Where Is Epicurus In The "School of Athens"?

  • Personally, I'm not convinced that any of the figures represent Epicurus.

    Bernard Frischer, researcher and archaeologist from Indiana University who specializes in Roman history wrote a book called The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece in which he attests to the “magnetism” of Epicurus’ portrait. He devotes several hundred pages to exploring different cultural depictions of Epicurus throughout history based on available resources. On page 151 he makes an important point: “Before 1742, when the Epicurus-Metrodorus double herm with ancient identifying inscription […] was discovered beneath the new porch of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome (the herm is now in the Capitoline Museam), Epicurus’ true image was not known.”

    Raphael’s intended audience would not have seen portraits or busts of Epicurus, and, even if they had, they would not have recognized the face of the bust to match that of Epicurus. Painting a contemplative, bearded Greek would not have been as Epicurus-esque as would have painting a chubby, smirking Roman (for example).

    The four Vatican frescoes were certainly painted within an allegorical context as opposed to a historical one. This is evidenced by the anachronistic presence of philosophers spanning several centuries, several of whom were never active in Athens. The setting of this piece is purely symbolic and not in any way intended to be literal.

    It's like "Jurassic Park", filled with dinosaurs from the Triassic and Cretaceous periods.

    In an architectural context, the four frescoes in the Stanze di Raffaello in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican were designed to reinforce the Christian narrative. Therein, the inclusion of “pagan” philosophers is not meant to contrast with the divinity of Christ; rather, it signifies a harmony between ancient philosophy and Christian theology.

    Thus, the Church's favorite two philosophers, and their supporters (such as Socratics and Pythagoreans) are featured front-and-center. The idolization of Plato and Aristotle is overwhelming. They reinforce the brand. The choice to include Epicurus – at all – would have been antithetical to the function of the painting, taken symbolically. While Raphael may have made that choice anyway, it is thematically inconsistent.

    Painting Epicureans in the Apostolic Palace in the first place is contextually inappropriate (It may even have been dangerous). Raphael's inclusion of Epicurus and/or Epicurean philosophers in the Apostolic Palace may have been akin to Diego Rivera painting Vladimir Lenin in the Rockefeller Building in the 30s.

    If it were the case that we had some indication that Raphael was a closet Epicurean who subversively hid hedonist-sympathizing clues in his paintings throughout the years (...the way Dan Brown frames Leonardo in the Da Vinci code), then, in my mind, it would seem appropriate to include Epicurus.

    However, I think that fiction unlikely. I think the following two possibilities are most probable: (1) Epicureanism is not represented in this painting because Epicureanism is thematically inconsistent with the artistic context, (2) "Epicurus" is represented by the anonymous, chubby, smiling Roman stereotype, writing in the front.

    Either way, the relevance I see with this painting to Epicurean philosophy is the reflection of the Christian Church's marginalization of materialism over a millennia. Raphael neither provides us with a glimpse at Epicurus, nor of Epicureanism. What he provides us with is either commentary of ambivalence, that it was not necessary to depict Epicureans clearly, or absence, that omitting Epicurus was necessary.

    In conclusion, I don't see any compelling reason for Raphael would have felt compelled to include the Epicurus and his Epicureans. He was not painting a record of Athenian teachers; he was painting a picture of philosophical pre-Christians.

  • As an aside, it just occurred to me that the architectural setting is Roman, not Greek. As far as I'm aware the Greeks didn't build with arches but with posts and lintels, developed through the classical orders.

    If this has any relevance to the discussion at hand, it may indicate that Raphael wasn't taking a literal view as to who was who and had another, overarching (pardon the pun) agenda.

  • Nate raises very good points. My desire for Epicurus to be front and center is just that. A desire. However, if Raphael wanted to portray Epicurus, he most likely would either:

    a) Use ridicule: pudgy wreathed portrait of guy he knew (and that resembles the Nuremberg Chronicle picture)


    b) show him rejecting the accepted Philosophers: storming away down the steps or dismissively gesturing at the cynic Diogenes. Diogenes, with his Anti-social behavior and ridicule of Plato (plucked chicken = Behold, a man!) wouldn't have endeared him to the Popes but he's there. I see no reason why Epicurus shouldn't be included but he certainly didn't need to be.

    Also, Lucretius's poem was also just being rediscovered around this time. "The first printed edition of De rerum natura was produced in Brescia, Lombardy, in 1473." Wikipedia. School of Athens was done 1509/11. Epicurus may have to have been addressed in the work, again via ridicule or rejecting accepted Philosophers.

  • Lots of good points bring made. I woke up thinking about this that has probably already been covered, but how firm is the identificstion of the group to the right of Plato with one or more Stoics? If that group were shown to be clearly stoic, I suspect that Raphael and his contractors would have had a hard time resisting the parallelism of putting one or more Epicureans on Socrates left to mirror them and keep things "even.". Regardless of what anyone knew about what anyone looked like from the bustd, I gather that the church always held Cicero in high regard, and never lost his works, and it would be impossible to know about his "On Ends" and not know that Epicureans were one of the major schools that would leave a major gap if omitted.

  • Lots of interesting stuff in there, but I have to comment on this:


    As a symbol that oversees the enactment of official papal decrees in the Stanza Della Segnatura, Heraclitus’s ink pot (from which notions of the fleetingness of all authority would pour forth), is a courageously subversive symbol. It denies power by declaiming the futility of any attempt to inscribe oneself indelibly into the world. It and it alone sanctions the fluidity of identity that Raphael ingeniously constructs (and deconstructs) across the surface of his painting. Remove the ink pot from the epicentre of Raphael’s fresco, and the work dissolves into a fiasco of confused and confusing forms. Heraclitus’s profound, if overlooked, ink pot is the very well-spring from which the elastic energy of Raphael’s masterpiece endlessly emanates.

