-1552) who arrived in Rome in 1512, a year before the death of Julius II. According to Giovio, it was the pontiff himself who, as early as 1506, that is, two years before Raphael’s arrival, conceived the contents of the « Signing Chamber ». This is logical, since it was the place where he installed his personal library, a collection of some 270 books, arranged on shelves below the frescoes and classified according to the themes of each wall decoration (Philosophy, Theology, Poetry and Justice). However, given the complexity of the themes, and given Julius II’s poor literary culture, historians agree that the intellectual authorship of the frescoes was attributed to the pope’s advisors and especially to the one who would have been able to synthesize them, his chief librarian, Thomaso Inghirami (1470-1516).

Raphael, who seems to have constantly modified his preparatory drawings according to the feedback and comments he received from the commissioners, was able to translate this theme and program into images with his vast talent. In short, if you like the images, congratulate Raphael; if you like or don’t like the content, talk to the « boss ».

On the far right side of The School of Athens, Raphael and Il Sodoma seem to co-sign the fresco.

4. Painted by several people? What remains to be clarified is that, according to Vatican accounts, the entire decoration of the room was entrusted in mid-1508 to the talented fresco artist Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), six years older than Raphael and known as Il Sodoma. He appears to be the only person to have received any money for this work. Raphael does not appear in these accounts until 1513…

However, as the cycle of frescoes on the life of St. Benedict in the territorial abbey of Santa Maria in Monte Oliveto Maggiore testifies, Sodoma also had considerable talent, and above all, an incomparable know-how in fresco technique. Although he has never been honored, his style is so similar to Raphael’s that it is hard to mistake him.

Portrait of Pietro Aretino by the Venetian painter Titian.

It should also be noted that Sodoma, who came to Rome at the request of the pope’s banker Agostino Chigi (1466-1520), was asked to decorate the latter’s villa in 1508, which would have given Raphael free rein in the Vatican before joining him on the same site.

According to the french historian Bernard Levergeois, the sulphurous Pietro Aretino (1495-1556), a pornographic pamphleteer, before becoming the protégé and « cultural agent » of the banker Chigi in Rome, spent many years in Perugia.

There he took interest in the young pupils of Pietro Perugino (c. 1448-1523), Raphael’s master, and, says Levergeois, it was there that he

met the most prestigious painters of the day: Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, Julius Romano, Giovanni da Udine, Giovan Francesco Penni and Sodoma, all of whom took turns decorating the magnificent villa (the Farnesina) that Chigi had built in Rome. Some of them also worked on the no less famous Villa Madam (for pope Julius II), a grandiose project that was never completed.

Aretino as he appears in Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

As seen in the portrait painted by Titian, Aretino, nicknamed « the scourge of Princes », was a powerful, possessive and tyrannical character. A blackmailer, a flamboyant pansexual and well-informed about what was going on in the alcoves of the elites, he worked himself up, like FBI boss Edgar Hoover in the Kennedy era, as a king-maker, a power above power. Historians report that both Raphael and Michelangelo, before showing their works to the public, felt compelled to seek the advice of this pervert Aretino.

And in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo depicts St. Bartolomeo in the guise of the Aretino. The artist must have thought that the traditional attribute of the martyr flayed alive was a perfect fit for the one who was bullying him: he is wearing the remains of his own skin and holding in his hand the large knife that was used for the torture…

It is therefore tempting to think that it was Aretino, the favorite of the Pope’s banker, and not necessarily Renaissance architect Donato Bramante, as is commonly accepted, who may have played the role of intermediary in bringing both Sodoma and Raphael to Rome in order to revive the glory of his patron and the oligarchy that held the Eternal City in contempt.

To my knowledge, Raphael, neither in his own letters nor in the statements reported by his entourage, would have commented on the theme and intention of his work. Strange modesty. Did he consider himself a simple « decorative painter »?

Finally, if Sodoma‘s participation in the realization of the School of Athens remains to be clarified, his portrait does appear. He is in the foreground on the far right, standing side by side to a rather sad Raphael (both on the side of the Aristotelians). A double signature?

This makes the question arise: Can one continue to speak of the frescoes as painted « by Raphael »? Are they not rather the frescoes of the four men team composed of Julius II, Inghirami, Sodoma and Raphael?

An unusual patron, « the warrior pope » Julius II

Medal with the effigy of Julius II the « Ligurian » (Genoese). On the back, the project of reconstruction of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome.

Before talking about these famous « impresarios of the Renaissance » and understanding their motivations, it is necessary to explore the character of future pope Julius II: Giuliano della Rovere (1443-1513). He was appointed bishop of Carpentras by Pope Sixtus IV, his uncle. He was also successively archbishop of Avignon and cardinal-bishop of Ostia.

On October 31, 1503, 37 of the 38 cardinals composing the Sacred College, make him the head of the Western Church, under the name of Julius II, until its death in 1513, a moment Giuliano had been waiting for 20 years.

Before him, others had made their way. In fact, in 1492, his personal enemy, the Spanish Rodrigo de Borgia (1431-1503), succeeded in getting himself elected as pope Alexander VI. True to the legendary corruption of the Borgia dynasty, he was one of the most corrupt popes in the history of the Church. Jealous and angry at his own failure, Giuliano accused the new pope of having bought a number of votes. Fearing for his life, he leaves for France to the court of King Charles VIII, whom he convinces to lead a military campaign in Italy, in order to depose Alexander VI and to recover the Kingdom of Naples… Accompanying the young French king in his Italian expedition, he enters Rome with him at the end of 1494 and prepares to launch a council to investigate the pope’s actions. But Alexander VI managed to circumvent the machinations of his enemy and preserved his pontificate until his death in 1503.

Medal with the effigy of the pope Alexander VI Borgia.

From the moment of his accession, Giuliano della Rovere confessed that he had chosen his name as pope, Julius II, not after Pope Julius I, but in reference to the bloodthirsty Roman dictator Julius Caesar. He asserts from the start his firm will to restore the political power of the popes in Italy. For him, Rome must once again become the capital of an Empire much larger than the Roman Empire of the past.

When Julius II took office, decadence and corruption had brought the Church to the brink. The territories that would later become Italy were a vast battlefield where Italian condottieri, French kings, German emperors and Spanish nobles came to fight. The ancient city of Rome was nothing more than a vast heap of ruins systematically plundered by rapacious entrepreneurs in the service of princes, bishops and popes, each one seeking to monopolize the smallest column or architrave likely to come and decorate their palace or church. Reportedly, out of the 50,000 inhabitants of the city, there were 10,000 prostitutes and courtesans…

Obviously, Julius II was the pope chosen by the oligarchy to restore a minimum of order in the house. For, particularly since 1492, the extension of Catholicism in the New World and then in the East, required a « rebirth », not of « Christian humanism », as during the Renaissance of the early 15th century, but of the authority of the Church.

The spread of printing and humanism in Europe.

For us today, the word « Renaissance » evokes the heyday of Italian culture. However, for the powerful oligarchs of Raphael’s time, it was a matter of resurrecting the splendor of Greco-Roman antiquity, embodied in the glory of the Roman « Republic », mistakenly idealized as a great and well-administered state, thanks to efficient laws, capable civil servants possessing a great culture, based on the assiduous study of Greek and Latin texts.

And it is well to this rebirth of the Roman authority that Julius II is going to dedicate himself. In first place by the sword. In less than three years (1503-1506), the rebellious César Borgia is reduced to impotence. He was the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI who, at the head of an army of mercenaries, waged war in the country and terrorized the Papal States,

In 1506, Julius II, quickly nicknamed « the warrior pope » at the head of his troops, took back Perugia and Bologna.

As the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1467-1537), who was present in Italy and was an eyewitness to the sacking of Bologna by the papal troops, reproached him, Julius II preferred the helmet to the tiara. Questioned by Michelangelo in charge of immortalizing him with a bronze statue, to know if he did not wish to be represented with a book in his hand to underline his high degree of culture, Julius II answers:

Why a book? Rather, show me a sword in hand.

Originally from the region of Genoa (Liguria), Julius II undertook to chase the Venetians, whom he abhorred, out of Romagna, which they occupied. « I will reduce your Venice to the state of hamlet of fishermen from which it left, » had said one day the Ligurian pope to the ambassador Pisani, to which the proud patrician did not fail to retort:

And we, Holy Father, we will make of you a small village priest,
if you are not reasonable…

This language gives the measure of the bitterness to which one had arrived on both sides. In the bull of excommunication launched shortly afterwards (April 27, 1509) against the Venetians, these were accused of « uniting the habit of the wolf with the ferocity of the lion, and of flaying the skin by pulling out the hairs… ».

The League of Cambrai

Italy at the time of the Ligue of Cambrai.

Against the rapacious practices of Venice, on December 10, 1508, in Cambrai, Julius II officially rallies to the « League of Cambrai », a group of powers (including the French King Louis XII, the regent of the Netherlands Margaret of Austria, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and the German Emperor Maximilian I).

For Julius II, the happiness is total because Louis XII comes in person to expel the Venetians of the States of the Church. Better still, on May 14, 1509, after its defeat by the League of Cambrai at the battle of Agnadel, the Republic of Venice agonizes and finds itself at the mercy of an invasion. However, at that juncture, Julius II, fearing that the French would establish their influence on the country, made a spectacular turnaround. He organized, from one day to the next, the survival of Venice!

His treasurer general, the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi (a Sienese billionaire close to the Borgias, to whom he had lent colossal sums of money and later Raphael’s patron), set the conditions:

  • In order to pay for the Swiss mercenaries capable of repelling the attackers of the Ligue of Cambrai, Chigi granted the Venetians a substantial loan.
  • In exchange, the Serenissima agreed to give up its monopoly on the trade of alum that it imported from Constantinople. At the time, alum, an irreplaceable mineral used to fix fabric dyes, represented a real « strategic » issue.
  • Once Venice stopped importing alum, the entire Mediterranean world was forced, from one day to the next, to obtain supplies, not from Venice, but from the Vatican, that is to say, from Chigi, who was in charge of exploiting the « alum of Rome » for the Papacy, located in the mines of the Tolfa mountains, northwest of Rome in the heart of the Papal States.
  • Aware that its very survival was at stake, and for lack of an alternative, Venice grudgingly accepted the golden deal.

In his biography on Jules II, french historian Ivan Cloulas specifies:

Above all stands out Agostino Chigi, the banker from Siena, farmer of the pontifical mines of alum of Tolfa since the reign of Alexander VI. The favor that this character enjoyed with Julius II is surprising, since he was a banker who had long served Caesar Borgia. The pontiff, according to the tradition, conferred at the time of his accession the load of ‘depositary’ to one of his Genoese compatriots, Paolo Sauli, charged to carry out all the financial transactions of the Holy See in connection with the cardinal camerlingue Raffaelo Sansoni-Riario. But Chigi did not suffer disgrace, because he advanced Julian della Rovere considerable sums of money to buy electors [cardinal members of the Sacred College], and he made the exploitation and export of alum extracted from the pontifical mines a success. The experience and value of the Sienese made him a partner of the various bankers of the papacy, notably the Sauli and the Fugger, who gained new wealth as the fruitful trade in indulgences developed in Germany.

Hence, now in alliance with Venice, Julius II, in what appears to the naive as a spectacular « reversal of alliance », set up the « Holy League » to « expel from Italy the Barbarians » (Fuori i Barbari!). A coalition in which he made enter the Swiss, Venice, the kings Ferdinand of Aragon and Henri VIII of England, and finally, the emperor Maximilian. This league will then drive out the French out of Italy. Julius II said with irony:

If Venice had not existed,
it would have been necessary to invent it.

In response, Louis XII, the King of France, attempted to transpose the struggle into the spiritual realm. Thus, a national council, meeting in Orleans in 1510, he declared France exempt from the obedience of Julius II. A second council was convened in Italy itself, in Pisa, then in Milan (1512) trying to depose the pope. Julius II opposed to the King of France the Vth ecumenical council of the Lateran (1512) where he will welcome warmly those who abandoned that of Milan…

Maritime Empires

Julius II was determined to re-establish his authority both on land and on the oceans. A bit like in ancient Greece, Italy experienced a rather particular phenomenon, that of the emergence of « maritime republics ». If the « Republic of Venice » is famous, the maritime republics of Pisa, Ragusa (Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast), Amalfi (near Naples) and Genoa are less known.

In each case, operating from a port, a local oligarchy built a maritime empire and above all poisoned its competitors. However, maritime activity, by its very nature, implies taking risks over time. Hence the need for skillful, robust and forward-looking finance, offering insurance and purchase options on future assets and profits. It is therefore no coincidence that most financial empires developed in symbiosis with maritime empires, notably the Dutch and British, and with the West and East India Companies.

At the end of the 15th century, it was essentially Genoa and Venice that were fighting for control of the seas. On the one hand, Venice, historically the bridgehead of the Byzantine Empire and its capital Constantinople (Istanbul), was by far the largest city in the Mediterranean world in 1500 with 200,000 inhabitants. Since its heyday in the 13th century, the Serenissima has defended tooth and nail its status as a key intermediary on the Silk Road to the West. On the other hand, Genoa, which, after having established itself in the Levant thanks to the crusades, by taking control of Portugal, financed all the Portuguese colonial expeditions to West Africa from where it brought back gold and slaves.

Two maritime achievements will exacerbate this rivalry a little more:

  • 1488. Although the works of the Persian scholar Al Biruni (11th century) and old maps, including that of the Venetion monk Fra Mauro, made it possible to foresee the bypassing of the African continent by the Atlantic Ocean to reach India, it was not until 1488 that Portuguese sailors passed the Cape of Good Hope. Thus, Genoa, without any intermediary, could directly load its ships in Asia and bring its goods back to Europe;
  • 1492. Seeking to open a direct trade route to Asia without having to deal with the Venetians or the Portuguese (Genoese), Spain sent the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus west in 1492. More than a new route to Asia, Columbus discovered a new continent that would be the object of covetousness.
The imperial sharing of the entire world among the Spanish (Venice) and the Portuguese (Genoa),
as signed on by Pope Alexander VI Borgia with the treaty of Tordesillas in 1494

Two years later, on June 7, 1494, the Portuguese and Spanish signed the Treaty of Tordesillas to divide the entire world between them. Basically, all of the New World for Spain, all of the old one (from the Azores to Macao) for Portugal. To delimit their empires, they drew an imaginary line, which Pope Alexander VI Borgia set in 1493 at 100 leagues west of the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands.

Later, the line was extended, at the request of the Portuguese, to 370 leagues. Any land discovered to the east of this line was to belong to Portugal; to the west, to Spain. At the same time, any other Western maritime power was denied access to the new continent. However, in 1500, to the horror of the Spaniards, it was a Portuguese who discovered Brazil. And given its geographical position, to the west of the famous line, this country fell under the control of the Portuguese Empire!

Julius II, a child of Liguria (region of Genoa, therefore linked to Portugal) and vomiting Alexander VI Borgia (Spanish), in 1506, takes great pleasure in confirming, by the bull Inter Cætera, the treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 allowing to fix the dioceses of the New World, obviously to the advantage of the Portuguese and therefore to his own.

The ultimate weapon, culture

On the « spiritual » and « cultural » level, if Julius II spent most of his time at war, posterity retains essentially the image of « one of the great popes of the Renaissance » as a great protector and patron of the arts.

Indeed, to re-establish the prestige (the French word for soft power) and therefore the authority of Rome and its Empire, culture was considered a weapon as formidable as the sword. To begin with, Julius II opened new arteries in Rome, including the Via Giulia. He placed in the Belvedere courtyard the antiques he had acquired, in particular, the « Apollo of Belvedere » and the « Laocoon », discovered in 1506 in the ruins of Nero’s Imperial Palace.

Portrait of Julius II by Raphael, and his tomb by Michelangelo.

