Raphael’s School of Athens: Greek Philosophy in the Italian Renaissance

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‘The School of Athens’, Raphael, c.1509–11 (Stanza della Segnatura, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City).

Like Studying Homer in a “Damaged Manuscript”

Raphael (1483–1520) is the most influential painter of the Italian Renaissance; his work embodies the balance, order, harmony and restraint of classicism. He was a passionate antiquarian, and used his expertise as an archaeologist as an inspiration for his art; yet he was too dignified to show off his knowledge, preferring to wear his learning lightly.

This modesty and restraint has delighted, and sometimes frustrated, Raphael’s admirers. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) records, in the travel diaries that were later edited and published as his Italian Journey (1816–17):

7th Nov. 1786: So far I have seen the loggias of Raphael and the great paintings of School of Athens etc. only once, and it is as though we one were supposed to study Homer in a partially-obliterated, damaged manuscript. The pleasure of the first impression is incomplete; the delight only becomes whole when one has gradually examined and studied everything.

Goethe wanted to feel instantly enraptured, only to find out the hard way that Raphael’s art demands patience and concentration.

A sly self-portrait of Raphael (detail from ‘The School of Athens’).

Raphael is of special interest to Classicists because he created the way we imagine Ancient Greek philosophers. We know what Cicero and Julius Caesar looked like, and we have countless portrait busts and coins to give us some idea of how many Roman aristocrats (and most emperors) looked. The Greek tradition is different: we have few solid notions about the appearances of statesmen, poets or anyone else, beyond Socrates, Alexander the Great, and a handful of others whose likenesses were captured, and have survived to this day.

Raphael could not rely on available archaeological evidence for philosophers’ faces (other than that of Socrates); nor was there any ready-made iconographical tradition to provide him with a wide range of ‘attributes’ – which, in art historical terms, is any symbol that enables easy identification of a given figure. In his depictions of Plato and Aristotle, Raphael single-handedly created an iconographic tradition. Yet the rest of his picture is surprisingly ambiguous, equivocal, or obscure, and does not easily yield its secrets.

‘The School of Athens’, Raphael, c.1509–11 (Stanza della Segnatura, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City).

Raphael at the Vatican

Raphael’s The School of Athens was painted at some point between 1507 and 1512; the usual date given is 1509 to 1511. Its scale is monumental: 18×25 feet, or 5.5×7.7 metres. Yet somehow the grandeur seems more intimate than overwhelming. This is not an oil painting, but a fresco decorating one of the walls of the Stanza della Segnatura, which was originally a council room for the Vatican’s Supremum Tribunal Signaturae Apostolicae, the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church.

‘Stanza della Segnatura’ means ‘signature-room’, because this is where petitions and other important documents were once signed and formally sealed by Vatican officials. It might not have been used for this purpose by the time it was decorated; many scholars believe that it was used as a library or study by Pope Julius II (1443–1513; reign 1503–13), who also commissioned Michelangelo’s famous ceiling in the Sistine Chapel (1508–12).

Portrait of Julius II, Raphael, 1511/12 (National Gallery, London, UK).

Julius II was famously ill-tempered, and is said to have become fed up with his private apartments in the Apostolic Palace because he could not stand seeing images of bulls on the walls everywhere he looked. The bulls to which he objected symbolised the House of Borgia, and featured, not only on the Borgia coat of arms, but throughout the decorative patterns of the frescoes in the suite of rooms now known as the Vatican’s Borgia Apartments, which were commissioned by the notorious Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503; reign 1492–1503), who helped make the Borgia family name a byword for luxury, corruption, debauchery and aristocratic gangsterism.

‘Grammatica’, Pinturicchio, 1492–4 (from the Hall of the Trivium and Quadrivium in the ‘Borgia Apartments’, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City).

