7 Misconceptions About the Renaissance

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. / Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Was the Mona Lisa actually a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci? And was Niccolò Machiavelli actually Machiavellian? We're here to dispel some popular myths about the Renaissance, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: The Renaissance has a definitive start date.

If you asked a high school history class when and where the Renaissance started, at least a few students could probably tell you the textbook answer that it began in Italy during the early 14th century. That's when Dante was writing The Divine Comedy and Giotto was painting all his favorite Bible scenes.

But many Renaissance historians believe that this period didn’t exactly have a launch date, and some scholars actually consider Dante and Giotto’s work to be part of a "proto-Renaissance," which started closer to 1200. According to that school of thought, the proto-Renaissance laid the groundwork for the real Renaissance, and that didn’t build momentum until certain important events occurred in the 15th century, like the Medici family taking over 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. That innovation didn’t appear in Italy until about 1465.

Since the timeline is subject to interpretation, some historians have suggested that we all just stop referring to the Renaissance as a "time period" at all. Instead, they prefer to call it a movement.

2. Misconception: Nobody cared about ancient culture before the Renaissance.

The term Renaissance didn’t enter the English lexicon until the 19th century, but its meaning—rebirth—had long been associated with the era. Italian painter Giorgio Vasari had used the Italian equivalent, rinascita, way back in the 1500s.

Calling it a "rebirth" makes it seem like everyone went to sleep in the Middle Ages and woke up the next day with completely new skills, values, and personalities. And key Renaissance thinkers definitely promoted the idea of the Renaissance as a dramatic and decisive shift. Florentine apothecary Matteo Palmieri critiqued the Middle Agers that came before in his book On Civic Life, written in the 1430s:

“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 were finally starting to rediscover the achievements of Ancient Greece and Rome, and that this was leading to new and better things. Palmieri and his contemporaries weren’t totally wrong in believing that they were living through a resurgence of interest in ancient culture. Historians think the fall of Constantinople in 1453 furthered this trend, since Byzantine scholars migrated west and brought more ancient texts with them.

But it might be unfair to label the Middle Ages as "the Dark Ages" and believe it was completely devoid of an interest in ancient cultures. Back then, religious institutions were often hubs of culture and education, preserving seminal Latin works by Cicero, Aristotle, and other Roman thinkers. And the church even sponsored awe-inspiring works of art and architecture, too. Some medieval art actually depicted ancient legends like Hercules or co-opted pagan motifs for Christian designs.

3. Misconception: Religion fell out of fashion during the Renaissance.

Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper.
Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. / Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Getty Images

Francesco Petrarca, whom you might know better as Petrarch, was a 14th-century Renaissance heavyweight who’s sometimes called the father of humanism. The term humanism wasn’t coined until centuries later, and there’s not exactly a fixed definition. But basically, Petrarch thought people should take a page out of an ancient Latin or Greek book and spend more time studying subjects that weren’t religious, like art, literature, philosophy, and history.

But just because Renaissance humanists encouraged secular studies doesn’t mean they sanctioned abandoning religion. In fact, Petrarch himself remained deeply religious throughout his life, and he didn’t consider his two interests incompatible. And even if artists drew from Ancient Greece and Rome to inspire their work, a lot of the work was religious—and even made at the behest of church leaders. Take Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, or Michelangelo’s David.

In general, God still loomed large in people’s minds. Baldassare Castiglione illustrated just how much God loomed in his 1528 work The Book of the Courtier. It’s meant to be an etiquette guide for aspiring courtiers, and the courtly characters discuss all the hot Renaissance topics. God comes up a lot, especially when someone’s trying to justify why a certain thing should be acceptable. Like painting, or music.

As Castiglione wrote [PDF], "We find [music] used in holy temples to render praise and thanks to God; and we must believe that it is pleasing to Him and that He has given it to us as most sweet alleviation for our fatigues and troubles."

Another character in the book stresses the importance of avoiding impiety when you’re trying to be witty, because that can incidentally lead to blasphemy. Anyone willing to disrespect God for the sake of a good joke, “deserve[s] to be chased from the society of every gentleman.”

4. Misconception: Niccolò Machiavelli was Machiavellian.

An illustration of Niccolo Machiavelli.
An illustration of Niccolo Machiavelli. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These days, the adjective Machiavellian essentially describes a morally corrupt schemer willing to do anything and hurt anyone to get to the top. But did the term’s namesake practice what he preached—or even believe it, for that matter? Not everyone thinks so.

Machiavellianism comes from The Prince, a how-to guide for political leaders written by Florentine philosopher and statesman Niccolò Machiavelli. Among other advice in the book, he wrote, "it is often necessary to act against mercy, against faith, against humanity, against frankness, against religion, in order to preserve the state."

People have spent centuries debating whether Machiavelli meant for people to take these upbeat nuggets of wisdom at face value. As historian Garrett Mattingly wrote in a 1958 essay on the topic, "The notion that this little book was meant as a serious, scientific treatise on government contradicts everything we know about Machiavelli’s life, about his writings, and about the history of his time."