In the same year, that is to say six years before the end of the military operations, Julius II also launched great projects, some of which were only partially or entirely completed after his death:

  • The reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica, a task entrusted to the architect and painter Donato Bramante (1444-1514) ;
  • The tomb of Julius II, which the sculptor Michelangelo was entrusted with in the apse of the new basilica and of which his famous statue of Moses, one of the 48 bronze statues and bas-reliefs originally planned, should have been part;
  • The decoration of the vault of the Sistine Chapel built by Pope Sixtus IV, the uncle of Julius II, was also entrusted to Michelangelo. Julius II let himself be carried away by the creative spirit of the sculptor. Together, they worked on ever more grandiose projects for the decoration of the Chapel. The artist gave free rein to his imagination, in a different artistic genre that did not please the pope. Until October 31, 1512, Michelangelo painted more than 300 figures on the vault;
  • The frescoes decorating the personal library of the pope will be entrusted to the painter Raphael, called to Rome in 1508, probably at the suggestion of Chigi, Aretino or Bramante. The Stanza was the place where the pope signed his briefs and bulls. This room later became the private library of the pontiff Julius II, then the room of the Tribunal of Apostolic Signatures of Grace and Justice and later, that of the Supreme instance of appeal and cassation. Before the arrival of Julius II, this room and « the room of Heliodorus », were covered with frescoes by Piero della Francesca (1417-1492), a painter protected by the great Renaissance genius cardinal philosopher Nicolaus of Cusa (1401-1464), immortalizing the great ecumenical council of Florence (1438). Decorations by Lucas Signorelli and Sodoma were added later. Following his election, Julius II, anxious to mark his presence in history, and to re-establish the authority of the oligarchy and the Church, had the frescoes of the Council of Florence covered with new ones. Convinced by his advisors, the pope agreed to entrust the direction of the work to Raphael. Officially, it is said that Raphael spared some of the frescoes on the ceiling, notably those executed by Sodoma, so as not to antagonize him entirely. But, as we have said, the content, the very elaborate theme and part of the iconography of the frescoes were decided upon as early as 1506, even before Raphael’s arrival in 1508;
  • To modernize the city of Rome. Julius II, undoubtedly advised by the architect Bramante, singularly transformed the road system of Rome. In order for all the roads to converge towards St. Peter’s Basilica, he ordered the Via Giulia to be pierced on the left bank and the Lungara, the paths that meandered along the river on the right bank, to be transformed into a real street. His death interrupted the great works he had planned, in particular the construction of a monumental avenue leading to St. Peter’s and that of a new bridge to relieve the congestion of the bridge over St. Angelo, to which he had also facilitated access by widening the street leading to it. The extent of the work undertaken poses the problem of materials; although it was, in principle, forbidden to attack the ancient monuments, the reality was quite different. Ruinante, became the nickname of Bramante.
Drawing of the entrance door to the Vatican, circa 1530.

These major construction projects, patronage and military expenses drained the Holy See’s revenues. To remedy this, Julius II multiplied the sale of ecclesiastical benefits, dispensations and indulgences.

In the twelfth century, the Roman Catholic Church established the rules for the trade of « indulgences » (from the Latin indulgere, to grant) through papal decrees. They provided a framework for the total or partial remission before God of a sin, notably by promising, in exchange for a given amount of money, a reduction in the time spent in purgatory to the generous faithful after their death. In the course of time, this practice, essentially exploiting a form of religious superstition, turned into a business so lucrative that the Church could no longer do without it.

In northern Europe, particularly in Germany, the Fugger bankers of Augsburg were directly involved in organizing this trade. This practice was strongly denounced and fought against by the humanists, in particular by Erasmus, before Luther made it an essential part of the famous 95 theses that he posted, in 1517, on the doors of the church in Wittenberg.

In his book Erasmus and Italy, french historain Augustin Renaudet writes that Erasmus, after having met the highest authorities of the Vatican, was not fooled:

He was not long in understanding that apart from the Holy See, the services of the Curia and the Chancellery, apart from the cardinals, the innumerable prelates on mission and in charge, apart from a motley crowd of civil servants and scribes, who populated the administrative or financial offices and the courts, there was nothing in Rome. In all the cities he had known, in Brussels, in Paris, in London, in Milan, in Florence, and recently in Venice, an active economy, fed by industry, commerce, and finance, supported a strong urban bourgeoisie, or as in Venice, an aristocracy of shipowners. In Rome, all the economy, all the trade, all the finance, were in the hands of foreigners: Florentine or Genoese merchants, Florentine or Genoese bankers. These foreigners held in their dependence a people of small merchants, of small craftsmen who sold in the back room, of money changers and Jewish traffickers. Very little industry, the Roman population lived at the service of the Curia, the prelates and the convents. Erasmus marveled at the pride with which the descendants of the people-king pretended to maintain their ancient majesty.
The word of the Roman people was no longer an empty word; Erasmus was to write one day that, in the modern world, a Roman citizen counted less than a burgher of Basel.

Historians André Chastel and Robert Klein, in L’Humanisme, l’Europe de la Renaissance, share this observation:

Another trend, favorable to Caesar and Augustus, had emerged: Rome becoming again more and more the ‘imperial’ capital of all the powerful borrowed or sought to borrow a style from it.

This new style associates besides more and more arma and litterae, the sword and the book.

(…) Rich or poor, any sovereign of the Renaissance will occupy the artists and the scholars insofar as he needs prestige: the greatest patrons of the Renaissance were the ambitious and the warriors, Maximilian, Julius II, Henry VIII, François I, Charles V.

Raphael’s « impresarios »

If, from a contemporary point of view, it seems close to unthinkable for an artist to be « dictated » the theme of his work, this was not the case at the time of the Renaissance and even less so in the Middle Ages. For example, although he was a high-level diplomat of the Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good, the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck (, one of the first painters to sign his works with his name, was advised on theology by the Duke’s confessor, the erudite Dionysus the Cartusian (1401-1471), a close friend of Cardinal Nicolaus of Cusa. And no one will dare say that Van Eyck « did not paint » his masterpiece The Mystic Lamb.

Raphael’s position was more delicate. In his time, painters still had the status of craftsmen. Including Leonardo da Vinci, who was known for his superior intelligence, declared himself to be a « man without letters », that is to say, unable to read Latin or Greek. Raphael could read and write Italian, but was in the same condition. And when, towards the end of his short life, he was asked to work on architecture (St. Peter’s Basilica) and urban planning (Roman antiquities), he asked a friend to translate the Ten Books of the Roman architect Vitruvius into Italian. Now, any visitor to the « Chambers of the Signature » is immediately struck by the great harmony uniting several dozen philosophers, jurists, poets and theologians whose existence was virtually unknown to Raphael before his arrival in Rome in 1508.

In The Marriage of the Virgin, Perugino (left) starts with a geometric harmony between a rectangle, an isosceles triangle and a circle whose center serves as the vanishing point of the perspective. His pupil Raphael took up the process, but starting from the square.

Moreover, with the exception of The Marriage of the Virgin, painted in 1504 at the age of 21, based on the way his master Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci, known as Pietro Perugino (c. 1448-1523) had treated the same subject, Raphael had not yet had to meet the kind of challenge that the Stanza would pose to him.

As we have already said, the cartoons and other preparatory drawings, sometimes quite different from the final result, also suggest that, following the « commission, » discussions with one or more impresarios led the artist to modify, improve or change the iconography to arrive at the final result.

As for the theme, as we have already mentioned, the ideas and concepts seem to have emerged during a long period of maturation and were undoubtedly the result of multiple exchanges between Pope Julius II and several of his advisors, librarians, and « orators » of the papal court.

According to historian Ingrid D. Rowlands, the archival documents unquestionably indicate the decisive contribution of three very different personalities of the time:

  • Battista Casali ;
  • Giles of Viterbo;
  • Tommaso « Fedra » Inghirami.

The thorough investigation of the historian Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier has established the predominant role of Inghirami. He was the only one in a position, and in a position, as the pope’s chief librarian, to set the program of the rooms. Raphael, will be his enthusiastic collaborator and will undoubtedly end up being « recruited » to the orientations and vision of his commissionners. This is evidenced by the fact that he demanded to be buried in the Roman Pantheon, considered the most Pythagorean, and believed to be the most neo-Platonic, temple of the Roman era.

Battista Casali

As documented by the Jesuit historian John William O’Malley, it was on January 1, 1508, the year of his appointment to St. John Lateran, a few months before Raphael’s arrival in Rome, that Battista Casali (1473-1525), a professor at the University of Rome, evoked the image of The School of Athens in an oration delivered in the Sistine Chapel in the presence of Julius II:

One day (… ) the beauty of Athens inspired a contest between the gods, where humanity, learning, religion, primacies, jurisprudence and law came into being before being distributed in every country, where the Athenaeum and so many other gymnasiums were founded, where so many princes of knowledge trained their youth and taught them virtue, fortitude, temperance and justice – all of this destroyed in the whirlwind of the Mohaematan war machine… ) However, just as [your illustrious uncle Pope] Sixtus IV [who ordered the construction of the Sistine Chapel], in a way, laid the foundations of education, you laid the cornice. Here is the Vatican library which he erected as if it had come from Athens itself, gathering the books he was able to save from the wreckage, and created in the image of the Academy. You, now, Julius II, supreme pontiff, have founded a new Athens when you invoke the downtrodden world of letters as if it were rising from the dead, and order it, surrounded by threats of suspended work, that Athens, its stadiums, its theaters and its Athenaeums, be restored.

Giles of Viterbo

Giles of Viterbo.

Another major influence on the theme, Giles of Viterbo (1469-1532) of which we will say more below.

  • An outstanding orator, he was called to Rome in 1497 by Pope Alexander VI Borgia ;
  • In 1503, he became the Superior General of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine; with 8000 members, it was the most powerful order of its time;
  • He is known for the boldness and seriousness of the speech he gave at the opening of the Fifth Lateran Council in 1512;
  • He severely criticized the bellicose policy of Julius II and urged him to triumph by culture rather than by the sword;
  • After the death of the latter, he became the preacher and theologian of Pope Leo X who appointed him cardinal in 1517.

Tommaso Inghirami

Tommaso Inghirami, Pope Julius II‘s chief librarian and Raphael’s true impresario for the frescoes decorating the Signing Room. Here is his portrait, painted by Raphael in 1510..

Finally, the prelate Tommaso Inghirami (1470-1516), who spoke both Latin and Greek, was also a formidable orator. The man owed his fortune to Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492).

Educated by the Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino, Lorenzo the Magnificent was the patron of both Botticelli and Michelangelo who lived with him for three years.

Born in Volterra, Inghirami was also taken in by the Magnificent after the sacking of that city. He carefully supervised his studies and later sent him to Rome where Alexander VI Borgia welcomed him. Inghirami was a handsome and well-dressed man.

At 16, Inghirami earned the nickname « Phaedra » after brilliantly playing the role of the queen who commits suicide in a Seneca tragedy performed in a small circle at the residence of the influential Cardinal Raphael Riario, cousin of Julius II or nephew of Pope Sixtus IV and therefore cousin of Julius II. Thereafter, Phaedra, bon vivant and for whom the celestial and terrestrial pleasures were happily completed, gained in political and especially… physical weight.

  • In 1475, he accompanied the nuncio of Pope Alexander VI to the court of Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire, who named him Count Palatine and poet laureate;
  • On January 16, 1498, Inghirami delivered an oration in the Spanish Church of Rome in honor of the Infant Don Juan, the murdered son of the King of Spain. Inghirami, in the name of Alexander VI Borgia, fully endorsed the Spanish policy of the time: to extend Christianity as well as imperial looting into the New World, to drive the Moors out of Europe and to strengthen the colonial plunder of Africa. If Julius II hated Alexander VI, he will continue this policy;
  • In 1508, Julius II nominates Inghirami to head the Library of the Vatican to be installed in the Stanza;
  • In 1509, while he was heavily involved in the realization of the frescoes of the Stanza, Raphael made his portrait. Raphael shows us a man suffering from divergent strabismus who seems to turn his gaze towards the sky in order to signify where this « humanist » drew his inspiration from;
  • In 1510, the Pope appointed him Bishop of Ragusa;
  • Finally, in 1513, he became papal secretary and at the urgent request of the dying pope, Inghirami delivered his funeral oration: « Good God! What a mind this man had, what sense, what ability to manage and administer the Empire! What a supreme and unshakable strength! »

Inghirami soon served as secretary to the conclave electing Pope Leo X (John of Medici, second son of Lorenzo de Medici, also a great protector of neo-Platonists and « culture »), another pope whose portrait Raphael will paint.

In 1509, eager to reform the Catholic church on the basis of the study of the three languages (Latin-Greek-Hebrew) to settle the religious conflicts which were looming and announced the religious wars to come, Erasmus of Rotterdam meets Inghirami in Rome. The latter exposes to him the imposing cultural building sites which he directed. Erasmus does not say a word about it.

However, a long time after the death of Inghirami, Erasmus complained that the Vatican and the oligarchy recruited among the humanists. He notably fingerpointed the sect of “the Ciceronians”, omnipresent in the Roman Curia and of which Inghirami was one of the leaders.

Thus, in 1528, in a pamphlet titled The Ciceronians, Erasmus quoted Inghirami’s oration on Good Friday of 1509. He denounced the fact that the members of this sect, on the grounds of the elegance of the Latin language, only used Latin words that appeared as they were in the works of Cicero! As a result, all the new language of evangelical Christianity, enshrined in the Council of Florence, which Erasmus wished to promote, was either banned or « re-translated » into pagan terms and words of the Roman era! For example, in his sermon, Inghirami had presented Christ on the cross as a pagan god sacrificing himself heroically rather than as a redeemer.

Finally, shortly after Raphael’s death, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto (1477-1547) wrote a treatise on philosophy in which Inghirami (meanwhile tragically deceased) defended rhetoric and denied the value of philosophy, his main argument being that everything written was already contained in the mystical and mythological texts of Orpheus and his followers…

Plato and Aristotle, the impossible synthesis

The Triumph of Saint Thomas of Aquinas (detail), here reconciling Aristotle (left) and Plato (right). Painting by Benozzo Gozzoli, Louvre, Paris.

Now, in order to be able to « read » the theme deployed by Raphael in the « Chamber of the Signature, » let us examine this Florentine « neo-Platonism » that animated both Giles of Viterbo and Tommaso Inghirami.

The approach of these two orators consisted above all in putting their « neo-Platonism » and their imagination at the service of a cause: that of asserting with force that Julius II, the pontifex maximus at the head of a triumphant Church, embodied the ultimate outcome of a vast line of philosophers, theologians, poets and humanists. At the origin of a civilizational and theological « big bang » presumed to lead to the immeasurable lustre of the Catholic Church under Julius II, not only Plato and Aristotle themselves, but those who had preceded them including Apollo, Moses and especially Pythagoras.

From 1506 onwards, Giles de Viterbo, in an exercise that can be described as « beyond” impossible, wrote a text entitled Sententia ad mentem Platonis (« Sentences with the mind of Plato »). In it, he tried to combine into one ideology the Sentences of Peter Lombard (1096-1160), the scholastic text par excellence of the 13th century and the starting point for the commentaries of the Dominican Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) for his Summa Theologica, and the esoteric Florentine neo-Platonism of Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) * of whom Giles de Viterbe was a follower.

All this could only please a pope who, in order to establish his authority on earthly and spiritual matters, warmly welcomed this agreement between Faith and Reason defended by Thomas Aquinas who says that “the Truth being one”, reason’s only role is to confirm faith’s superiority.

The very idea to present the wedding of Aristotelian scholasticism (logic presented as « reason ») with Florentine neo-Platonism (Plotinus’ emanationism dressed as « faith ») as a source of poetry and justice as « The Signing Room » does, comes from this.

Let us recall that in the middle of the 13th century, two mendicant Orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, were contesting the drift of a Church that had become, above all, the simple manager of its earthly possessions. The one who would later be called St. Thomas Aquinas, opposed on this point (his competitor) St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), founding figure of the Franciscan Order.

