Duke of Urbino and Hypatia
1. Mysterious figure in white toga is
in the left, upper foreground of Raphael's "School of Athens."
2. Preliminary drawing for the
face of the figure in the white toga from the Raphael fresco.
3. "Young Man with an Apple" by
Raphael (1504), thought to be Francesco Maria della Rovere (1490-1538).
Internet sites claim that the person clad in a snow-white toga, bearing the
likeness of Francesco Maria della Rovere (a favorite nephew of Pope Julius II,
who became Duke of Urbino in 1508) depicted in
the left foreground of "The School of Athens," was originally intended by
Raphael to represent Hypatia of Alexandria. Unfortunately, there is no primary
and/or objective evidence whatsoever to
support this claim! Indeed, this is such a perfect example of fiction being made into fact,
primarily due to the Internet, that I am going to devote considerable space at
this website to explore the anomaly in some detail.
The Hypatia - Raphael Legend
Let me begin by
quoting a relatively complete version of the legend, as it is presented at one
of the better and more popular
Internet sites devoted to Hypatia:
Francesco Maria della Rovere (1490-1538) succeeded one of his
uncles, Guidobaldo da Montefeltre, as Duke of Urbino. At first he was protected
by another uncle, Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere), but he later lost
power under the Medici Pope Leo X, and he was unable to regain his territories
until after Leo's death. Francesco was one of Italy's most important military
leaders and frequently served the Republic of Venice.
When Raphael began work on Scuola di Atene,
Francesco was still a teenager, living under the close protection of his uncle,
Pope Julius II, who had commissioned the fresco for his private library, the
Stanza della Segnatura. Two years earlier, in 1507, in a
miniature celebrating his triumphal entry into Rome after his military
victory over the Bolognese, the Pope had had his young nephew and constant
companion depicted as a boy wearing golden armor. As an older man, circa 1536,
he was again depicted in military garb, in a
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio). Circa 1504, Raphael himself had painted a
portrait of Francesco dressed in garb befitting an adolescent boy of
Upon Raphael's submission of his
preliminary compositional sketches of the fresco to the church fathers, the
Bishop is alleged to have inquired as to the identity of a woman depicted
standing at the bottom (front) and center of a sketch, in the foreground,
between the figures of Parmenides and Diogenes, “Who is this woman in the
“Hypatia of Alexandria, the most famous
student of the School of Athens,” replied the artist. “She was a professor of
philosophy, mathematics and astronomy at the University of Alexandria and
certainly one of the greatest thinkers ever.”
“Remove her. Knowledge of her runs counter
to the belief of the faithful! Otherwise, the work is acceptable,” cautioned the
Vatican's high priest.
The Bishop's words struck at the heart of
Raphael's original artistic conception. It had been the artist's intention to
depict Hypatia standing alone in the center foreground, located, spatially,
between the viewers of the fresco and the central figures of Plato and
Aristotle, as homage to her unique role, temporally, as guardian and transmitter
of their ancient wisdom and inquiring spirit to their intellectual heirs in
Yielding to the power of the purse
strings, Raphael's initial reaction was simply to omit the figure from his final
working drawing, but he then proceeded instead to disguise his original
intention as an intimate gesture to his holy patron. In an area which had been
vacant in the preliminary
compositional sketch, directly behind and between the images of Pythagoras
and Parmenides, the artist's final working drawing, the “cartoon” (detail),
bears the image of Hypatia, her dark skin recast to a very pale white and her
features altered to resemble those of the “beloved” nephew of the Pope.
Raphael thereby restored Hypatia to a rightful place in his masterpiece among
her intellectual peers.
This is a great story, too bad
there is no primary evidence anywhere which supports it! The statements
concerning the Pope's nephew are quite consistent with solid historical
evidence. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any historical support
whatsoever to the assertion that Raphael originally had intended for the figure to
Hypatia of Alexandria.
