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Objective Art



Apollo on Mount Parnassus (1510) by Sanzio Raphael


Detail of Apollo with a Nine String Lira da Braccio Detail of Homer Detail of Sappho Detail of Horace

The Stanza Della Segnatura is a rather small room, measuring only about 27 by 21 feet, located in the Papal Palace in the Vatican. The name "Stanza Della Segnatura" means "Signature Room" in Italian and was used as a meeting room for the Tribunal of the Curia for much of its history. However, in 1508, it was intended that the room should become the Pope's personal library. Accordingly, Pope Julius II decided that the room should be decorated to honor past officers and followers of the Church. To perform this work, he commissioned Sanzio Raphael (1483-1520), who was then working in Florence, to come to Rome and take on the task of covering the walls and ceiling with frescoes. 

Today, Raphael is considered by most art historians to be the greatest painter of the Renaissance and perhaps the greatest painter of all time.  His frescos for the Stanza Della Segnatura are generally considered to be among his finest works.  In my opinion, the frescos entitled Parnassus and the School of Athens are the finest works that he ever created.  Both frescos may be interpreted at the esoteric level; however, since Parnassus is the lesser-known work, I have chosen to discuss it at this website.


The Stanza Della Segnatura depicts a complex series of Raphael frescos that are associated with four major themes: Theology, Philosophy, Poetry and Justice. Three walls of the room contain one large wall fresco associated with each theme.  The fourth wall (Justice theme) has two major wall frescos. The names of these major frescos are as follows: Theology -- Disputation (1509), Philosophy -- School of Athens (1509), Poetry -- Parnassus (1510) and Justice -- the Pandects of the Emperor Justinian (1511) and the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX (1511).

Parnassus is a large fresco, measuring 670 cm. at the base.  The work was completed in 1510, and was Raphael's third major composition for the room. It is directly adjacent to his more famous fresco, the School of Athens (see photo on the right). 

According to classical myth, Parnassus was the dwelling place of Apollo and the Muses, and was also the home of poetry. Mount Parnassus is, like the hill of the Vatican, a place where in ancient times there was a shrine to Apollo and the arts. This has a direct bearing on the picture because, through the window on the wall where the fresco is painted, there is a view of the Cortile del Belvedere and the hill of the Vatican.



Richard Cocke's Interpretation

The following is a description of the painting by art historian Richard Cocke from his book Raphael (published in 2004), pages 71 and 75:

 ... the Parnassus ... frames a view of the Mons Vaticanus, enclosed by Bramante’s Belvedere, with Apollo on mount Helicon, his head raised to acknowledge his divine gift, surrounded by the muses together with poets of antiquity together with Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.

Raphael drew upon an incomparable range of classical sculpture for the frieze-like composition and the musical instruments, with the exception of Apollo’s lira da braccio, a modern instrument, then identified as ancient. It has been carefully modified by the addition of two extra strings to bring the total to nine, the number of the muses whose harmony it symbolized. Poses and drapery were adapted from large-scale statues: the seated Apollo from the statue of the god in the Grimani collection, the complex clinging drapery of the muse seated to the spectator’s left of Apollo from the Ariadne then identified as Cleopatra and still in the Maffei collection), the heads of the muses from those of Venus and the sightless but eloquent Homer from the recently discovered Laocoon.

The nearly unbroken linking together of Apollo, the muses and poets is an inspired reworking of the relief composition of Roman sarcophagi, not found in the early stages of the design, known through copies after lost drawings and an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi, from a drawing by Raphael. This classical inspiration was combined with concern to reduce the intrusive window, by making it impossible for the spectator to work out the relationship of the side of the windows to the main field above. He covered the edge of the window on the left, for instance, with part of the mountain and Sappho’s arms and lyre. She in turn is one of the group of poets standing behind the frame and the window. This deliberate ambiguity ... extends to the relationship of the foreground groups with the muses on Mount Helicon; the poet on the very right of the fresco appears to be closer to the spectator than Apollo but both have the same relationship to the frame and hence a comparable position in space which reduces the depth of the composition.