For his part, Aquinas relies on Aristotle, whom Albert the Great (1200-1280), whose disciple he was in Cologne, had made known to him, to establish the primacy of « reason ». For the man who was nicknamed « the dumb ox », faith and human reason, each managing their own domain, had to move forward together, hand in hand while of course, the Church had the last word.

The Triumph of Saint Thomas of Aquinas, ca. 1470, painting by Benozzo Gozzoli, Louvre, Paris.

Several paintings (the great fresco of 1366 in the Spanish chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence; the painting by Filippino Lippi of 1488 in the Carafa chapel in Rome; or the painting by Benozzo Gozzoli (1421-1497), painted around 1470, in the Louvre in Paris), have immortalized the “Triumph of Thomas Aquinas”.

Gozzoli’s painting in the Louvre is of particular importance because several elements prefigure the iconography of the Signing Chamber, notably the three levels found in Theology (Trinity, Evangelists and religious leaders) as well as the couple Plato and Aristotle found in Philosophy.

In Gozzoli’s painting, we see Aquinas, standing between Plato and Aristotle, throwing down before him the Arab philosopher Averroes (1126-1198) (Ibn-Rushd of Cordoba) expelled for having denied the immortality and the thought of the individual soul, in favor of a « Single Intellect » for all men that activates in us the intelligible ideas.

In the West, before the arrival of Greek delegations in Italy to attend the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438, if several works of Plato, including the Timaeus, were known to a handful of scholars, such as those of the School of Chartres or Italians as Leonardo Bruni in Florence, most of the West’s knowledge of Greek thought came down to the works of Aristotle.

For the Aristotelians, who became dominant in the Catholic Church with Aquinas, Plato had to be considered as incompatible with Christianity.

On the other hand, for the Platonists, including Augustine, Jerome and especially Nicholas of Cusa and Erasmus, who honored and adorned him that Erasmus called « Saint Socrates », Plato was to be venerated by Christians: he was monotheistic, believed in the immortality of the soul and venerated, in the form of the Pythagorean triad, the mystery of the Trinity.

John Bessarion, by Justius of Ghent, Louvre, Paris.

In the 15th century, for lack of epistemological clarity and some confusion on the authorship of certain manuscripts, some humanists, in particular Nicolaus of Cusa‘s friend and close collaborator Cardinal John Bessarion (1403-1472), one of the key organizers of the reunification of the Eastern and Western Churches, presented Plato as the « equal » of Aristotle, the latter’s disciple, with the sole purpose of making Plato « as acceptable as possible » to the Catholic Church.

Hence Bessarion‘s now famous phrase « Colo et veneror Aristotelem, amo Platonem » (I cultivate and venerate Aristotle, I love Plato) which appears in his In Calumniatorem Platonis (republished in 1503), a rejoinder to the virulent charge against Plato elaborated by the Greek Georges Trébizond.

Thus, in the School of Athens painted by Raphael, Plato and Aristotle appear side by side, not confronting each other but complementing the other with their respective wisdom : the first holding his book the Timaeus (on the creation of the universe) in one hand, and with the other, pointing to the sky (To the One, to God), the second holding his Ethics (the science of the good in personal life) in one hand, and raising the other arm horizontally to indicate the earthly realm (Physics).

If the commissioners had wanted to underscore the opposition of both philosophers, Plato would have rather been portrayed with his Parmenides (On Ideas) and Aristotle with his Physics (On natural sciences). That is clearly not the case.

Giles de Viterbo in his Sententia ad mentem Platonis will mobilize extreme sophism to erase the irreconcilable and very real oppositions (see box below) between the Platonic thought and that of Aristotle.

Why Plato and Aristotle are not complementary

By Christine Bierre

Logic (Aristotle) versus Dialectic (Plato). Bas-relief by Luca della Robbia.

The fundamental concepts that gave birth to our European civilization can be traced back to classical Greece, and through it, to Egypt and other even more ancient civilizations.

Among the Greek thinkers, Plato (-428/-347 B.C.) and Aristotle (-385/-323 B.C.) asked all the great questions that interest our humanity: who are we, what are our characteristics, how do we live, where are we situated in the universe, how can we know it?

The accounts that have come down to us from this distant period speak of the disagreements that led Aristotle to leave Plato’s Academy, of which he had been a disciple. History then bears witness to the violence of the oppositions between the disciples of the one and the other. During the Renaissance, the most reactionary Catholic currents, the Council of Trent in particular, were inspired by Aristotle, whereas Plato reigned supreme in the camp of humanism, in the hands of some of the greatest, such as Erasmus and Rabelais.

There were various attempts, however, to make them complementary, as discussed in this article by Karel Vereycken. If Plato represents the world of Ideas, Aristotle represents the world of matter. Impossible to build a world without both, we are told. It seems so obvious!

The Greek philosopher, Plato.

Bust of Plato.

All this starts, however, from a false idea opposing these two characters. For Plato, we are told, reality is found in the existence of ideas, universal concepts which represent, in an abstract way, all the things which participate of this concept. For example, the general concept of man contains the concept of particular men such as Peter, Paul and Mary; similarly for good, which includes all good things whatever they are. For Aristotle, on the contrary, reality is located in matter, as such.

What is false in this reasoning is the concept that the Platonic Ideas are abstractions. The Platonic Ideas are, on the contrary, dynamic entities that generate and transform reality. In the myth of the cave in The Republic, Socrates says that at the origin of things is the sovereign Good. In The Phaedo, he explains that it is through « Ideas » that this sovereign Good has generated the world.

In the myth of the cave, Socrates uses an offspring of the idea of the good, the Sun, to help us understand what the sovereign Good is. The Good, he says, has generated the Sun, which is, in the visible world, in relation to sight and objects of sight, what the Good is in the intelligible world in relation to intelligence and intelligible objects. The prisoners in the cave saw only the shadows of reality, and then, on coming out, they saw, thanks to the Sun, the real objects, the firmament and the Sun. After this, they will come to the conclusion about the Sun, that it is he who produces the seasons and the years, that he governs everything in the visible world and that he is in some way the cause of all those things that he and his companions saw in the cave.

The Sun not only gives objects the ability to be seen, but is also the cause of their genesis and development. In the same way for the knowable objects, they hold from the Good the faculty to be known but, in addition, they owe him their existence and their essence. The idea of the Good is thus for Plato the dynamic cause of the things: material and immaterial and not dead universals.

Aristotle’s splintered « One »

Bust of Aristotle.

For Aristotle, as for all the empiricist current which followed him, reality is situated at the level of the objects knowable by the senses. Nature sends us its signals that we decode with our mental faculties. Ideas are only abstractions of the sensible universe which constitutes reality. For him the universals have no real existence: man « in general », does not generate anything. It is only an abstraction of all the men in particular. The particular man is generated by the particular man; Peter is generated by Paul.

It is also said of Aristotle that he « exploded » Plato’s One. There are two ways of conceiving the One. One can think of it either as an absolute One (God or first cause), depending on whether one is a religious person or a philosopher, a purely intelligible principle but a dynamic cause that has generated all things; or one can think of it as the number « one » that determines each particular thing: the number one when we say: a man, a chair, an apple.

Aristotle‘s One simply becomes a particular unity, characteristic of all things that participate in unity. It is not the cause of what « is » but only the predicate of all the elements that are found in all the categories. The Being and the One, he will say, are the most universal of predicates. The One, he will say again, represents a definite nature in each kind but never the nature of the One will be the One in itself. And the Ideas are not the cause of change.

What is the point of all this?

Does this discussion make more sense than all the never-ending debates about the sexes of angels that gave scholasticism such a bad name in the Middle Ages? The One or the many, what does it matter in our daily lives?

This point is however essential. The fact of being able to go back to the intelligible causes of all that exists, puts the human species in a privileged situation in the universe. Unlike other species, it can not only understand the laws of the universe, but also be inspired by them, in order to improve human society. This is why, in history, it is the « Platonic » current that was at the origin of the great scientific, technological and cultural breakthroughs in astronomy, geometry, mechanics, architecture, but also the discovery of proportions that allow the expression of beauty in music, painting, poetry and dance.

As for Aristotle, it must be said that his conceptions of man and knowledge only led him to establish categories defining a dozen possible states of being. Aristotle was also the founder of formal logic, a system of thought that does not claim to know the truth, but only to define the rules of a correct reasoning. Logic is so little interested in the search for truth that one can consider that a judgment that is totally false in relation to reality can be said to be right if all the rules of « good reasoning » of logic have been used.

Woman riding Aristotle. Humanists have long since put their finger on a domain that totally escaped Aristotle‘s logical thinking: desire… A 13th century fable summarizes the story. Aristotle, whose pupil was Alexander the Great, reproached the latter for letting himself be distracted from his royal duties by the courtesan Phyllis, with whom he was madly in love. Obedient, the brave king of Macedonia thus ceases to frequent the damsel and returns to treat the business of the State. Learning the reasons of its abandonment, the lady decides to be avenged of the old philosopher and tries to seduce him by strutting under his windows in light dress. Aristotle falls under her charm ! Phyllis then announces to the wise man that if he wants to possess her, he will have to give himself up to a small caprice and, saddled and bridled, to let himself be ridden by the beautiful. The eminent bearded man accepts this game without suspecting the trick that is being played on him. In saddle and go ! here is Phyllis who rides Aristotle‘s back in the gardens of the king, whipping him to make him advanc


To begin with, Giles de Viterbo underlines that Aristotle is a « pupil » of Plato and that the « two princes of philosophy » could be reconciled. Very much imbued with the neo-Pythagorean spirit, and for whom Plato was only one of the greatest disciples of Pythagoras, the author argues that both philosophers agree that, contrary to the pagan pantheon, the « One » is the ultimate expression of the divine. Clearly, they were both monotheists and thus their convictions anticipated those of Christianity.

Giles of Viterbo:

Philosophy, which traces and examines all things, judges that all number and multiplicity are absent from God, as Plato and his pupil Aristotle say. Humanity has as its goal the understanding of divine things, as even Aristotle admits in his Ethics.
Thus, if it is necessary to pursue this goal, it is necessary to arrive at the understanding of God.

And he continues:

Now these princes of Philosophy [Plato and Aristotle] can be reconciled, and no matter how much they disagree about creation, the Ideas, or the goal of the Good, these points [of agreement] can be identified and demonstrated (…) [Then], they appear not to disagree with each other at all (…) These great princes can be reconciled if we postulate the double nature of things, one which is free from matter and the other which is within matter (…) Plato follows the first, Aristotle the second, and because of this, these two great leaders of philosophy hardly differ from each other. If you think that we are making this up, listen to them yourselves. For if we speak of humanity, after all the subject of our conversation, then Plato says the same thing, he says humanity is the soul, in the (First) Alcibiades; and in the Timaeus, he says that humanity has two natures, and we know one of these natures by means of the senses, and the other by means of reason. Also, in the same book, he teaches us that each part in us does not exist in isolation from the other, that each nature is concerned with the other nature. Aristotle, in the tenth book of his Ethics, calls humanity Understanding. So you can know that each philosopher (Plato and Aristotle) feels the same way, no matter how much it seems to you that they are not saying the same thing.

Pico della Mirandola the Neo-Platonist

Medal with the effigy of Pico della Mirandola. On the reverse, a deviation from the Platonic theme of the Three Graces (Beauty, Love, Pleasure), an image taken identically from a Roman fresco in Pompeii, which Raphael would in turn take up in his work on the same subject.

Giles of Viterbo, like Tommaso Ingharimi, seems to have taken up the gauntlet thrown to them by John Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), the young disciple of Ficino.

A precocious scholar, a protégé of Lorenzo de’ Medici (like Inghirami), this man of omniscience was fearless. Thus, in 1485, at the age of 23, he announced his project to gather, at his own expense, in the eternal city and capital of Christianity, the greatest scholars of the world to debate the mysteries of theology, philosophy and foreign doctrines. The objective was to go back from scholasticism to Zoroaster, passing by the Arabs, the Kabbalah, Aristotle and Plato, to expose to the eyes of all, the concordance of wisdom. The affair failed. His initiative, which reserved an important place for magic, could only arouse distrust. For the Vatican, all this could only smell of sulfur, and the initiative was discarded at the time.

However, it will mark the minds of a generation. For his Oratio de hominis dignitate, his inaugural speech written in an elegant and almost Ciceronian style, intended for the presentation of his nine hundred theses, published together after his death, was a great success, especially among young scholars like… Inghirami.

Pico’s achievement, which was not well received by the authorities, was to give humanistic studies (studia humanitatis) a new purpose: to seek the concordance of doctrines and define the dignity of the human being. The aim was, by bringing out what unites them despite their differences, to discover their common ground and, by a coincidence of opposites, to have them meet in a unity that transcends them.

Pico della Mirandola:

That is why, not content with having added to the common doctrines a quantity of remarks on the primitive theology of Mercury Trismegistus, on the teachings of the Chaldeans and Pythagoras, on the most secret mysteries of the Jews, we have also proposed for discussion a certain number of discoveries and conceptions of our own in the physical and theological fields. First of all, we have argued that Plato and Aristotle agree: many have thought so before us, no one has proved it sufficiently. Among the Latins, Boethius had promised himself to do so, but there is no indication that he ever realized what was always his project. Among the Greeks, Simplicius had given himself the same program: heaven forbid that he should have lived up to his intentions! Augustine himself, in his work Against the Academicians, writes that many authors have conceived, with great finesse in argumentation, the project of establishing this same point, namely that the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle are one. Thus John the Grammarian [The Hellenist John Lascarus] affirms well that only those who do not hear the words of Plato believe him to be in disagreement with Aristotle, but it is to his successors that he left the care of the demonstration. We have also added various developments where the concordance between the opinions – reputedly discordant – of Scotus and Thomas on the one hand, of Averroes and Avicenna on the other hand, is affirmed. Secondly, our considerations on Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy have been enriched by seventy-two new physical and metaphysical propositions: by making them one’s own, if I am not mistaken (and I will soon be sure of this), one will be able to solve any problem of a natural or theological nature, according to a philosophical method which is quite different from the one taught orally in schools and which is in honor among the doctors of our time.

In a manuscript found unfinished at the time of his death in 1494 and entitled Concordia Platonis et Aristotelis, Pico della Mirandola explicitly mentions Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle‘s Ethics, precisely the two books that appear as attributes of their authors in Raphael’s fresco.

Then, in his Heptaplus, a work he completed in 1489, Pico della Mirandola asserted that the writings of Moses and the Mosaic Law, according to him the foundation of all wisdom, were the basis of Greek civilization before becoming that of the Church of Rome. The Timaeus, the major work of Plato, says Pico, demonstrates that its author was an “attic Moses” (from Athens).

Cicero the Neo-platonist

For Inghirami, fascinated by the eloquence and the style of Cicero (-106/-43 BC) of whom he believed himself the reincarnation, the challenge launched by Pico della Mirandola to reconcile Apollo, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, appeared almost as a divine test and the frescoes of Raphael decorating the Stanza will be above all his answer.

In addition, Cicero himself claimed to be a neo-Platonist. In the first volume of his work, the Academica, after condemning Socrates for continually asking questions without ever « laying the foundations of a system of thought », Cicero asserts, several centuries before Pico della Mirandola, that the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, in essence, « had the same principles »:

In the shadow of Plato’s genius, a fertile, varied, universal genius, a unique philosophy was established under the double banner of the academicians and the peripatetics, who, agreeing on things, differed only on the terms. For Plato, who had made Speusippus, son of his sister, the heir of his philosophy, also left two disciples of great talent and rare science, Xenocrates of Chalcedony and Aristotle of Stagire: those who followed Aristotle, were named peripatetics, because they discussed while walking in the Lyceum; whereas those who, according to the institution of Plato, held their assemblies and disserted in the Academy, the other gymnasium of Athens, received from this place the name of Academicians. But both of them, all penetrated by Plato’s fertile genius, formulated philosophy into a certain complete and finished system, and abandoned the universal doubt of Socrates, and his habit of discussing everything without affirming anything. There was then what Socrates entirely disapproved of, a philosophical science, with regular divisions and a whole methodical apparatus. This philosophy, as I have said, under a double name, was one; for between the doctrine of the peripatetic [Aristotle] and the ancient Academy [Plato] there was no difference. Aristotle prevailed, in my opinion, by the richness of his genius; but the one and the other had the same principles, and judged the goods and the evils in the same way.