Primary Sources for the Life
The facts concerning Hypatia of
Alexandria (ca. 370-415 A.D.) depend upon a very small collection of primary
documents. Any source, whether it be an Internet site, book or article, that
goes beyond the information contained within these primary documents, is either
fiction or speculation and should be clearly labeled as such. These documents
were all originally written in patristic Greek; they have all been translated
into English but some translations may not be easy to locate. My source for the
following information is an online article entitled:
The Primary Sources for the Life and Work of Hypatia of Alexandria,
by Professor Michael A. B. Deakin, Mathematics Department, Monash University,
These primary sources are as
1) An entry in the Suda
Lexicon (Suidas - 10th century A.D.);
2) A passage in the
Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus;
3) An excerpt from The
Chronicle of John, Coptic Bishop of Nikiu;
4) Six letters by Hypatia's
pupil, Synesius of Cyrene;
5) Four miscellaneous short
extracts from other works:
The inscription at the beginning of Book III of Theon's Commentary on Ptolemy's
A brief reference in an ecclesiastical history by Philostorgius.
Another brief reference in the Chronicle of John Malalas.
A further brief reference in the Chronographia of Theophanes.
Please note that pertinent
extracts from several of the above primary documents, in English translation,
are provided at my web page devoted to the
life of Hypatia.
Information Available to
None of the
sources of information regarding Hypatia, mentioned above, could reasonably be
expected to have been available to Raphael or his Vatican advisors. As mentioned
at the home page of this website, Raphael seems to have primarily used the
histories of Diogenes Laertius (written in the early 3rd century A.D.) to
determine which philosophers to include and where to group them. Almost all of
these philosophers date from the 6th century B.C. through the 1st century A.D.
Hypatia lived during the late 4th century and early 5th century A.D. more than
two centuries after the death of Laertius. In Raphael's time, she was probably
totally unknown, even to the most learned scholars of Western Europe. Indeed,
the Polish historian, Maria Dzielska, has asserted that Hypatia was not written
about in the West until the 18th century.
In my opinion, the
best modern, scholarly biography of Hypatia is by María Dzielska entitled:
Hypatia of Alexandría (published
1995). Dzielska is a professor of History at Jagiellonian University in
Cracow, Poland. Her 167 page book is an exhaustive review of all the primary
materials. Her account of Hypatia is very balanced and fair with respect to both
the Christian and Pagan viewpoints. In fact, I would have liked her to have been
a bit more Pro-Pagan in her assessment!
I offer the following quotation from the
beginning of her most excellent work (see pages 1-4):
Hypatia first appeared in European
literature in the 18th century. In the era of skepticism known
historically as the Enlightenment, several writers used her as an instrument of
religious and philosophical polemic.
In 1720 John Toland in youth a zealous
Protestant published a long historical essay titled: Hypatia or the History
of a Most Beautiful, Most Virtuous, Most Learned and in Every Way Most
Accomplished Lady; Who Was Torn to Pieces by the Clergy of Alexandria, to
Gratify the Pride, Emulation and Cruelty of the Archbishop, Commonly but
Undeservedly Titled St. Cyril. Though basing his account of Hypatia on
sources such as the 10th century Suda, Toland begins by asserting
that the male part of humanity has forever been disgraced by the murder of “the
incarnation of beauty and wisdom”; men must always “be ashamed, that any could
be found among them of so brutal and savage a disposition as, far from being
struck with admiration at so much beauty, innocence and knowledge, to stain
their barbarous hands with her blood, and their impious souls with the indelible
character of sacrilegious murderers.” Toland focuses on the Alexandrian clergy,
headed by the Patriarch Cyril: “A Bishop, a Patriarch, nay a Saint, was the
contriver of so horrid a deed, and his clergy the executioner of his implacable
… for the most part Toland's work enjoyed
a favorable reception among the Enlightenment elite. Voltaire exploited the
figure of Hypatia to express his repugnance for the church and revealed
religion. In a style not unlike Toland's, he writes … Hypatia's death was “a
bestial murder perpetrated by Cyril's tonsured hounds, with a fanatical gang at
their heels.” She was murdered, Voltaire asserts, because she believed in the
Hellenic gods, the laws of rational Nature, and the capacities of the human mind
free of imposed dogmas. …
Influenced by Enlightenment ideas,
neo-Hellenism, and Voltaire's literary and philosophical style, Edward Gibbon
elaborated the legend of Hypatia, In the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
he identifies Cyril as the perpetrator of all conflicts in Alexandria at the
beginning of the fifth century, including the murder of Hypatia. … Like Toland
and Voltaire, Gibbon retells Damascius' story about Cyril's burning envy of
Hypatia, who was “in the bloom of beauty and in the maturity of wisdom,” … This
representation of “the Alexandrian crime” perfectly fitted Gibbon's theory that
the rise of Christianity was the crucial cause of the fall of that ancient
Based on the
above, it would seem that Western writers discovered Hypatia no earlier than the
18th century. In 1509 it would have been virtually impossible for Raphael to
have known of her. It should also be noted that Professor Dzielska make no
mention whatsoever of the Raphael - Hypatia legend; if this story had any
credence at all, I am sure that she would have mentioned it!