My Personal Interpretation

The Parnassus fresco is associated with poetry just as the School of Athens is associated with philosophy.  The fresco depicts the fabled Mount Parnassus in Greece, the residence of the god Apollo.  The figures shown in the painting are:  Apollo, the nine Muses, and eighteen poets.  Seventeen of the poets are wearing laurel wreathes; however, one young man (said to be the Roman poet Ennius) is without a wreath and is copying down Homer's spoken words. By gender, there are ten females - the nine Muses plus the Greek poet Sappho, and eighteen males - the god Apollo and seventeen male poets. Of the poets, there are ancient Greek, ancient Roman and several contemporary Italian poets. Historians have been able to identify only about twelve of the eighteen poets.  The Renaissance artist and biographer, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), in his book entitled The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (pages 272-273) provides the following description of Parnassus and the twelve poets who he was able to identify:

On the wall towards the Belvedere, where there are Mount Parnassus and the Fount of Helicon, he made round that mount a laurel wood of darkest shadows, in the verdure of which one almost sees the leaves quivering in the gentle zephyrs; and in the air are vast numbers of naked Loves, most beautiful in feature and expression, who are plucking branches of laurel and with them making garlands, which they throw and scatter about the mount. Over the whole, in truth, there seems to breathe a spirit of divinity so beautiful are the figures, and such the nobility of the picture, which makes whoever studies it with attention marvel how a human brain, by the imperfect means of mere colors, and by excellence of draughtsmanship, could make painted things appear alive. Most lifelike, also, are those Poets who are seen here and there about the mount, some standing, some seated, some writing, and others dis­coursing, and others, again, singing or conversing together, in groups of four or six, according as it pleased him to distribute them. There are portraits from nature of all the most famous poets, ancient and modern, and some only just dead, or still living in his day; which were taken from statues or medals, and many from old pictures, and some, who were still alive, portrayed from the life by himself. And to begin with one end, there are Ovid, Virgil, Ennius, Tibullus, Catullus, Propertius, and Homer; the last-named, blind and chanting his verses with up­lifted head, having at his feet one who is writing them down. Next, in a group, are all the nine Muses and Apollo, with such beauty in their aspect, and such divinity in the figures, that they breathe out a spirit of grace and life. There, also, are the learned Sappho, the most divine Dante, the gracious Petrarch, and the amorous Boccaccio, who are wholly alive, with Tibaldeo and an endless number of other moderns; and this scene is composed with much grace, and executed with diligence.

In all, the painting contains 28 figures -- a very important number which I shall discuss below.  Five of the figures possess musical instruments: Apollo, three Muses (Euterpe, Erato and Terpsichore) and the poet Sappho.


Subordinate Frescos on the Ceiling Above Parnassus

The ceiling (see photo on the right) of the Stanza Della Segnatura contains a fresco of the Papal Coat of Arms at the center of the vault enclosed within an octagon.  The octagon is surrounded by four round frescos (roundels) depicting the four personifications of Theology, Justice, Philosophy. and Poetry.  The roundel are directly above associated major wall frescos that depict the same subject.  Between the roundels are four rectangular representations which are closely related in meaning to these four major topics.




On the ceiling, directly above Parnassus, are three smaller frescos that are closely associated with the god Apollo:

1)  The first is a panel (see thumbnail on the right) depicting Apollo and Marsyas.  This fresco illustrates a well known story from Greek mythology involving a contest between Apollo and Marsyas.  Marsyas was a satyr who had become an expert player on a double reed pipe known as an aulos. 

The goddess Athena had invented the aulos and the music she made was quite beautiful.  Unfortunately, when she played her cheeks bulged and her face became contorted.  The other gods made fun of her; Athena became so embarrassed that she threw the instrument away. Marsyas found the aulos on the ground where Athena had tossed it and, after much practice, became a skilled player. In fact, he played so well that he rashly challenged the god Apollo, a master of the lyre, to a music contest. 

The contest was judged by the nine Muses.  Since Apollo was their leader, they were not exactly unbiased.  Marsyas lost and Apollo punished him because of his hubris -- he had dared to challenge a god.  According to the myth, Marsyas was flayed to death in a cave near Calaenae in Phrygia and his blood was turned into the river Marsyas.


