Raphael’s magnificent fresco The School of Athens from the interior of the Stanza della Segnatura was finished in 1511 to immense critical and popular acclaim. This towering vision of the Italian Renaissance was commissioned by Pope Julius II for his own private library in the Vatican. Depicting most of renowned philosophers of the ancient world gathered together in discussion and debate, Raphael unites the classical world with his own through architecture, spatial balance, and form. One third of the trinity of great Masters of his day that included Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael died at the tender age of 37 yet left behind a staggering body of work. His style was personified by a free-flowing, almost organic approach to form, which rose to a remarkable level of influence even during his lifetime.
Recognized as one of the greatest works of the Western canon, The School of Athens has endured throughout the centuries and continues to inspire debate. In this imagined reproduction of the pursuit of philosophy, Raphael captured the essence of Ancient Greek thought and revealed much about the ideas of the high Renaissance. Even in the twentieth century is would be surprisingly progressive for the pagan philosophers to adorn the ceilings of a Pope’s personal study. The primary figures, Plato and Aristotle, are in the centre of the image, engaging the others in a dialogue over the quest of truth reached through reason.
In acknowledgement of the work of his peers, Raphael allows the physical likenesses of his fellow painters to inhabit those of leading philosophers. Bramante is shown as Euclid, Leonard Da Vinci appears as Plato, Francesco Maria Della Rovere appears near Bramante, and Michelangelo is represented as Heraclitus. These gestures of homage are staggering acts of humility in such a monumental work. The finished fresco was immediately viewed as the embodiment of the Renaissance and the heir to the classical spirit. Thus, the young Raphael orchestrated a remarkable interior world that within its exchanges between minds contains a worldview.
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