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Masterpieces of the Vatican: The School of Athens

The School of Athens

The School of Athens, by Raphael

The “School of Athens” is a fresco painted by Raphael which we can admire today within the Apostolic Palace, in the Vatican Museums, in the “Stanza della Signatura” in the “Raphael Rooms”.

It was painted between 1510 and 1511 as part of a group of frescoes commissioned by Pope Julius II to adorn some of the halls of the palace which were dedicated to classical Greece and Rome, pagan nations which however influenced the Catholic Rome of the times and helped form its spirituality and concept of the world. There are frescoes which represent the origins of theology, the law, literature, poetry, music and, in the case of The School of Athens, philosophy.

This fresco obtained immediate success when it was painted and sparked as much enthusiasm as the Sistine Chapel.

The subject

The School of Athens is dedicated to philosophy as a path towards knowledge and the characters represented in the fresco are great classical philosophers. The scene takes place in a classical period, something which is easily recognisable due to the architecture and period costumes.

The central and most recognisable figures are those of Plato and his disciple Aristotle, founding fathers of western philosophy. They both hold copies of their books and make gestures which undoubtedly represent allegories of their ideas. Thus, Plato appears to be pointing upwards, suggesting his cosmological theories, while Aristotle is gesturing towards the floor, recalling his foundations of practical ethics.

Raphael didn’t “label” the characters he painted on the fresco and to this day there is debate on some of the figures. It appears clear that Socrates is represented on the left, with a brown tunic. Pythagoras, who laid the foundations of geometry and architecture with his mathematical formulas, appears in the forefront dressed in pink. Euclid, father of modern geometry, appears on the right wearing a red tunic and bending down apparently teaching a disciple.

Some characters seem to have the faces of great artists of the times of Raphael. Plato, for example, seems to have the face of Leonardo da Vinci. The philosopher Heraclitus, the character seated in the first row whose head rests on his hand, has the face of Michelangelo. One of the students painted close to Pythagoras seems to have the face of Raphael himself, which would in summary constitute a synthesis of the union between the old and modern traditions characterised by the Italian Renaissance.

The architectural frame

The building represented is a school and its magnificent, classical demeanour, with a great dome and adorned with statues, was possibly inspired by the work of Bramante for the St. Peter’s Basilica. One of the statues is of Apollo, the Greek god of light and music, carrying a lyre. The other statue is of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, presented in the Roman form of Minerva. The 21 figures are distributed within a space with various steps under an overhead arch adorned with arabesques.

After more than 500 years, and thanks to intensive restorations carried out in 1996, this work still stands out as one of the greatest artistic feats of the human race and it continues to surprise the thousands of visitors who have the privilege of contemplating it in the flesh in the Vatican City every day.

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