Julius II loathed his predecessor, and sought to outdo him as a patron of the arts. He decided to order Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino to paint his new suite of rooms. Raphael, as he is universally known in English, was the son of the court painter to the Duke of Urbino; his kinsman Donato Bramante (1444–1514) was one of the architects commissioned by Pope Julius to help rebuild St Peter’s Basilica. Bramante himself is best-known for designing the ‘Tempietto’ (small martyr’s shrine) in the courtyard to the church of San Pietro in Montorio; this was built in 1502 on the site where St Peter is traditionally said to have been martyred. After his death, Raphael was given Bramante’s job as chief architect for St Peter’s Basilica – but little of either Bramante’s or Raphael’s work on the basilica now survives.

‘Tempietto di Bramante’, 1502 (San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, Italy).

The Stanza Della Segnatura in the ‘Raphael Rooms’

Raphael’s decorations for the Stanza della Segnatura are part of a larger suite of rooms in the Apostolic Palace that are now simply referred to as the ‘Stanze di Raffaello’ (‘Raphael Rooms’); other Raphael-designed frescoes will be found in the the ‘Sala di Costantino’ (‘Hall of Constantine’), the ‘Stanza di Eliodoro’ (‘Room of Heliodorus’) and the ‘Stanza dell’ Incendio del Borgo’ (‘The Room of the Fire in the Borgo’).

Raphael’s self-portrait at centre, c.1512 (detail from The Mass at Bolsena’ in the ‘Stanza di Eliodoro’ in the Raphael Rooms, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City).

Although Raphael designed these rooms, he did not paint all of them himself, and indeed did not live to see them completed. His pupil and successor Giulio Romano (1499–1546) is the most famous member of Raphael’s workshop: he is mentioned by Shakespeare in A Winter’s Tale (Act Five, Scene Two: “that rare Italian master, Julio Romano”).

Giulio Romano’s best-known work in the Vatican is his grand fresco in the ‘Hall of Constantine’ depicting the Emperor Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October AD 312). He completed this between 1520 and 1524 from a design by Raphael, whose preparatory drawings for this picture sadly do not survive.

Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Giulio Romano, 1520–4 (from the ‘Sala di Costantino’ in the Raphael Rooms, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City).

The Stanza della Segnatura was the first of these rooms to be completed; this and the Stanza di Eliodoro are the only ones that Raphael himself painted. After 1512 he was simply too busy to work on all of his commissions by himself. The difference in quality of execution between the master’s hand and that of his workshop is self-evident.

The four walls of the Stanza della Segnatura feature an impossibly rich, subtle, complex programme of design; together they represent the harmony of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem that is at the heart of Christian civilisation and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Individually they represent Jurisprudence, Philosophy, Poetry and Theology as the summits of human learning, knowledge and wisdom. Each of these disciplines proves to be, at its best, a fusion of pagan inspiration, Classical Greek intellect and the truths that have been divinely revealed to Christians.

View of the Stanza della Segnatura showing frescoes of ‘Parnassus’ (poetry and music) on the left and ‘The School of Athens’ (philosophy) on the right.

The wall representing Jurisprudence is interrupted by a doorway; the other three walls boast some of the most impressive and memorable monumental painting in history. Emotionally and intellectually, the climax of the Stanza della Segnatura ought to be Raphael’s beautifully restrained fresco of the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, which is not so much a depiction of Theology as a representation of the Church itself, and the triumph, not merely of religion, but of God.

The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament.

Yet just as Dante’s Paradiso, the high point of his Divine Comedy, has never been nearly as popular as his more accessible depictions of eternal damnation in the Inferno, ‘The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament’ is less well known and less widely discussed than the other two grand compositions in the room, Parnassus (representing Poetry, and also Music), and the picture that has been known since the 17th century as The School of Athens.


Plato or St Paul?

The fresco we know as The School of Athens was first described thus as early as 1638, although the name was popularised by Jean-Baptiste Antoine Colbert, Marquis de Seignelay (1651–90), Secretary of the Navy to King Louis XIV of France, who admired the frescoes up close in 1671.

