3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About Raphael's "School of Athens"

Raffaello Sanzio (1483- 1520), known to us simply as Raphael, was dubbed “the prince of painters” by the 16th century art historian and biographer Giorgio Vasari. This week, ponder his “School of Athens” to understand why he merits that epithet. Commissioned by Pope Julius II for his private apartments in the Vatican, the famous fresco covers one wall of his personal library and represents philosophy, one of the four main bodies of knowledge.

1. The fresco is heavily populated with ancient philosophers, but single-point perspective immediately focuses the viewer’s attention on Plato (in pink) and Aristotle (in blue), emphasizing their pivotal role in the discipline. Raphael worked in the context of a model entrenched in the Italian painting tradition since the late medieval ages known as the “uomini famosi” (famous men) cycle, which presented labeled portraits of thinkers, writers, and theologians, but broke with the norm by leaving them unidentified, encouraging audience engagement.

2. Many of the philosophers have double identities, serving as portraits of Raphael’s Renaissance contemporaries. For example, Euclid, bending in the foreground to give a geometry lesson, is Donato Bramante, a renowned architect. The pensive man leaning on a block is Michelangelo disguised as Heraclitus, in an intentionally heavier style that makes reference to Michelangelo’s own painting in the Sistine Chapel. And Raphael himself? He’s the figure looking straight at us on the far right edge of the fresco, next to a white-cloaked man identified as his teacher, Perugino.

3. The fresco is a masterful testament to the High Renaissance harmony between Christianity and pagan antiquity and is full of layered meanings. The barrel-vault architecture was modelled on the ruins of ancient Roman baths Raphael had studied, but also recalled Bramante’s plans for the new Saint Peter’s Basilica. The two giant statues in the niches are the pagan deities Apollo and Minerva. Yet they also carry Christian connotations: Apollo was a healing god of light and knowledge, seen as a prefiguration of Christ, and Minerva, with her strange (although not quite virgin) birth, was seen as analogous to Mary.

Bonus!

  • Julius II's selection of Raphael to decorate another set of papal apartments at great expense sent an implicit message of rejection of his predecessor and hated rival, Alexander VI of the Borgia family, who had had his own suite done by Pinturicchio.
  • The figure other than Raphael's self-portrait to look directly at the audience is thought by some to be Hypatia, a Neoplatonist living in Roman Egypt and the only woman in the fresco.

Kudos to the lectures of Prof. Paul Tegmeyer of my "Art History in Rome: High Renaissance through the Baroque" course for the content of this post.