Royal Portal of Chartres. In the center, Pythagoras with above him the Quadrivium (the sciences: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music). To his right, a disciple, with above him the Trivium (the humanities: grammar, rhetoric and logic).

Inghirami was also strengthened by the reading of countless Christian authors in this sense, such as the Frenchman, Bernard of Chartres (12th century), a Neoplatonist philosopher who played a fundamental role in the Chartres school, which he founded. He was appointed master (1112) and then became chancellor (1119) responsible for the teaching of the cathedral school.

You wonder the sculptures of Pythagoras and Aristotle appear side by side on the western portal of the cathedral?

Historian Etienne Gilson writes:

Bernard of Chartres was first of all influenced by Boethius, whose Platonism he adapts. He then set out to reconcile Plato’s thought with that of Aristotle, which made him the greatest Aristotelian and Platonic thinker of the 12th century. John of Salisbury affirmed, in the most formal terms, that Bernard of Chartres and his disciples did not believe that they were simply expounding Plato’s thought by explaining in this way the relation of ideas to things, but that they had the pretension of putting Aristotle in agreement with Plato. That the trouble they took was wasted, is what John of Salisbury clearly states. With a very British humor he notes that these philosophers arrived too late and that they worked uselessly to reconcile dead men who had been arguing all their lives.

Inghirami will have read St. Bonaventure (1217-1274), one of the founders of the Franciscan order, who pointed out that Plato and Aristotle each excelled in their own field:

And so it appears that among philosophers, Plato’s gift is to speak of wisdom, Aristotle‘s of science.

Or the Florentine Marsilio Ficino, this neo-Platonic philosopher of the XVth century whose « Platonic Academy » had put in saddle Pico della Mirandola. Ficino, had he not written in his Platonic Theology that

Plato treats natural things divinely while Aristotle treats even divine things naturally.

In the preface he wrote for The Fable of Orpheus, a play written by his disciple Poliziano (1454-1494), Ficino, referring to Saint Augustine, makes the mythical Hermes Trismegistus (Mercury) the first of the theologians: his teaching would have been transmitted successively to Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, Philolaos and finally Plato.

Thereafter, Ficino will place Zoroaster at the head of these prisci theologi, to finally attribute to Zoroaster and Mercury an identical role in the genesis of the ancient wisdom: Zoroaster teaches this one among the Persians at the same time as Trismegistus taught it among the Egyptians.

Preceding Plato, Pythagoras

The great pre-Socratic thinker, Pythagoras of Samo

In Raphael’s School of Athens, the figure of Pythagoras of Samos (580-495 B.C.), surrounded by a group of admirers, takes a major place. He is clearly identifiable by a tablet on which the musical chords and the famous Tetraktys appear, which we will discuss here.

While historians have so far mainly explored the influence of the Platonic and Neo-Platonic currents on the Italian Renaissance, historian Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, in her book Pythagoras and Renaissance Europe, has highlighted the extent to which the ideas of the great pre-Socratic thinker Pythagoras influenced the thought and art of the Renaissance.

Geometry (Thales of Miletus?) and Arithmetic (Pythagoras?), bas-relief by Luca della Robbia, Campanile, Florence.

In art, Pythagoras inspired the Roman architect Vitruvius (90-15 BC), and later such theorists of the golden mean such as the Franciscan monk Luca Pacioli (1445-1517), whose treatise, De Divina Proportiona, illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci, appeared in Venice in 1509.

However, if a theorem, probably from India, bears his name (attributed to Pythagoras by Vitruvius), little is known of his life. Just like Confucius, Socrates and Christ, if we are sure that he really existed, no writing from his hand has come down to us.

By necessity, Pythagoras

became a living legend, and even very active during the Renaissance, so much so that most people saw Plato as a mere « disciple » of the « divine Pythagoras ».

Arabic and Chinese texts demonstrating the theorem attributed in the West to Pythagoras.

Born in the first half of the 6th century B.C. on the island of Samos in Asia Minor, Pythagoras was probably in contact with the school of geometer’s founded by Thales of Miletus (-625/-548 B.C.).

Around the age of 40, he left for Crotone in southern Italy to found a society of friends, both philosophical, political and religious, whose chapters were to multiply.

For Pythagoras, the issue is to build a bridge between man and the divine and on this basis to transform society and the city. When asked about his knowledge, Pythagoras, before Socrates and Cusa, asserted that he knew nothing, but that he sherished « the love of wisdom ». The word philo-sophy would have thus been born.

No Christian humanist, reading Saint Jerome (347-420), one of the Fathers of the Catholic Church, could escape the praise that the latter gives to Pythagoras.

In his polemic Apology against the Books of Rufinus, Jerome, in order to evoke an exemplary behavior, quotes what two disciples of Pythagoras would have said:

We must by all possible means avoid softness of the body, ignorance of the spirit, intemperance, civil dissensions, domestic dissensions and in general excess in all things.

And Jerome invokes the « Precepts of Pythagoras » :

Everything must be common among friends; a friend is another ourselves. We must consider two periods in life, the morning and the evening, that is, what we have done and what we must do. After God, we must seek the truth, which alone can bring men closer to the Creator.”

Secondly, Jerome believes that Pythagoras, in affirming the concept of the immortality of the soul, preceded Christianity:

Listen to what Pythagoras was the first to find in Greece, Jerome says: That souls are immortal, that they pass from one body into another, and, it is Virgil himself who tells us in the sixth book of the Aeneid: When they have made a revolution of a thousand years, God calls them in great numbers to the banks of the river Lethe, so that they may undoubtedly see again the heaven they no longer remember; it is then that they begin again to revive a new body, which first was Euphorbus, then Calide, then Hermoticus, then Perhius and finally Pythagoras ; and that after a certain time what has existed begins to be born again, that there is nothing new in the world, that philosophy is a collection of meditations on death, that every day it strives to free the soul from the chains that bind it to the body and to give it back its freedom. Plato communicates many other ideas in his writings, especially in the Phaedo and in the Timaeus.

The hidden geometry of numbers

For Pythagoras « the beginning is half of everything ». According to Theon of Smyrna (v. 70/v. 135), for the philosopher, « numbers are, so to speak, the principle, the source and the root of all things ».

Aristotle, in his Metaphysics reports:

The Pythagoreans first applied themselves to mathematics… Finding that things [including musical sounds] model their nature mainly on the set of numbers and that numbers are the first principles of the whole of nature, the Pythagoreans concluded that the elements of numbers are also the elements of everything that exists, and they made the world a harmony and a number.

And as Cleinias of Tarantum (4th century BC), a Pythagorean friend of Plato, said:

When these things, therefore, are at rest, they give birth to mathematics and geometry, when they are in motion to the harmonica and astronomy.

The idea of the « monad », a dynamic unity participating in the One, perfected several centuries later by the philosopher and scientist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) in his « Monadology« , comes to us from this period. Etymologically meaning « unity » (monas), it is the supreme unity (the One, God, the principle of numbers) which, while being at the same time the minimal unity, reflects in the microcosm the same dynamic activity that the One represents in the macrocosm.

Already, just the name of Apollo (a god considered as « the father » of Pythagoras) means, as Plato, Plutarch and other ancient authors point out: free of all multiplicity (Pollo = multiplicity; a-pollo = non-multiple).

Xenophanes of Colophones (born around 580 BC), asserts the existence of a unique God governing all things by the power of his intelligence. It is about a god not similar to the men, because eternal, incorporeal and spherical.

The triangular numbers: 1, 3, 6 and 10. Note the presence of a hexagon inside the number 10, the famous Tetraktys of Pythagoras.

As much as this conception of a dynamic One has sometimes provoked an explosion of esoteric interpretations, it has stimulated the most creative minds and terrorized the formalists of thought.

When speaking about simple things, arithmetic numbers, Pythagoras uses the terms of one, two, three, four, five, ten…, while to evoke ideal numbers and their power, he speaks about: monad, dyad, triad, tetrad, decad, etc. Thus, by conceiving numbers in a non-linear but figurative way, he offers an arithmetic applicable to astronomy, music and architecture. By arranging these numbers, like marbles, in a particular way, Pythagoras discovered the famous « geometry of numbers ». For example, in the case of triangular numbers, three points form a triangular surface. If we add three points below, we find the number 6, but it is still a triangle. And if we add four more points, we get the number 10, still a triangular number.

The Patriarch of Constantinople Photius (810-893) confirms that :

The Pythagoreans proclaimed that the complete number is ten.
The number ten, is a compound of the first four numbers that we count in their order. That is why they called Tetraktys the whole constituted by this number.

Besides the plane and triangular numbers (1, 3, 6, 10, etc.), Pythagoras explored the square numbers (1, 4, 9, 16, …), rectangular, cubic, pyramidal, star-shaped, etc. In doing so, Aristoxenus said, Pythagoras had « raised arithmetic above the needs of merchants ». This approach, that of seeing harmony above and within the multiple, has inspired many scientists throughout history. One thinks of Mendeleev for the elaboration of his table of elements or of Einstein.

The power of numbers was also well understood by the cardinal-philosopher Nicolaus of Cusa, who evokes Pythagoras in the first chapter of his treatise De Docta Ignorantia (1440), when he states that :

All those who search, judge the uncertain by comparing it to a certain presupposition by a system of proportions. All research is therefore comparative, and uses the means of proportion: if the object of research can be compared to the presupposition by a small proportional reduction, the judgment of apprehension is easy; but if we need many intermediaries, then difficulty and pain arise. This is well known in mathematics: the first propositions are easily brought back to the first principles which are very well known, whereas the following ones, because they need the intermediary of the first ones, have more difficulty. Therefore, all research consists of a comparative proportion, easy or difficult, and this is why the infinite, which escapes, as infinite, from all proportion, is unknown. Now, the proportion which expresses agreement in a thing on the one hand and otherness on the other hand, cannot be understood without the number. This is why the number encloses all that is susceptible of proportions. Therefore, it does not create a proportion in quantity only, but in everything that, in some way, by substance or by accident, can agree and differ. Therefore, Pythagoras strongly believed that everything was constituted and understood by the power of numbers. Now, the precision of combinations in material things and the exact adaptation of the known to the unknown are so far above human reason that Socrates considered that he knew nothing but his ignorance; at the same time as the very wise Solomon affirms that all things are difficult and that language cannot explain them.

The Geometry of numbers,
the secret of mental calculations

Here is a simple example.

One day, in Göttingen, the teacher of the young German mathematician Carl Gauss (1777-1855) asked his students to calculate the sum of all the numbers from one to one hundred. The students did so and began to add the numbers 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5, etc.

The young Gauss raises his hand and, following a mental calculation, announces the result of the operation: « 5050, Sir! »

The teacher, surprised, asks him how he arrived at the result so quickly. The young Gauss explains: to see if there is a geometry in the number 100, I added the first digit (1) with the last (100). This gives 101. Now, if I add the second digit (2) with the second to last one (99), it also makes 101. I concluded that within the number 100 there are fifty pairs of even and odd numbers whose sum is 101 each time. Thus, by multiplying 101 by the number of couples (50), I immediately arrive at 5050.

From Pythagoras to Plato

For Pythagoras, the most perfect surface is the circle and the ideal volume is the sphere since regular polyhedra can be inscribed. According to one of his disciples, the Italian Philolaus of Croton (-470/-390 BC), Pythagoras would have been the first to define the five regular polyhedrons:

  • the cube,
  • the tetrahedron (a pyramid with 4 triangular faces),
  • the octahedron (composed of 8 triangles),
  • the icosahedron (64 triangles) and
  • the dodecahedron (composed of 12 pentagons).

Since Plato describes them in his work, the Timaeus, these regular polyhedra took the name of « Platonic solids ». Let’s recall that Plato went to Italy several times, notably to meet his close friend, the great Pythagorean scientist, astronomer, musical theorist and political leader, Archytas of Tarantum (-428/-387), considered today as « the father of robotics ».

A direct disciple of Philolaos, Archytas became the mathematics teacher of the brilliant Greek astronomer and physician Eudoxus of Cnidus (-408/-355).

A geometrical vision of numbers allows to see how their power increases. For example, by going from the number 3 to the number 4, one goes from the second dimension to the third.

Starting with Archytas, the Pythagoreans associate the 1 to the point, the 2 to the line, the 3 to the surface (the two-dimensional geometrical figure: circle, triangle, square…), the 4 to the solid (the three-dimensional geometrical figure: tetrahedron, cube, sphere, etc.).

Let’s add that in the Timaeus, one of Plato’s last dialogues, after a brief exchange with Socrates, Critias and Hermocrates, the Pythagorean philosopher Timaeus of Locri (5th century BC) exposes a reflection on the origin and the nature of the physical world and of the human soul seen as the works of a demiurge while addressing the questions of scientific knowledge and the place of mathematics in the explanation of the world.

Cicero (Republic, I, X, 16) specifies that Timaeus of Locri was an intimate of Plato:

No doubt you have learned, Tuberon, that after the death of Socrates, Plato went first to Egypt to learn, then to Italy and Sicily, in order to learn all about the discoveries of Pythagoras.
There he lived for a long time in the intimacy of Archytas of Taranto and Timaeus of Locri, and had the chance to obtain the Commentaries of Philolaos.

The music of the spheres

Luca della Robbia: Pythagoras discovering harmony.

A magnificent bas-relief on the campanile of the Florence cathedral reflects what the early Italian humanists knew about Pythagoras.

Luca della Robbia (1399-1482), the sculptor working on the instructions of the humanist chancellor of Florence Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), shows Pythagoras, a large hammer in one hand, a small hammer in the other, striking an anvil and concentrating his mind on the difference in the sounds he produces.

Pythagoras among the blacksmiths.

According to the legend, Pythagoras was walking near a forge when his attention was caught by the sound of hammers striking the anvil. He discerned in his ear the same consonances as those he could produce with his lyre. His intuition led to a fundamental discovery: musical sounds are governed by numbers.

This is how Guido d’Arezzo (992-1050), the Benedictine monk who created the system of musical notation still in use, relates the event in the last chapter (XX) of his book Micrologus around 1026:

A certain Pythagoras, a great philosopher, was traveling adventurously; he came to a workshop where an anvil was being struck with five hammers. Amazed by the pleasant harmony [concordiam] they produced, our philosopher approached them and, believing at first that the quality of sound and harmony [modulationis] lay in the different hands, he interchanged the hammers. When this was done, each hammer retained its own sound. After having removed one that was dissonant, he weighed the others, and, admirably, by the grace of God, the first weighed twelve, the second nine, the third eight, the fourth six of I don’t know what unit of weight. He thus knew that the science [scientiam] of music resided in the proportion and ratio of numbers [in numerorum proportione et collatione] […] What can we say about the science of music? […] What more can be said? By arranging the notes according to the intervals mentioned above, the illustrious Pythagoras was the first to perfect the monochord. As it is not lasciviousness that one finds there, but a fast revelation of the knowledge of our art, it met a general assent among the scholars. And this art has gradually been affirmed and developed to this day, for the Master himself always illuminates the human darkness and his supreme Wisdom endures for all centuries. Amen.

Here, the diagram (found on a slate placed at the feet of Pythagoras in Raphael’s fresco), which visualizes the musical harmonies obtained by dividing a string. Dividing it in two gives the octave, in three the fifth and in four the fourth. Finally, epogdoon (from the prefix epi- meaning above and ogdoon meaning the eighth) translates the interval of 9/8, which here corresponds to the tone.


