The Monumental Figures of the Renaissance


Historians often bicker about the exact timeline and the most significant period of the Renaissance. Although the former can be loosely defined as the years between the 15th and 17th centuries, the latter might best be summed up in a quote from the classic 1949 film, The Third Man: “…in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” 

The word “renaissance” means rebirth in French — and is used to describe the era when Europeans shifted away from the restrictive Middle Ages, in which plague, extreme religiosity, and superstition ruled the day. This awakening helped pave the way for the arts, science, and literature to flourish like never before, frequently drawing upon ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration.

10. Raphael

Unlike many artists who achieve prominence long after their deaths, Raphael was considered a master painter at the tender age of 17. Though he later became an accomplished architect, the gifted Italian is best known for his Madonnas and a series of large frescoes in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican known as the Stanze di Raffaello (The Raphael Rooms). 

Raffaello Sanzio was born on April 6, 1483 in the city-state of Urbino, where his father, Giovanni, was court painter to the Duke. After Giovanni died in 1494, Raphael took over the family’s workshop and soon emerged as one of the region’s leading painters. The precocious artist then moved to Florence, studiously embracing the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. 

Raphael stayed busy throughout most of his career with lucrative commissions, including portraits of popes Julius II and Leo X. While in Rome on his 37th birthday, Raphael died unexpectedly of mysterious causes. At the time, he had been putting the finishing touches on The Transfiguration, his largest painting on canvas to date. In 1797, it was looted by Raphael fanboy and notorious tyrant, Napoleon, who installed the masterpiece at the Louvre in Paris. Eventually, the priceless artwork was returned and now resides at the Pinacoteca Vaticana in Vatican City. 

9. Copernicus

Artists and thinkers from the Renaissance are typically associated with exploring earthly matters. Copernicus, however, fixed his gaze upon celestial bodies. The Polish astronomer accurately formulated a model of the universe that placed the Sun rather than Earth at the center of the universe, challenging the prevailing Church orthodoxy of the time.

Raised in the province of Royal Prussia in the Kingdom of Poland during the late 15th century, Copernicus excelled in several fields as a practicing physician, economist, and diplomat. The polyglot also held a doctorate in canon law. But his observations of the planets would be his greatest legacy and an augur of things to come.  

In 1543, he published his opus De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) just before his death, providing an immeasurable contribution to the scientific revolution. But it took decades before his heliocentric viewpoint was widely accepted, condemned by theological leaders despite having been initially approved by Pope Clement VII. 

8. Lorenzo de’ Medici

As far as nicknames go, Lorenzo the Magnificent isn’t a bad way to be remembered. It could have been a lot worse: his father was known as Piero the Gouty, and his oldest son would get stuck with Piero the Unfortunate. But for Lorenzo, the flattering sobriquet was well-earned. Under his leadership as the de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic, he helped broker peace among an alliance of Italian states, while his support of the arts ushered in the Golden Age of Florence.

Groomed for a life of excellence at an early age, Lorenzo benefited from his family’s successful banking business, an enterprise that helped finance their political dynasty. At the age of 20, following his father’s death, “il Magnifico” was thrust into the role of protecting Medici control of Florence. He narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 1478, which claimed the life of his brother, Giuliano. Lorenzo adopted his fallen sibling’s son Giulio and raised him as his own. The boy later became Pope Clement VII, the second of four Medici Popes (Lorenzo’s son, Leo X, was the first).

In spite of his moniker, Lorenzo refused to anoint himself with any lofty titles. He preferred being seen as a poet and established a school of sculpture in the garden of San Marco. As a major patron of the arts, Lorenzo used his connections to secure work for talented locals such as Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci — as well as Michelangelo, who lived with the Medici family for three years as a teenager.

7. Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI)

Mario Puzo, the acclaimed author of “The Godfather,” describes the Borgias as the original mafia family. And for good reason. Rodrigo Borgia’s rise to become Pope Alexander VI was spawned by an insatiable lust for power, wealth, and carnal pleasure — all of which made for quality drama. 

The House of Borgia originated in eastern Spain, descendants of a noble line (Borja) through the Crown of Aragon. The family established a sturdy foothold in Italy’s ecclesiastical and political affairs following the election of Rodrigo’s uncle, Pope Callixtus III. After studying law at the University of Bologna, Rodrigo methodically conspired and schemed to secure the papacy for himself in 1492 as Pope Alexander VI.

