I've always liked this painting. I'm much more a fan of Michelangelo than of Raphael, but the summit of the philosophers has always seemed like one of the most amazing learning environments to ever be conceived. Well, that and I live in a little college town by the name of Athens.
The two philosophers at the center of the painting are generally thought to be Plato and Aristotle*. But it's generally thought that Raphael based certain philosophers on artists of his time. Plato is connected to da Vinci. Michelangelo is in the painting, but there is debate about who he is -- is he Aristotle, standing proud with his Ethics, debating his teacher?
Or is he the brooding figure of Heraclitus?
I think he's both. Michelangelo was certainly the dark, depressed figure that painted himself as a lifeless skin in "The Last Judgement" in the Sistene Chapel, but he was also the master who completed the ceiling of that very same chapel with almost no help from his apprentices.
But if Michelangel gets to play both roles, why does da Vinci only appear once? Where is the most famous Renaissance painter? I think he might be Pythagorus as well -- the bald, bearded figure hard at work on the foundations of geometry and architecture -- just as da Vinci is well-known for his volumes of notes on anatomy and inventions.
*Scholars determined the places of Plato and Aristotle by which books they hold in the scene. Plato holds his Timaeus, and Aristotle, his Ethics.
These images were retrieved via Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.