The diagram (visible on the slate placed at the feet of Pythagoras in Raphael’s fresco), which visualizes the musical harmonies that are obtained by dividing a string. Dividing it in two gives the octave, in three the fifth and in four the fourth. Finally, epogdoon (from the prefix epi- meaning above and ogdoon meaning the eighth) translates the interval of 9/8, which corresponds here to the tone.

Let’s go back to the harmonic ratios that Pythagoras discovered from the weights of the hammers: 12, 9, 8 and 6.

  • The ratio between 12 and 6 is the half and corresponds to the octave (diapason). It is found on a musical instrument by vibrating half a string;
  • The ratio between 12 and 8 is a ratio of two thirds, which corresponds to the fifth (diapente);
  • The ratio between 8 and 6, is a ratio of three quarters, which corresponds to the fourth (diatessaron);
  • Finally, the ratio between 8 and 9 gives the interval of a tone (epogdoon, the prefix epi- meaning above and ogdoon meaning the eighth).
Illustration from the treatise Theorica musiche (1480, Naples), by the theorist and composer Franchini Gaffurio (1451-1522), a friend and colleague of Leonardo da Vinci at the Sforza court in Milan.

Later, the Pythagoreans transposed the same proportions to other objects, including volumes of water in glasses, the size of bells as well as bronze disks or the length of strings of musical instruments or flutes. For Pythagoras, this experience is fundamental because it corroborates the basic intuition of his philosophy: everything that exists is number, including phenomena as immaterial as musical intervals. In a famous passage of the Timaeus (35-36), Plato describes the fabrication of the proportions of the World Soul by the Demiurge. This passage is based on the numerical series 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 8, 27, which corresponds to the fusion of the series of the first powers of 2 (2, 4, 8) and the series of the first powers of 3 (3, 9, 27). Now, from this series, we can derive the numerical relationships on which the musical intervals are based.

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle also notes :

The Pythagoreans noticed that the whole of the modes of musical harmony and the relations which compose it are resolved in proportional numbers.

With the French philosopher Pierre Magnard, we would rather say:

If to know is to measure, music is the art of pursuing measurement beyond the threshold of incommensurability. When numerical, metric and weight standards are no longer capable of establishing proportions between natural realities, harmony comes to the rescue of its own scales – diatonic, chromatic, enharmonic – and of its intervals – fifth, fourth, third, octave – to make up for the lack of calculation.

Finally, as the Roman musicologist Theon of Smyrna (70-135) stated:

The Pythagoreans assert that music is a harmonic combination of opposites, a unification of multiples and an agreement of opposites.

In addition, for the Pythagoreans, music also had an ethical and medical value:

He started education with music, using certain melodies and rhythms, thanks to which he healed the character traits and passions of men, and brought harmony between the faculties of the soul.

All this made Pythagoras the incarnation of a cosmic and universal harmony**. Moreover, he would have been the first to have used the word « cosmos » (perfection, order).

A page from The Harmony of the World by Johannes Kepler.

Pythagoras, praised by the first true astrophysicist Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), is said to have been the first to coin the concept of « the music of the spheres » or « the harmony of the spheres ».

For, as Sextus Empiricus (towards the end of the second century) states in his Pyrrhonian sketches, Pythagoras would have noted that the distances between the orbits of the Sun, the Moon and the fixed stars correspond to the proportions regulating the intervals of the octave, the fifth and the fourth. In the Republic, Plato states that astronomy and music are « sister sciences ».

A page of the Harmony of the World where the astronomer Johannes Kepler evokes the music of the spheres.

Copernicus admits that the work of the Pythagoreans inspired his own research:

Others think that the Earth moves. Thus, Philolaos the Pythagorean says that the Earth moves around the Fire in an oblique circle, as do the Sun and the Moon. Heraclitus of Pontus and Ecphantos the Pythagorean do not, it is true, give the Earth a translational motion [motion around the Sun, heliocentrism]… Starting from this, I too began to think of the mobility of the Earth

(Copernicus, letter to Pope Paul III, preface to De revolutionibus orbium caestium [On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs], 1543).

The name Pythagoras (etymologically, Pyth-agoras: « he who was announced by the Pythia », the goddess), derives from the announcement of his birth made by the oracle to his father during a trip to Delphi. However, legend has it that Pythagoras was the son of Apollo, the god of light, poetry and music.

According to the oldest pre-Socratic traditions, Apollo had conceived a plan to control the universe. This plan was revealed in « the music of the spheres » under the wise supervision of Apollo, the sun god and god of music; a Greek god who passed to the Romans without changing his name. Apollo is represented with a crown of laurels and a lyre, surrounded by the nine muses.


After reviewing the political situation of the time, the motivations of Pope Julius II and his advisors seeking to re-establish the authority of a « Triumphant Church, » the ultimate culmination for centuries to come of a culture that goes back to Apollo, Moses, Pythagoras, Plato, Cicero and their disciples, the viewer now has some solid « keys » (the « codes ») in hand that will allow him or her to « read » Raphael’s frescoes adorning the Stanza.

Without Raphael’s account of his work, this reading remains an obstacle course. For example, the identification of the figures remains uncertain, since, with a few rare exceptions, no tablet tells us this. The idea, in any case, is that the spectator, by analyzing the appearance and gestures of each one, discovers for himself who is represented.

As we said, when entering the room, the viewer is immediately asked to appreciate each fresco not in isolation, but as an expression of a coherent whole.

When entering the Stanza, as if inside a painted cube, one immediately realizes that one is facing a theatrical setting. For the great vaults that the spectator discovers are only painted images and do not respond to any structural reality of the building. Inghirami was a speaker, an actor and a director who knew who should appear where, with what attitude and dressed in what way. Thanks to this imagination, a room that was at first sight rectangular and boring, was transformed into a spherical cube because the corners of the room were « rounded » with stucco.


The ceiling of the Signing Chamber: at the centre, the coat of arms of Julius II (A). Then four circles with Philosophy (B), Theology (C ), Poetry (D) and Justice (E).

From the thematic point of view, the visual path, as one might expect, begins on the ceiling and ends on the floor. In the center of the ceiling, a small circle with the coat of arms of Julius II. Around it, an octagon surrounded by four circles connected by four rectangles. Each of the four circles touches the top of one of the four vaults painted on the four walls and shows an allegorical figure and a text announcing the theme of the large frescoes below.

Each time, it is a question of emphasizing the harmony uniting all the opposing (circle, square) parts. While the real incompatibilities are left to the checkroom, the oppositions and the formal differences will even be strongly emphasized, but exclusively to show that one can accommodate them by submitting them to a higher design.

The four circular frescoes decorating the ceiling of the Signature Chamber. Starting at the top left and going clockwise: Theology, Philosophy, Justice and Poetry.

Thus two double themes (2 x 2) are articulated:

  • Philosophy (the true accessible by reason), nicknamed The School of Athens, and Theology (the Truth accessible by divine revelation), nicknamed since the Council of Trent, the « Dispute of the Holy Sacrament »; a theme common to Aquinas and the neo-Platonists.
  • Poetry and music (the Beautiful), and Justice (the Just), a theme of Ciceronian origin.
  • Above the theme Philosophy, in one of the four circles, is represented by a woman wearing a dress with each of the four colors symbolizing the four elements evoked by a motif: blue illustrates the stars, red the tongues of fire, green the fish and golden brown the plants. Philosophy holds two books entitled « Morality » and « Nature », while two small genius (geniuses) carry tablets on which one can read « CAUSARUM » and « COGNITO », read together meaning « To know the causes ». Clearly, the aim of moral and natural philosophy is to know the causes, that is to say to go back to God.
  • Above Theology, a woman dressed in red and green, colors of the theological virtues. In her left hand, she holds a book, her right hand points to the fresco below. Two geniuses carry tablets saying « DIVINAR.RER » and « NOTITIA », « The revelation of sacred things ».
  • Above Poetry, the winged figure of the Poetry carrying lyre and crown of laurels. Two putti (cherubs) present us with tablets on which are inscribed the words of Virgil: « Inspired by the spirit » (NVMINE AFFLATVR). Since we are dealing with puttis and not geniuses, there is a clear reference to the Christian spirit that inspires the arts.
  • Finally, above the last fresco, Justice, a woman holds the attributes of justice: the scales and the sword. Two putti carry tablets with the words of the Emperor Justinian: « IVS SVVM VNICUMQUE », that is, « to each his just punishment ».

Then, still on the ceiling, as we have indicated, there are four rectangular frescoes connecting the four circles whose theme we have just specified. Again, these are two pairs that complement each other.

In the four squares: A. Wisdom, the first mover; B. The Fall with Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise; C. The Judgment of Salomon; D. The triumph of Apollo over Marsyas in the fight for the lyre.

A. A first rectangular fresco, linking Philosophy with Poetry, shows us a woman (wisdom, the first mover) here as the first cause and setting a celestial globe in motion and thus the universe in action. It may be the mythical Sibyl mentioned by Heraclitus, a superhuman incarnation of the prophetic voice. Philosophically, it is an allegory of the creation of the universe (or Astronomy). The constellation that appears on the globe has been identified. It corresponds to the sky map of the night of October 31, 1503, the date of the election of Julius II… which of course the date he became the “prime mover” of the universe.

B. The second rectangle, diametrically opposed to the first one and linking Justice to Theology, represents « Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise ». Considered as the beginning of theology, « The Fall of Man », will be repaired by the « redemption » that the Church and Pope Julius II will bring, embodied by the creative wisdom putting the universe back into motion.

C. The third rectangle, linking Philosophy and Justice, represents « The Judgment of Solomon, » a scene showing King Solomon’s wise judgment when two mothers claimed the same child.

D. And finally, the fourth, at the other end of the diagonal, connecting Poetry and Theology, represents, not « The Flogging of Marsyas » as has been claimed, but another rather rare scene, « The Triumph of Apollo over Marsyas » in the struggle for the lyre. The latter receives a crown of laurels. The two judgments are based on different bases for their mutual appreciation. While King Solomon, representing the Old Testament, judges on the basis of the divine law, Apollo, who represents antiquity here, prevails thanks to the rules of the pagan pantheon, his will power.



Theology (Dispute of the Holy Sacrament)

*In the upper (celestial) register :
A. God the Father, B. Jesus Christ, C. Mary, D. St. John the Baptist, E. Apostle Peter, F. Adam, G. St. John the Evangelist, H. King David, I. St. Lawrence, J. Judas Maccabaeus, K. St. Stephen, L. St. Stephen, M. Moses, N. James the Greater, O. Abraham, P. St. Paul, SE. Holy Spirit.

*In the lower (earthly) register:
1. Fra Angelico, 2. ?, 3. Donato Bramente, 4. ?, 5. ?, 6. Pico della Mirandola, 7. ?, 8. ?, 9. ?, 10. Saint Gregory, 11. Saint Jerome, 12. ?, 13. ?, 14. ?, 15. ?, 16. Saint Ambrose, 17. Saint Augustine, 18. Saint Thomas of Aquinas, 19. pope Innocent III, 20. Saint Bonaventure, 21. pope Sixtus IV, 22. Dante Alighieri, 23. ?, 24. ?; 25. a mason, 26. ?, 27. ?

Historians tell us that it was the first fresco to be made. The core subject here is the Trinity and « transubstantiation », a supernatural phenomenon signifying the conversion of one substance into another, in the case of Christians, the conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist under the action of the Holy Spirit. This meant a « real presence » of God at mass and thus a major attraction to attract the faithful and a precondition to obtain « indulgences » from him. For some humanists, such as the Swiss Protestant Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), any doctrine of the real presence is idolatry because it would be tantamount to worshiping bread and wine as if it were God.

Erasmus, for whom the performance of rituals should never be a substitute for true faith, explains that when Christ said to his disciples, in offering them bread, « this is my body » and « this is my blood, » in offering them wine, he was in reality talking metaphorically, not of bread and wine, but of his disciples (his body) and his teaching (his blood).

The idea of the composition is to show the triumph of the unity of the Church in Christ in all its complexities and diversities. The scene takes place on two levels, one celestial and the other terrestrial, lining up, as in a theater, a vast variety of actors presenting themselves to the public.

Above, in the celestial register, the heart of the subject, « the Trinity » with God the Father (A) blessing enthroned above a Christ (C) surrounded by Mary (B) (the New Testament) on his right and St. John the Baptist (D) (the Old Testament) on his left, themselves appearing above a dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit (SE).

Around them, to match the architecture of the School of Athens opposite, sit peacefully on a semi-circular cloud bench, the remarkable figures of the Church Triumphant, accompanied by their traditional attributes and dressed in colorful garments specific to each.

At the ends of the semicircle, two apostles: the Apostle Peter (E), representing the Jews, and the Apostle Paul (P), representing the Gentiles, face each other, as if they were the outer guards of the triumphant Church, the custodians of both the key and the letter of it. The Old Testament is represented by Adam (F) facing Abraham (O), and Moses (M) facing King David (H) with his harp in hand. The New Testament is also represented by St. John (G) facing St. Matthew (N) (two authors of the Gospel), by St. Lawrence (I) and St. Stephen (L) (both martyred saints).

At the bottom, in the terrestrial register, there is an enormous altar (Y) on which is written (in the middle) « IV LI VS » (Julius). A golden monstrance (X) with a host in its center proclaims the presence of Christ in the mystery of transubstantiation. Next to it, the Doctors of the Church of the early days of Christianity: on the left (under the features of Julius II) St. Gregory (No. 10), the great reformer of the ritual and the chant of the Mass, next to St. Jerome (No. 11), the most profound scholar of Christianity), accompanied by his lion. On his right Saint Augustine (N° 17) and Saint Ambrose (N° 16). These four doctors are, unlike the other figures, seated, which already brings them closer to the figures in the heavens; we can also distinguish two later doctors who are St. Thomas Aquinas (No. 18), a Dominican; and St. Bonaventure (No. 20), a Franciscan.

The historian Konrad Oberhuber, adds that these last two,

embody two tendencies of the Church: one that sees its essence of Christianity in ritual and devout adoration (the dimension of feeling), the other that defends the importance of theology (the dimension of thought).

Only two figures appear twince in Raphael’s frescoes: Dante Aleghieri and Pico della Mirandola. The latter, here on the left, dressed in white, in Philosophy, on the right, dressed in yellow in Theology.

Then, Popes Innocent III (1160-1216) (N° 19), the most powerful pope of the Middle Ages who established the political independence of Rome) and Sixtus IV (1414-1471) (N° 21, Francesco della Rovere by name) rub shoulders with religious figures such as the Dominican Savonarola (instigator in 1494 in Florence of a political revolution (return to the Republic) and moral revolution (rechristianization) or, the painter Fra Angelico (N° 1), contemporary of Savonarola, admired for his frescoes and his sublime paintings, accompanied by Dante Alighieri (N° 20), whose Divine Comedy (with hell, purgatory and paradise) had an influence on theology in the Middle Ages, Donato Bramante (N° 3), the famous architect of St. Peter’s Basilica, not forgetting Pico della Mirandola (N° 6), (mistaken for Francesco Maria della Rovere) who, with his hair blowing in the wind, is pointing towards the Trinity in a light and graceful wiggle. On the right, masons (N° 22), who build churches, bend forward. If on the right, behind the figures, the white marble foundations (Z), allude to the new St. Peter’s Basilica whose reconstruction Julius II has just launched, on the left, a village church (Q) reminds us that Christianity must penetrate the daily life of the humble.



A beautiful central view perspective shows a get together of 58 Greek and other thinkers in an ideal temple. No chiaroscuro effect disturbs the balance of the colors and the clarity of the composition.

The American thinker Lyndon LaRouche (1922-2019), during his visit to the Vatican, marveled at the graceful harmony that radiates from this work. It could not help but resonate with a concept LaRouche developed throughout his life: that of the « simultaneity of eternity »; the poetic idea that « immortal » ideas continue their dialogue in a place beyond material time and space.

