school of athens painting by raphael
The School of Athens (Italian: Scuola di Atene) is a fresco 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 third 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”.  The painting is notable for its accurate perspective projection. 
The School of Athens is one of a group of four main frescoes on the walls of the Stanza (those on either side centrally interrupted by windows) that depict distinct branches of knowledge. Each theme is identified above by a separate tondo containing a majestic female figure seated in the clouds, with putti bearing the phrases: “Seek Knowledge of Causes,” “Divine Inspiration,” “Knowledge of Things Divine” (Disputa), “To Each What Is Due.” Accordingly, the figures on the walls below exemplify Philosophy, Poetry (including Music), Theology, and Law.  The traditional title is not Raphael’s. The subject of the “School” is actually “Philosophy,” or at least ancient Greek philosophy, and its overhead tondo-label, “Causarum Cognitio”, tells us what kind, as it appears to echo Aristotle’s emphasis on wisdom as knowing why, hence knowing the causes, in Metaphysics Book I and Physics Book II. Indeed, Plato and Aristotle appear to be the central figures in the scene. However, all the philosophers depicted sought knowledge of first causes. Many lived before Plato and Aristotle, and hardly a third were Athenians. The architecture contains Roman elements, but the general semi-circular setting having Plato and Aristotle at its centre might be alluding to Pythagoras’ circumpunct.
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.
The great mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy is right next to Euclid, with his back to the viewer. Wearing a yellow robe, he holds a terrestrial globe in his hand. It’s thought that the bearded man standing in front of him holding a celestial globe is the astronomer Zoroaster. Interestingly, the young man standing next to Zoroaster, peaking out at the viewer, is none other than Raphael himself. Incorporating this type of self-portrait is not unheard of at the time, though it was a bold move for the artist to incorporate his likeness into a work of such intellectual complexity.
The School of Athens is a depiction of philosophy. The scene takes place in classical times, as both the architecture and the garments indicate. Figures representing each subject that must be mastered in order to hold a true philosophic debate – astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and solid geometry – are depicted in concrete form. The arbiters of this rule, the main figures, Plato and Aristotle, are shown in the centre, engaged in such a dialogue.
If in the Dispute, the central axis contains all the primary components of the meaning, in its counterpart on the opposite wall – The School of Athens – the emphasis is on a horizontal reading, and the main figures, located on the top of the short stairs, are strung out like an animated frieze. Such a distribution is related to the fact that in this fresco the stress is on earthly zones rather than on otherworldly ones so characteristic of its analogue. In the case of the Disputa, the golden tonalities reflect theological and spiritual values i n connection with the miraculous nature of the Eucharist; these are in contrast to the clear blues and whites and the crisp, charged atmosphere that characterizes The School of Athens. This is a realm where the power of philosophy and reason, as opposed to faith, seems to dominate.
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.
Other contemporaries of Raphael seem to have been singled out for glorification. Standing next to Raphael on the extreme right is his friend the painter Sodoma. In fact, it was Sodoma’s own frescoes that Pope Julius ordered Raphael to destroy for his own. The model for Zoroaster is said to be the humanist scholar Pietro Bembo, possibly a source of many of Raphael’s ideas.
However, in the original cartoon, or preparatory work, Raphael had not planned to put this figure in. Giorgio Vasari says that while Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Bramante allowed Raphael a peek which was against Michelangelo’s rules. However, Raphael was so impressed that he sketched in this figure of Heraclitus with red chalk after the School of Athens was officially completed and very quickly added this figure as a tribute to Michelangelo. Today when you see this figure it is quite noticeable that it is out of place. If you would like to compare it to the original plans, the cartoon for the School of Athens can be seen in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan today.
To see the School of Athens painting today you must enter into the Vatican Museums by taking a tour, standing in line or pre-booking your skip the line tickets. You will find the painting in the so-called Raphael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello) on your way to the Sistine Chapel. The museums are a one-way system so you will have to go to the Raphael Rooms to exit the museums.