In 1508, during the High Renaissance (c.1490-1530), the 25-year old painter Raffaello Sanzio, better known as Raphael, was summoned to the Vatican by the ageing pontiff Pope Julius II (1503-13), and given the largest, most important commission of his life - the decoration of the Papal Apartments, including the Stanza della Segnatura. Located on the upper floor of the Vatican palace, this room was used by the Pope as a library. It was here, between 1509 and 1511, that Raphael painted his famous fresco The School of Athens (Scuola di Atene). It was the second mural painting to be finished for the Stanza della Segnatura, after La Disputa, on the opposite wall, and is regarded as one of the greatest Renaissance paintings. The general theme of the picture, indeed the whole room, is the synthesis of worldly (Greek) and spiritual (Christian) thinking, and ranks alongside the finest examples of classically inspired Renaissance art. A rival of the older Michelangelo (1475-1564), Raphael went on to complete three other Papal apartment rooms in the Vatican (known as the Raphael Rooms) and was to remain in Rome serving successive popes until his sudden death in 1520.
The Signature Room contains three of Raphael's best known works - theSchool of Athens, the Parnassus, and the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. Each wall represents one area of thinking: Theology, Poetry, Philosophy, and Justice, corresponding to the main fields of scientific knowledge. In theSchool of Athens, representing Philosophy, Plato and Aristotle are pictured at the centre of a group of other philosophers in a scene, set in Ancient Greece, which symbolizes the wisdom of classical antiquity. Arithmetic, Grammar, and Music are personified by certain figures: Geometry, Astronomy, Rhetoric and Dialectic by others. Above them is a majestic vaulted ceiling which may reflect Donato Bramante's design for St Peter's Basilica in Rome. It was not the first fresco painted in the Stanza della Segnatura - the room already contained decorations by the Early Renaissance artists Piero della Francesca (1415-92), Perugino (1450-1523) and Luca Signorelli (1445-1523), but Julius II decided that these paintings were expendable, and could be painted over.
This fresco - a masterpiece of disegno - represents natural Truth, acquired through reason. Under the arched vault of an immense Basilica with lacunar ceiling and pilasters, (inspired by Constantine's in the Roman Forum), decorated with statues of Apollo and Minerva, a crowd of philosophers and wise men of the past, along with High Renaissance artists and patrons, argue heatedly among themselves or mediate in silence. The extraordinarily deeplinear perspective creates an incredible illusion of depth. In the centre we see Plato (long white beard and the features of Leonardo da Vinci), text of the Timaeus in hand, the other hand pointing to heaven, the "seat of all ideas". At his side is Aristotle, in turn holding his Ethics and pointing to the earth. The two philosophers and their gesturing make a point which is the core of the philosophy of Marsilio Ficino: Aristotle's gesture symbolizes the positive spirit; the vertical gesture of Plato alludes to a superior quality, the contemplation of ideas.
On the left, cloaked in an olive mantle, is Socrates, arguing in a group that includes Chrysippus, Xenophon, Aeschines and Alcibiades. Facing the venerable Venetian scientist Zeno, is Epicurus, crowned with grape leaves, presumably defending the principle of hedonism. Attentively followed by his pupils (including the turbanned Averroes) Pythagoras teaches the diatesseronfrom a book. In strong contrast in front of him is Xenocrates (others say Parmenides). In the foreground, head resting on his arm, the mournful Heracleitus (with the features of Michelangelo). The absence of this figure in the original cartoon (now in Milan's Ambrosian Library) and its obvious Michelangelo style (it is modelled on the Sybils and Ignudi of the Sistine ceiling), leads us to believe that Raphael added this figure in 1511 when, after completing the room, he saw the first half of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling frescoes. In tribute to his great rival, Raphael portrayed Michelangelo in the guise of the philosopher from Ephesus. The child at the side of Epicurus, clearly indifferent to the speculations of the thinkers, seems to be Federico Gonzaga (1500-40), later Federico II of Mantua of the famous Gonzaga family of Renaissance patrons and collectors. The passer-by in white translucent toga and da Vinci smile, is supposedly Francesco Maria Della Rovere (1490-1538), nephew of Julius II and later Duke of Urbino.
Further to the right, calmly reclining on the stairs, is Diogenes, the oject of the remonstrations by the disciples of the Academy. In the foreground, to the right of Aristotle, Raphael placed the High Renaissance architect Donato Bramante (1444-1514) in the person of Euclid, who is pictured bending over a table and demonstrating a theorem with the aid of a compass. Bramante, the architectural adviser to Julius II, and a distant relative of Raphael's from Urbino, was responsible for Raphael's summons to Rome, and the younger man reciprocates by signing his name in the gold border of Bramante's tunic. Over to the right, identified by the crown he wears, is the geographer Ptolemy, holding the globe of the earth. Facing him is the atronomer Zoroaster, holding the globe of the sky. The young man at their side and facing the viewer is supposedly Raphael himself in the company of Sodoma (white robe), the artist who preceded Raphael in the decoration of the ceiling of the Signature room.
An important feature of this work, as in all Raphael's paintings, is the artist's use of his Renaissance colour palette - in this case, to highlight certain characters and to control the attention of the viewer. See how certain hues act as reference points across the canvas.
The School of Athens fresco was an immediate success, with none of the reservations which greeted the completion of Michelangelo's Genesis Frescoon the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Its pictorial concept, formal beauty and thematic unity were universally appreciated, by the Papal authorities and other artists, as well as patrons and art collectors. It ranks alongside Leonardo's Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, and Michelangelo's Vatican frescoes, as the embodiment of Renaissance ideals of the early cinquecento.
In fact Raphael's painterly skills were soon in such demand that he was obliged to leave more and more work to his assistants, such as Giovanni Francesco Penni (1496-1536), Giulio Romano (1499-1546) and Perino del Vaga (Piero Buonaccorsi) (1501-47). Responsible for numerous altarpieces, such as The Sistine Madonna (1513-14, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) and The Transfiguration (1518-20, Pinacoteca Apostolica, Vatican), as well as other examples of religious art, he also produced several famous Renaissance portraits of ecclesiastical and secular subjects - such as Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1514-15, Louvre) and Pope Leo X with Cardinals(1518, Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, Florence). Arguably the finest painter of the Italian Renaissance, Raphael remains one of the best artists of all time.