Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Michelangelo is Heraclitus

Aldous Huxley said that Piero della Francesca's Resurrection (still in his hometown of Borgo Sansepolcro, which I encourage you to visit) is "the greatest picture in the world." Although Piero is one of my very favorites, I must say that Raphael's School of Athens comes closer to the mark. The famous work is in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican. But this is what has always interested me most. I was a philosophy student and taken from an early age by the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who continues to fascinate. The above detail is said to represent Heraclitus, but in the likeness of Raphael's rival Michelangelo. It is also thought that Raphael painted this figure after the others, perhaps having seen what Michelangelo was up to in the nearby Sistine Chapel. Keeping an eye on the competition. In fact, the figure of the not overly cheerful thinker stands out from the rest- both because Heraclitus stood alone in his attitude and thought, but also, some think, because Raphael was inspired by Michelangelo's use of volume in the Sistine Chapel and wished to emulate it.

The work as a whole is full of symbolism. The central figures are Aristotle and his teacher Plato (with the features of Leonardo), with the former holding his Ethics (probably the Nicomachean Ethics) and the latter holding his much less earthly and practical Timaeus- generally interpreted for this reason as pointing respectively at a level with man and heavenward. This interpretation I think is correct. But I find no easy explanation of the portrait of the great Greek as Michelangelo, besides the fact that both were seen as mercurial geniuses. It would not seem to be intuitive to conflate a sculptor (although he was also a painter and poet), whose works are literally cast in stone, with the philosopher of universal transience. Although Heraclitus believed in abiding permanence through transience- through the various stages of the marble, from the rude forms in the Carrara quarry to his enduring forms, the substance is and is not the same.

If you'd like to see more on this work, with a kind of figure-by-figure identification, see Wikipedia's article here.