‘The school of Athens’: a high-resolution version can be explored here.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries it was often difficult to gain access to see the Stanza della Segnatura paintings in person; yet they were at least partly known and studied throughout Europe thanks to copies that began circulating widely in the 1520s. But the imagery was not always understood in the way that scholars commonly interpret it today.

Giorgio Vasari (1511–74) provides us with the first written description of The School of Athens in the 1550 edition of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Evidently he was relying on a faulty memory, or an unclear copy, or both, because according to him The School of Athens depicts:

theologians engaged in the reconciliation of Philosophy and Astrology with Theology. In the work all the sages of the world are depicted, arranged in different groups, and occupied with various disputations. There are certain astrologers standing apart who have made figures and characters of geomancy and astrology, on tablets which they send by beautiful angels to the Evangelists who explain them… Saint Matthew is copying the characters from the tablet which an angel holds before him, and setting them down in a book.

Detail from ‘The School of Athens’: the figure is usually assumed to be Pythagoras, but Vasari took it to be St Matthew the Evangelist.

Vasari’s identification seems far-fetched, and erroneous; except that the influential art theorist and painter Gian Paolo Lomazzo (1538–92) had a not-dissimilar reading of the picture: in his 1584 treatise On the Art of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture,Lomazzo clearly thinks that the picture we know as The School of Athens depicts St Paul preaching at Athens, as described in the Book of Acts (17:16–34).

Surely this is a mistake: Raphael did, of course, create a famous image of Saint Paul preaching at Athens; but this was not a fresco for Pope Julius; rather it was one of his tapestry designs, or ‘cartoons’, which are now prominently displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

St Paul Preaching at Athens, Raphael, 1515 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK).

Yet Lomazzo clearly and accurately describes the composition of The School of Athens, which he presumably knew from copies. Clearly his thoughts were influenced, here as elsewhere, by Vasari. But this sort of Christianising interpretation persists well into the 17th century, thanks in no small part to a 1550 engraving of the School of Athens by Giorgio Ghisi (1520–82). In the bottom left corner the Latin text reads:


A rough English translation reads as follows:

At Athens, St Paul was brought by some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers to the Areopagus. Standing in the middle of the street, he seized the opportunity, after spotting an altar, to teach of that one true god, who was unknown to them, and rebuked their idolatry, urged repentance, and impressed on them both the day of universal judgment and the resurrection of the dead through the risen Christ. Acts 17.

Copy of the School of Athens, Giorgio Ghisi, 1550 (British Museum, London).

This particular interpretation may seem like the culmination of some very silly mistakes, at least to modern viewers who have access to high-resolution colour photography, digital imaging, and five hundred years of scholarship on Raphael. But The School of Athens is a complicated composition, with as many as 58 individual figures. We can only positively identify a handful of them; the rest are a matter of speculation, argument and educated guesswork. How correct are the Christianisers?

Positive Identifications?

We can identify at least two figures in The School of Athens right away: at the centre of the image, the man with the white beard holding a copy of Plato’s Timaeus is definitely Plato (428/7–348 BC), whilst the younger man beside him with the Ethics in his hand must be his pupil Aristotle (384–322 BC). That said, we should be cautious about reading too much into their gestures until we are more confident about the rest of the picture.

Detail of Plato and Aristotle.

According to tradition, the face of Plato is modelled after that of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), whilst the gloomy-looking figure sitting below Plato, just to the left of the centre of the composition, is recognisably Michelangelo (1475–1564), who seems likely to represent the melancholic philosopher Heraclitus (c.535–475 BC), according – again – to tradition.

Detail of Michelangelo as Heraclitus.

