Where? Stanza della Segnatura (one of the four Raphael Rooms) in the Vatican Museums
When? Between 1508 and 1511
Commissioned by? Pope Julius II
What do you see? 58 different philosophers are gathered on a sunny day in a beautiful palace-like building. The philosophers are busy with a variety of activities such as reading, writing, listening, arguing, explaining, etc. In the center of the fresco, under the arch, you can see two of the most famous philosophers both holding a book: Plato (with the red robe) is on the left and Aristotle (with the blue robe) is on the right. These two philosophers had different philosophical views. Besides them, two rows of philosophers are following their conversation. Several figures to the left of Plato, you can see a figure in a completely green robe. This figure is Socrates. You can see four to five people who are listening to his story. In front of Aristotle, you can see Diogenes, a half-naked man dressed in blue sitting on the stairs. In the right foreground, a group of nine philosophers is busy with geometry and astronomy. Five people are looking at a geometrical problem and Euclid or Archimedes (art historians are not sure who of the two it is) is using a compass to explain the problem on the board on the floor. Four others are talking about astronomy. Ptolemy is holding a scale model of the earth, and Zoroaster is holding a scale model of the stars in the sky. In the left foreground, you can see a group of philosophers with Pythagoras in the middle. Pythagoras is writing in a book, and someone else is holding a board in front of him with a drawing of Pythagorean harmonics (which is a combination of music and arithmetic). Somewhat to the right of this group is a man sitting by himself writing some notes. This man is Heraclitus and his position is in line with the lonely life he lived. The person in the blue robe writing in a book on the left in the foreground is Epicurus.
Statues: There are two large statues in the fresco. The one on the top left is Apollo. You can recognize him by the lyre he is holding in his role as the god of music. The goddess on the top right is Athena. In her role as the goddess of war, she is holding a very long spear in her right hand, and she is holding a shield with the head of Medusa in her left hand.
Backstory: The Stanza della Segnatura was designed to be the library of Pope Julius II. The idea was to organize the books of the pope in four categories: law, philosophy, poetry, and theology. The fresco of the School of Athens is full of ancient philosophers and thus represents the philosophy theme. The philosophers come from different time periods, and several of them have never met each other. For example, Pythagoras lived in the 6th century B.C., Socrates in the 5th century B.C., and Aristotle in the 4th century B.C. The philosophers are also not all from Athens, but in fact from quite some different countries. For example, the man with the turban and the green robe who is leaning over Pythagoras is Averroes. He is an Islamic philosopher who was born in Spain in the 12 century A.D.What is the Stanza della Segnatura? The Stanza della Segnatura (Room of the Signatura) is one of the four Raphael Rooms. This room was the library of Pope Julius II. Raphael painted everything in this room. When standing with your face towards the School of Athens, the wall on the left displays a fresco named The Parnassus (which represents poetry). The wall on the right displays Cardinal and Theological Values (representing justice). The wall opposite the School of Athens displays the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (representing theology). On the arched ceiling, you can see four circular frescos of a female on a throne. The female above the School of Athens represents Dame Philosophy, and she was used in the Middle Ages as an allegory to philosophy.
Who are Plato and Aristotle? Plato and Aristotle are two of the most influential philosophers the world has known. Plato was a student of Socrates and Aristotle was a student of Plato. In the fresco of Raphael, Plato is holding a book entitled Timaeus (which describes the origins of the world), and Aristotle is holding a book entitled Ethics. Plato believed in an ultimate reality that was beyond what we observe in this world, and that is why you can see him pointing upwards to the sky. In contrast, Aristotle believed that the world in which we live and what we observe is the ultimate reality and he is, therefore, pointing forward into the world.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), better known as Raphael, was one of the three great painters of his time (the others being Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo). In 1508, Pope Julius II invited him to Rome where he lived until his death. In 1508 he was asked to paint the Stanza della Signatura for Pope Julius II. This was the biggest commission so far in his career, and after he completed this room, he was asked also to paint three other rooms (which are now collectively known as the Raphael Rooms).
Fun fact: On the right foreground, Raphael also depicted himself. We can just see his young face and he is wearing a black cap. He is looking directly at the viewer. Raphael also used other contemporaries as models for the philosophers in this fresco. For example, Leonardo da Vinci served as a model for Plato and the architect Bramante is used as a model for Euclid. There is also speculation that Michelangelo served as the model for Heraclitus in the foreground.
Written by Eelco Kappe