From the Pope’s lofty perch at the Vatican, he enjoyed a tenure that featured lavish banquets, orgies, and the miraculous disappearance of several enemies. To be fair, the Borgias also helped advance the arts through their patronage of masters such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Da Vinci. It’s also worth noting that the most prevalent depiction of Jesus Christ bears a striking resemblance to Rodrigo’s illegitimate son, Cesare Borgia, who became a powerful Cardinal and military leader but was neither Middle Eastern nor Jewish. Go figure.

6. Galileo 

He was branded a heretic and had his books systematically banned. Nonetheless, Galileo triumphed as one of the key figures of the Renaissance and exalted as the ‘father of modern science.’

Originally from Pisa in Italy’s Tuscany region, Galileo initially studied medicine but instead became a pioneering physicist, astronomer, and mathematician. His ground-breaking discoveries resulted from his meticulous research and experimentation. His efforts led to advancing Copernicus’ heliocentric theory and the development of the scientific method.

Other contributions included his invention of the microscope, a pendulum for keeping time, and the forerunner of the thermometer. Galileo also vastly improved the telescope, which allowed him to observe Jupiter’s four biggest moons (“Galilean moons”) and the rings of Saturn. Above all else, his courage for standing up to the Roman Catholic Church is beyond measure — holding firm on views that the Inquisition deemed “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” 

Albert Einstein would later pay tribute to Galileo’s monumental impact: “In advocating and fighting for the Copernican theory, Galileo was not only motivated by a striving to simplify the representation of the celestial motions. His aim was to substitute for a petrified and barren system of ideas the unbiased and strenuous quest for a deeper and more consistent comprehension of the physical and astronomical facts.”

5. Catherine de’ Medici 

During the life of Catherine de Medici, power for the female sex was primarily determined by fecundity. As such, she became one of the most powerful women during the Renaissance era by achieving something no man could do: give birth to a royal heir. Three of them, to be exact. 

Born into the notorious Medici family, Catherine’s childhood saw plenty of violence and chaos stemming from the cut-throat politics that enveloped Florence. The volatile atmosphere necessitated her taking refuge in convents for protection against rival factions. At the age of 14, she became betrothed to another 14-year-old, the son of King Francis I of France. Like most others involving the noble class, the union helped cement a strategic alliance between the families.

When her husband ascended to the throne as Henry II, Catherine became queen consort and eventually gave birth to 10 children, including future monarchs Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III. Her vast influence during this time would be hailed, “the age of Catherine de’ Medici.” Adding to her clout, two of her daughters became queen consorts in Spain and France, respectively. 

Catherine also developed a sinister reputation for dabbling in the occult and hobnobbing with the infamous soothsayer, Nostradamus. Her inability to produce an heir during the first ten years of her marriage had fuelled suspicions of witchcraft — a situation later remedied after hubby’s urologic abnormalities were effectively mounted. 

4. Ferdinand Magellan

On the morning of September 20, 1519, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan ventured to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe. At the time, most of his contemporaries saw the expedition as a suicidal mission fraught with peril. But ‘Nando had vision. Buoyed by the allure of fame and fortune, he eschewed the naysayers (as well as loyalty to Portugal) and boldly set sail with five ships under the Spanish Crown. He never returned. 

Having served in the Portuguese Navy, Magellan was an accomplished captain, skilled in navigation, astronomy, and map making — and hellbent on leaving his mark on history. He would succeed. Partially, anyway. The commander’s first major obstacle involved his Spanish crew, who came to despise him. After overcoming a mutiny near Tierra Del Fuego (modern-day Argentina), Magellan earned the distinction of being the first European to cross the Pacific Ocean, passing through the narrow straits that now bear his name. 

He continued heading west but eventually ran into trouble in the Philippines. After getting in the middle of a dispute between two chieftains, Magellan was killed by a spear (or possibly a poison arrow). The surviving crew members left his corpse behind to rot, proving fame is a fickle mistress, indeed. 

