raphael the school of athens
Commentators have suggested that nearly every great ancient Greek philosopher can be found in the painting, but determining which are depicted is difficult, since Raphael made no designations outside possible likenesses, and no contemporary documents explain the painting. Compounding the problem, Raphael had to invent a system of iconography to allude to various figures for whom there were no traditional visual types. For example, while the Socrates figure is immediately recognizable from Classical busts, the alleged Epicurus is far removed from his standard type. Aside from the identities of the figures depicted, many aspects of the fresco have been variously interpreted, but few such interpretations are unanimously accepted among scholars.
A number of drawings made by Raphael as studies for the School of Athens are extant.  A study for the Diogenes is in the Städel in Frankfurt  while a study for the group around Pythagoras, in the lower left of the painting, is preserved in the Albertina Museum in Vienna.  Several drawings, showing the two men talking while walking up the steps on the right and the Medusa on Athena’s shield,  [a] the statue of Athena (Minerva) and three other statues,  a study for the combat scene in the relief below Apollo  and “Euclid” teaching his pupils  are in the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Oxford University.
Raphael rose to the challenge, creating an extensive catalog of preparatory sketches for all his frescoes. These would later be blown up in the full-scale cartoons to help transfer the design to the wet plaster. Working at the same time as Michelangelo, it’s thought that this helped push and inspire Raphael by stimulating his competitive nature.
Take a virtual tour of the Stanza della Segnatura via the Vatican Museums website.
The popular idea that the rhetorical gestures of Plato and Aristotle are kinds of pointing (to the heavens, and down to earth) is very likely. But Plato’s Timaeus – which is the book Raphael places in his hand – was a sophisticated treatment of space, time, and change, including the Earth, which guided mathematical sciences for over a millennium. Aristotle, with his four-elements theory, held that all change on Earth was owing to motions of the heavens. In the painting Aristotle carries his Ethics, which he denied could be reduced to a mathematical science. It is not certain how much the young Raphael knew of ancient philosophy, what guidance he might have had from people such as Bramante, or whether a detailed program was dictated by his sponsor, Pope Julius II.
The School of Athens fresco, which is one of Raphael’s most famous works, was completed to decorate the Stanza della Segnatura commission by the Pope. The Stanza was the first set of rooms to be decorated, and this painting was the second in the set of paintings that adorn the walls. Although it was created for a grand room in the Vatican, nearly every one of the figures in the painting can be identified as a Greek philosopher, rather than a religious character. Raphael included the likeness of Michelangelo himself in the painting, as the philosopher Heraclitus.
Plato is the older of the two and was a teacher of Aristotle. We can tell which figure is which as Plato holds his own book, TIMEOS and Aristotle has his book, The Ethics. Plato is pointing up as his philosophies were concerned with what can’t be seen while Aristotle is pointing down suggesting his philosophies of the actual and the physical.
There are 50 figures in total painted within the School of Athens. Each figure is a philosopher of some kind which each figure on the left (Plato’s right) representing Plato’s theories on philosophy while on the right (Aristotle’s left) they represent Aristotle’s theories on philosophy. The painted architecture that the figures are working in is said to be based on the original designs Donato Bramante was working on for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica.
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.
For the meaning of other masterpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.