Ptolemy Ptolémée


2nd Century A.D. - IIe siècle après J.C.

Iconography of Ptolemy's Portrait
Iconographie du portrait de Ptolémée

1509-1510 Raphaël

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio 1483-1520), Detail of Ptolemy and Strabo in the School of Athens (Scuola di Atene), 1509-1510, Vaticano, Stanza della Segnatura.

Raphaël (Raffaello Sanzio 1483-1520), Détail de Ptolémée et Strabon dans l'École d'Athènes (Scuola di Atene), 1509-1510, Vaticano, Stanza della Segnatura.

Cosmography: Astronomy and Cartography

But also: the universe and its representation

"The 'emblematic image' on the tablet held at Pythagoras's feet is the clue that the fresco is about the mathematical harmonies of the universe. Balancing the Pythagorecians around the slate at the lower left are the astrologers, symmetrically placed on the other side of the foreground. These two groups are rightly represented as conterparts, for what the Pythagoreans defined with musical consonances, the astrologers found out by studying the sky. Plato's raised finger expresses a final connection: from the science of numbers comes music; from music comes cosmic harmony; and from cosmic harmony comes the divine order of ideas (p. 34). Euclid, Zoroaster, Ptolemy, all tracked divinity in the regular patterns of geometry and the stars (p. 156)."

Apart the four identifed persons, the two globes are essential components of this group: the celestial one held by Strabo and the Earth held by Ptolemy. Closely linked with Raphael self-portrait, these figures and objects thus become a reflection on the realms of representation in science, both of the universe and the humans within, but also of art and its works, either in theory or in practice.

19. The Greek painter Appelles, shown as a self-portrait by Raphael who had been nicknamed by Vasari the "new Appelles" (Joost-Gaugier 1998, p. 780-83).

"Cleverly, Raphael has placed himself among the champions of sight, his own endeavors thereby elevated to the same plane: he, too, has measured the traces of divinity an sought God in the beautiful (p. 156). Raphael, author of the work, painted from his image in a mirror, with a black cap on his hea, of noble aspect, modest, and imbued with grace... (p. 53)." Raphael is directly gazing at us, as if he was questionning what we thought about his painting.

20. Greek painter Protogenes shown as Raphael's good friend, the painter Timoteo da Urbino (Timoteo Viti) with whom he had professionnal and personnal contacts when he painted this frescoe (Joost-Gaugier 1998). Maybe a reference to homosexuality linked with these men professionnal activity as painters?

21. Joost-Gaugier demonstrates that this figure seen from the back is Ptolemy, being a Greek living in Egypt. Raphael used the motif of the crown found on coins from the "dynasty of Macedonian kings of the same name who ruled Egypt from 323 to 30 B.C." (Joost-Gaugier 1998, p. 766-767, note 13.)

Ptolemy firmly holds the Earth with his both hands playing with the universe and its representation as in his famous quotation in a 1453 manuscript of his Geographica. This is a completely new iconography, since Ptolemy used to be shown as an atronomer with an armillary sphere, an astrolabe or a quadrant (see several previous images in the menu on the left). This innovative iconography, through Raphael's genius interpretation, is closely linked to the printing of Ptolemy's Cosmografia in the 15th century. "While the Almagest did not receive its first printing until 1515, by that year at least twelve editions of the Geography were in print. [...] Book 7 of Ptolemy's Geography includes instructions for constructing a globe (Joost-Gaugier 1998, p. 767-769)".

This cosmography of the Earth cannot be separated from the celestial cartography, closely held by Strabo. Ptolemy is very close to Raphael the author of the painting, thus demonstrating the very importance of his contribution to the understanding of cosmology, cosmography, geography, the realms of the theory of the universe and its symbolic representation, in science and in art. Hiding Ptolemy's face was a good thing to do, since his portraits are fictions or recreations.

This figure of Ptolemy was until recently identied as: "Zoroaster, whose back is turned, hold[ing] a globe of the heavens (p. 22)". This identification was rooted in the accounts of Giorgio Vasari (1550) and Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1695). "Behind Archimedes [Euclid] come two sages: one holds the celestial globe marked with the stars, the other the globe of the elements, with the surface of the earth and the water. [...] The second one turns his back, so that his face cannot be seen, but the radiate royal crown and the golden mantle are attributes of Zoroaster, king of the Bactrians, who apart from astronomy was most expert in the science of natural things; even though it is thought that he corrupted the true science of the occult (p. 53, 156)." Joost-Gaugier 1998 sustain that this interpretation cannot be retained because Zoroaster was not an Athenian, nor a Greek, and that humanists stressed his ties rather with Plato (left side of painting) and not with Aristotle (right side). Thus he has no place in a frescoe dedicated to The School of Athens. On other hand, pope Julius, as patron of this commission for his private library, had no known interest in Zoroastrism. We think along with Bellori and Joost-Gaugier that this figure of Ptolemy is holding a terrestrial globe, pairing the celestial one held by Strabo.

