School of Athens

After he had been welcomed very affectionately by Pope Julius, Raphael started to paint in the Stanza della Segnatura a fresco showing the theologians reconciling Philosophy and Astrology with Theology, in which are portraits of all the sages of the world shown disputing among themselves in various ways. The original name of the fresco actually isCausarum Cognitio (Knowledge of Causes) but it is called School of Athens from a 17th century guidebook.

The School of Athens was painted by the 27 year old Raphael (Raffaelo) Sanzio (or Santi) for Pope Julius II (1503-1513). In 1508 the young native of Urbino had been recommended to Julius II by Donato Bramante, the pope's architect, and also a native of Urbino. So enthusiastic was the pope when he saw the fresco that Raphael received the commission to paint the entire papal suite. The Stanza della Segnatura was to be Julius' library, Bibiotheca Iulia, which would house a small collection of books intended for his personal use. The Fresco of Raphael's School of Athens is a masterpiece of Art. However we do not know all details of the persons who are depicted. Giorgio Vasari and others have suggested nearly all Greek philosophers and ancient scientists can be found here. Unfortunately Raphael did not leave any personal notes on this work but some of the persons can be identified. The work shows that Raphael was an educated person, had some knowledge of Greek philosophy and science. We can consider “The School of Athens” as a “ visualization of knowledge”.

Plato and Aristotle as Central Figures walking in a peripatetic manner through the Lyceum. A one-point (linear) perspective is used, one method to show 3-D objects on a 2-D surface. Lines which appear to go away from the viewer meet at a single point on the horizon, the so called vanishing point. The perspective is such that this point is between Plato and Aristotle stressing the importance of these two persons. To an almost equal distance between Plato and Aristotle we have Euclid and Pythagoras. Many believe that the hand gestures of Plato and Aristotle (in the center of the painting) denote two ways of doing metaphysics. Plato points to the heavens–Aristotle to the earth. If look closely, Plato is holding a book: Timaeus, one of his most celestial and abstract dialogues. Aristotle is holding his Nichomachean Ethics, a rather terrestrial treatise.

Notice how the series of concentric circles from the vaults, beginning with the outermost semi-circle of the Stanze arch in front, culminates in the inner circle around the heads of Plato and Aristotle. The circle is an ancient symbol of perfection: therefore these circles, and especially the inmost one, represent the mind of God, which encompasses the minds of both philosophers. This is a neo-Platonic and somewhat mystical idea of God which was circulating in Italy in Raphael's day. Moreover, Raphael and his friends were members of a philosophical circle in Rome that was intent on reconciling the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, whose differences threatened to persist into the Renaissance, dividing the moderns as they had the ancients. Florence, for example, was then a hotbed of Platonism, whereas Milan was proud of its Aristotelian worldliness and encyclopaedic collection of scientists and engineers. And it is still said that everyone is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian.




In the right foreground are concentrated two groups. An absorbed group of students huddles around the stooped figure of Euclid (or maybe Archimedes), who is demonstrating some geometric proposition with a pair of compasses upon a slate. Behind him, in yellow robes, stands the Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, holding his globe of the earth. Behind him is the Persian astronomer and philosopher Zoroaster, holding a sphere of the fixed stars. Just to the right of these two is Raphael himself, [the only figure in the School of Athens] who gazes directly back at the viewer.

Heraclitus ~ Michelangelo
 The pessimist philosopher, Heracleitus, a portrait of Michelangelo, is leaning against a block of marble, writing on a sheet of paper. Michelangelo was in those years executing the paintings in the nearby Sistine Chapel.
(likeness of Leonardo da Vinci)
 (427 - 347 BC) In his left hand red-robed Plato holds his book TIMAEUS, one of the few books by Plato that had so far been recovered by the Renaissance, while explaining how the universe was created by the demiurge (interpreted by the Renaissance as a divine architect) from perfect mathematical models, forms and the regular geometric solids, the "Platonic solids," as they called them. With his right hand Plato gestures upwards, indicating that the eternal verities and forms, such as the ideals of Beauty, Goodness and Truth, are not in or of this world of space, time and matter, but lie beyond, in a timeless, spaceless realm of pure Ideas. 
 (384 - 322 BC) Dissenting from his teacher's extreme idealism, his blue-robed student Aristotle points with his right hand straight ahead out into the solid world of material reality, into the world of physical science and practical reason. In his left hand Aristotle holds his ETHICS. Perhaps his brown and blue colored clothes represent the two elements water and earth (probably to show that his philosophy is grounded, material), whereas Plato's two colors represent fire and air.

Diogenes of Sinopes, "The Dog"
(412-323 BC), a cynic philosopher, a student of Antisthenes, who lived in Corinth. His father Icesias was a banker. With his “beggar” cup, lying deep in thought on the steps; this is a finely conceived figure which deserves high praise for its beauty and the appropriate negligence of its clothing. Diogenes is seen alone, set apart: [...] a cynic in his expression, in his bearing, in his attitude. What is he reading? Diogenes, a philosopher, lived in a big barrel, instead of the traditional house. He spent his nights wandering from house to house with a lantern, knocking on peoples' doors to find out if there was "an honest human inside." With his audacious intrusion in peoples' private affairs, he meant to show them that no honest person could be found anywhere in his city. When Alexander the Great went to meet him, he found him sitting in front of his barrel, facing the sun. As a great admirer of Diogenes, Alexander then asked him if there is anything he could give him, which today might be equivalent to being asked whether you would like to win the lottery. Diogenes thought for a while, and then asked politely if the Great King could simply... step aside, because by standing over him with his horse, he was hiding the sun from his face! This answer so impressed Alexander, that he exclaimed that if he were not Alexander, he would have liked to be Diogenes!


Pythagoras is shown in the foreground intent on explaining the diatesseron.



Above the figures arrayed on Plato's side stands, in his niche, a naked statue of Apollo, patron god of poetry and the fine arts. Note Apollo's pose: he stands in the classical contraposto pose that goes way back to the Greek "Canon" of Polycleitus. But this Apollo, like his lyre, exhibits also a limpness, a curvaceous softness, that suggests something epicene: something hermaphroditic and at least as dionysian as apollonian, as feminine as masculine. Equally androgynous, on Aristotle's side, is the figure in the opposite niche: Athena, goddess of reason, clad in her traditional full battle dress, complete with spear, helmet and Gorgon-headed shield, which turns to stone all who gaze upon it.