The Joy of Museums

Finding Beauty & Meaning in Museums

The School of Athens

Sanzio 01

The School of Athens by Raphael is one of the most famous frescoes of the Italian Renaissance. It is one of the most famous and most widely reproduced because of its artistry and because of the subjects portrayed.

In 1508, the 25-year old painter Raffaello Sanzio, better known as Raphael, was summoned to the Vatican by Pope Julius II (1503-13) and given the most important commission of his career, the decoration of the Papal Apartments, including the Stanza Della Segnatura.

Raphael used the ample space with imposing coffered vaults to imagine the greatest philosophers, mathematicians, thinkers and artists of antiquity all in one area to symbolise the School of Athens.

Sanzio 01 Plato Aristotle

In the centre, we see Plato and Aristotle, two of the most influential philosophers of ancient Greece. Plato is on the left. He was a pupil of Socrates and is pointing up to the sky to emphasise the importance of ideas to the spirit. His face was painted to resemble the great Renaissance artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci.

On the right is Aristotle who was Plato’s pupil. His hand is open palm facing down to the earth to emphasise the importance of studying physical evidence as the source knowledge.

The fresco itself includes 21 distinct figures set against a backdrop of a school. The fresco contains images of statues. One statue is of Apollo, the Greek god of light and music, holding a lyre. The other statue is of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, shown in her Roman form as Minerva. Below are some of the central historical figures numbered together with a legend for identification. Identification is not precise for many of the figures, and even the ones in the legend below are uncertain.  Determining the identification is difficult because Raphael made no descriptions and left no documents to explain the painting.

Raffaello Scuola di Atene numbered

Legend: 1) Zeno 2) Epicurus  4) Anaximander 5) Averroes 6) Pythagoras 7) Alexander the Great 8) Xenophon 9) Raphael 10) Aeschines 11) Parmenides 12) Socrates 13) Heraclitus 14) Plato 15) Aristotle 16) Diogenes  17) Plotinus 18) Euclid  19) Strabo 20) Ptolemy 21) Protogenes

While Plato and Aristotle serve as the central figures, the other philosophers depicted lived at different times and were not contemporaries. Many of them lived before Plato and Aristotle, and only a third were Athenian Greeks. And on the right-hand corner looking out straight at us is a figure that is the self-portrait of Raphael as shown below.

Sanzio 01 Raphael

School of Athens is one of a series of four frescoes painted by Raphael representing different branches of knowledge. The frescoes are located on the walls of the Stanza, include images of philosophy, poetry, law, and theology. The theme of knowledge is integrated by Raphael’s frescos around the room, but School of Athens is considered the best of the series.

Following the completion of the School of Athens, Raphael remained in Rome serving successive popes until his death in 1520.

This fresco subject was favorite, and many copies have been made. Including an excellent copy at the Victoria and Albert Museum which is painted on canvas by Anton Raphael Mengs dated 1755.

Essential Facts:

  • Title:                   The School of Athens
  • Artist:                 Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) (1483-1520)
  • Date:                   1509 – 1511
  • Dimensions:     5 m x 7.7 m ((200 in × 300 in)
  • Media:                Paint, Plaster
  • Type:                   Fresco
  • Location:           Raphael Rooms, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City
  • Subject:             Ancient Greece Philosophy & Science
  • Period:               High Renaissance (c.1490-1530)
  • Museum:           Vatican Museums

Artist:

  • Name:            Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino
  • Born:              1483 – Urbino, Marche, Italy
  • Died:              1520 (aged 37) –  Rome, Italy
  • Movement:  High Renaissance
  • Masterpieces:
    •  Ginevra de’ Benci
    • Resurrection of Christ.
    • Portrait of Pope Julius II
    • Spasimo
    • Saint George
    • Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione
    • The School of Athens
    • La Fornarina
    • Deposition of Christ

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 “One thing I know, that I know nothing. This is the source of my wisdom.” Socrates

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Photo Cedit: 1) Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 2) Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By User:Bibi Saint-Pol [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 4) Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons