The School of Athens

The School of Athens


dim = 420px
title=The School of Athens
city=Vatican City
museum=Apostolic Palace

"The School of Athens", or " _it. Scuola di Atene" in Italian, is one of the most famous paintings by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. It was painted between 1510 and 1511 as a part of Raphael's commission to decorate with frescoes the rooms now known as the _it. Stanze di Raffaello, in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. The _it. "Stanza della Segnatura" was the first of the rooms to be decorated, and "The School of Athens" the second painting to be finished there, after _it. "La Disputà", on the opposite wall. The picture has long been seen as "Raphael's masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the High Renaissance." [ [,M1 History of Art: The Western Tradition] By Horst Woldemar Janson, Anthony F. Janson]

Program, subject, figure identifications, interpretations

The title "School of Athens" is an old tour-book’s invention, which tends to obscure the painting’s immediate context and meaning. It is actually one of a group on the four walls of the Stanza (those on either side centrally interrupted by windows) that depict distinct themes of knowledge. Each theme is identified above by a separate tondo containing a majestic female figure seated in the clouds, with ’s emphasis on wisdom as knowing why, hence knowing the causes, in "Metaphysics" Book I and "Physics" Book II. Indeed, Aristotle appears to be the central figure in the fresco. However all the philosophers depicted sought to understand through knowledge of first causes. Many lived before Plato and Aristotle, hardly a third were Athenians, and the architecture is Roman, not Greek.

Commentators have suggested that nearly every great Greek philosopher can be found within the painting, but determining which are depicted is difficult, since Raphael made no designations outside possible likenesses, and no contemporary documents explain the painting. [Daniel Orth Bell, [ New identifications in Raphael's 'School of Athens.'] Art Bulletin, Dec. 1995.] Compounding the problem, Raphael had to invent a system of iconography to allude to various philosophers 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 the standard type for that philosopher. [Daniel Orth Bell, [ New identifications in Raphael's 'School of Athens.'] Art Bulletin, Dec. 1995.] [ [,M1 History of Art: The Western Tradition] By Horst Woldemar Janson, Anthony F. Janson] Nevertheless, there is widespread agreement on the identity of certain figures within the painting. [Daniel Orth Bell, [ New identifications in Raphael's 'School of Athens.'] Art Bulletin, Dec. 1995.] Aside from the identities of the philosophers shown, many aspects of the fresco have been interpreted, but few such interpretations are generally accepted among scholars. The popular idea that the rhetorical gestures of Plato and Aristotle are kinds of pointing (to the heavens, and down to earth) is a likely reading. However Plato’s "Timaeus"--which is the book Raphael places in his hand--was a sophisticated treatment of space, time and change, including the Earth, which guided mathematical sciences for over a millennium. Aristotle, with his four elements theory, held that all change on Earth was owing to the motions of the heavens. In the painting Aristotle carries his "Ethics", which he denied could be a scientific study.

It is not established how much the young Raphael knew of ancient philosophy, what guidance he might have had from people such as Bramante, or what detailed program may have been dictated by the Papal sponsor. Heinrich Wölfflin observed that "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. [Wōlfflin, p. 88.] What is evident is Raphael's artistry in orchestrating 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, and are grouped in a "polyphony" unlike anything in earlier art, in the ongoing dialogue of Philosophy. [Wōlfflin, pp. 94f.]

The figures

The identity of some of the philosophers in the picture, such as Plato or Aristotle, is uncontroversial. But scholars disagree on many of the other figures, some of whom have double identities as ancients and as figures contemporary to Raphael. The extent of double portrayals is uncertain although, for example, that Michelangelo is portrayed (no. 13 below) is generally accepted. [Vasari mentions portraits of Federico II of Mantua, Bramante, and Raphael himself: Giorgio Vasari, "Lives of the Artists", v. I, sel. & transl. by George Bull (London: Penguin, 1965), p. 292.] According to Lahanas, [" [ The School of Athens, "Who is Who?"] " by Michael Lahanas] they are usually identified as follows:
Zeno of Citium or Zeno of Elea?2: Epicurus3: Federico II of Mantua?4: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius or Anaximander or Empedocles?5: Averroes?6: Pythagoras?7: Alcibiades or Alexander the Great?8: Antisthenes or Xenophon?9: Hypatia (Francesco Maria della Rovere or Raphael's mistress Margherita)10: Aeschines or Xenophon?11: Parmenides?12: Socrates?13: Heraclitus (Michelangelo)14: Plato holding the "Timaeus" (Leonardo da Vinci)15: Aristotle holding the "Ethics"?16: Diogenes of Sinope?17: Plotinus?18: Euclid or Archimedes with students (Bramante)?19: Strabo or Zoroaster? (Baldassare Castiglione or Pietro Bembo)20: Ptolemy?R: Apelles (Raphael)21: Protogenes (Il Sodoma, Perugino or Timoteo Viti) [The interpretation of this figure as Sodoma is probably in error as Sodoma was 33 at the time of painting, while Raphael's teacher, Perugino, was a renowned painter and aged about 60 at the time of this painting, consistent with the image. Timoteo Viti is another plausible candidate.] ]

Central figures (14 and 15)

In the center of the fresco, at its architecture's central vanishing point, are the two undisputed main subjects, Plato on the left. Aristotle, his student, stands on the right. Both figures hold modern, bound copies of their books in their left hands, while gesturing with their right. Plato holds "Timaeus", Aristotle his "Nicomachean Ethics". Plato is depicted as old, grey, wise-looking, bare-foot. By contrast Aristotle, slightly ahead of him, is in mature manhood, handsome, well-shod and dressed, with gold, and the youth about them seem to look his way. In addition, these two central figures gesture along different dimensions: Plato vertically, upward along the picture-plane, into the beautiful vault above; Aristotle on the horizontal plan at right-angles to the picture-plane (hence in strong foreshortening), initiating a powerful flow of space toward viewers.

The setting

The building is in the shape of a Greek cross, which some have suggested was intended to show a harmony between pagan philosophy and Christian theology [ [,M1 History of Art: The Western Tradition] By Horst Woldemar Janson, Anthony F. Janson] (see Christianity and Paganism and Christian philosophy). The architecture of the building was inspired by the work of Bramante, who, according to Vasari, helped Raphael with the architecture in the picture. [ [,M1 History of Art: The Western Tradition] By Horst Woldemar Janson, Anthony F. Janson] Some have suggested that the building itself was intended to be an advance view of St. Peter's Basilica. [ [,M1 History of Art: The Western Tradition] By Horst Woldemar Janson, Anthony F. Janson]

There are two sculptures in the background. The one on the left is the god Apollo holding a lyre. [ [,M1 History of Art: The Western Tradition] By Horst Woldemar Janson, Anthony F. Janson] Apollo is the god of the Sun, medicine/healing, light, truth, archery, and music. The sculpture on the right is Athena, in her Roman guise as Minerva. [ [,M1 History of Art: The Western Tradition] By Horst Woldemar Janson, Anthony F. Janson] Athena was the goddess of wisdom.


The Victoria and Albert Museum 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. [ [ V&A Museum: Copy of Raphael's School of Athens in the Vatican] ]

A reproduction of the fresco can be seen in the auditorium of Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia. Produced in 1900 by George W. Breck to replace an older reproduction that was destroyed in a fire in 1895, it is four inches off scale from the original, because the Vatican would not allow identical reproductions of its art works. [Information on [ Old Cabell Hall] from University of Virginia]

Other reproductions are: by Neide, in Königsberg Cathedral, Kaliningrad, [" [ Northern Germany: As Far as the Bavarian and Austrian Frontiers] ", Baedeker, 1890, p. 247.] in the University of North Carolina at Asheville's Highsmith University Student Union, and a recent one in the seminar room at Baylor University's Brooks College.

More recently the image was used by the band Guns N' Roses for their 1991 albums "Use Your Illusion I" and "Use Your Illusion II" Extracts of the image, chiefly the two figures to the left of Plotinus (figure 17), were extracted by New York artist Mark Kostabi for the cover art.


External links

* [ The School of Athens] at the "Web Gallery of Art"
* [ The School of Athens] (interactive map)
* [ The School of Athens] (interactive map)
* [ The School of Athens — original cartoon] at the "Ambrosiana Gallery, Milan"
* [ The School of Athens reproduction at UNC Asheville]
* [ Article on school of athens]
* [ Analysis of school of Athens]
* [,M1 Link from Google Books on analysis of school of athens]
* [,M1 Another link from Google books on the School of Athens]
* [ Reprint of the Art Bulletin article on individuals in the painting.]


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