Raphael has included a cheeky self-portrait in The School of Athens, and a few of members of his circle have also been glimpsed (or identified by Vasari anyway), including Bramante, who is unflatteringly displayed as the bald-headed ‘father of geometry’ Euclid (325–265 BC), engrossed in making a circle with his compass. Nevertheless, the attribution here is not necessarily secure on either count: the model might, despite Vasari’s claim, not in fact be Bramante; and the figure depicted has been said to be Archimedes of Syracuse (c.287–c.212 BC), not Euclid. The most we can say is that Euclid makes a little more sense as a suggestion.

Detail of Bramante (?) as Euclid (?).

We are on stable ground with Pythagoras (c.570-490 BC): the studious figure assumed to be St Matthew the Evangelist throughout the 16th century, as noted above, has a slate by his feet which features a table of harmonic proportions and ratios sacred to Pythagoreans. A closer look at this figure makes the identification clearer.

Detail of Pythagoras (or St Matthew the Evangelist?).

Another seemingly easy identification is Diogenes the Cynic (4th cent. BC), who made a virtue of extreme poverty, begged for a living, and possessed only a wooden bowl, until he realised that even this was unnecessary, because he could hold water in his cupped hands. Diogenes is known principally through colourful anecdotes; none of his writings has survived.

What is this old man reading, and why? The white foreshortened shape of what is either a folded-up sheet, a sheaf of papers or a pamphlet could simply be a compositional device for visual balance; or it could have some significance that is lost on us. A few scholars argue that this is not Diogenes at all, but Socrates (469–399 BC): in this interpretation, the bowl is not a begging bowl or water cup, but the cup from which Socrates drank the hemlock poison that killed him.

Detail of a figure assumed to be Diogenes the Cynic.

A likelier candidate for Socrates is an intense-looking figure in an olive-coloured robe who had a snub nose and looks like ancient depictions of Socrates that were definitely available to Raphael; he is addressing a young man in a helmet who is sometimes thought to be Alexander the Great (356–323 BC), but could more plausibly be read as Socrates’ wayward pupil Alcibiades (c.450–404 BC), unless it happens in fact to be the statesman Pericles (c.495–429 BC), who was (according to Plutarch) prone to wearing a helmet to cover up his curious head shape. The identification of other figures in Socrates’ circle (if the figure in olive is indeed Socrates!) hinges on who the young man in the helmet turns out to be.

Detail of Socrates (?) addressing a young man in helmet who might be Alcibiades, Alexander the Great, or Pericles of Athens.

Over the past 200 years, art historians have gradually built up a coherent-looking body of identifications. These vary from country to country, and language to language, as you can see if you compare the English-language Wikipedia page for The School of Athens with the French one, with the Italian one, and with the German one. There is not even agreement about sex: the figure whom some scholars declare to be Hypatia (AD c.355–415), the celebrated female mathematician and philosopher of Alexandria, has also been identified, not as a girl, but as Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino (1490–1538), or (less plausibly) as the Neo-Platonic philosopher and polymath Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–94).

At least two figures have been positively identified as Alcibiades; there are three candidates for Parmenides; one figure has variously been said to be Boethius (AD c.480–524), Anaximander (c.610–546 BC) and Empedocles (c.494–434 BC), even though there are no obvious attributes to enable the figure to be positively identified as anyone in particular. Many of the identifications simply seem arbitrary, and are based on scholars’ insistence that Raphael was working from a particular list of philosophers, or text, even though nobody can agree on what it would have been, or where Raphael would have found it.

Detail of Hypatia, or the Duke of Urbino, or Pico della Mirandola?

Source Materials and Questions of Attribution

Renaissance artists can seem dauntingly erudite. But very few of them, as a rule, came up with their own subjects, once they managed to find patrons willing to pay for their work. Instead, they were generally given instructions on what to paint and how to paint it, and relied on well-educated advisers to guide them on complicated matters of symbolism and imagery that they could not be expected to come up with themselves.

