The Renaissance: Raphael's "The Schools of Athens" and Donatello's "David"

Updated on June 3, 2018
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Nicholas is a student at Georgetown University. He is interested in international relations, global health, history, and literature.


The Middle Ages, a time period generally looked down upon by later eras, was brilliantly replaced by the so-called “Renaissance,” beginning in the 14th century and continuing into the 17th century. This rebirth of ideas and art caused Europe -- but namely Italy -- to flourish and works soon came to focus on the individual in a movement called humanism. Some called Renaissance thinkers nostalgics who were actually moving back in time to replicate Classical design. However, an influx of original art and architecture was created nonetheless. Painters experimented with oil and invented perspective, philosophers expanded upon Greek ideas, architects turned to symmetry and geometry, scientists examined the human body. Europe seemed to fizzle out in the Middle Ages, but visibly emerged from the ashes of its short-lived death into a flourishing center that was the envy of the world. Europe borrowed and resurrected ideas from around the globe and throughout time, uniting them in works such as Donatello’s sculpture of David and Raphael’s painting, School of Athens.

The Bronze David by Donatello (1440s)
The Bronze David by Donatello (1440s) | Source

Donatello's "David"

Donatello was considered the most seminal artist of the 15th century, creating a wide array of paintings and sculptures. Born in Florence, Italy, he was raised a craftsman and sent to study under the Martellis, a banking family close to the Medicis. He was taught metalworking as an apprentice with Ghiberti, even assisting him to create the winning bronze doors to the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral. He embodied the Renaissance in that he drew upon Gothic influence paired with a longing to replicate the style immortalized in Antiquity, even traveling to Rome in order to study art from around the world. His finest work is considered his bronze statue of David (Figure 1), which was actually done long after he crafted a marble David that was placed in the Palazzo Vecchio. His first David lacked emotion, yet incorporated the Gothic style of a graceful contour. The bronze statue created for the Medici family was a great shift from the Medieval art that avoided nudity and focused rather on God. Instead, Donatello depicts the young hero who defeated Goliath against all odds, armed only with his faith. In fact, historians say this depiction of the boy was so sensuous it strayed from the Judaic story and rather invoked the Greco-Roman idealization of the human body. The feminine characteristics including a curved stomach and soft arms have led some to believe that there is a homoerotic air to this piece. Goliath’s helmet, which is brandished with wings, lays under David so that one of the wings reaches upward to his inner thigh. This type of movement and emotion is unheard of in earlier sculpture of a Biblical nature. Donatello certainly researched the human body to depict the boy in a realistic way. The 5’2’’ David broke away from conventional ideas of the naked man while maintaining Donatello’s signature life-like appearance. Overall, the David statue serves as a conglomeration of various artistic ideas, brought together in a typical Renaissance piece.

The School of Athens by Raphael (1511)
The School of Athens by Raphael (1511) | Source

Raphael's "School of Athens"

In a similar fashion, the School of Athens (Figure 2) broke ground in the world of painting. It is a High Renaissance piece of the 16th century that serves to bring together all the great minds in time before Raphael. Raphael first worked in Umbria and later went on to study alongside the Florentine masters. Toward the end of his life, he worked in Rome under two different Popes, creating worldly images for their palaces and adorning their walls with frescoes. In the School of Athens fresco, the great painter depicts Plato on the left, accompanied by great thinkers of the ideological world (including math, art, and theology), while Aristotle is on the right flanked by studiers of the physical world (including the sciences and medicine). A statue of Apollo is depicted on the left as Athena, shown as her Roman form Minerva, stands to the right. Every man depicted in this piece contributed to the world of knowledge and the piece serves to unite nearly all the European innovations up until the Renaissance. Various and even contradicting architecture is shown, including a pilaster arch as well a coffered barrel vault. As a High Renaissance painter, Raphael crafted careful and highly-detailed people and made extensive use of perspective. Contextually, the economic power of the time allowed him, like other Renaissance masters, to constantly be producing newer, finer works. The guild system was very influential as it allowed apprentices to train under great masters and for patrons of the arts, such as the famed Medici family, to support the industry. Religious influences also had a great impact on Raphael, as he was commissioned to create works for Pope Julius II and Pope Leo X (who was actually a Medici). Overall, it was the cultural breeding ground of these European centers that allowed the arts to flourish, with art depending on economics and the sciences -- and vice versa.

Raphael | Source
Donatello | Source

Two Renaissance Men

Renaissance men, masters of both the arts and sciences, were cultivated out of necessity. With an end to feudal Medieval Europe, city-states relied on the founding of guilds in order to produce art. No longer was it a form reserved for monks or the wealthy. Donatello was one such sculptor who revived Classical style with a Gothic influence, resulting in a unique style that could only be home to the Renaissance. Raphael, on the other hand, was known for his painting. He adapted the innovations of perspective and oil paints in order to revive the Roman style with a twist. He was also a pawn under the economic system of the time, as well as the papal state. Both Renaissance men borrowed worldly ideas and spun them into images not seen up until this point in history.

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