The School of Athens Painting

The School Of Athens by Raphael Sanzio da Urbino inside the Vatican Museums must go down as one of the most important and greatest fresco paintings in history. The painting is inside the Stanza della Segnatura on the second floor of the Vatican Palace on the north wing. The rooms were built by Pope Nicholas V in the mid-1400s and were later to become Pope Julius II’s private library after the School of Athens was completed. The painting is of a very large scale, 500cm x 770cm (200in x 300in).

The School of Athens is one of four paintings in that very room with each painting being a ‘fresco’ painted on each of the four walls. Each fresco painting represents the four branches of human knowledge which include Philosophy, Poetry, Justice and the School of Athens – which represents theology and the sharing of knowledge.

Raphael, the Painter

Raphael Santi was born in Urbino on the 6th of April 1st, 1483. His mother died when he was 8 years old and his father (who was also a painter) died when Raphael was just 11 years old. He was apprenticed to the great Pietro Perugino who was one of the most well-known painters of his day and fresco painted biblical scenes that can still be seen on the walls of the Sistine Chapel today.

Raphael moved to Rome in the year 1508 at the age of 25 thanks to a distant relative named Bermante who influenced Pope Julius II on political and artistic matters and who recommended Raphael to the Pope. Bramante was also the architect for the new St. Peter’s Basilica. Raphael was almost instantly put to work to fresco paint the walls of the Vatican Palace which was then Pope Julius II’s private quarters. Part of these commissions was to paint The School Of Athens which the Pope was so impressed by that he had Raphael paint the whole of the Stanza Della Segnatura.

Raphael Rooms at the Vatican

School of Athens Painting

The School of Athens painting was begun in 1509 and completed in 1511. However, Raphael had a large team of workers and assistance to work alongside him to paint at this pace. In the center of this theological painting are two of history’s most important philosophers, on the left is Plato and on the right is Aristotle.

school of athens with plato and aristotle

Plato is the older of the two and was a teacher of Aristotle. We can tell which figure is which as Plato holds his own book, TIMEOS and Aristotle has his book, The Ethics. Plato is pointing up as his philosophies were concerned with what can’t be seen while Aristotle is pointing down suggesting his philosophies of the actual and the physical.

There are 50 figures in total painted within the School of Athens. Each figure is a philosopher of some kind which each figure on the left (Plato’s right) representing Plato’s theories on philosophy while on the right (Aristotle’s left) they represent Aristotle’s theories on philosophy. The painted architecture that the figures are working in is said to be based on the original designs Donato Bramante was working on for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Raphael modeled a lot of these figures on actual people that he knew or met, some of whom are major figures in art history today. Plato, for example, has the clear likeness of Leonardo Da Vinci who Raphael knew. In fact, Raphael may even have been one of the first people to see Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. (P.S. there is also one Da Vinci painting in the Vatican, but most people don’t know about this hidden gem).

A likeness of Donato Bramante is also in the School Of Athens as Euclid who is situated on the right bottom side of the fresco, bent over showing eager students a theorem. Raphael even painted in a self-portrait. He is the very young-looking man looking directly at us looking over his left shoulder in a black cap on the very far right.

figures in the School of Athens painting

For me, the most interesting figure in the School of Athens is the philosopher, Heraclitus. This is the seated figure that is the closest to us as we view the painting. He wears a purple robe and orange boots. This figure is said to be modeled on Michelangelo Buonarroti who was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at exactly the same time Raphael was painting the School of Athens.

However, in the original cartoon, or preparatory work, Raphael had not planned to put this figure in. Giorgio Vasari says that while Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Bramante allowed Raphael a peek which was against Michelangelo’s rules. However, Raphael was so impressed that he sketched in this figure of Heraclitus with red chalk after the School of Athens was officially completed and very quickly added this figure as a tribute to Michelangelo. Today when you see this figure it is quite noticeable that it is out of place. If you would like to compare it to the original plans, the cartoon for the School of Athens can be seen in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan today.

full school of Athens painting in the Vatican

It is also worth noting that though Michelangelo and Raphael worked in the Vatican at the same time they did not get along very well. This was mostly due to Michelangelo’s bad temper and his conspiracy theories that Raphael and Bramante were plotting against him.

Sadly during the Sack of Rome in 1527, the troops of Charles V damaged quite a bit of the School of Athens and on a quiet day in the Vatican Museums, if you get a chance to look closely at the fresco you can still today see stabbed mark graffiti on the fresco painting.

How to See the School of Athens Painting

To see the School of Athens painting today you must enter into the Vatican Museums by taking a tour, standing in line or pre-booking your skip the line tickets. You will find the painting in the so-called Raphael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello) on your way to the Sistine Chapel. The museums are a one-way system so you will have to go to the Raphael Rooms to exit the museums.

raphael rooms in Vatican

Raphael in 2020

Although the School of Athens was completed when Raphael was only 28, Raphael had only nine more years to live. He died at the age of 37, on the day of his birthday on April 6th 1520. He was famous for his charm and looks and unlike a lot of artists was a complete success and celebrity in his lifetime. He is buried in the Pantheon in Rome where a red rose is left on his tomb every day of 2020, which is the 500-year anniversay of his death. Raphael was said to have died of syphilis.

For this 500th anniversay, there is a major Raphael exhibition taking place at the Scurderie del Quirnale in Rome starting on March 5th until June 2nd, 2020. It is said to be the biggest show of Raphaels work to take place in 500 years.