We do not know who wrote out design instructions for Raphael. He knew more about Roman antiquities than any artist of his day other than Michelangelo; but he was an artist, not a scholar. Julius II himself was deeply learned in Classical Latin literature, and owned copies of Homer, the Greek historians and major philosophers in Latin translation. Even so, most of his knowledge was in theology, canon law and Church history and doctrine; he was nowhere near being the best educated or most knowledgeable member of his court.

Detail of philosophers whose identities remain a mystery.

Identifying Raphael’s adviser is not as important for the interpretation of this image as figuring out what its main source materials were. Fledgling art historians often make the mistake of assuming that artists and their advisers used exotic or recondite texts to put together their iconographic programmes. But such assumptions are radically misguided. Pope Julius II sought to decorate his apartments in a manner that reflected not merely wealth and power, but also taste, learning and good judgment. His visitors would have been expected to appreciate the frescoes on the walls, not dismiss them as neurotic exercises in pedantry. Also, he wanted to enjoy the work himself, not be made to feel ignorant. Raphael sought to create images that would ultimately be intelligible.

Detail of a figure presumed, on account of the turban, to be Averroes of Córdoba (c.1126–98).

The School of Athens is not a straightforward illustration of any single text, although its principal source is probably The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius. This series of short, opinionated biographical texts was widely available in Latin translation from the mid-15th century onwards, and has long been regarded as a source of entertaining if unreliable anecdotes about Greek philosophers from antiquity. Some passages of Dante and Petrarch may also colour Raphael’s depictions in the School of Athens; however, this is difficult to prove, since Dante and Petrarch were simply a part of the atmosphere in Raphael’s world. Every cultured person could be expected to know their work.

How erudite is The School of Athens? André Félibien (1619–95), court historian to King Louis XIV (1638–1715, reigned 1643–1715), and the antiquarian Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1613–96), were notably influential in portraying Raphael as a scholarly painter; they preferred to think that The School of Athens resulted from deep immersion in Latin literary and philosophical texts ranging from Sidonius Apollinaris, a flamboyantly learned Gallo-Roman bishop of the 5th century, to the Florentine neo-Platonist heretic Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), whose Latin translations of Plato, and commentaries on Plato’s Republic, may be the ultimate source for some of Raphael’s imagery. But Félibien and Bellori were far from disinterested commentators. Their vision of Raphael makes him sound suspiciously like Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), who was friendly with both men. Poussin admired Raphael, and was an exemplary classicist painter in his own right; but his approach to art was calculated and intellectual in ways that Raphael’s could never be.

Detail of a figure crowned with vine leaves who seems to be Epicurus (341–270 BC).

To try to interpret The School of Athens honestly, cautiously and with an open mind is to learn lessons in modesty. It seems impossible to be confident about the identification of more than a few of the philosophers whom Raphael depicts, beyond Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, possibly Diogenes, and maybe a few others. Anything beyond that is speculation or educated guesswork; yet even the most self-assured art historians seem unable to give names to more than twenty or so of these 58 figures. Modern academics confidently spin theories about the picture in journals that nobody reads, despite the fact that they cannot clearly explain its contents at a basic level to an audience of normal, intelligent people.

Among English-language art historians who wrote about Raphael, Sir Ernst Gombrich (1909–2001) counts as one of the wisest. The best starting point for learning about the School of Athens remains Gombrich’s essay “Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura and the Nature of its Symbolism”[1] Towards the end of the piece, he comments in passing: “In iconography no less than life, wisdom lies in knowing where to stop.”

Detail of figures, from left to right: Zoroaster (mid/late 2nd millennium BC, attribution disputed) with a starry globe; Ptolemy (AD c.90–c.170), with a crown on his head and his back to the viewer, holding a terrestrial globe; Raphael; and Raphael’s friend and mentor Perugino (c.14501523, attribution disputed):


1 See Gombrich on the Renaissance: Volume 2: Symbolic Images (Phaidon Press, London, 1972, and frequently reprinted).