This is a quest that won’t be found on many bucket lists, but maybe it will be soon? Italy is a country that is usually known for incredible works of art and a long history that spans from the Romans to the Renaissance. The country is remembered fondly because of mouth-watering food and unforgettable wine grown on ancient vines. And today, turtles. I promise that the title of this story is not a typo. Today’s article is about cartoons and fine art. It is also about turtles and ninjas.
Most travelers don’t go to Italy in search of turtles. Or ninjas for that matter. But these weren’t just any turtles, these were the most famous masters of the Renaissance. For those of you who are confused and curious, I’m glad that you’ve kept reading this far. I promise that this will all make sense soon. The four turtles that we’re looking for are of course fictional characters known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from 1990’s fame; Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rafael & Donatello. This particular search for the four turtles of Italy quickly became the highlight of my 2015 trip to Europe.
This was my first introduction to these masters of the renaissance. Cartoons taught me a thing or two growing up.
This story is a throwback to a trip that I took to Italy 6 years ago, way back in 2015. Like most people, I’ve been staying local for the last 13 months. At the time of this writing, international travel has a massive “closed for business” hanging on the front door. We don’t like it but we get it. Since there are very few new travel memories being written, we have been opening up the archives to tell a few stories from past adventures.
Quattro Tartarughe; The Search for the Four Turtles in Italy
During my first week in Italy, while visiting the massive Cathedral in Padua. Just after leaving, I stumbled upon an exhibit of the great artist Donatello, in a small unmarked gallery. It was too hard to resist. This Donatello exhibition sparked an idea that would please the inner child inside of me.
Anyone who grew up in the ’80s or ’90s knows who the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were long before they know the great renaissance artists that they were got their names from. I set out to capture photos of all four master’s and their works of art.
With so much history and culture in Italy, it became helpful to have a specific goal while visiting museums and galleries throughout the country. Otherwise, I might get lost wandering around through these massive museums without much of a goal. I assumed that this should be an easy task since these great masters lived in Italy for the most productive periods of their lives.
I decided to give my quest a fun name and eventually settled on the “Cerca le Quattro Tartarughe”, or the “Search for the Four Turtles”. With slightly under four weeks to make the pilgrimage across the Italian art world to discover the 3 other masters, I started circling museums and churches on the map. After leaving Padua, it was one down, three to go.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. The Ninja Turtles (or TMNT) first appeared in 1984 in a comic book published by Mirage Comics. The names of the four main characters were inspired by the Italian Rennaisance and were named Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael. Aside from the names, this is where the connection to Italy quickly ends.
The Ninja Turtles lived in the sewers of New York City. It was the story of human size turtles trained in the martial arts who fought crime in New York City. After coming into contact with some radioactive ooze they were transformed into the crime-fighting heroes we know today.
They have been trained in the martial art of Ninjitsu their Sensei, a human sized rat named Splinter. These comics were originally meant to be a parody of some of the Marvel comics of the 1980s and was originally self-published by the authors. They didn’t stay underground for long.
In 1987, the comics had become popular and the Ninja Turtles were turned into an animated cartoon and It quickly became a pop culture phenomenon. The creators teamed up with Playmates Toys, a small toy company in California and they got into the creation of action figures. The rest is history.
Donatello was the first of the Italian Masters that I discovered while on this trip. After exploring the incredible St Anthony’s cathedral in Padua, I went out in search of lunch. It was at this time that I stumbled upon a small gallery that was showing this special exhibition. It was a collection of sculptures from the Rennaisance master, Donatello. I had never seen a Donatello before and I really didn’t know much about the artist. It was at that exact moment I had the idea for this mini art adventure.
Padua is a pretty small, quiet town with local markets, picturesque residential buildings, and a big beautiful cathedral. On the surface, it is not unlike any of the other cities in Italy. It is still a little bit off the beaten track, located in northern Italy’s Veneto Region. It turned out to be a good place to hide from the big crowds of tourists who flock to other major destinations.
