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Man vs. turtle

Donato di Betto Bardi. 
Leonardo da Vinci. 
Rafaello Sanzio. 
Michelangelo Buonarotti.

Four of the most important artists of the Italian Renaissance. The first helped pave the way and begin the rebirth movement, and the other three completely embodied and perfected it. 

But what else do those four names have in common?

In 1984, the comic book artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or Hero Turtles if you’re part of the unlucky generation to see a renamed version when the ominous sounding ‘they’ decided there were too many violent connotations for the word ‘ninja’ [eye roll]). 

TMNT followed four anthropomorphic turtle brothers, trained in ninjutsu by their rat sensei, Splinter, to fight evil in NYC with their human friends, April O’Neil and Casey Jones. For 40 years, they can be found in cartoons, toys, video games and several movies, including one released a few weeks ago with the legendary Jackie Chan as Master Splinter. 

Their names? 

Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo! 

420 years after the Renaissance Masters died, they were reborn as crime fighting turtles. But how closely related are they?


Leonardo da Vinci is considered the ultimate Renaissance Man. 

He was an artist and engineer, a scientist and a mathematician, an architect and sculptor, a musician and writer, an astronomer and a poet. He bridged the gap between medieval and modern thought, and his studies into such topics as anatomy, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, geology, botany, and optics have helped us create helicopters, parachutes, and tanks. 

As an artist, he developed the technique of sfumato, where tones and colours gradually become softer along the outlines and aerial perspective which is a method of creating the illusion of depth in a painting by modulating the colour used. You can see both techniques used in his Mona Lisa.

Leo is actually a pretty good role for his Renaissance counterpart. He’s technical, level-headed, and courageous, and he’s passionate about the things he loves. His love for his sensei seems to match da Vinci’s respect for his master, Verrocchio, with whom he continued to live and work with even after becoming a master in his own right. Both Leo and Leonardo have their own way of doing things. They don’t listen to anyone they don’t want to, speak their minds openly, and are great leaders. 


Raphael’s art epitomized the High Renaissance. 

He took all the techniques created by his contemporaries and predecessors – from sfumato and perspective, to anatomical correctness and emotional authenticity – mastered them, and incorporated his own individual style to each, creating an “ideal beauty”. He is also the first artist to accurately portray the movement of light, which you can see in his Deliverance of St. Peter. 

Few disliked Raphael. In fact, until the Pre-Raphaelites, who believed he had ruined painting, he seemed to have been beloved by all except Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo (a story for another time, to be sure). He ran one of the largest, most harmonious, and efficient workshops assembled under a single master in the time, with roughly fifty pupils and an assistant under his wing, many of whom became significant artists in their own right. And let’s not forget, he was also the first artist given the honour of being buried in the Pantheon.

So very different from Raph then, with his tough love attitude, sarcasm and an aggression penchant for always hitting first. He’s not the most charismatic of turtles, and he’s far from being like his easy-going Renaissance counterpart. 

You could argue, however, that Raph’s red mask is the colour of passion and energy, a signal of his anger and aggression – both in abundance with the turtle and the artist. Red is also a colour linked to sexuality: Raphael the artist was rumoured to have died from excessive sex (but let’s not go there with our ninja turtle). 


Michelangelo is one of the most recognisable artists in history. Even if you don’t know his name, you know his artwork. The face of David, the hands of Adam and God, the Pietà.  Such images are so prolific, they have been seared into our collective memories. 

Michelangelo is the archetype of a brooding artist. He was known to be difficult, hot-tempered, rebellious, and solitary. So much so, that Raphael immortalised him as Heraclitus, the misanthrope, forever known as the ‘weeping philosopher’. Having said that, Michelangelo was also deeply religious and generous to those he considered friends (of which there were few, for he seemed to eventually hate everyone and had feuds with all his contemporaries). 

Mikey, in contrast, is extremely kind-hearted and somewhat goofy. He often gets told off for being gross, though, especially when pizza is involved. Michelangelo was notoriously smelly. He is said to have lived in squalor, rarely bathed, and, when he died, his clothes were so dirty and stuck fast to his body, they had to be cut and peeled off him. 

When he died, Michelangelo’s last words are said to have been “I’m still learning.” This is perhaps the biggest link to his turtle counterpart. As the youngest of the group, it makes sense that Mikey’s the least mature. After all, he’s still learning. 


Speaking of Mikey’s obsession with pizza (shared by his brothers but to a slightly lesser degree), this is the perfect place to say: 

Before anyone asks, no, the Renaissance Masters didn’t eat pizza!

In fact, pizza didn’t even exist.

To make pizza, you need tomato sauce, and to get tomato sauce, you need the Spanish to bring back tomatoes from the Americas. 

16th Century Naples saw, instead, a pizza prototype of sorts: a flatbread with herbs and spices, served as street food for the poor. The Pomodoro e Mozzarella was born two centuries later, made using tomato sauce and garlic on a bread base. 


Now we’ve gotten that out of the way, on to the most controversial turtle of them all: Donatello. 

In her stand-up show, “Douglas”, Hannah Gadsby argued it ought to be Titian, not Donatello, as the fourth Ninja Turtle. In fact, Kevin Eastman admitted that he wanted his favourite sculptor, Bernini, to be the fourth brother, but Peter Laird convinced him the name, Donatello, rolled off the tongue far better. But why the controversy?

Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo are all High Renaissance Masters. Donatello, on the other hand, is an Early Renaissance Master. 

But here’s the thing… It was Donatello who truly resurrected the classical style of Antiquity. After years in Rome unearthing and studying old ruins, it was Donatello who became the first sculptor who used such techniques as one-point perspective and anatomical precision into art. He invented bas-relief, created the first life-size equestrian statue since Antiquity, the first free-standing nude since Antiquity, and was the first to represent anatomy correctly. He was a trailblazer. A pioneer of the Renaissance. 

Without Donatello, we wouldn’t have had the High Renaissance. Without him, it’s arguable we would have neither Michelangelo nor Bernini. 

And Donnie? He’s the least violent of the turtles, preferring to use knowledge to solve issues instead. He’s a scientist. An inventor. An engineer. He’s the brains of the operation. He likes to take things apart and put them back together better than before. 


All this to say, they may not be perfect representations of their Renaissance counterparts, but the TMNT do a decent job in representing their namesakes. More importantly, they bridge the gap between us in 2023 and the Masters who died over 550 years ago, hopefully inciting some curiosity along the way. Heroes in a half-shell indeed.

Kowabunga to you all! 

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