Comments by Scholars and
Historians Regarding the Duke of Urbino Figure in "The School of Athens"
Although, I believe the Raphael
- Hypatia legend to be of very recent origin, it may be of interest to see what
some earlier scholars and historians of the culture and art of the Italian
Renaissance have to say concerning the Duke of Urbino figure depicted in
Mariana Starke (1762-1838):
Starke was an English writer and playwright.
The following is an extract from her book entitled:
Travels in Europe (Ninth Edition, Paris:
... The Figure in a toga is Lucretius,
placed near Empedocles, as having been his follower; but looking another way,
because he differed from his master. This figure is the portrait of Francesco,
Duke of Urbino, nephew to Julius II. ...
Johann David Passavant (1787-1861): Passavant is considered to be one of
the founders of the modern art and science museum; he was a
German painter and museum curator.
The following is an excerpt from
the English translation of his book entitled: Raphael of Urbino and his
father Giovanni Santi (London and New York: 1872):
... The philosopher standing arguing on a
book, is Anaxagoras, the friend of Pericles. ...
Behind him is standing a handsome young
man, in whom Raphael has perpetuated the features of his Prince, Francesco Maria
della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, at that time at Rome.
(1818-1897): What does the greatest historian of the Italian Renaissance
have to say about the Duke of Urbino figure? Does he mention Hypatia? He does
not. The formidable Jacob Burckhardt has only the following comment in his book entitled Art Guide to
Painting in Italy (London: 1879), page 152:
Perhaps the only figure that appears quite
inactive in this hall is the young Duke of Urbino, who stands in the middle of
the left half of the School of Athens. On closer
inspection, we find that he is not only pictorially required with his white
dress, but is also indispensable as a neutral figure between the upper and lower
groups. And what does the quiet smile on this wonderful countenance say? It is
the victorious consciousness of beauty that, along with all recognition of other
things, it will maintain its place in this motley world.
Eugène Müntz (1845-1902):
Müntz was a French savant and historian. The following is an extract from his
book entitled Raphael: His Life, Works and Times (New York: 1888):
... The gloomy dreamer who is seated in
the foreground, who is carelessly tracing figures upon a papyrus in front of
him, his thoughts being evidently far away, is meant for Heraclitus of Ephesus.
The young man standing up near him seems to be Francesco-Maria della Rovere,
Duke of Urbino ...
Spadaro (Born 1925): Spadaro is an Anthroposophist and artist. The following
is an extract from his book entitled: Esoteric Meaning in Raphael's Paintings
(2006), page 61:
... He is holding a tablet with the title
"epogdoon" meaning "full tone." This tablet contains the human understanding of
cosmic relationships understood through music and arithmetic ratios. ... The
heel and ankle of a right foot are visible on the left-hand side of the tablet.
This foot belongs to the figure wrapped in white. White stands for earthly
purity and for the image of light. The garment is embroidered with gold, which
stands for the splendor of light; therefore, we can say that this figure bears
purity and splendor of light, divine wisdom. He has golden curly hair which
frames his oval face elliptically, symbolic of eternity. This is the adult
Jesus. His posture and hand held over his heart emphasize that he is the carrier
Modern Books and Articles
that Do Mention the Hypatia - Raphael Legend
I have not been
able to find any books or articles written prior to the 1990s that state or
imply that Raphael meant to depict Hypatia in the "School of Athens." However,
an Internet search at Google Books, disclosed several recent books which
reference this alleged fact. I provide seven examples below. However, it should
be noted that none of these examples may be considered serious, scholarly works.
2010: Sandy Donovan,
Hypatia: Mathematician, Inventor, and Philosopher:
"Hypatia is thought to be the only
woman shown in the painting School of Athens, created by the famous
Renaissance artist Raphael."
Encyclopedia of Philosophy for Smartphones and Mobile Devices:
"Hypatia is believed to be the sole woman
represented in Raphael's 1506/1510 work The School of Athens."