This collection was made up of a series of 3 recently restored statues of Christ portraying his crucifixion. They were on display in a small gallery in Padova, in a large dimly lit room with just the sculptures to show off. It was a very moving way to showcase these pieces.
Of the four artists featured in this story, it turns out that he is the hidden gem. I was quite lucky to see Donatello first because this would be the only works by him that I ended up seeing of his on this trip. I came quite close to having to write a story about the time I ended up seeing “three of the four” masters while on my trip.
Who was Donatello?
On television, in the cartoon universe of my childhood, Donatello was the smart one who wore purple. He was known for being the smartest of the Ninja Turtles that everyone looked to when they needed someone to save the day. The fictional Donatello was the scientist, inventor, and engineer of the group. His weapon of choice was a bo staff. He was bit of a nerd but he still knew how to kick some ass.
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi was born in Florence in 1386. He was known mostly for his sculptures, working primarily in stone, bronze, wood, clay, stucco, and wax. The artist spent many of his most productive years in places I visited on this trip: Padua, Prato, Rome, and Siena. This was definitely one of the highlights of Northern Italy.
He was best known for his sculptures and statues.The equestrian statue outside of the cathedral in Padua became the template for many others that would be found later throughout Europe and Italy. One of his specialties was in perfecting the bas-relief (or low relief) sculpting technique.
If you ask me, Michaelangelo needs very little introduction, but here we go anyways. Two of his works – the Last Judgement inside the Sistine Chapel and his David statue in Florence – are two of the most notable art pieces of all time. His fame and style have long outlived his time on the planet. He left his mark on Italy and his influence quickly spread across the continent.
In fact, it’s difficult to avoid seeing Michaelangelo if you’re traveling through Italy. His fingerprints are left all over Florence and Vatican City. Some of his art can be found in the Ufizzi and his most famous piece is displayed in the Galleria dell’Accademia.
On a trip to Rome, it’s impossible to avoid his influences and artwork. Amongst other things, he was a poet, a painter, and an architect. What he is probably best known for is the Statue of David, located in Florence, in the Galleria dell’Accademia.
He was responsible for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, which is one of the most magnificent frescos in the world. He also took over the final construction of St Paul’s Cathedral in Rome, including the dome which was finished just after his death. His lasting legacy in all the art that would follow can not be overstated. His impact on Western Culture and the Rennaisance is huge.
Florence was where I first encountered Michelangelo during this trip; first in the Uffizi Gallery and later that same day with his famous David. While In Rome, his artwork is everywhere.
Who was Michelangelo?
Michelangelo was the coolest of the Ninja Turtles in the fictional cartoon universe. Michelangelo was the cartoon character I idolized most growing up, as he carried nunchucks, liked pizza, and had a cool California surfer accent. He wore orange and was goofy and optimistic, always excited about whatever was thrown at them. Michelangelo provided the cool for the rest of the turtles. He even had a catchphrase, Cowabunga Dude!
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was born in Caprese in 1475 but raised in Florence and at a young age fell in love with marble. He was and still is, one of the most famous artists in the Renaissance. During his lifetime he was known as Il Divino, or “the divine one”. He was able to inspire his fellow artists, somehow able to instill awe in even the most talented of artists of his time.
During his lifetime he was very highly regarded and known around the world. While alive, he was showered with praise and recognition and was the first artist to have a biography (actually two rival ones) written about him before his death.
Michelangelo was described as “supreme in not one art alone but in all three” by Giorgio Vasari, who wrote his second biography. He was considered the greatest artist ever by the time he was in his prime, and his artwork was able to wow all who met him.
One of the most well-known artists and inventors in history, Leonardo Da Vinci was an incredible talent, and one of the reasons the Italian Renaissance is so remembered to this day. He is usually remembered for some of his most famous paintings, like the Last Supper or the Mona Lisa, neither of which are found in Italy.
