Raphael’s Painted Building

Raphael’s Painted Building

By Miguel Mora


In the Italian Renaissance, architecture became a field where people could find great success. Massive structures adorned cities and towns, and were representative of the wealth and status of its citizens. Architecture was such an important component of everyday life in the Italian Renaissance, that they were also the focus for certain paintings. These paintings, with the invention of perspective, were so calculated that the structures created in the paintings could be constructed to an almost exact degree. In Raphael’s School of Athens, a scene is depicted of great philosophers occupying a space that seems to be a type of basilica. This basilica is very reminiscent of the current St. Peter’s design by Bramante, but it has elements that were not very typical to the designs at the time. In this article, the structure that Raphael constructed in the painting will be examined, and will explore the reasoning behind the design choices Raphael made. Why is the basilica open to the elements? With Greek philosophers depicted in the painting, does it imply that the basilica follows traditional Greek architecture or does it follow the high Renaissance styles of the time? Through digital modeling and a careful analysis of the  structure, a near replica will be created to have a better understanding as to what Raphael had envisioned this structure would look like in reality. 

Figure 1. Timeline


In the Late Renaissance, often considered the High Renaissance, many beautiful works of art were created on a regular basis. Names like Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Titian, to name a few, decorated this time period with exquisite artwork that is still examined and studied to this day. The High Renaissance is believed to have begun around the 1490s and continued until 1520, which also marked the death of one of the High Renaissance’s greatest contributors – Raphael.

Raffaello Sanzio, known just by his first name Raphael, was a painter and an architect in the High Renaissance. He was born on April 6, 1483 in the town of Urbino and died on the same day 37 years later, April 6, 1520. Though his life was remarkably short, Raphael left a lasting impression on the art and architecture of the time period and for centuries to come. Of his extensive portfolio of works, one painting stands out amongst his greatest – The School of Athens. In the year 1508, Raphael received a commission from Pope Julius II to paint the four walls of the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, one of which he dedicated to The School of Athens. This painting depicts “representatives of every phase of Greek philosophy” with figures like Aristotle and Plato all under an “atrium of noble edifice, built in the earliest, and therefore the purest, Renaissance style”¹. Although the painting has much to talk about in terms of substance, this “noble edifice” will be the central focus of this paper as it begs the question of what the structure would have looked like in reality.

Figure 2. The School of Athens

The Building in Perspective and Proportion

During the Renaissance, capturing realism in paintings was the most important aspect to a painting. Capturing the human body with its vast array of positions and their proportions occupied the minds of artists, with some depictions greater than others. Along with accurately portraying the human body, capturing the essence of physical spaces was something of great importance to artists. In order to do this, artists employed the use of linear perspective. This technique, devised by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1415, uses the concept of all lines pointing to a vanishing point at the horizon line. This gave way to the creation of many perspective paintings, much like Piero della Fancesca’s The Flagellation of Christ. This painting, painted between 1468-1470, is a clear example of the use of linear perspective. The lines of the building all lead to the same vanishing point, giving a sense of three dimensional space to the structure. Although this painting is a prime example of linear perspective, the painting still falls flat as the structure is missing a sense of real depth.

Figure 3. Piero della Fancesca’s The Flagellation of Christ

This is where Raphael shines. In The School of Athens, Raphael not only uses linear perspective to an almost perfect degree, but he also captures depth in the painting. Through the use of proper shading and with the pushing and pulling of elements into the foreground and background, Raphael’s structure is made more believable. Along with the correct use of linear perspective, the proportions of everything in the painting are almost perfect, if not perfect already. The scale of the human figures and their positioning makes the space feel more alive and more tangible than anything ever painted before. To achieve the correct sizing and proportions of the characters depicted in the painting, Raphael and his advisors heavily studied the works of the classical authors, primarily looking at biographical works like The Vitae of Laertius which had recently been translated from Greek². With the use of linear perspective and proportions of the characters in the painting, sizing the structure and getting a sense of what it could be like in real life is made possible. By using the height of Aristotle, arguably the most notable figure in the painting, as a scale for measurement, and by following the perspective lines laid out by Raphael, the size of the corridor where the painting takes place can be determined. By following this technique, I’ve determined the width of the corridor to be an approximate 17.01’ with a height to the apex of the vault to be 25.5’. With the dimensions of the corridor now approximated, the general shape of the corridor can be created and be used to determine the rest of the structure. Because wall thicknesses and extents of the structure are out of frame, these elements will be estimated.

The Building Plan

As a painter, Raphael had a knack for proportions as examined in the previous section. The spaces that he created in his paintings were exact and geometrically inspired. As John Shearman explains in his writing, Raphael as Architect, “Raphael’s earliest paintings have an outstandingly tectonic quality; they are controlled, constructed, one might even say built, like architecture”³. He continues to state that the spaces that Raphael created “are related to one another geometrically,” with the use of shapes like exact squares and semi-circles³. To further reinforce this line of thinking, Garrigues states that this structure was “built in the earliest, and therefore the purest, Renaissance style”¹. This early Renaissance style is characterized with the use of exact shapes, much like Greek architecture. With this in mind, constructing a floor plan and overall shape of the School of Athens is made much simpler as the rules of architecture can now be clearly defined.

