raphael school of athens history
The fresco itself includes 21 distinct figures set against a backdrop of a school. The figures are engaged in conversation, work or games. All of the figures are male and are believed to represent all significant Greek philosophers. The fresco also includes images of statues within the school displayed within the school. One statue is Apollo, the Greek god of light, archery and music, holding a lyre. The other statue is Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, shown in her Roman form as Minerva. The building itself is shown in a cross-shape with the figures in the foreground and the interior receding behind them. The figures are scattered across steps and walkways within the school and the fresco is framed with an arch decorated with arabesque swastikas. The fresco measures 200 inches by 300 inches with a tondo above depicting a female figure with a putti stating “Seek Knowledge of Causes.”
School of Athens is one of a series of four frescoes painted by Raphael representing branches of knowledge. The frescoes, located on the walls of the Stanza, include images descriptive of philosophy, poetry, law, and theology. School of Athens is dedicated to philosophy as a path to knowledge, especially related to understanding causes to drive knowledge. All of the philosophers shown in the fresco traditionally sought knowledge through an understanding of root causes, tying back to the title and theme of the fresco. The overall theme of knowledge is integrated through Raphael”s frescos around the room but School of Athens is considered the best of the series.
The identities of some of the philosophers in the picture, such as Plato and Aristotle, are certain. Beyond that, identifications of Raphael’s figures have always been hypothetical. To complicate matters, beginning from Vasari’s efforts, some have received multiple identifications, not only as ancients but also as figures contemporary with Raphael. Vasari mentions portraits of the young Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, leaning over Bramante with his hands raised near the bottom right, and Raphael himself. 
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a rectangular version over 4 metres by 8 metres in size, painted on canvas, dated 1755 by Anton Raphael Mengs on display in the eastern Cast Court. 
Rounding out Raphael’s program, two large statues sit in niches at the back of the school. On Plato’s right, we see Apollo, while on Aristotle’s left is Minerva. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and justice, is an apt representative of the moral philosophy side of the fresco. Interestingly, her positioning also places her close to Raphael’s fresco about jurisprudence, which unfolds directly to her left.
Conversely, Aristotle’s hand is a visual representation of his belief that knowledge comes from experience. Empiricism, as it is known, theorizes that humans must have concrete evidence to support their ideas and is very much grounded in the physical world.
Raphael’s School of Athens has always been admired and studied, particularly between the late 17th and late 19th century, where his decorum and balance were lauded. His work was universally seen as the best model for history painting.
School of Athens
This fresco – a masterpiece of disegno – represents natural Truth, acquired through reason. Under the arched vault of an immense Basilica with lacunar ceiling and pilasters, (inspired by Constantine’s in the Roman Forum), decorated with statues of Apollo and Minerva, a crowd of philosophers and wise men of the past, along with High Renaissance artists and patrons, argue heatedly among themselves or mediate in silence. The extraordinarily deep linear perspective creates an incredible illusion of depth. In the centre we see Plato (long white beard and the features of Leonardo da Vinci), text of the Timaeus in hand, the other hand pointing to heaven, the “seat of all ideas”. At his side is Aristotle, in turn holding his Ethics and pointing to the earth. The two philosophers and their gesturing make a point which is the core of the philosophy of Marsilio Ficino: Aristotle’s gesture symbolizes the positive spirit; the vertical gesture of Plato alludes to a superior quality, the contemplation of ideas.
An important feature of this work, as in all Raphael’s paintings, is the artist’s use of his Renaissance colour palette – in this case, to highlight certain characters and to control the attention of the viewer. See how certain hues act as reference points across the canvas.