According to historians, Raphael, faced with the Herculean task of creating this series of portraits, and lacking reliable visual data about the figures to be portrayed, sent one of his assistants to Greece to collect indications and provide him with documentation to meet the challenge.

Small detail: the event doesn’t take place in Athens or Greece, but in Rome. The architecture is clearly inspired by the church of Sant’Andrea of Mantua, renovated shortly before his death by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) and by Bramante‘s plans for the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is Rome set to become the new Athens.

Nave of the church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, built in 1473 by the architect Leon Battista Alberti.

Although the steps can be found in the preparatory drawings, the large arches with their coffered vaults, typical of the dome of the Roman Pantheon, do not appear. Another probable source of inspiration is the arches, also with coffered vaults, the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, built in Rome at the beginning of the 4th century to reaffirm the power of the beauty of the Eternal City.

It is not excluded that Bramante himself, who had made a tromp-l’oeil using this type of pattern in the apse of the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro in Milan, designed them in person. With three arches (tetrad) and seven rows of caissons, Pythagorean numerology is never far away.

Visually, the ensemble is divided in two. The audience is on the same level as the foreground, a paved parterre behind which a very wide staircase leads to a raised forecourt. For the viewer, a slightly cavalier perspective reinforces the monumental dimension of the figures on the upper level. This setting is inevitably reminiscent of a theater stage.

The actors, arriving from the old world, can enter the stage on one side, under the statue of the Greek god Apollo (A), god of light, and leave on the other, towards the new world, under the statue of Pallas Athena (B), which became Minerva in Roman times, protector of the Arts, to exchange ideas with each other, address the audience or climb the stairs and leave through the back.

In the center of the square and in the center of a perspective with a central point of view, Plato (N° 9) and Aristotle (N° 10) don’t confront each other but move forward, side by side, towards the viewers (and the Triumphant Church on the opposing wall).

The first one, with the Timaeus in his hand, points a finger towards the sky, meaning that beyond the visible, a higher principle exists. The second one extends his arm and his hand horizontally underlining that all truth comes to us from the testimony of the senses, while carrying the Ethics with the other arm.

Strangely, these are the only two books in the stanza whose names appear in Italian (Timeo, Etica) and not in Latin. As the art critic Eugenio Battisti (1924-1989) observed:

If we (…) examine the titles of the works respectively held by Plato and Aristotle, we see the philosopher of the Academy holding the Timaeus, that is to say the most Aristotelian and the most systematic of his works and the Stagirite, the Nicomachean Ethics, that is to say the most Platonic of his works.

Even the choice of the colors of the clothes emphasizes complementarity: Plato is dressed in red (fire) and purple (ether); Aristotle in blue (water) and yellow (earth).

The colors of the clothes of the two philosophers symbolize the four elements: Plato is dressed in red (fire) and purple (ether); Aristotle in blue (water) and yellow (earth).

If the whole fresco cuts the world in two between Platonists and Aristotelians, both walk together towards what is in front of them and behind the spectator who looks: towards the fresco of Theology with the Trinity in the center without forgetting the monstrance and the imposing altar on which is marked « JV-LI-VS PON TI CUS ». How generous of the Church to welcome so many pagans into its midst!

Plato and Aristote walk toward this alter in front of them, on which one can read twice (in the center and on the top): « Julius »

Raphael however communicates a great sense of movement. In the same way that the Dutch painter Rembrandt, in his 17th century masterpiece The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, known as The Night Watch, broke with the formal representations of the dignitaries of the city guilds, Raphael here drew a line under the frozen and static representations of the series of « great men » often decorating the palaces and libraries of the great princes and lords in the style of his master Perugino.

His fresco, like Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan, is organized as a sequence of small groups of three or four people conversing with a great thinker or each other, never out of sync with what is happening around them. In this sense, Raphael translated into images, and thus made accessible to the eyes of the spectators, that harmonic unity transcending the multiple so sought after by the commissioners.

Raphael and Inghirami did not hesitate to use portraits of people living in their time to represent historical figures. In addition to themselves, there are their patrons, colleagues and other personalities whom they hoped to please or charm.

In the foreground, four groups are shown.

Raphael’s impresario, the Pope’s chief librarian, Tommaso Inghirami as Epicurus in Raphael’s fresco. He wears not a laurel wreath, but oak leaves, the coat of arms of Pope Julius II.

On the left, Epicurus (N° 25), here with the features of Inghirami writing the setting of the play. Born in Samos like Pythagoras, he wears here, not a crown of laurels, reward given to great orators, but a crown of oak leaves, symbols that we find in the coat of arms of pope Julius II.

Some historians believe that Inghirami was a Dionysian follower of Orphism, another pre-Socratic current. Dionysus is indeed the brother of Apollo and according to some, their teachings are one and the same.

As mentioned above, shortly after Raphael’s death (1520), Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto published a treatise in which Inghirami defends rhetoric and denies any value of philosophy, his main argument being that everything written is already in the mystical and mythological texts of Orpheus and his followers.

In Rome, the scholars of the time knew Epicurus mainly through their readings of Cicero for whom Epicurus was not a debauchee but someone who sought the noblest pleasure. Cicero had a friendship with an Epicurean philosopher, a certain Phaedrus, as it happens the nickname of Inghirami…

Finally, on the extreme left, there is an old bearded man, the Greek thinker Metrodorus (N° 26), disciple of Anaxagoras and for whom it is « the acting spirit » that organized the World. In front of him, a newborn baby. Together they could symbolize the birth of truth (the child) and wisdom (the old man) and experience.

Pythagoras of Samos, in The Philosophy. On the slate, at the bottom, the famous Tetraktys, at the top, the harmonic ratios of the musical scale.

Next to him, a little more in the center, the imposing figure of Pythagoras (N° 22) (whom the Italian historian Georgio Vasari mistook for the evangelist Saint Matthew), seated with a book, an inkwell and a pencil, writing surrounded by visibly intrigued people. Behind him, seated on the left, an old man, representing Boethius (N° 23), Roman author, in the sixth century, of a treatise on music, the first part of which evokes « the harmony of the spheres », tries to look at what he is writing in his book. Without capturing a moment of potential transformation, as Leonardo knew how to do, the scene is obviously inspired by his unfinished painting, the Adoration of the Magi.

At his feet, a black slate with the famous Tetraktys and a diagram of musical intervals (see our section in this article on Pythagoras).

Since it is totally unthinkable that it is Averroes (banned from the Church, as said, by Aquinas), the turbaned man who seems to admire him could be Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (N° 24). This Persian physician, influenced by the thought of both Hippocrates and Galen, in his Qanûn (of Medecine), operates a vast medico-philosophical synthesis of Aristotle‘s logic (which he corrects) and neo-Platonism, compatible with monotheism.

It could also be Al Fârâbi (872-950), another Arab scientist and musician who sought to reconcile faith, reason and science with the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, whose translations from Greek into Arabic he had made. Avicenna admired him and the title of one of Al Fârâbî’s works leaves no ambiguity: The Harmony of the Opinions of the Two Sages: Plato the Divine and Aristotle.

Moreover, given his position on the side of the Platonists, although he wears a white turban, it is totally excluded that he is Averroes (Ibn Rushd), an author struck down by Aquinas (see the paintings showing The Triumph of Saint Thomas) and then by the Neoplatonists of Florence for having denied the immortality of the individual soul.

More in the center of the fresco, two isolated figures immersed in their thoughts. The first, on the left, appears to have been added later by Raphael and is not in his drawing. The man is dozing on a cube, a Pythagorean volume par excellence. It is thought to be Heraclitus of Ephesus (No. 19) (an Ionian pre-Socratic for whom « there is nothing permanent but change ») with the features of Michelangelo. This sculptor fascinated Raphael, not only for his gifts in drawing, anatomy and architecture, but also for his spirit of independence from a pope he considered tyrannical.

It should be noted that the Moses that Michelangelo sculpted for the tomb of Julius II is said to be looking at him with anger because the artist captured the moment when Moses, coming down from Mount Sinai with the Tables of the Law, noticed that the Hebrew people had returned to worshiping idols, such as « the Golden Calf ». Irritated by this return to idolatry, Moses broke the Tables of the Law.

From Pythagoras to Plato.
One detail raises questions: Anaximander of Miletus places his right foot on a cubic block of marble whose volume seems to be eight times smaller than the one on which Heraclitus of Ephesus rests. However, to solve the problem of Delos (the duplication of the volume of the cube) it is necessary to wait for the Pythagorean and friend of Plato, Archytas of Taranto.

Anaximander of Miletus (N° 20) (and not Parmenides), also a representative of the Ionian school, stands behind Heraclitus and seems to contest the demonstration of Pythagoras (representative of the so-called « Italian » school). Behind him, a young man with long hair, looks at the spectator. Dressed in a white toga, an attribute of the Pythagoreans, he is once again Pico della Mirandola (N° 21), triumphant and surrounded by Pythagoras and two of his disciples. Legend has it that Raphael portrayed Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 370-415), a mathematician who headed the Neoplatonist school in Alexandria. When one of the cardinals examined the painting and knew that the woman depicted was Hypatia, he is said to have ordered that she be removed from it. Raphael is said to have obeyed, but replaced her with the effeminate figure of a nephew of Pope Julius II, Francesco Maria Della Rovere, future Duke of Urbino…

If this is really Pico della Mirandola, it would be a superb piece of praise, for appearing in both Philosophy and Theology, the two images of Pico, reminiscent of the kneeling angel looking at the viewer while pointing at St. John the Baptist in Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks, can contemplate each other!

The second isolated figure, nonchalantly spread out on the stairs, is the cynical and hedonistic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (N° 18), here presented as an ascetic, but in the Aristotelian tradition.

The geometer (Hippocrates of Chios?).
Slate of the geometer.

Then, in the center right, an inspiring group of young people, amazed by their discoveries and exchanging their complicit glances with their comrades, around a surveyor who is examining or drawing with a compass parallel lines inside a hexagonal star on a slate laid on the ground.

This is an illustration of a theorem that neither Euclid (an Aristotelian) nor Archimedes mentioned, although the identity of one or the other is attributed to this figure in the guise of the architect Donato Bramante.

It could be, it is my conviction, the geometer Hippocrates of Chios (N° 17) of which Aristotle speaks in great good. He wrote the first mathematics textbook, entitled The Elements of Geometry. This work precedes Euclid’s Elements by a century. Unless we are talking about the architect Leon Battista Alberti, whose church in Mantua may have inspired Bramante and after all, author, in 1435, of De Pictura, a treatise (of Aristotelian spirit) on perspective.

However, in 1485, in his treatise on architecture De re Aedificatoria, Alberti, in a passage (IX, 5) that may have been of interest to the author of the fresco, stressed that:

“Beauty consists in a harmony and in an agreement of the parts with the whole, in accordance with determinations of number, proportionality and order such as the harmony requires it, that is to say the absolute and sovereign law of the nature.”

On the edge of the tunic: R.V.S.M. (Raphael Vrbinas Sua Manu, meaning: « By the Hand of Raphael of Urbino »).

Finally, to add to the mystery, on the collar of the tunic of this figure can be read: « R.V.S.M. » (Raphael Vrbinas Sua Manu), meaning « By the Hand of Raphael of Urbino »).

For what the surveyor is addressing on the slate is the role played by the diagonals of the hexagon. The answer is provided by the geometrical composition, in the form of a hexagon, which underlies the entire construction of the perspective of the fresco.

The diagonals show a beautiful complementarity between the arithmetic mean and the harmonic mean (see authors diagram below).

It is a masterly demonstration in the field of the visible, of the concept structuring the whole theme of the work: complementarity, the foundation of universal harmony.

By tracing the horizon line and the lines of escape of the perspective from the bottom of the cornices of each arch, the isosceles triangle OAB appears. By inscribing it in a circle whose center is the central vanishing point (O), we obtain a hexagon. By tracing the diagonals (XB) of this hexagon, we obtain both the arithmetic mean (Y) and the harmonic mean (Z). The trick is done! For their complementarity illustrates marvelously the guiding motif of the whole Signature Chamber: the universal harmony that orders the beauty of the proportions of the universe.
Credit: Karel Vereycken

On the right, the geographers Ptolemy (No. 16) and Strabo (No. 15) (in the guise of Baldassare Castiglione, the head of the Pope’s army and a friend of Raphael’s?), who is identified without real evidence with Zoroaster but to whom Pico della Mirandola indeed refers, stand face to face. The first shows the Earth as a sphere, the second a globe of the Heavens.

Finally, on the far right of the first register, with the features of Raphael, the legendary painter of the court of Alexander the Great, Apelles of Cos (N° 13). It should be remembered that, during his lifetime, Raphael was nicknamed « the Apelles of his time ». Next to him, his rival, the Greek painter Protogenes (N° 14) in the guise of Raphael’s colleague, the sulfurous but virtuoso fresco artist Sodoma. Coming from the world of the craftsmen, it is a question here of marking the entry of two painters-decorators into « the court of the big guys » and making their first steps in the world of philosophy.

Raphael, preparatory drawing for Plato and Aristotle. In the final version, their respective sizes have been equalized. Note the absence of the titles of the books.

On the steps, the central subject, as we have said, Plato and Aristotle. Plato‘s features in the fresco have nothing to do with any supposed portrait by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was born in 1452 and was only 56 years old when the fresco was painted. Raphael is said to have used the image of a bust of Plato discovered in Athens in the ruins of the ancient academy. In reality, the famous drawing of an old man (Turin), supposed to be a self-portrait of Leonardo and resembling the image of Plato in the School of Athens, has been proven to date from the 19th Century.

In the crowd to the left of Plato is Socrates (no. 6), his teacher, whose face was known to everyone from Roman statues. The identification of the other figures remains largely hypothetical. One thinks of the speakers of Plato‘s dialogues. Close to Socrates, his old friend Crito (N° 4). Behind Socrates, the Athenian intellectual Isocrates (N° 7) who had withdrawn from political life and although close to Socrates, set himself up as Plato‘s rival. Close to the latter, the five interlocutors of Plato‘s dialogue, Parmenides. Among them, Parmenides (N° 8), considered at the origin of the concept of the One and the multiple, and the pre-Socratic thinker Zeno of Elaea, known for his philosophical paradoxes.

The Athenian general (here dressed as a Roman soldier) Alcibiades (N° 3) and the young man in blue could be Phaedo of Elis (N° 5) or Xenophon, both listening to Socrates counting on his fingers, a gesture suggesting his famous dialectic.

All around the Greek thinkers, other figures are stirring. Behind general Alcibiades, a figure (perhaps a librarian) holds back another running figure, begging him not to disturb the ongoing exchanges between philosophers and scientists.

At the far left, a man with a hat enters the stage. It could be Plotinus (N° 2), a founding figure of Neoplatonism admired by cardinal Bessarion, accompanied by Porphyry (N° 1), another Neoplatonist who brought his biography of Pythagoras as a messenger from the ancient world.

In the Renaissance, the realization of a fresco (painted on fresh plaster) was no longer linked to the position of the scaffolding (bridges) but to the decision of the workers and artists as to the surface to be realized in a day (giornata) of work. Generally it was a surface between 1 and 4 m2.
Here the giornata of the School of Athens.


A. Fortitude, B. Prudence and C. Temperance.
1. Justinian, 2. Tribonian, 3. pope Paul III, 4. Antonio Del Monte,

5. pope Leo X, 6. pope Gregory IX (Julius II), 7. pope Clement VII.

On top, in the lunette (half moon), the three virtues represented would be Fortitude (A), Prudence (B) and Temperance (C). Together with Justice, they constitute the four cardinal (profane) virtues. The central female figure, holding a mirror, refers to Prudence. On the left, Fortitude holds an oak branch, an allusion to the della Rovere family from which Julius II, the pope who commissioned the frescoes, descended.