As stated before, the painting showcases the great Greek philosophers which were heavily studied in order to create the painting. Based on this logic, it may be safe to assume that the structure follows a plan inspired by Greek antiquity, resulting in the use of a Greek-cross plan. This floor plan is characterized by a square central mass and four arms of equal length. This floor plan has been used in the construction of many churches before Raphael’s time, and was still fairly prominent in the Renaissance, sharing the stage with the Roman-cross plan (T-shaped plan). Another reason as to why the Greek-cross plan may have been used for the structure in The School of Athens is because of Bramante’s use of a Greek-cross plan in the design for St. Peter’s Basilica in 1506. Since this painting is located in the Vatican, Raphael may have wanted to follow the shape of the future St. Peter’s Basilica. With the corridors of The School of Athens now constructed, they can be arranged in a Greek-cross plan, creating a perfect square in the center. This is where the dome will protrude from the structure and signify its center. Each corridor will also be given its own triumphal arch, as seen as the farthest object in the painting, in order to further reinforce the notion that all sides of the plan are equal.

The Building Ornamentation

With the main structure of the building laid out, the next phase of recreating Raphael’s painted building is to look into the ornamentation and implement it into the digital model. Although painted in the High Renaissance when buildings were typically decorated like that of Bramante and Sangallo designs, Raphael looked back in time and chose a much more subdued style of ornamentation. The style that is represented in the painting is much like the style that dominated Italy in the early Renaissance when classical architecture was the goal every architect was trying to achieve. 

In examining the walls of the structure, this stylistic choice is evident in the elements that are engaged into the wall. To create a sense of structure for the corridors of The School of Athens, Raphael uses square pilasters on the faces of the wall. These pilasters are all capped with a frieze that runs across the top of all of them, creating a trabeated structural system that is merely decoration rather than actual structure. Along with the pilasters, Raphael also employs the use of niches in the walls. These niches are homes to the many Greek statues put on display in the painting while also giving more depth to the wall by creating reliefs in them. Some of the statues on display are that of Apollo and Minerva. Both statues play into the philosophical theme of the painting as Apollo “represents the natural philosophical side” of the painting, while Minerva “is an apt representative of the moral philosophical side”⁴.

In examining the barrel vaults, probably the most eye-catching elements of the structure, it is clear that Raphael gave them a bit more “flare” to them. Although coffered domes and vaults have been used in the past, with buildings like the Pantheon using them, the way in which Raphael depicts them shows a true understanding of structure. In the past, domes and vaults would be coffered mainly to lighten the load they bare as well as to reduce the amount of material used for them. They would typically be square cut outs aligned at different levels. In The School of Athens, Raphael gives the coffers a more intricate design. The hexagonal design to them creates a web of splines that line the vault creating an awe-inspiring structure. This design is also reminiscent of the ribbed vault designs used in late Gothic architecture.

The triumphal arch at the end of the painting is another feature that is worth noting as it also alludes to a period of time that was before Raphael’s. Triumphal arches were mainly used during the Roman Empire as commemorative architectural structures. These arches were heavy structures that demanded attention from all, expressing a statement of victory and strength. The use of the arches in the painting don’t have that same connotation, but they do frame the two most important figures, Aristotle and Plato, under its arch, giving them a higher sense of hierarchy among the other characters.

Lastly, the drum and dome that crown the structure are also worth noting as they provide a central space for the structure. Although out of frame, it is safe to assume that the structure has a dome as it would be out of character to provide a drum with no top piece. The design of the dome would have most likely been similar to that of Bramante’s Tempietto. This assumption could further be reinforced by the fact that Bramante was designing the Vatican, so Raphael may have assumed that Bramante would use the same style for the basilica’s dome.

The Building and its Context – Conclusion

After carefully analyzing the structure, and taking into account the immense details Raphael placed in designing The School of Athens, it can all now be synthesized into a digital model. 

In the time of Raphael, a structure like this would have been a bit out of context as massive open structures like this were not common anymore. This type of structure would have been more common to see in Roman times when large, open bath houses were prevalent. This may be the reason why Raphael only painted this structure, as it is only meant to exist in the painting. The openness of the structure may allude to the fact that the building is purely out of imagination⁵.

Even though Raphael’s School of Athens building may have never been built, it definitely left a lasting impression on architecture. The purity of Raphael’s building form indicates something greater than just raw material creating a structure. It indicates a harmonious balance between the void and the structure that surrounds it. It radiates the precision that those before him, like Vitruvius, spent ages mastering, further showing that Raphael was not just a painter, but also the architect of his paintings. Raphael did have a career as an architect and much of his designs are a sight to behold, but the sheer immenseness of The School of Athens will always continue to beg the question as to what it would be like in real life.


Academic Sources

  1. Garrigues, Gertrude. “Raphael’s ‘School of Athens.’” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, October, 1879, Vol. 13, No. 4 (October, 1879), pp. 406-420. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25667781.pdf
  2. Bell, Daniel Orth. “New Identifications in Raphael’s School of Athens.” The Art Bulletin 77, no. 4 (1995): 639–46. https://doi.org/10.2307/3046140.
  3. Shearman, John. “Raphael as Architect.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 116, no. 5141 (1968): 388–409. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41371863.

Non Academic Sources

  1. Stewart, Jessica. “The Story Behind Raphael’s Masterpiece ‘The School of Athens’.” My Modern Met. My Modern Met, September 8, 2020. https://mymodernmet.com/school-of-athens-raphael/
  1. “The School of Athens.” Raphael-Sanzio. Raphael-Sanzio. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.raphael-sanzio.com/school-of-athens/.
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