Not only did Machiavelli’s career revolve around serving the short-lived Florentine republic, but he also praised republicanism as the ideal form of government in other writings. So the idea that he’d write a handbook for tyrants does seem questionable.

The mystery gets even murkier once you know what was going on in Machiavelli’s life when he wrote The Prince. For most of the 15th century, the Medici family had essentially been ruling as unofficial monarchs over the region. That seemed to end in 1494, after Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici capitulated to French soldiers going to conquer Naples. Public outrage ensued, and Piero—who’s sometimes called Piero the Unfortunate—was driven into exile. Florence temporarily adopted a republic, but, in 1512, the Medicis returned with a vengeance, and with an ally: Spanish troops, who helped them reclaim control over Florence.

In February 1513, the reinstated dynasty tossed Machiavelli in prison and accused him of conspiring against them. He was tortured mercilessly, never admitted anything, and finally got released in March 1513. He wrote The Prince later that year, and dedicated it to "the Magnificent Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici."

Some scholars argue that the book was Machiavelli’s attempt to ingratiate himself with the regime, which would have been a pretty Machiavellian move. But others think he meant to expose the type of tyrannical behavior that was happening without actually pointing fingers. It could be read as a satirical work.

5. Misconception: Galileo invented the telescope.

We don’t exactly know who invented the telescope. Back in the 17th century, French scientist and intellectual Pierre Borel looked into the matter and found that the French, Spanish, English, Italians, and Dutch were all claiming credit. The first person to file a patent for the device, though, was Hans Lipperhey, a Dutch eyeglass-maker.

Just weeks after Lipperhey tried to trademark the invention in 1608, another Dutch eyeglass-maker named Jacob Metius also filed a patent for a telescope. Officials decided it was too close to call and denied both requests. They also claimed that the telescope could be easily duplicated, so slapping a patent on it was sort of impractical. Maybe that was for the best—there were later claims of a third possible inventor, Zacharias Jansen, and even today partisans disagree on the matter. But no one really argues that Galileo should get the credit.

The Italian did soon prove that recreating the design was well within his abilities, though. Less than a year after the dueling Dutchmen tried to patent the telescope, he made himself one. And he didn’t stop there. While Galileo’s original prototype could only magnify things three times larger than their normal size, he eventually developed a telescope that made objects look a staggering 30 times larger.

Galileo wasn’t necessarily the first to turn his telescopic gaze skyward, either. English astronomer Thomas Harriot, for example, drew the Moon as seen through a telescope in July 1609—a few months before Galileo did. We remember Galileo so much better than Harriot and other astronomers partially because Galileo was often really quick to publish and promote his work.

6. Misconception: Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel on his back.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. / Franco Origlia/Getty Images

In the 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy, Michelangelo (played by Charlton Heston) is shown lying on his back while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Though the movie may have introduced the myth to a new audience, it didn’t create it.

Around 1527, a bishop named Paolo Giovio published a biography of Michelangelo in Latin. While discussing the painter’s work on the Sistine Chapel, Giovio described him [PDF] as resupinus, or "bent backward." But resupinus has also been interpreted as "on one’s back," which might be the original source of this misconception.

Michelangelo definitely did bend backward during the project, but he wasn’t supine. With the help of his assistants, the painter constructed special wooden scaffolding to reach the ceiling, and he basically climbed around on that for four years to create his famous frescoes. It involved a lot of uncomfortable neck-craning and other contortions, and he wasn’t happy to suffer for his art.

In fact, Michelangelo hadn’t even wanted the job in the first place. Though confident in his sculpting skills, Michelangelo didn’t fancy himself a painter. When Pope Julius II commissioned him to work on the chapel in 1508, the artist was already busy with another project for the pope: an opulent tomb. He very reluctantly switched gears. And the experience really was agony—which Michelangelo himself detailed in a poem to a friend in 1509. Here’s the beginning:

"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.”

7. Misconception: The Mona Lisa is a secret self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

Over the last few centuries, amateur art sleuths and actual scholars have been devising new theories about the identity of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Some believe the painting was a self-portrait, or just 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 been down this internet rabbit hole before, you’ve probably heard that the Mona Lisa is most widely believed to depict an actual woman named Lisa: Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine merchant. There is at least some evidence to back up this theory.

For one thing, it’s what Giorgio Vasari wrote in his very famous collection of biographies, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari also referred to Lisa Gherardini as “Mona Lisa,” which explains the painting’s title—Leonardo actually died before naming the piece. But Vasari’s biography was published in 1550, more than 30 years after Leonardo’s death, and Vasari was also known to embellish when he didn’t have all the facts.

In 2005, a researcher at Germany’s University of Heidelberg found a clue that supported Vasari’s assertion, though. In the margin of a 15th-century manuscript, a Florentine clerk named Agostino Vespucci had jotted down a note saying that da Vinci was currently creating a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. The note was from October 1503, which is the same year Leonardo is thought to have started work on the Mona Lisa.

That said, there’s still no incontrovertible proof that the Mona Lisa was the painting Vespucci mentioned. And Leonardo didn’t leave any records—that we know of—confirming the model’s identity or even the commission itself.