the school of athens painting
The Signature Room contains three of Raphael’s best known works – the School of Athens, the Parnassus, and the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. Each wall represents one area of thinking: Theology, Poetry, Philosophy, and Justice, corresponding to the main fields of scientific knowledge. In the School of Athens, representing Philosophy, Plato and Aristotle are pictured at the centre of a group of other philosophers in a scene, set in Ancient Greece, which symbolizes the wisdom of classical antiquity. Arithmetic, Grammar, and Music are personified by certain figures: Geometry, Astronomy, Rhetoric and Dialectic by others. Above them is a majestic vaulted ceiling which may reflect Donato Bramante’s design for St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was not the first fresco painted in the Stanza della Segnatura – the room already contained decorations by the Early Renaissance artists Piero della Francesca (1415-92), Perugino (1450-1523) and Luca Signorelli (1445-1523), but Julius II decided that these paintings were expendable, and could be painted over.
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 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. 
Finally, according to Giorgio Vasari, the scene includes Raphael himself, the Duke of Mantua, Zoroaster and some Evangelists. 
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.
Mirroring Pythagoras’ position on the other side, Euclid is bent over demonstrating something with a compass. His young students eagerly try to grasp the lessons he’s teaching them. The Greek mathematician is known as the father of geometry, and his love of concrete theorems with exact answers demonstrates why he represents Aristotle’s side of The School of Athens. Experts believe that Euclid is a portrait of Raphael’s friend Bramante.
The School of Athens is one of four paintings in that very room with each painting being a ‘fresco’ painted on each of the four walls. Each fresco painting represents the four branches of human knowledge which include Philosophy, Poetry, Justice and the School of Athens – which represents theology and the sharing of knowledge.
Although the School of Athens was completed when Raphael was only 28, Raphael had only nine more years to live. He died at the age of 37, on the day of his birthday on April 6th 1520. He was famous for his charm and looks and unlike a lot of artists was a complete success and celebrity in his lifetime. He is buried in the Pantheon in Rome where a red rose is left on his tomb every day of 2020, which is the 500-year anniversay of his death. Raphael was said to have died of syphilis.
It was part of the Renaissance’s mystique that immortality in this world could be achieved through reincarnation of some immortal deity or hero from the past. Therefore it can be seen as Raphael’s great tribute that he included Michelangelo and his contemporaries in the artwork in the shape of great philosophers and scientists.
School of Athens