school of athens painting analysis
One of the most striking figures in the composition is a brooding man seated in the foreground, hand on his head in a classic “thinker” position. This figure doesn’t show up in Raphael’s preliminary drawings and plaster analysis shows that it was added later. Art historians Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny write in their book Raphael that it “is probably Raphael’s first attempt to appropriate some of the heavyweight power of Michelangelo’s Sistine Prophets and sibyls.”
In the foreground, Pythagoras sits with a book and an inkwell, also surrounded by students. Though Pythagoras is well known for his mathematical and scientific discoveries, he also firmly believed in metempsychosis. This philosophy states that every soul is immortal, and upon death, moves to a new physical body. In this light, it makes sense that he would be placed on Plato’s side of the fresco.
School of Athens: Composition
On the left, cloaked in an olive mantle, is Socrates, arguing in a group that includes Chrysippus, Xenophon, Aeschines and Alcibiades. Facing the venerable Venetian scientist Zeno, is Epicurus, crowned with grape leaves, presumably defending the principle of hedonism. Attentively followed by his pupils (including the turbanned Averroes) Pythagoras teaches the diatesseron from a book. In strong contrast in front of him is Xenocrates (others say Parmenides). In the foreground, head resting on his arm, the mournful Heracleitus (with the features of Michelangelo). The absence of this figure in the original cartoon (now in Milan’s Ambrosian Library) and its obvious Michelangelo style (it is modelled on the Sybils and Ignudi of the Sistine ceiling), leads us to believe that Raphael added this figure in 1511 when, after completing the room, he saw the first half of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling frescoes. In tribute to his great rival, Raphael portrayed Michelangelo in the guise of the philosopher from Ephesus. The child at the side of Epicurus, clearly indifferent to the speculations of the thinkers, seems to be Federico Gonzaga (1500-40), later Federico II of Mantua of the famous Gonzaga family of Renaissance patrons and collectors. The passer-by in white translucent toga and da Vinci smile, is supposedly Francesco Maria Della Rovere (1490-1538), nephew of Julius II and later Duke of Urbino.
The other figures shown in the fresco representing other significant Greek philosophers are not as clearly identifiable. While some are more recognizable than others, some of the figures may represent philosophers where no historical image exists. Raphael used iconography to represent those philosophers with no known visual image such as Epicurus. While Plato and Aristotle serve as the central figures of the fresco, the other philosophers depicted lived at various times and were not necessarily their contemporaries. Many of them lived before Plato and Aristotle and barely a third were Athenians. However, the compilation of famous Greek philosophers followed the intended theme of the fresco to seek knowledge through philosophy.
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.
It is popularly thought that their gestures indicate central aspects of their philosophies, for Plato, his Theory of Forms, and for Aristotle, an emphasis on concrete particulars. Many interpret the painting to show a divergence of the two philosophical schools. Plato argues a sense of timelessness whilst Aristotle looks into the physicality of life and the present realm.
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.
School of Athens
As a spectator viewing the School of Athens you are made to feel that you could step into the space in this picture, as if walking into a theatrical setting on a stage. There is a series of horizontal planes across the checkered floor, up the steps, past the pillars supporting the barrel vaulting, and into a domed area, which is indicated above the heads of Plato and Aristotle by the curved line under the window.