Pope Julius II invited Raphael to Rome in 1509. Raphael’s task was to paint a series of rooms in the Vatican
Palace, beginning with the room that Julius II used as a library, the Stanza della Segnatura. The four large
frescoes on the walls depict four areas of knowledge: theology, philosophy, poetry, and law.
The School of Athens, as the philosophy fresco is known, shows the greatest philosophers of ancient Greece
gathered together in a large structure that may be based on the new construction of St. Peter’s—at that
point only the vaults around the central had been constructed. Plato and Aristotle are framed by the central
arches, and around them other philosophers and students are engaged in vigorous debate. In the
foreground to our right, students gather around Ptolemy, who holds a celestial globe, and Euclid, who is
demonstrating a geometric proof on a slate; on the left stands Pythagoras illustrating his theory of musical
harmony based on mathematical principles. As a whole, the group has been interpreted as representing
the classical liberal arts (rhetoric, dialectic, and grammar above; music, arithmetic, geometry, and
astronomy in the foreground).
Raphael, The School of Athens (Philosophy), 1509-11. Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace.
Raphael gave some of the philosophers the likeness of artists he admired: Euclid is the architect Bramante,
Plato is probably Leonardo da Vinci, and Heraclitus, who leans on a block in the center foreground, is
Michelangelo. The Italian Renaissance was the time when artists were working hard to improve their status
and escape being thought of as manual workers. The School of Athens demonstrates that artists deserve
the same kind of intellectual respect as the great philosophers.