You’ve definitely seen this painting before, but if you haven’t taken the opportunity to study it closely, you’ve also definitely missed some details. Commissioned by Pope Julius II to adorn his private library in the Vatican’s Stanza della Segnatura (The Signature Room, a reference to the official documents signed by the Pope there), Raphael painted the fresco around 1510 AD, during the height of the Renaissance’s fascination with Classical philosophy. There are 58 representations of real historical thinkers in Raphael’s School of Athens, few of which have completely undisputed identities but all of which are composed with great care.
Before you jump into identifying everyone in the painting, take a look at the composition as a whole. With 58 figures, things could easily get messy or chaotic, but Raphael uses triangular geometry to organize the fresco in a comprehensible and aesthetically pleasing way. The eye is first captured by two central figures, who are situated so that they are the tip of the triangle, and the architecture and other figures in the painting radiate outward from their position. Two groups of figures on the far left and far right form the base of the triangle in the foreground of the painting. Two pairs in the middle ground complete the circular flow of the composition. You’ve got the man sprawled across the steps to keep your eyes moving, and the figures walking into the scene on the left edge and then out of the scene on the right edge to give the painting a sense of motion. The precision of the composition is important to note because Renaissance artists revered these (mostly) Hellenic thinkers, and a chaotic depiction of these greatest men would have been unworthy of their superior wisdom.
You will be unsurprised, then, to learn that the two central figures of School of Athens are Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle stands on the viewer’s right, Plato on the left. They are depicted with iconography that highlights the differences in their thinking. Aristotle, with his full head and beard of curly hair, carries his work Etica and gestures down to the concrete, empirical earth, referencing his emphasis on systematic study through the collection of evidence. His legacy is one of structure and classification, particularly the principles of logic and syllogism. Aristotle placed more reliance on research and inductive logic than flashes of intellectual inspiration, which contrasts with Plato, an earlier Greek philosopher. To symbolize his belief that true knowledge could only be conceived from the divine, Plato is pictured gesturing to the sky. He carries his own work Timeo and is taking a step in further contrast with the stationary Artistotle. These two great—to Raphael and his contemporaries, the greatest— philosophers of their age are center stage for their contributions to human history, and their identities remain undisputed.
One of the more controversial identifications in School of Athens is that of the last member of the “Big Three” of Classical philosophy, Socrates. Different art historians have identified two figures in the painting that could represent the unfortunate philosopher whose life was cut short by a hemlock death sentence. One argument is based on composition, the other on iconography. Traditional Raphael scholarship dating back to at least the 17th century has claimed that Socrates is located to the viewer’s left of Plato, wearing the sage green tunic and counting or listing on his fingers as he lectures. This identification fits the composition of the painting if it is “read” as depicting historical figures chronologically from left to right. It also fits the historical characterization of Socrates as a relentless questioner, constantly pushing others to think for themselves. Other art historians argue that Socrates is the aforementioned sprawling man. These scholars cite the the cup sitting next to him, claiming it represents the hemlock he drank, and the two men gesturing to him, representative of his assistants Crito and Apollodorus, who were present at his execution.
Art historians have posited identification of many other scholars and thinkers that you’ll recognize. On the viewer’s right, the same side as Aristotle, is a group of men who subscribed to Aristotle’s dedication to logic and structure. Euclid, the mathematician who made geometry accessible, is leaning over a slate and constructing a figure with a compass. The man next to him wearing a distinctive crown and holding a terrestrial globe is claimed to be Ptolemy of Alexandria, the first geographer to delineate the world using latitude and longitude (not the similarly named ruler of Egypt). The man holding the celestial globe was identified as Zoroaster by groundbreaking art historian Giorgio Vasari, but modern scholars agree that Zoroaster would be very out of place in this painting since he was not Athenian, Greek, or a philosopher. Instead, this figure is now identified as Strabo, another geographer who dedicated his studies to the interconnection of terrestrial and celestial phenomena.
Raphael painted himself into the fresco as Apelles, in the black hat, an early adopter of painters’ concern for geometry, next to Protogenes in white, a contemporary of Apelles. Opposite this group, in the foreground on the viewer’s left, are a group of men who correspondingly harmonize with Plato’s methods of thinking. Pythagoras is seated and writing in a large book, hunched over to represent the great secrecy in which he worked. The slate near his feet, with the perfect triangular ten dots, represents his concept that the universe was made of harmonious parts that were each a mathematically ordered whole, philosophy which inspired the roots of Plato’s divine reality. And these are only six more of the most prominent figures Raphael chose to paint.
Giorgio Vasari said this about Raphael: “In truth, in him we have art, color, and invention… brought to that end and perfection for which one could scarcely have hoped, nor should anyone think ever to surpass him.” The meticulous composition and content of School of Athens is ample evidence to support this sentiment. It was a fresco meant to be far more than decoration; it was meant to be a holistic picture of the greatest Classical philosophy recorded by man.