Right in front of the Theological Truth you can see the Truth of rational thought and philosophy represented by the School of Athens.
Raphael had originally wanted to illustrate philosophical Truths with abstract scenes but in the end, opted for real people and places. The setting for the entire scene is in fact, real: the stairway, arches and wide vaulted ceilings create a structure that shows the new Saint Peter’s Basilica exactly as Bramante was building it.
To show the idea of rational thought, Raphael painted men of science and great philosophers, but the touch of genius was to give them the faces of some of the most famous people of his era.
In the center of the scene we see two of the greatest philosophers of antiquity: Plato and Aristotle, who walk as they exchange ideas. Plato, with a finger pointing upwards towards the world of ideas, his book Timaeus in hand, actually has Leonardo da Vinci’s face.
Laying on the stairs in the center is the philosopher Diogenes and to the left, dressed in armor, Alexander the Great.
Then there are the mathematicians: Pythagoras, standing just behind Michelangelo, intently explaining from a book; to his right, surrounded by a small group of students, is the philosopher Euclid, drawing with a compass; he is shown as Bramante, the Palace architect.
The figure further to the right is the Persian prophet Zoroaster who holds the heavenly sphere in his hand, as Ptolemy holds the terrestrial sphere. Finally, on the far right, the creator of this perfect fusion of all that great thinking, art and architecture have given the world, a self-portrait of Raphael himself wearing a black beret.
This first work had such enormous success at Julius II’s court that the pope decided to erase all pre-existing frescoes and have them re-done by the still-unknown young artist. Embarrassed by the pope’s decision, Raphael did however manage to have one of the ceilings in one of the rooms spared, that which had been frescoed by his dear master, Perugino.