2)  The second fresco (see thumbnail on the right) is a roundel depicting the goddess of Poetry.  She is the only female personification on the ceiling that has wings, perhaps an allusion to the soaring imagination of poetry. The fresco contains the Latin inscription, “NUMINE AFFLATUR,” meaning "Inspired by the Divine" -- a quote from the Aeneid by the poet Virgil. Poetry sits cross-legged on a cloud bank.  Her right arm is pushed forward in a dramatic gesture, while her right hand grasps a book.  Her left elbow leans upon a bust of Homer, while her left hand grasps a lyre.  The background of this fresco, like all of the ceiling roundels, is a gold colored mosaic, a painted feature that complements the inlaid mosaic floor of the Stanza.


3)  The third is a fresco (see thumbnail on the right) known as the Prime Mover.  Alternate names for this panel include Astrology, Astronomy and the Muse Urania.  The fresco is rather mysterious and appears to be concerned with the structure and harmony of the Cosmos.  This painting may be alluding to the world creation descriptions contained in the Timeaus of Plato. In the fresco, an unidentified woman or goddess (but probably not the Muse Urania) rests her right arm upon the sphere of the fixed stars and their constellations; the spherical Earth is shown inside of the starry sphere. The loose end of a sash, girding the woman's waist, is shown swirling up in a spiraling motion towards the back of her head.  I believe that the shape drawn by the sash is significant, but I am unable to interpret it.  The woman, with her left arm and hand, gestures in the direction of the School of Athens fresco. On both sides of the woman are winged putti holding unidentified books. Like the other ceiling frescos, the background is a gold colored mosaic.


Subordinate Frescos on the Wall below Parnassus

Below Parnassus are two more small frescos (see photo on the right):

1)  The first is another scene involving the contest between Apollo and Marsyas.

2)  The second fresco depicts a scene where a book is being cast into a fire, but the Emperor Augustus orders that it be removed from the flames. This is an illustration from a story involving the Roman poet Virgil.  In 20 B.C., Augustus, on his way back to Rome after a sojourn in Samos, met Virgil in Athens. Virgil decided to accompany the emperor back to Italy. However, the journey turned out to be fatal; Virgil had contracted a fever in Greece and died just after having arrived in Italy at Brindisi. Virgil had previously instructed his executor, his half-brother Varius, to destroy the uncompleted manuscript of the Aeneid. However, Augustus ordered Varius to ignore this request, and the poem, although not completely finished, was published.


Musical Instruments

The fresco depicts five musical instruments; some are of ancient provenance, others are contemporary to Raphael's time. All the instruments possess certain rather strange and unorthodox features which do not occur in known representations of ancient instruments nor in the instruments of Raphael’s day.  An excellent study of these musical instruments was performed by Emanuel Winternitz in his book Musical Instruments and Their Symbolism in Western Art (see pages 185-201).  The following discussion makes use of his technical descriptions of the musical instruments.

1) Kithara:  The Muse Erato holds an elaborate and ornate kithara on her lap. Its sound box consists of two boxes, the front of the lower box showing three slits. The arms, decorated with five knobs, curve up gracefully towards the yoke. The latter is inserted into the arms and can evidently be turned by the side disks, of which one is visible. There are seven strings which spring from the lower box. The projecting rim of the upper box, functioning as a bridge, changes their direction, but, at the point where they reach the yoke, no fastening device is depicted. The usual sticks or rolls which help to attach the strings to the yoke and to vary their tension for tuning purposes, are absent.  Winternitz's opinion is that the omission is due to a lack of technical-functional understanding; Raphael’s way out of the dilemma was to omit what he did not comprehend.

2)  Trumpet/Aulos:  The Muse Euterpe holds a wind instrument pressed against her thigh. It is a single metal tube, swelling slightly towards the top and terminating first in a bulb and then in an unusually flat, small bell. The lower end shows a cup-shaped mouthpiece, like those used in brass instruments. This instrument would appear to be a trumpet were it not for the four strange protuberances on its right side, below Euterpe’ s arm; they make no sense in a trumpet or in any other brass instrument.