22. Strabo, a Greek geographer, is here represented by Raphael trough the portrait of Castiglione. Strabo is holding a celestial globe, almost spinning at the tip of his right hand's fingers. To Renaissance humanists, Strabo was considerered as a philosopher who insisted to consider the Earth linked with the celestial universe. Translation of his Geography in latin was commissionned by Pope Nicholas V in the 1450s. A manuscript edition was owned by Julius II. Strabo was often linked with Ptolemy, as a pair, by Renaissance humanists. (Joost-Gaugier 1998)

Raphaël, Balthazar Castiglione (1478-1529), 1514-1515, huile sur toile, 82 x 67 cm, Louvre.

This figure was formerly identified as the one of Ptolemy (p. 34, 59, 94). Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1695) was referring "to the Chaldeans, authors of astronomy and of the science of celestial bodies, and his chest and the cap on his head are visible (p. 53, 156)."

For another opinion on the identification of Ptolemy in Raphael's "School of Athens" see this article:

Joost-Gaugier 1998 - Joost-Gaugier, Christiane L., "Ptolemy and Strabo and Their Conversation with Apelles and Protogenes: Cosmography and Painting in Raphael's School of Athens", Renaissance Quarterly, Volume LI, Number 3 (Autumn 1998), p. 761-787.

Joost-Gaugier 1998 studies the group of men on the lower right side of Raphael's School of Athens. While the portrayal of Euclid is undisputed, the figures who are attached to him have not yet been firmly identified. In studying these figures as part of the intellectual fabric of the painting as a whole, it becomes clear that each of these figures has a meaningful role that cannot be deduced by mere guessing. The figure with his back to us is quite clearly the great mathematician-cosmographer Ptolemy of Alexandria. Not only because he wears a particular crown, but more importantly because the globe he holds is terrestrial (a symbol of his scientific contribution to the humanist curriculum) can we be certain of his presence. The man who faces him is most likely Strabo, the most famous geographer known throughout medieval times and one who was also appreciated by humanists, especially for his consideration of the sphere and the celestial aspects of the universe in his Geography. Both Ptolemy and Strabo are well placed next to Euclid, for both are concerned with geometry. The two men to the far right are, it is suggested here, two famous painters of Greek antiquity, Apelles (in the guise of Raphael) and Protogenes (in the guise of Timoteo Viti?), whose presence reflects the interests of artists in the early Cinquecento. All these heroes are appropriately placed on Aristotle's side of the painting. (Thanks to an Anonymous correspondant for this information.)

This remarkable piece of scholarship litteraly changed the "face" of the Ptolemy's website, since the Raphael portrait was used as the index button. I spent a marvelous week-end reading this article and adapting its information to the website. I also found some new portraits from the footnotes and references.

Formerly the old bearded man was used, now identified as Strabo as a web button. It has been replaced by the no face Ptolemy seen from the back. I find this quite appropriate to look at the back of this gentleman, since all his iconography is an imaginary one. It goes along with the reflection on his iconography, looking backwards to what everyone said about him without never being able to see his real face. A kind of backwards mirror of the ideologies of the epochs when his portraits were made.


Click on each image for identifications of persons with numbers and diagrams
Cliquez sur chaque image pour une identification des personnages avec numéros et diagrammes




Anonymous correspondant.



Pierre Perroud, Athena Raphaël, The School of Athens, Université de Genève.



Hall 1997 - Hall, Marcia B. (edit.), Giovanni Pietro Bellori, Heinrich Wölfflin, Ralph E. Lieberman, Janis Bell, Timothy Verdon, Ingrid D. Rowland and Alice Sedgwick Wohl, Raphael's School of Athens, Cambridge (U.K.), Cambridge University Press, 1997, 182 p., ill.. PAGES NUMBERS ALL REFER TO THIS BOOK.
Joost-Gaugier 1998 - Joost-Gaugier, Christiane L., "Ptolemy and Strabo and Their Conversation with Apelles and Protogenes: Cosmography and Painting in Raphael's School of Athens", Renaissance Quarterly, Volume LI, Number 3 (Autumn 1998), p. 761-787.
mise à jour le 26 juin 2003

Ptolemy Ptolémée


web Robert DEROME