why did raphael paint the school of athens
For the meaning of other masterpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
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.
Raphael certainly would have been privy to private showings of the Sistine Chapel in progress that were arranged by Bramante. Though Raphael’s work, in many ways, could be seen as more complex due to the number of figures placed in one scene, he certainly was influenced by the great artist’s work. This is particularly evident by the long figure thinking in the foreground, as we’ll soon see.
To the left of Plato, Socrates is recognizable thanks to his distinct features. It’s said that Raphael was able to use an ancient portrait bust of the philosopher as his guide. He’s also identified by his hand gesture, as pointed out by Giorgio Vasari in Lives of the Artists. “Even the Manner of Reasoning of Socrates is Express’d: he holds the Fore-finger of his left hand between that, and the Thumb of his Right, and seems as if he was saying You grant me This and This.”
However, to Heinrich Wölfflin, “it is quite wrong to attempt interpretations of the School of Athens as an esoteric treatise . The all-important thing was the artistic motive which expressed a physical or spiritual state, and the name of the person was a matter of indifference” in Raphael’s time.  Raphael’s artistry then orchestrates a beautiful space, continuous with that of viewers in the Stanza, in which a great variety of human figures, each one expressing “mental states by physical actions,” interact, in a “polyphony” unlike anything in earlier art, in the ongoing dialogue of Philosophy. 
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.
One significant restoration of the cartoon was carried out in 1797-78 at the Louvre in Paris, where it ended up — along with other works — after Napoleon’s troops swept through northern Italy in 1796.
The boldly colored fresco was painted by Raphael and his assistants, and is set just above eye level. The cartoon, however, was drawn by Raphael alone, and the new layout of the room that houses it — now placed inside a state-of-the-art vitrine with nonreflective glass — lets visitors get up close, enough to detect individual charcoal strokes and shading.
For me, the most interesting figure in the School of Athens is the philosopher, Heraclitus. This is the seated figure that is the closest to us as we view the painting. He wears a purple robe and orange boots. This figure is said to be modeled on Michelangelo Buonarroti who was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at exactly the same time Raphael was painting the School of Athens.
Sadly during the Sack of Rome in 1527, the troops of Charles V damaged quite a bit of the School of Athens and on a quiet day in the Vatican Museums, if you get a chance to look closely at the fresco you can still today see stabbed mark graffiti on the fresco painting.