Women's Influence on Classical Civilization: "Hypatia
... was originally included among the famous classical philosophers in Raphael's
iconic School of Athens."
John W. Casperson,
Toward Spiritual Sovereignty: A Secular Bible: "Hypatia
was honored by the genius Raphael when he included Hypatia ... in his
masterpiece, The School of Athens."
Realm of the Ring Lords: The Myth and Magic of the Grail Quest:
"When ... the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael (1483-1520) painted his
masterwork The School of Athens, he was instructed to remove
Hypatia from the scene."
Integrative Problem-Solving in a Time of Decadence: "Hypatia
... is believed to be the sole woman represented in Raphael's 1511 painting
The School of Athens.
William H. Young,
Ordering America: "Raphael also includes in his fresco
Hypatia of Alexandria, a natural
I note that
several of the above authors assert that the figure in white is the only woman
depicted. This is most definitely wrong! There are at least two and
possibly three women shown, In the Plato group, there are two female students of
Plato, i.e., Lasthenia and Axiothaea (she appears to be holding a child in her
arms). In the lower left group there is probably another woman; she is depicted
holding up two fingers (the number two being the first female number in
Evidence from the
Cartoon of Raphael's "School of Athens"
We are fortunate that the cartoon for "The School of
Athens" fresco has survived (see above). This cartoon clearly shows that the Duke of
Urbino figure is positioned exactly as he appears in the final painting.
In fact, the only significant element missing is the figure of
Michelangelo leaning upon his block of marble. Michelangelo was a later
addition, painted in after the fresco had been completed (see
this special topic). The fact that the "figure in white" is in a group
composed only of philosophers interested in the nature of the material world
(physicists), effectively precludes the possibility that the figure represents
Hypatia. She was an idealist and a Neo-Platonist; as such she would have been
placed into the Platonic group, not into a group of materialists!
Who Does the Duke of Urbino
The time has come to put me on
the spot! Based on the above discussion, I believe that I have shown that the
Duke of Urbino figure never was intended to represent Hypatia. But who does the
figure represent? The Duke of Urbino not only was a favorite of the Pope but
also was Raphael's own "liege lord." Raphael would take great care in
selecting the person whom the Duke was to portray. It would have to be someone
relatively important in the philosophical realm. Mariana Starke, noting that the
Duke wears a Roman Toga, thought that he represented the Roman philosopher
Lucretius, who, like Leucippus and Democritus, was a strong advocate of the
atomic theory of matter. I think that her guess is reasonable, certainly far
more reasonable than Hypatia or Jesus Christ! However, I think that the handsome
young man was intended to represent a more important philosopher than either
Hypatia or Lucretius. I think that he represents Epicurus (341-270 B.C.).
Epicurus was the founder
of a major school of philosophy called
For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to enable one to attain a happy and
tranquil life. Life should be enjoyed in a peaceful manner, free from fear and
without pain. One should live in comfort surrounded by one's friends. Death should not be feared.
From what I have been able to learn about Raphael, his personal philosophy of
life was probably quite similar to that advocated by Epicurus. Certainly Raphael
had many friends, both male and female; he knew how to enjoy life with plenty of
fine food, drink and mistresses. He knew how to live life to the fullest extent.
Epicurus had many beliefs in common with other materialist philosophers, such as
Democritus and Leucippus. Epicurus believed that the Cosmos was infinite and
eternal; events in the physical world were ultimately based on the motions and
interactions of atoms moving in empty space. Epicurus is considered by many
historians of science to be a key figure in the development of science and the
scientific method. This is because Epicurus insisted that nothing should be
believed unless it had been tested through direct observation and logical
deduction. Many of his ideas about nature and physics are fully consistent with
modern scientific concepts. If anyone were to question the importance of this
choice, all Raphael need do was to refer to his primary source of information,
Diogenes Laertius. Out of his ten book history, only two philosophers had an
entire book devoted to their biography: Plato (Book III) and Epicurus (Book X).
Indeed, some scholars think that Laertius was himself an Epicurean.
Raphael made the Duke of Urbino
representation extremely important in the overall composition of the fresco.
Giving the figure an attention grabbing, snow-white costume and a position above
the other figures in his group, indicates that he considered the personage of
Epicurus to be an
important bridge between the scientific materialists below him and the Platonic idealists
who are grouped just above him.
I believe that the young Duke
of Urbino was most pleased with his role in the painting!