Below, once again, complementarity is at work. On the left, painted by Lorenzo Lotto, the Roman emperor Justinian I (N° 1) receives the Pandects (the civil law) from the Byzantine jurist Tribonian (N° 2).

On the right, in the guise of Julius II, Pope Gregory IX (N° 6) promulgates the Decretals; a masterly sum of canon law which he had ordered to be compiled and published in 1234.

On his right (thus on the left of the spectator), one sees a cardinal, in purple dress, having the features of the cardinal Jean de Médicis, future pope Leo X (N° 5). The two other cardinals behind him would be Alessandro Farnese, the future pope Paul III (N° 3), and Antonio Del Monte (N° 4). And to his left (right for the viewer) a cardinal representing Cardinal Julius de Medici, the future Pope Clement VII (N° 7). With your image immortalized on a fresco in the right place, your career to become pope would seem to be better engaged!

The fact that Julius II is represented wearing a beard allows to date the fresco beyond June 1511. Indeed, the pontiff, who left Rome beardless to wage war, then let his beard grow and vowed not to shave it off until he had liberated Italy. He returned to Rome in June. Historians point out that the prominence of the pope’s portrait indicates how the theme of the decoration of the Chambers was transformed, around 1511, into that of the glorification of the papacy. Hence, in this way “Justice” becomes the right of Julius II to impose « his » justice.



Poetry (“Parnassus”).

The poets:
1. Alcaeus of Mytilene, 2. Corinna, 3. Petrarch, 4. Anacreon, 5. Sappho, 6. Ennius, 7. Dante, 8. Homer, 9. Virgil, 10. Statius (Poliziano), 11. Apollo, 12. Tebaldeo, 13. Boccaccio, 14. Tibullus, 15. Ariosto,

16. Propertius, 17. Ovid, 18. Sannazaro, 19. Pindar.

The nine muses:
A. Thalia, B. Clio, C. Euterpe, D. Calliope, E. Polyhymnia, F. Melpomene, G. Terpsichore, H. Urania.
I. Erato.

A window reduces the space available for the fresco to a large lunette where the characters are divided into small groups on a semi-circular line.

The underlying idea here, taken from St. Thomas, is that truth is made accessible to man, either by Revelation (Theology) or by Reason (Philosophy). For the Neoplatonic school, this truth manifests itself to our senses through Beauty (poetry and music).

The scene painted here takes place near Delphi, at the top of Parnassus, the sacred mountain of Apollo and home of the Muses of Greek mythology.

The large window around which the fresco is organized offers a view, beyond the cortile (small circular temple) of Bramante, on the hill of Belvedere (Mons Vaticanus), where shows were given and where, in ancient times, Apollo was honored, which earned him the name of Apolinis.

Apollo is the patron of musicians: « It is through the Muses and the archer Apollo that there are singers and citharists », says Hesiod. He even inspires nature: when he passes by, « the nightingales, swallows and cicadas sing ». His music soothes the wild animals and moves the stones. For the Greeks, music and dance are not only entertainments: they allow to heal men by tuning the discords that eat away at their souls and thus to bear the misery of their condition.

At the top of the hill, seven laurels. Near the Castalia spring, Apollo (N° 11), crowned with laurel leaves and in the center of the composition, is tuning around him the nine muses (A to I) playing on his lyre.

On the left side Calliope (D), the one « who has a beautiful voice » and represents the epic poetry, and on the right, Erato (I), « the lovable one » who represents the lyric and erotic poetry as well as the nuptial song. Each presides over the tuning of the other’s chorus: on the left, behind Calliope, Thalia (A) (« the flourishing, the abundant »), Clio (B) (« who is famous » and represents history) and Euterpe (C) (« the joyful » who represents music). Finally, just behind Erato, Polyhymnia (E) (« the one who says many hymns » and represents rhetoric, eloquence and pantomime), Melpomene (F) (« the singer » who represents tragedy and song); Terpsichore (G) (« the charming dancer ») and Urania (H) (« the celestial one » who represents astronomy).

And you don’t have to be Pythagoras to count 7 laurels on the mountain and remember that nine muses plus Apollo make… ten.

As one of the square frescoes on the ceiling reminds us, Apollo had triumphed over Marsyas in a fight to seize the lyre, considered as the divine instrument capable of leading souls to heaven, better than the flute which only excites the lower passions. By detaching the man from his immediate material concerns, the victorious lyre allowed to arouse the divine love in men. In addition, the Romans knew of a seven-stringed lyre, a Pythagorean legacy, the number seven referring to the seven heavenly bodies orbiting the central fire.

For the Pythagoreans and also Heraclitus, the imitation of the « harmony of the spheres », thanks to the harmonies produced by the seven strings, allows the purification of the souls.
Apollo at Mount Parnassus, woodcut by Hans von Kulmbach, published in 1502.

However, strangely enough, Apollo is not holding a traditional four-stringed lyre, but a lira da braccio. If Apollo plays here the lyre with arms, the muses Calliope, Erato and the sibyl Sappho hold lyres identical to those of the sarcophagus known as « of the Muses » of the Museo delle Terme in Rome.

In many representations of the 16th century, the lyre is played by a group of angels or mythological characters, such as Orpheus and Apollo, but also King David, Homer or the Muses. Among its interpreters, we can count Leonardo da Vinci. The instrument is essentially designed like a violin, but with a wider fingerboard and a flat bridge that allows for chordal playing. The lyre generally has seven strings: four like a violin, augmented by an additional low string (making five), and two strings beyond the fingerboard, which are not played but serve as a drone and resonate in the octave. Now, Raphael, in order to create a perfect harmony with the number of muses around Apollo, will increase the number of strings from seven to nine, that is to say seven adjustable plus two drones. This detail concerning the lyre seems to have been modified in time. Indeed, an engraved reproduction, from 1517, probably from drawings prior to the fresco, or from its preliminary project, by Marcantonio Raimondi, reveals a state quite different from what we see today.

Marcantonio Raimondi, engraving (ca. 1517) after Raphael’s Mount Parnassus in the Signing Chamber.

The composition is less dense and highlights, like the School of Athens, several groups of three figures each. What is striking at first is that the ancient lyre played by Apollo with his fingers rests on his thigh, while in the present version, Apollo vibrates the strings of his lira da braccio with a bow, while looking up to the sky, in accordance with the fresco on the ceiling where are inscribed the words of Virgil: « Inspired by the spirit » (NVMINE AFFLATVR).

All around, eighteen poets are divided into several groups. The identification of some is unequivocal, that of others more doubtful. They are all chained to each other by gestures and looks, forming a kind of continuous crescent.

At the top left, the father of Latin poetry Ennius (N° 6), seated, listens raptly to the song of Homer (N° 8), while Dante (N° 7), further back, looks at Virgil (N° 9) who turns towards him, the Roman poet Statius (N° 10), in the guise of Poliziano, at his side. The latter was a disciple of the florentine Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino. To represent the historical figures, Raphael drew inspiration from Roman statuary. For the face of Homer, for example, he adopted the dramatic expression of the Laocoon, which he had found in Rome in 1506.

At the bottom left are the Greek poet Alcaeus of Mytilene (N°1), the Greek poetess Corinna (N° 2), Petrarch (N° 3) as well as the Greek poet Anacréon (N° 4). In the final version, two characters who leave the frame came to enrich the composition. On the left, the sibyl Sappho (N° 5) as indicated by a tablet. Considered the first poetess of ancient Greece, she lived in the seventh and sixth centuries BC. According to the Homeric Hymns, it is her who would have built the first lyre to accompany the poetic recitation. The only woman in entire fresco is painted with a monumentality that is reminiscent of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.

Sappho is the counterpart of Pindar (N° 19), and not Horace as is claimed, considered one of the greatest lyric poets of Greece and for whom Apollo was the symbol of civilization. Pindar is here in conversation with the Italian poet Jacopo Sannazaro (N° 18), dressed in blue and standing, and above them Ovid (N° 17).

On the right, on the side of the mount, besides Pindar, Sannazaro and Ovid, five other poets and orators : Antonio Tebaldeo (N° 12), with his back turned towards Apollo and under the features of Baldassare Castiglione ? ), Boccaccio (N° 13), behind, Tibullus (N° 14), Ariosto (N° 15), Propertius (N° 16), under the features of the cardinal poet very « Petrarquist » Pietro Bembo, a friend of Inghirami and enemy of Erasmus, and at his sides two unknown poets said « poets of the future judging the past ».

The identification of these characters remains largely hypothetical and controversial. To arrive at satisfactory results, it would be necessary according to the historian Albert Chastel, to find precise correspondences between the nine muses, nine classic poets and nine modern, in addition to the grouping by poetic genre.

After the death of Julius II, Pope Leo X made the Stanza della signatura his music room, replacing the books of his predecessor (which were moved to the large library on the lower floor) with intarsiae. Leo X will also have the pavement completed.


Mosaic of the Chamber of the signature:
A. Coat of arms of the pope, B. Spiral arm, C. Star of David, reference to the Jewish heritage.
Detail of the mosaic of the Chamber of Signature. We can read IVLIUS II PONT MAX.

The mosaic decorating the floor is said to be « cosmatesque », after the name of Cosmati, an old family of craftsmen and specialized in mosaics with four colors. Some materials come from Roman ruins, the green marble of the Peloponnese in Greece, the porphyry of Aswan in Egypt, and the yellow marble of North Africa. The white marble comes from the famous marble quarries of Carrara where Michelangelo chose his materials.

As on the ceiling, in the center of the room the coat of arms of the pope (A), this time inside a square (his earthly reign) inscribed in a circle (his theological mission). This first circle is surrounded by four spiral arms, each of which creates a new circular motif (B). This pattern is believed to be of Jewish origin. The Star of David (C) appears several times in this creation vortex. The doctrine of the four worlds, described in cabalistic cosmology, underlines their dynamic unity.

After all, for Giles de Viterbe, the recent discovery of Jewish mystical writings was of the same importance as the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Let us recall that for Julius II, like Plato and Pythagoras, Moses, whom Michelangelo sculpted for his tomb, already announced the later triumph of the Church of Rome which would, under his direction, synthesize them.


Thus, the whole theme of the « Chamber of the Signature » finds its full coherence with the idea of harmony and concordance. But when we look more closely, we see that it is only a question of « complementarity » at the level of forms and in the service of a temporal power disguised as a divine mission. Raphael, a talented painter, submitted to this by providing the product for which he was paid. He would end up painting things increasingly decadent by submitting to the pagan whims of the papal banker Agostino Chigi for the decoration of his villa, the Farnesina.

With the « Chamber of the Signature », we are far from the famous « coincidence of opposites » dear to Pythagoras, Plato, Nicholas of Cues and today Schiller Institute’s President Helga Zepp-LaRouche, which allows, in an uncompromising search for truth and for the love of humanity, to overcome paradoxes and solve a great number of problems from a higher point of view.

By piling up allegories and symbols, if it impresses, this masterly work ends up suffocating us. By the rules of its composition, it can only sink into the theatrical and the didactic. In a universe purged of the slightest irony or surprise, no real metaphor will be able to awaken us. And although Raphael tried to bring some life into it, the spectator is fatally left with a vast sediment of fossilized ideas, as dead as the most glorious ruins of the Roman Empire.

Brief bibliography:

  • Julius II, Ivan Cloulas, Fayard, Paris 1990;
  • Léon X et son siècle, Gonzague Truc, Grasset, Paris, 1941;
  • Une histoire des empires maritimes, Cyrille P. Coutensais, CNRS, 2013;
  • L’Humanisme, l’Europe de la Renaissance, André Chastel and Robert Klein, Editions Skira, Geneva, 1995;
  • L’Arétin ou l’insolence du plaisir, Bertrand Levergeois, Fayard, Paris, 1999;
  • Giorgio Vasari, l’homme des Médicis, Grasset, Paris, 1995;
  • Marsile Ficin et l’Art, André Chastel, Droz, Geneva, 1996 ;
  • Raphael and the Pope’s librarian, Nathaniel Silver, Ingrid Rowland, Paul Holberton Publishing, 2019;
  • Raphael’s Stanza della Signatura, Meaning and Invention, Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, Cambridge University Press, 2002;
  • Pythagoras and Renaissance Europe, Finding Heaven, Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, Cambridge University Press, 2009;
  • Raphael, Stephanie Buck and Peter Hohenstatt, Könemann, 1998;
  • The Intellectual Background of the School of Athens: Tracking Divine Wisdom in the Rome of Julius II, Ingrid D. Rowland, 1996;
  • Pagans in the Church: The School of Athens in Religious Contex, Timothy Verdon, 1996;
  • Raphael’s School of Athens, Marcia Hall, Cambridge University Press, 1997;
  • Raphael, Konrad Oberhuber, Editions du Regard, Paris, 1999;
  • L’énigme de la Segnatura, Raphael and Sodoma, André-Charles Coppier, Paris, 1928;
  • Raphael, John Pope-Hennessy, Harper & Row, London, 1970;
  • Who was Raphael, Nello Ponente, Editions Skira, Geneva, 1967:
  • Lives and doctrines of the illustrious philosophers, Diogenes Laërtius, La pochothèque, Paris, 1999;
  • Erasmus and Italy, Augustin Renaudet, Editions Droz, Paris, 2000 ;
  • Erasmus among us, Léon Halkin, Fayard, 1987 ;
  • Comment la folie d’Erasme sauva notre civilisation, Karel Vereycken, 2005 ;
  • The egg without shadow of Piero della Francesca, Karel Vereycken, 2007;
  • Albrecht Dürer against neo-platonic melancholy, Karel Vereycken, 2007.


* For an in-depth treatment of the subject, see Karel Vereycken, Albrecht Dürer against Neo-Platonic Melancholy, 2007.

**We can see here where certain sects, notably Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophists, draw their inspiration. Some still insist on demonstrating that Pythagoras, who believed in the transmigration of souls and therefore their possible reincarnation in animals or plants, was a vegetarian. Diogenes Laertius tells us that one day, « passing by someone who was mistreating his dog, it is said that he [Pythagoras, in a joking tone] was moved by compassion and addressed the individual with these words: ‘Stop and do not strike again, for it is the soul of a man who was my friend, and I recognized him by hearing the sound of his voice’ « . A whole series of authors ended up falling into numerology and irrational esoteric mumbo-jubo, in particular Francesco Zorzi, Agrippa of Nettesheim and Paracelsus.

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Persian Qanâts and the Civilization of Hidden Waters

By Karel Vereycken, July 2021.

World Day of handwashing, UNICEF.

By Karel Vereycken, July 2021.

At a time when old diseases make their return and new ones emerge worldwide, the tragic vulnerability of much of humanity poses an immense challenge.

One wonders whether to laugh or cry when international authorities trumpet without further clarification that to stop the Covid-19 pandemic, “all you have to do” is “wash your hands with soap and water”!

They forget one small detail: 3 billion people do not have facilities to wash their hands at home and 1.4 billion have no access to either water or soap!

Yet, since the dawn of time, mankind has demonstrated its capacity to mobilize its creative genius to make water available in the most remote places.

Here is a short presentation of a marvel of such human genius, the “qanâts”, an underground water conveyance system dating from the Iron Age. Probably of Egyptian origin, it was deployed on a large scale in Persia from the beginning of the 1st millennium BC.

The qanât or underground aqueduct

Typical cross-section of a qanât.

Sometimes called “horizontal drilling”, the qanât is an underground aqueduct employed to draw water from a water table and convey it by simple gravitational effect to urban settlements and farmland. The word qanât is an old Semitic word, probably Accadian, derived from a root qanat (reed) from which come canna and canal.

This “drainage gallery”, cut into the rock or built by man, is certainly one of the earliest and most ingenious inventions for irrigation in arid and semi-arid regions. The technique offers a significant advantage: by conveying water through an underground conduit, contrary to open air canals, not a single drop of water is wasted by evaporation.

