Daily Dose of Europe: Raphael’s School of Athens

To solve our problems, the world needs to listen to smart people right now. When I think of our current predicament, I picture Raphael’s great painting that assembles all of the smartest people in ancient Athens in one place: The School of Athens.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. And I’m currently featuring 10 of my favorites — including this one.

In 1508, the great Pope Julius II decided to redecorate his Vatican apartment. He hired a 25-year-old who came with a reputation as a one-of-a-kind prodigy: Raphael Sanzio. For the pope’s library, Raphael painted this scene highlighting secular knowledge. Raphael imagines all the great scientists and philosophers from the ancient world gathered together in a kind of rock and roll heaven.

In the center stand Plato and Aristotle. Plato points up, indicating his philosophy that mathematics and pure ideas are the source of truth. Aristotle gestures down, showing his preference for hands-on study of the material world. Their master, Socrates (midway to the left, in green), debates the meaning of it all. In the lower left, the great mathematician Pythagoras sits and ponders his famous formula: a2 + b2 = c2. In the lower right, the bald Euclid bends over to draw a geometrical figure.

There’s another way to look at this Who’s Who of great minds. You see, Raphael thought that Renaissance thinkers of his generation were as enlightened as the ancients. So he cast many of his contemporaries in the role of these enlightened people of the past. Plato, for example, with his long beard and receding hairline, is clearly Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael’s hero. And Euclid is the architect Donato Bramante. In fact, the entire scene is set amid the arches and pillars of Bramante’s work-in-progress — St. Peter’s Basilica. Raphael even photobombed his own painting. Find his self-portrait on the far right — the young man wearing a black beret and peering out.

Now take in the whole scene. Raphael balances everything symmetrically. He places a couple dozen figures to the left, a couple dozen to the right, with Plato and Aristotle dead center. Focus on the square floor tiles in the foreground. If you laid a ruler over them and extended the line upward, it would run right to the center of the picture. If you put your ruler on the tops of the columns, those lines all point down to the middle. All the lines of sight draw your attention to Plato and Aristotle, and to the small arch over their heads. It’s almost like a halo over these two secular saints who dedicated their lives to the divine pursuit of knowledge.

Finally, focus on the guy sitting right up front and center, leaning on a block of marble. He was a last-minute addition to the scene. While Raphael was working here, another painter was at work for the same pope down the hall in the Sistine Chapel. Raphael happened to get a sneak peek at that artist’s work. He was astonished. He returned to The School of Athens, scraped off a section of fresco, replastered it, and added this final figure: none other than the great painter, sculptor, and poet — Michelangelo Buonarroti.

With this fresco, Raphael’s message was clear: The enlightened ancient world had been reborn in the Renaissance.

This is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Vatican.