After comparing this instrument with those depicted on classical sarcophagi, the protuberances, inexplicable in a trumpet, seem to be taken from another wind instrument called an aulos. Winternitz produces the following explanation:

The result is acoustical nonsense: no trumpet had sound holes to be stopped by the lingers, while no aulos had a cup-shaped mouthpiece. Moreover, the aulos had its mouthpiece, with oboe reed and bulb, on top; the trumpet in the fresco had its mouthpiece on the lower end. Here ignorance can hardly be the explanation; instruments of the oboe type —and the aulos was a double oboe — were quite common at that time, and even double oboes were frequently depicted in angel concerts. Furthermore, not only contemporary double oboes were known; the ancient aulos itself was evidently well understood in the Raphael circle. ... Raphael himself, ... depicted a double pipe, and therefore the apparent absurdity of Euterpe’s instrument cannot be explained by ignorance. We must assume rather that functional logic was intentionally subordinated to allegorical aims. Up to now, we have called the Muse carrying the strange wind instrument Euterpe because, according to ancient iconography, it was Euterpe who carried the aulos. But in the fresco there was also needed a heroic-epic Muse —Calliope gesta canens— and her traditional attribute, at least in Raphael’s time, was the trumpet. Perhaps, too, the presence of two wind instruments would not have been appropriate on the Parnassus that echoes with the silvery sound of Apollo’s lira da braccio. Thus the aulos was fused with the trumpet, and the appearance of archaeological authenticity was combined with allegorical persuasion: Euterpe merged with Calliope.

Unfortunately, I find the above Winternitz argument to be weak and unrealistic.  None of the musical instruments in the Parnassus fresco reflect real instruments, either ancient or modern. This was a deliberate decision by Raphael and/or his patron.  I will discuss possible reasons for this below.

3)  Lyre:  The poet Sappho holds a rather enigmatic stringed instrument. A curved sound box, shaped more like a turtle shell than an animal head, carries a complex machinery, a sort of frame with four side disks, three of which are visible. They seem to be of the same nature and function as those on Erato’s kithara and thus would serve to turn the crossbar, or, more precisely, the two crossbars. But why two crossbars? Moreover, the way in which this machinery is attached to the turtle shell remains unclear. Certainly two arms grow from the shell, continuing its contour; it seems as if two animal horns are inserted into the two holes for the front feet of the turtle. The horn-shaped objects are part of the instrument — without them, the instrument would fall down.  Whether the instrument is connected to the bulge below the hand, or whether it is connected to a smaller bulge farther right (which may be another of the disks mentioned above), is unclear. The five strings emerge from an elaborate string holder with a curved profile, and stop in mid-air shortly before reaching the fastening point.

4)  Lute:  There is a third Muse who holds a musical instrument.  This Muse, with her back to the viewer, is shown on the extreme right. Her instrument has rarely been commented upon by the art historians. Some have called it a lute, and the shading indeed suggests a rounded surface similar to a lute’s belly, although the belly of a lute was always made of staves. 

5)  Lira da braccio:  Apollo is depicted bowing a lira da braccio.  This is the only instrument being played; the others are respectfully silent. Except for the number of strings, it is an accurate portrayal of the common lira da braccio. The body, the heart-shaped head with frontal pegs, the two drone strings, are all typical shapes.

Raphael has been criticized for including a contemporary instrument in the hands of Apollo.  Furthermore, it is a bowed fiddle, and bowing was a technique unknown to Greco-Roman antiquity. However, Winternitz does not consider such criticism warranted.  Raphael’s purpose in the Segnatura, and especially in the Parnassus, was to provide a merger of antiquity with life in the High Renaissance, to show the great artists and philosophers of the past conversing with their latter-day counterparts.  Dante, in the Divine Comedy, had no qualms about letting himself be guided by Virgil. Petrarch and Ariosto would have had no objection to being associated with Sappho.  Although an error, the lira da braccio was often mentioned in Renaissance literature as an instrument of the ancients. In fact, the invention of the bow was attributed to the ancients and frequently to Sappho. Lastly, the lira da braccio is an instrument frequently used by solo player, who was accompanying his own song or recitation.

Apollo's lira da braccio has nine strings in place of the usual seven. These seven included five melody strings stopped against the fingerboard, and two open strings, running outside the fingerboard and vibrating in their lull length when plucked or bowed.  Winternitz believes that Raphael was very familiar with the lira da braccio, thus a mistake concerning the number of strings is out of the question. He believes that there can only be an allegorical explanation.  Winternitz suggests that the nine strings may be an allusion to the nine musical modes (scales) of the ancient Greeks, as well as an allusion to the nine Muses.  Once again, I must disagree with this noted musical archaeologist.

In music, a mode is an ordered series of musical intervals. The ancient Greek Modes (scales) were usually named after the cities that preferred a given mode in times past.  There were either seven or ten modes (depending upon the source), but not nine.


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