Da Vinci would go on to be one of the greatest painters and innovators of the Renaissance. He was also a scientist and engineer, coming up with several inventions and devices. His best-known work – the Mona Lisa – is one of the most viewed paintings in the world, located in the Louvre Museum. In Italy, the Last Supper in Milan is high on my bucket list for the next trip to Italy.
Da Vinci spent most of his life in Italy, painting and inventing, under the sponsorship of many wealthy patrons. Having spent time in Milan, the Vatican, and Florence, before living his last 3 years in France, under the payroll of King Francis I. He was famous in life and death and is still remembered for being a genius today. Leonardo used the scientific method in everything he did, from his inventions to his art and music. His genius was in more than just his artwork, as he was a master of all things.
I first saw a Da Vinci in Florence, while spending the day inside the sprawling Uffizi Gallery, which is one of the most memorable museums for viewing art anywhere in the world. Here you can seek out his famous painting Annunciation.
Who was Leonardo?
In the comics at least, Leonardo wore blue and carried two swords (ninjatō, not katana’s like most people remember). He is the main protagonist of this cartoon narrative and the official leader of the Ninja Turtles. He was level-headed and remained calm under the pressure while leading the crime-fighting crew. Leonardo took the training of their Sensei (Master Splinter) seriously, often taking responsibility for the actions of the team.
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born in a small town in Tuscany known as Vinci in 1452. He wasn’t born into wealth (he was born with a Nobel father but his mother was a peasant). His talents were recognized early. By the age of 14 was apprenticed to a great artist workshop under Verrocchio, alongside other famous artists such as Botticelli.
He was a versatile artist and likely considered a genius by his peers. Da Vinci was quite skilled as a painter, engineer, inventor, writer, anatomist, and sculptor. His notebooks would be studied long after his death and were discovered to have designs for inventions only completed many years later
During his lifetime, fame followed him around. He was worshiped by his contemporaries. At one point later in his life, the King of France carried him away like a trophy back to France because of how much he admired him. King Francis supported him through his later years, allegedly holding him in his arms as he died.
Raphael is the final of the four Italian Masters that we will discuss on our adventure today. During his life, he was considered one of the top three artists of the time, alongside his contemporaries Leonardo and Michelangelo. He had a well-known rivalry with the latter of the two. His work features prominently at the Vatican Museum in Rome.
He was one of the most productive artists of his time, creating a vast collection of artwork during what ended up being a short lifetime. He only lived to 37.
Raphael left a lasting mark on the Italian Rennaisance during this short life. Upon his death, his fame and reputation were overshadowed by his rival Michelangelo, but the genius of his work was re-discovered in the 18th and 19th centuries, returning him to his place amongst the best artists of the Rennaisance.
There are many things he is remembered for, but the most memorable from this trip was located inside the Vatican Palace (now the Vatican Museums). These are of course the frescoes found inside what is now known as the Raphael Rooms. These are four rooms painted by Raphael and his students. The School of Athens and Disputation of the Holy Sacrament are two of the most famous of these, located on the walls of the Stanza Della Segnatura.
Who was Raphael?
Dressed in red, Raphael is the classic anti-hero, at least in his cartoon ninja turtle form. He excels in close range hand to hand combat, using a pair of Sai to fight bad guys. Quick to anger and often going out to solve problems on his own, he is fiercely loyal and will do anything to protect his brothers. He would be the rebellious middle brother.
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino was born in 1483 in the small central Italian city of Urbino. He was born to a wealthy and well-respected family. His father – Giovanni Santi – was the court painter in the town of Urbino, but he died when he was 11. At this point, he took over the productive workshop upon his death and began his career at a young age.
He is known best for his works inside the Vatican, as the Raphael Rooms are a spectacular set of four frescos inside what is now the museum. Raphael is considered one of the greatest artists of the Rennaisance, usually, in the same conversation as Leonardo or Michaelangelo.
Unfortunately, he died at 37. Some of his best works were likely never conceived or completed. Fortunately for us, his style and influence lived long past his short lifetime. Because he was quite active during his life, there are plenty of ways to appreciate the artist today.