    Oh come on, Kelly Grovier! (the author) Do you really expect to be taken seriously when you say something like It's all about the inkpot?

  • I'm getting the thought that, sans Raphael's personal notes, The School of Athens is almost a Rorschach test. Who do you want to see where? Oh, you think that's him? Interesting idea. Why? How's about this one?

  • Raphael saw somewhere a bust, a ring or an engraving of Epicurus, not necessary inside the Vatican, but in one villa of his wealthy friends/florentines bankers who had statues from Villas of Romans e.g. Villa Hadriana etc, and as I mentioned above in one of my comments. Raphael painted Epicurus and his figure is so identical with the bust of Epicurus we know today. I assume when the pope asked Raphael who is who, he did not say anything for anyone. Only for Plato and Aristole that in fresco they hold already their books and they were (and still are) well esteem by the popes.

    However, I insist for my speculation since for that person with the yellow chiton that I claim is Epicurus, along with the embraced friendly company next to him, it prevails a total silence!!

    Don, as far as I know, it has never been found a bust or a statue of Speusippus. For Speusippus there is only an engraving that was done from imagination. Speusippus was not so famous that has companion and friends. Besides if that figure was Speusippus, as he was socratic-platonist, the figure next to him it would not be appropriated to make a gesture of doubt or question, it is supposed that the platonists knew what Plato had said.

    Beauty and virtue and such are worthy of honor, if they bring pleasure; but if not then bid them farewell!

  • Elli that's a good line of attack -- even if we forget about the busts, what about the rings?

    I don't have a good list of how many there are or where they are now, but we don't think that each and every ring was discovered in Herculaneum or Pompeii, do we? Presumably there were many more rings than busts to start with, and they would be passed down from generation to generation. And some (at least) of the rings have Epicurus' name inscribed too, correct?

    I would think the first thing that someone commissioned to do a fresco of historical figures would do is to scour his available contacts for all representations preserved in any form.

    Certainly you would also include references from Diogenes Laertius as to objects or names (of books) that people were associated with, but you would certainly do everything you could to incorporate ALL available evidence.

  • If you did not see this picture, I post it on FB yesterday, entitled "the school of the world". ^^

    Beauty and virtue and such are worthy of honor, if they bring pleasure; but if not then bid them farewell!

  • Thank you for linking that for us Elli! I am afraid that I can't keep track of what I post myself, much less what everyone else posts! ;) I guess that's what a forum with a "search" function is for!

    So as for the posts in that thread too there is no indication that we have a ring labeled with Epicurus' name.

  • Τhere are some greek letters engraved on the right ring. I read the letters that form the word "NEAΡΚΟΥ". There is no such a greek name that includes the letter "K". But as far as I know there was a greek name as "NEAΡΧΟΣ" with the letter "X" and in genitive is "ΝΕΑΡΧΟΥ", and we meet this name as one the famous explorer, a navarch and officer in the army of Alexander the Great.

    Beauty and virtue and such are worthy of honor, if they bring pleasure; but if not then bid them farewell!

  • Τhere are some greek letters engraved on the right ring. I read the letters that form the word "NEAΡΚΟΥ". There is no such a greek name that includes the letter "K". But as far as I know there was a greek name as "NEAΡΧΟΣ" with the letter "X" and in genitive is "ΝΕΑΡΧΟΥ", and we meet this name as one the famous explorer, a navarch and officer in the army of Alexander the Great.


    Nearkos was an ancient artist according to this catalog of names. (For those curious: Nearkou is simply the genitive form of his name.)

  • Don, in the text you linked, there are latin letters in this name. With latin letters the greek name ΝΕΑΡΧΟΣ becomes as NEARKOS or NEARCHOS because the greek letter "X" it sounds like "K". In this ring we see greek letters as "NEAΡΚΟΥ" since there is the lettter "Yiota" in the end, but in greek names there is not such a name as NEAΡKOΣ in genitive NEAΡΚΟΥ, but as I said "NEAΡΧΟΣ".

    Beauty and virtue and such are worthy of honor, if they bring pleasure; but if not then bid them farewell!

  • From whom, specifically, might Raphael have seen the image?

    I agree that it is a reasonable generalization to suppose that one of the hundreds of affluent, Italian benefactors of the Renaissance had access to Epicurus ... but it's hard to prove, especially when we consider that Epicurean literature was just re-discovered, and then proceeded to suffer several hundred years of misinterpretation by enthusiasts.

    I think it's imperative to our conclusion that we identify the name of this individual who owned Epicurean memorabilia, because that person would be more significant to the history of Epicurean philosophy than either Poggio Bracciolini and Pierre Gassendi.

    If someone had preserved a ring of Epicurus, and recognized the significance of it, they, themselves, would very likely be Epicurean-sympathizers, or Epicureans, themselves. Even Poggio was unconvinced by the the conclusions he read in De Rerum Natura. This would imply that a community was in Italy in the 15th-century that was actively dedicated to preserving Epicurean philosophy. This could be the case, but it would change history.

    Even so, it's not even enough to prove that there were Epicureans in Italy at the time.

    We need to demonstrate that (1) not only was Epicurean philosophy understood to a thorough level within one century of the rediscovery of De Rerum Natura (2) not only was Raphael familiar with this knowledge, but, most importantly, (3) that a 25-year-old Renaissance painter was dedicated enough to Epicurean philosophy to have chosen to risk his career by painting the Ultimate Anti-Apostle on a fresco in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. It's an incredibly bold move, and Raphael did not do it for our unique benefit.