Art & History

The School of Athens – Raphael | [HR] Painting & Facts

The School of Athens (Italian: Scuola di Atene) is one of the most famous frescoes by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. It was painted between 1509 and 1511 as a part of Raphael’s commission to decorate the rooms now known as the Stanze di Raffaello, in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.

The Stanza della Segnatura was the first of the rooms to be decorated, and The School of Athens, representing Philosophy, was probably the second painting to be finished there, after La Disputa (Theology) on the opposite wall, and the Parnassus (Literature). The picture has long been seen as “Raphael’s masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance”.

Facts About Painting

  • The fresco is heavily populated with ancient philosophers, but single-point perspective immediately focuses the viewer’s attention on Plato (in pink) and Aristotle (in blue), emphasizing their pivotal role in the discipline. Raphael worked in the context of a model entrenched in the Italian painting tradition since the late medieval ages known as the “uomini famosi” (famous men) cycle, which presented labeled portraits of thinkers, writers, and theologians, but broke with the norm by leaving them unidentified, encouraging audience engagement.
  • Many of the philosophers have double identities, serving as portraits of Raphael’s Renaissance contemporaries. For example, Euclid, bending in the foreground to give a geometry lesson, is Donato Bramante, a renowned architect. The pensive man leaning on a block is Michelangelo disguised as Heraclitus, in an intentionally heavier style that makes reference to Michelangelo’s own painting in the Sistine Chapel. And Raphael himself? He’s the figure looking straight at us on the far right edge of the fresco, next to a white-cloaked man identified as his teacher, Perugino.
  • The fresco is a masterful testament to the High Renaissance harmony between Christianity and pagan antiquity and is full of layered meanings. The barrel-vault architecture was modeled on the ruins of ancient Roman baths Raphael had studied, but also recalled Bramante’s plans for the new Saint Peter’s Basilica. The two giant statues in the niches are the pagan deities Apollo and Minerva. Yet they also carry Christian connotations: Apollo was a healing god of light and knowledge, seen as a prefiguration of Christ, and Minerva, with her strange (although not quite virgin) birth, was seen as analogous to Mary.
  • ulius II’s selection of Raphael to decorate another set of papal apartments at great expense sent an implicit message of rejection of his predecessor and hated rival, Alexander VI of the Borgia family, who had had his own suite done by Pinturicchio.
  • The figure other than Raphael’s self-portrait to look directly at the audience is thought by some to be Hypatia, a Neoplatonist living in Roman Egypt and the only woman in the fresco.

Figures

1: Zeno of Citium

2: Epicurus Possibly, the image of two philosophers, who were typically shown in pairs during the Renaissance: Heraclitus, the “weeping” philosopher, and Democritus, the “laughing” philosopher.

3: unknown (believed to be Raphael) 

4: Boethius or Anaximander or Empedocles

5: Averroes

6: Pythagoras

7: Alcibiades or Alexander the Great

8: Antisthenes or Xenophon or Timon

9: Raphael, Fornarina as a personification of Love or Francesco Maria della Rovere?

10: Aeschines or Xenophon

11: Parmenides

12: Socrates

13: Heraclitus

14: Plato

15: Aristotle (Giuliano da Sangallo)

16: Diogenes of Sinope

17: Plotinus

18: Euclid or Archimedes with students (Bramante)

19: Strabo or Zoroaster (Baldassare Castiglione)

20: Ptolemy R: Apelles

21: Protogenes (Il Sodoma, Perugino, or Timoteo Viti)

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