After three years at sea, only one ship, the Victoria, returned home with 18 of the fleet’s original 270 sailors. But in the end, Magellan’s ambitious voyage proved that the world could be circled by sea, setting the stage for European colonization of the New World. Slavery, genocide, and endless turf wars soon followed. 

3. Michelangelo

His body of work includes some of the most significant art ever produced: The Pietà, David, and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Anyone one of these would be considered a career-defining masterpiece. Michelangelo created all three — and lots more. A legend in his own lifetime, he was celebrated as “Il Divino,” a fitting tribute that speaks to the magnitude of his influence, then and now.

He was born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni on March 6, 1475 in the small Tuscan village of Caprese. He spent his formative years in Florence, immersed in the rich cultural environment from which sprang a gushing fountain of immortal creativity. Early support from the Medici family helped spur his ambitions and embark on a lifetime of pursuing perfection.

Michelangelo eventually gravitated to Rome, where he received a commission from Cardinal Jean de Bilhères for the Pietà. The finely detailed sculpture depicts Jesus after being crucified and lying on the lap of his mother, Mary. Adhering to a hectic work schedule, he then returned to Florence and began working on an enormous marble slab cut from a quarry in the Apuan Alps. The finished result yielded an astounding 17-foot statue of the giant-slaying King of Israel, David. 

In 1508, Michelangelo received a commission from Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The massive painting (141 feet long by 43 feet wide) took four years to complete, requiring him to work upside down on a scaffold. The tempestuous relationship between the Pontiff and his artist was later chronicled in Irving Stone’s best-selling novel (and subsequent movie), The Agony and the Ecstasy.  

For what it’s worth, Michelangelo also served as inspiration for “Mikey” in the comic book franchise, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The character is drawn as a mischievous jokester known for his love of pizza, orange mask, and wielding a pair of nunchaku. Whether or not Michelangelo actually possessed any of these mannerisms is a matter of conjecture — as is the possibility of four pubescent, anthropomorphic reptiles using Japanese martial arts to fight crime.

2. Shakespeare

In 2016, celebrations took place around the globe, marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Why is the Bard so fervidly cherished after more than four centuries? His friend and fellow writer, Ben Johnson (not the disgraced former Olympic sprinter), had this to say about him when writing an introduction to Shakespeare’s First Folio of published plays: “not of an age, but for all time.”

Widely considered to be (or not to be) the greatest writer in the English language, Shakespeare is just as relevant today as he was during the Renaissance. His plays and poetry captured the richness and complexity of human existence in a way that still resonates with audiences. He broke from the traditional, simplistic writing style by creating relatable characters dealing with fears, flaws, and deep psychological wounds. Think: Hamlet

Shakespeare also dared to expose all strata of society, reflected in plays such as Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth, or King Lear. However, the Bard was just as adept at expressing love and the beauty found in everyday life — as well as humor — reminding us all tis “Better to be a witty fool than a foolish wit.”

1. Leonardo da Vinci

Possessing multiple talents is a trait found in many successful people, reflected in the term “Renaissance Man.” And perhaps no other person in history defined this era of excellence better than the staggering genius of Leonardo da Vinci

Born in 1454, as the illegitimate son of a Florentine noble and peasant woman, Leonardo spent his youth developing a love of nature and an unbridled curiosity of all things. Though he served an apprenticeship to the Italian painter Andrea del Verrocchio, many of Leonardo’s prodigious abilities were self-taught, and eventually mastered a wide range of disciplines, excelling as a painter, sculptor, scientist, astronomer, inventor, architect, and engineer. In short, he could do it all. So he did.

The scope and depth of his intellect appear to have been limitless. In Art Through the Ages, historian Helen Gardner wrote, “his mind and personality seems to us superhuman.” Although not as prolific as his main contemporaries, Leonardo was the consummate perfectionist and embraced an empirical approach that prioritized observation and experimentation. He kept notebooks with notes and drawings (which he famously wrote from right to left) that contained ideas ranging from a helicopter to harnessing solar power.

His painting of the Mona Lisa, arguably the most iconic artwork ever made, took 16 years to complete. Da Vinci first dissected cadavers to determine how cheek muscles move the lips in an arduous process to capture her elusive smile. Furthermore, his knowledge of optics produced an extraordinary painting that illicit human interactions, making him a pioneer of virtual reality — and a colossal show-off.

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