The Renaissance gave us the Sistine Chapel. It gave us Botticelli’s Venus. It gave us the Mona Lisa. So, was the Mona Lisa actually a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci? Or does the Renaissance have a definite start date? Did the art of the Renaissance progress in isolation from the Ancient Culture? In our previous content, we have extensively examined the Characteristics of Renaissance Art. Now, we will look at the art of the Renaissance Period from another angle with the Common Misconceptions About Renaissance Art.
5 Misconceptions About Renaissance Art
1- MISCONCEPTION: The Renaissance Has a Definitive Start Date.
If you ask when and where the Renaissance began in an art history class, at least a few students could probably tell the answer that it began in Italy in the early 14th century.
However, many Renaissance historians believe that this period does not have an exact start date, and some scholars actually consider the work of Dante and Giotto to be part of a “Proto-Renaissance” that began around 1200.
According to this idea, the Proto-Renaissance laid the foundations for the real Renaissance, and this situation did not gain momentum until some important events occurred in the 15th century, such as the Medici family‘s capture of Florence in 1434 and using their money and influence to support the arts.
Another milestone was Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, which made it possible for Europeans to disseminate new (and old) texts to the masses. This innovation did not appear in Italy until about 1465.
Because the timeline is subject to interpretation, some art historians have suggested that we all stop talking about the Renaissance as a ‘time period’. Instead, they prefer to call it movement.
2- MISCONCEPTION: Religion Has No Effect in the Renaissance Period.
Francesco Petrarca, who you may know better as Petrarch, was a 14th century Renaissance leader, is sometimes called the father of humanism.
Petrarch basically uses the term humanism; He thought of it as people taking a page from an ancient Latin or Greek book and spending more time studying non-religious subjects such as art, literature, philosophy, and history.
However, the fact that Renaissance humanists encouraged secular studies does not mean that they sanctioned the abandonment of religion. In fact, Petrarch Petrarch himself remained deeply religious throughout his life, and he didn’t consider his two interests incompatible.
Rome to inspire their work, many of the works included religious motifs, and many were even commissioned by church leaders. Examples include Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Michelangelo’s David.
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3- MISCONCEPTION: The Mona Lisa is a Secret Self-Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci.
In the last few centuries, art history researchers and scholars have been devising new theories about the identity of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Some believe that the painting is a self-portrait or an idealized version of a woman in general. It’s also been suggested that the model was one of Leonardo’s assistants—a man named Gian Giacomo Caprotti, better known as Salaì.
If you’ve done a little research on the Internet about the Mona Lisa, you’ve probably seen that the Mona Lisa is most believed to depict a real woman named Lisa (Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine merchant). It should be noted that there is at least some evidence to support this theory.
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4- MISCONCEPTION: Michelangelo Painted the Sistine Chapel Always Lying on His Back.
In 1965’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, Michelangelo (played by Charlton Heston) is shown lying on his back while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Around 1527, a bishop named Paolo Giovio published a biography of Michelangelo in Latin. When discussing the painter’s work on the Sistine Chapel, Giovio described him as resupinus or ‘bent backward.‘. However, resupinus has also been interpreted as ‘on one’s back‘, which may be the main source of misunderstanding.
Michelangelo certainly bent backward during the project, but not on his back. With the help of his assistants, the painter, who built special wooden scaffolding to reach the ceiling, basically climbed on it for four years to create his famous frescoes. It contained a lot of disturbing submissions and other twists, and he wasn’t really happy to suffer for his art.
In fact, Michelangelo didn’t even want the job in the first place. Although Michelangelo was confident in his sculpting skills, he did not consider himself a painter.
Pope II. When Julius commissioned him to work on the chapel in 1508, the artist was already busy with another project for the pope; a magnificent tomb. And the experience was truly painful. Michelangelo put this pain into verse in a poem he wrote to a friend in 1509.
“I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s.”
It ends with: “I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”
5- MISCONCEPTION: Before the Renaissance, No One Was Interested in Ancient Culture.
The term Renaissance did not enter the English lexicon until the 19th century, but its meaning – rebirth – had long been associated with this period.
Calling it ‘rebirth‘ is like saying that everyone slept in the Middle Ages and suddenly woke up with completely new skills, values, and personalities. But the situation is not as sharp as stated. And important Renaissance thinkers certainly support the idea of the Renaissance as a dramatic and decisive change. Florentine pharmacist Matteo Palmieri in his book: Della vita civile (‘On Civic Life’ was published in 1528.)
“Letters and liberal studies … the real guides to distinction in all the arts, the solid foundation of all civilization, have been lost to mankind for 800 years and more. It is but in our own day that men dare boast that they see the dawn of better things.”
Basically, this quote is saying that people are finally starting to rediscover the achievements of Ancient Greece and Rome, leading to new and better things. Palmieri and his contemporaries were not entirely wrong in believing that they lived through the resurgence of interest in ancient culture.
Historians think that the fall of Constantinople in 1453 further increased this trend. Because after this situation, Byzantine scientists started to migrate to the west and brought ancient texts with them.
But it might be unfair to call the Middle Ages the ‘Dark Ages’ and believe that it was completely devoid of ancient cultures. At that time, religious institutions were often centers of culture and education, preserving the seminal Latin works of Cicero, Aristotle, and other Roman thinkers. Church has even sponsored awe-inspiring works of art and architecture. Some medieval art actually depicted ancient legends such as Hercules or pagan motifs co-opted for Christian designs.