Oases’ are NOT natural phenomena. All known oases are man-made. It is the qanât technique that allows man, in a given geographic configuration, to create oases in the middle of the desert, when a water table is close enough to the ground level or at a site close to the bed of a river lost in the sands of the desert.

From Mexico till China, diffusion of qanât technique.

Copied and expanded by the Romans, the qanât technique was carried across the Atlantic to the New World by the Spaniards, where many such underground canals still function in Peru and Chile. In fact, there are even Persian qanâts in western Mexico.

While today this three thousand year old technique may not be appropriate everywhere to solve current water scarcity problems in arid and semi-arid regions, it has much to inspire us as a demonstration of human genius at its best, that is, capable of doing a lot with a little.

The oases of Egypt

Egyptian man-made oasis of Dakhleh.

Today, 95% of the Egyptian population prospers on only 5% of its territory, mainly around the Nile delta. Hence, from the earliest days of Egyptian civilization, irrigation and water storage techniques for the Nile floods were developed in order to conserve this silty, nutrient-rich water for use throughout the year.

The river water was diverted and transported by canals to the fields by gravity. Since water from the Nile did not reach the oases, the Egyptians used the gushing water from the springs, which came from the large aquifer reserves of the western desert, and conveyed it to the fields by irrigation canals.

One of the fruits of this attempt to “conquer the desert” was a sustained habitation of the Dakhleh oasis throughout the Pharaonic period, explicable not only by a commercial interest on the part of the Egyptian state, but also by the new agricultural perspectives it offered.

Roman aqueducts

With its 170 km, 106 of which are underground, the Qanat of Gadara (now in Jordan) is the largest aqueduct of antiquity. It starts from a mountain water source held back by a dam (right) to supply a series of cities east of the Jordan River, in particular Gadara, near Lake Tiberias.
The Qanât Fi’raun, or aqueduct of Gadara, in Jordan.

Closer to us in time, the Qanât Fir’aun (The Watercourse of the Pharaoh) also known as the aqueduct of Gadara, a city today in Jordan. As far as we know, this 170 km long structure, depending on the geography, combines several bridge-aqueducts (of the same type as the Gard aqueduct in France) and 106 km of underground canals using the Persian qanât technique. It is not only the longest but also the most sophisticated aqueduct of antiquity, and the fruit of a years of hydraulic engineering.

In reality, the Romans, hiring persian water experts, did nothing more than terminate in the 2nd century an ancient project designed to supply water to the “Decapolis”, a collaborative group of ten cities founded by Greek and Macedonian settlers under the Seleucid king Antiochos III (223 – 187 BC), one of the successors of Alexander the Great.

These ten cities were located on the eastern border of the Roman Empire (now in Syria, Jordan and Israel), united by language, culture and political status, each with a degree of autonomy and self-rule. Its capital, Gadara, was home to more than 50,000 people and known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, its own university attracting scholars, writers, artists, philosophers and poets. But this rich city lacked something existential : an abundance of water.

The Gadara qanat made the difference. “In the capital alone, there were thousands of fountains, watering holes and baths. Wealthy senators cooled themselves in private pools and decorated their gardens with cooling caves. The result was a record daily consumption of more than 500 liters of water per capita,” explains Matthias Schulz, author of a report on the aqueduct in Spiegel Online.

Entrance of the Gardara qanât, Jordan.


The Shahzadeh Garden in Iran, an oasis built with the age-old technique of qanats.

We all admire the roman aqueducts. But few of us are aware that the Romans only adapted the technique of the qanâts developed much earlier in Persia.

Indeed, it was under the Achaemenid Empire (around 559 – 330 BC.), that this technique spread slowly from Persia to the east and the west. Many qanâts can be found in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Libya), in the South East Asia (Iran, Oman, Iraq) and further east, in Central Asia, from Afghanistan to China (Xinjiang), via India.

The development of these “draining galleries” is attested in different regions of the world under various names: qanât and kareez in Iran, Syria and Egypt, kariz, kehriz in Pakistan and Afghanistan, aflaj in Oman, galeria in Spain, kahn in Balochistan, kanerjing in China, foggara in North Africa, khettara in Morocco, ngruttati in Sicily, bottini of Siena, etc.

Historically, the majority of the populations of Iran and other arid regions of Asia or North Africa depended on the water provided by the qanâts; their construction lifted entire areas to a higher “economic platform”, made deserts habitable and opened new land for agriculture. The map of demographic expansion followed the trail of the development of this new higher platform.

In his article « Du rythme naturel au rythme humain : vie et mort d’une technique traditionnelle, le qanât » (From natural rhythm to human rhythm: the life and death of a traditional technique, the qanât), Pierre Lombard, a researcher at the French CNRS, points out that this is not an artisanal and marginal process:

Until a few years ago, the importance of the ancestral technique of qanât was sometimes ignored in Central Asia, Iran, Syria, and even in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. For example, the Public Authority for Water Resources of the Sultanate of Oman estimated in 1982 that all the qanâts still in operation conveyed more than 70 % of the total water used in that country and irrigated nearly 55% of the cereal lands. Oman was still one of the few states in the Middle East to maintain and sometimes even develop its qanât network; this situation, apart from its longevity, does not appear to be exceptional. If one turns to the edges of the Iranian Plateau, one can note with Wulff (1968) the obvious discrepancy between the relative aridity of this area (between 100 and 250 mm of annual precipitation) and its non-negligible agricultural production, and explain it by one of the densest networks of qanâts in the Middle East. It can also be recalled that until the construction of the Karaj dam in the early 1960s, the two million inhabitants of Tehran at that time consumed exclusively the water brought from the Elbourz foothills by several dozen regularly maintained qanâts. Finally, we can mention the case of some major oases in the Near and Middle East (Kharga in Egypt, Layla in Saudi Arabia, Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, etc.) or in Central Asia (Turfan, in Chinese Turkestan) that owe their vast development, if not their very existence, to this remarkable technique.”

On the website ArchéOrient, the French archaeologist Rémy Boucharlat, Director of Research Emeritus at the CNRS, an Iran expert, explains:

“Whatever the origin of the water, deep or not, the technique of construction of the gallery is the same. First, the issue is to identify the presence of water, either its going underground near a river, or the presence of a water table under a foothill, which requires the science and experience of specialists. A motherwell will be dug to reach the top of the water table, indicating at which depth the [horizontal] gallery should be drilled. It’s slope must be very small, less than 2‰, so that the flow of water is calm and regular, and conduct the water gradually to the surface area, according to a gradient much lower than the slope of the foothill.

“The gallery is then dug, not starting from the mother well because it would be immediately flooded, but from downstream, from the point of arrival. The conduct is first dug in an open trench, then covered, and finally gradually sinks into the ground in a tunnel. For the evacuation of soil and ventilation during excavation, as well as to identify the direction of the gallery, shafts are dug from the surface at regular intervals, between 5 and 30 m depending on the nature of the land ».

Aireal view of persian qanât system.

In April 1973, Lyndon LaRouche’s friend, the French-Iranian professor and historian Aly Mazahéri (1914-1991), published his translation from Arab into French of “The Civilization of Hidden Waters”, a treatise on the exploitation of underground waters composed in the year 1017 by the Persian hydrologist Mohammed Al-Karaji, who lived in Baghdad. (Translated in English in 2011)

After an introduction and general considerations on geography, natural phenomena, the water cycle, the study of terrain and the instruments of the hydrologist, Al-Karaji gives a highly precise technical outline of the construction and maintenance of qanâts, as well as legal considerations respecting their management and maintenance.

Commentary on the qanâts in the treatise of Al-Karaji (11th century).

In his introduction to Al-Karji’s treatise, Professor Mazaheri emphasizes the role of the Iranian city of Merv (now in Turkmenistan). This ancient city, he says, was part of

“the long series of oases extending at the foot of the northern slope of the Iranian plateau, from the Caspian to the first foothills of the Pamirs. There, between the geological extension of the Caspian towards the East, there is a strip of arable land, more or less wide, but very fertile. Now, to exploit it, a lot of ingenuity is needed: where, for example in Merv, a big river, such as the Marghab, coming from the glaciers of the central East-Iranian massif, crosses the chain, it is necessary to establish dams, above the strip of arable land, without which, the ‘river’, divided into several dozens of arms, rushes under the sands. Elsewhere, and it is almost all along the northern slope of the chain, one can create artificial oases, by bringing the water by underground aqueducts.” (p. 44)

The construction of dams and underground aqueducts are among the most interesting legacies of their (the ancient Persians) irrigation techniques (…) Long before Islam, the Persian hydrologists had built thousands of aqueducts, allowing the creation of hundreds of villages, dozens of cities previously unknown. And very often, even where there was a river, because of the insufficiency of this one, the hydronomists had brought to light many aqueducts allowing the extension of the culture and the development of the city. Naishabur was such a city. Under the Sassanids, and later under the Caliphs, an important network of aqueducts had been created there, so that the inhabitants could afford the luxury of owning a ‘’bathing room’ in the basement, at the level of the aqueduct serving the house.”

Water room of a qanat in the basement of the Water Museum in Yadz, Iran.

Let us recall that most Persian scholars, including the famous mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, not suffering from today’s hyper-specialization that tends to curb creative thinking, excelled in mathematics, geometry, astronomy and medicine as well as in hydrology.

Mazaheri confirms that this “civilization of underground waters” spread well beyond the Iranian borders:

“Already, under the [Umayyad] Caliph Hisham (723-42), Persian hydronomists built aqueducts between Damascus and Mecca (…) Later, Mecca suffering from lack of water, Zubayda, the wife of Hâroun Al-Rachîd, sent Persian hydronomists there who endowed the city with a large underground aqueduct. And each time the latter was silted up, a new team left Persia to restore the network: such repairs took place periodically under Al-Muqtadir (908-32), under Al-Qa’im (1031-1075), under Al-Naçir (1180-1226) and, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, under the Mongol prince Emir Tchoban. We would say the same of Medina and the stages on the pilgrimage route, between Baghdad and Mecca, wherever it was possible to do so, hydronomic works were undertaken and ‘underground aqueducts’ were created.

Hydronomy is a highly demanding skill. To practice it, it is not enough to have mathematical knowledge: decadal calculus, algebra, trigonometry, etc., it is necessary to spend long hours in the galleries at the risk of dying by flooding, landslide or lack of air. It is necessary to have an ancestral instinct of ‘dowser’.”

The annual rainfall in Iran is 273 mm, which is less than one third of the world’s average annual precipitation.

The temporal and spatial distribution of precipitation is not uniform; about 75% occurs in a small area, mainly on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, while the rest of the country does not receive sufficient rainfall. On the temporal scale, only 25% of the precipitation occurs during the plant growing season.

7,7 x the circonférence of the Earth

Still in use today in Iran, qanâts currently supply about 7.6 billion m3 of water, close to 15% of the country’s total water needs.

Considering that the average length of each qanât is 6 km in most parts of the country, the total length of the 30,000 qanât systems (potentially exploitable today) is about 310,800 km, which is about 7.7 times the circumference of the Earth or 6/7th of the Earth-Moon distance!

This shows the enormous amount of work and energy applied to build the qanâts. In fact, while more than 38,000 qanâts were in operation in Iran till 1966, its number dropped to 20,000 in 1998 and is currently estimated at 18,000. According to the Iranian daily Tehran Times, historically, over 120,000 qanat sites are documented.

Moreover, while in 1965, 30-50% of Iran’s total water needs were met by qanats, this figure has dropped to 15% in recent decades.

According to the Face Iran website:

The water flow of qanâts is estimated between 500 and 750 cubic meters per second. As land aridity tends to vary according to the abundance of rains in each region, this quantity of water is used as a more or less important supplement. This makes it possible to use good land that would otherwise be barren. The importance of the impact on the desert can be summarized in one figure: about 3 million hectares. In seven centuries of hard work, the Dutch conquered 1.5 million hectares from the marshes or the sea. In three millennia, the Iranians have conquered twice as much on the desert.

Indeed, to each new qanât corresponded a new village, new lands. From where a new human group absorbed the demographic surplus. Little by little the Iranian landscape was constituted. At the end of the qanat, is the house of the chief, often with one floor. It is surrounded by the villagers’ houses, animal shelters, gardens and market gardens.

The distribution of land and the days of irrigation of the plots were regulated by the chief of the villages. Thus, a qanat imposed a solidarity between the inhabitants.”

If each qanât is “invented” and supervised by a mirab (dowser-hydrologist and discoverer), the realization of a qanât is a collective task that requires several months or years, even for medium-sized qanâts, not to mention works of record dimensions (a 300 m deep mother-well, a 70 km long gallery classified in 2016 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, in northeast Iran).

Each undertaking is carried out by a village or a group of villages. The absolute necessity of a collective investment in the infrastructure and its maintenance requires a higher notion of the common good, an indispensable complement to the notion of private property that rains and rivers do not take in account.

In the Maghreb, the management of water distributed by a khettara (the local name for qanâts) follows traditional distribution norms called “water rights”. Originally, the volume of water granted per user was proportional to the work contributed to build the khettara, translated into an irrigation time during which the beneficiary had access to the entire flow of the khettara for his fields. Even today, when the khettara has not dried up, this rule of the right to water persists and a share can be sold or bought. Because it is also necessary to take into account the surface area of the fields to be irrigated by each family.

The causes of the decline of the qanâts are numerous. Without endorsing the catastrophist theses of an anti-human ecology, it must be noted that in the face of the increasing urban population, the random construction of dams and the digging of deep wells equipped with electric pumps have disturbed and often depleted the aquifers and water tables.

A neoliberal ideology, falsely described as “modern”, also prefers the individualistic “manager” of a well to a collective management organized among neighbors and villages. A passive State authority has done the rest. In the absence of more thoughtful reflection on its future, the age-old system of qanâts is on the verge of extinction as a result.

In the meantime, the Iranian population has grown from 40 to over 82 million in 40 years. Instead of living off oil, the country is seeking to prosper through agriculture and industry. As a result, the need for water has increased substantially. To cope with rising demands, Iran is desalinating sea water at great cost. Its civilian nuclear program will be the key factor to provide water at a reasonable cost.

Beyond political and religious divisions, closer cooperation between all the countries in the region (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, etc.) with a perspective to improve, develop, manage and share water resources, will be beneficial to each and all.

Presented as an “Oasis Plan” and promoted for decades by the American thinker and economist Lyndon LaRouche, such a policy, translating word into action, is the only basis of a true peace policy.

Bibliography :

  • Remy Boucharlat, The falaj or qanât, a polycentric and multi-period invention, ArcheOrient – Le Blog, September 2015 ;
  • Pierre Lombard, Du rythme naturel au rythme humain : vie et mort d’une technique traditionnelle, le qanat, Persée, 1991 ;
  • Aly Mazaheri, La civilisation des eaux cachées, un traité de l’exploitation des eaux souterraines composé en 1017 par l’hydrologue perse Mohammed Al-Karaji, Persée, 1973 ;
  • Hassan Ahmadi, Arash Malekian, Aliakbar Nazari Samani, The Qanat: A Living History in Iran, January 2010;
  • Evelyne Ferron, Egyptians, Persians and Romans: the interests and stakes of the development of Egyptian oasis environments.


[1] The ten cities forming the Decapolis were: 1) Damascus in Syria, much further north, sometimes considered an honorary member of the Decapolis; 2) Philadelphia (Amman in Jordan); 3) Rhaphana (Capitolias, Bayt Ras in Jordan); 4) Scythopolis (Baysan or Beit-Shean in Israel), which is said to be its capital; It is the only city west of the Jordan River; 5) Gadara (Umm Qeis in Jordan); 6) Hippos (Hippus or Sussita, in Israel); 7) Dion (Tell al-Ashari in Syria); 8) Pella (Tabaqat Fahil in Jordan); 9) Gerasa (Jerash in Jordan) and 10) Canatha (Qanawat in Syria)

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