History of the World According to the Movies: Part 23 – Life in Renaissance Europe


Perhaps no movie captures the Renaissance more than The Agony and the Ecstasy starring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo. Though it is true that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it’s said that Heston thought the artist was 100% heterosexual, which is actually not true. In fact, he actually wrote love poems to certain young men and his female figures have been known to be based on his studies of male anatomy.

The Renaissance covers a lot of ground in movies. And of course, whether we like it or not, the Renaissance changed Europe forever with works of art, science, religion, philosophy, and so much more. Italy produced artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donatello or was call them The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (again with the turtle nonsense, well, I can’t help it). Italy also had a lot of other notables, too, like Titian, Botticelli, Cellini, Galileo, Machiavelli, Dante, and others. Of course, Renaissance Italy was rife with corrupt popes and wars with all sorts of backstabbing and intrigue. Yet, they did manage to create great art. Then you have Renaissance Spain home of the Spanish Inquisition that became a new country and world power by founding one of the first big colonial Empires (more on this later)  as well as served as a bastion for the Catholic Counter-Reformation (Ignatius Loyola and Theresa of Avila were from there) yet they also produced the notable Miguel Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote, one of the first western novels as well as a satire of chivalry. Then you have the artist El Greco who did many religious paintings in Toledo and would later inspire other artists like Picasso, the Impressionists, and others. Renaissance Germany would also be a place of chaos due to religious wars and reformations, some more radical than others. Yet, Germany also had its share of painters as well as Johnannes Gutenberg whose moveable type invention would change communication for ever. Then you have Russia, which started to take its familiar form under the legendary Ivan the Terrible. Nevertheless, movies centered around life in Renaissance Europe do take some artistic liberties which I will list accordingly.


Michelangelo was straight. (Sorry, Charlton Heston, Michelangelo was gay {or perhaps bisexual} and so was Leonardo. Still, I wonder they cast Heston in this role because of this since he was convinced the man who painted the Sistine Chapel was 100% heterosexual and the fact he’s been playing roles that carry homoerotic subtext throughout his career.)

Galieo got in trouble with the Catholic Church for supporting Copernicus’ theory of heliocentricity and put him under house arrest as a result. (No, it was more or less for depicting his friend, Pope Urban VIII as an idiotic peasant in a satire he wrote {who had been defending him} as well as alienating the Jesuits and two Vatican astronomers. This was because he was using his scientific findings to reinterpret Scripture {which was really not a good thing to do}. As TTI assesses the Galileo affair, “To keep it short, the Church of Galileo’s day issued a non-infallible disciplinary ruling concerning a scientist who was advocating a new and still-unproved theory and demanding that the Church change its understanding of Scripture to fit his. At the end of the day, the entire fiasco boils down to an overgrown squabble involving a cranky old man and a bunch of annoyed bigwigs who decided to cut him down to size.” Oh, and he was given a manservant under house arrest at his villa and published another scientific book without incident. Nevertheless, if religion played a role into Galileo’s condemnation, it had more to do with the Catholic Church’s reaction to the Protestant Reformation which was still going on by the early 1600s and won’t effectively end until the 30 Years War. We should know that the religious climate at the time was rife with Christian Fundamentalism on both sides during the Reformation.)

Galileo was first condemned by the Catholic Church. (He was actually very popular with the Church until he started being an asshole to the Pope. Rather the first people to condemn him were secular scholars. In fact, geocentricity was the dominant view held by the majority of scientists in his day, secular and otherwise. And you can guess what the secular scholars were using to refute his arguments. So maybe you can see why Galileo was reinterpreting Scripture based on his scientific findings, which got him inevitable trouble with the Catholic Church. So from the Church’s standpoint doing science is fine, but using science to reinterpret the Scriptures, no way in hell.)

Leonardo Da Vinci was part of a secret society that knew the secret of Jesus. (My guess this is something Dan Brown just made up for a story.)

Italy was a peaceful place during the Renaissance. (The Italian city-states were constantly at each other’s throats for a significant time period. These Italian wars were also a reason why Machiavelli wrote The Prince.)

Giordano Bruno was unjustly burned at the stake for his embrace of Copernican astronomy and his doctrine of the plurality of inhabited worlds. (It was actually for his theological heresies as TTI lists: “that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skillful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the anima mundi, that the Devil will be saved, etc.” He had multiple chances to repent but was defiant to the very end. Oh, and he claimed he was the real messenger of God and denounced the Church as charlatans {this would’ve been a capital offense}. So though he may have been unjustly burned at the stake by our standards, those in the 16th would’ve seen his execution perfectly justified, which would make him more of a martyr for religious freedom than for science.)

Marco Venier was in love with Veronica Franco. (They may have been intimate but their love story might’ve been greatly exaggerated.)

Artemisia Gentileschi painted nude men and had an obsession with male genitals. (She painted female nudes and a very violent painting on Judith slaying Holofernes with blood spurting out of the guy’s head.)

The relationship between Artemisia and her mentor Tassi was consensual and loving. (He wasn’t her long term mentor and any sexual relationship they did had consisted of rape or other sexual abuse. Also, they despised each other.)

Agostino Tassi was a handsome and devoted lover to Artemisia. (He was a philanderer and serial rapist {jailed for sexual crimes} who only appeared briefly in Artemisia’s life. He’s said to have had sex with his sister-in-law as well as killed his wife. Oh, and during his rape trial, he defended his innocence as well as called Artemsia, her mother, and sisters whores. And yet, he’s portrayed as a good guy in Artemisia’s 1997 biopic.)

Artemisia ardently defended Tassi during his rape trial. (She condemned him and vigorously described how he raped her. Seriously, why is Artemisia and Tassi’s relationship portrayed as a love story when it was really anything but?)

Caravaggio was gay. (Well, his name was Michelangelo, but we can’t be sure.)

Benvenuto Cellini was a ladies’ man who had a relationship with a Florentine Duchess. (Well, he did fool around with some of his models {one of them gave him an illegitimate daughter}, but there’s probably a good chance he wasn’t dallying with a duchess. He also married his servant and had five children. However, he didn’t always limit himself to women because he was charged with sodomy 4 times {and three of them were against men}.)

Raphael was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. (Julius II had him commissioned for another project at the time yet he was definitely influenced by Michelangelo’s work. Oh, and he convinced the Pope to put Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel.)

Galileo’s daughter Virginia was wooed by a man named Marsili who was a scion of a wealthy family for eight years. (She had been in a convent as a young girl and became a nun because being illegitimate meant she would never be courted by wealthy men like Marsili. Still, she was close to her father.)


Hugh O’Donnell’s ascension in Donegal helped prophesized independence from England under Elizabethan rule, which allows him to convince the Irish lords to band together with other clans and bargain for their freedom for a position of strength. (Well, Hugh O’Donnell was a real person but he was unable to get the local Irish lords to join him or able to gain any independence from England whatsoever and wouldn’t become independent until the 1920s. Oh, and O’Donnell ended up fleeing and dying in Spain.)


Ivan IV almost gave up the throne after his wife died since he thought her death was God’s punishment on him, yet stayed on the will of the people. (Well, Ivan the Terrible was a religious man, but he actually blamed his wife’s death on the boyars, claiming they maliciously poisoned her {though this is disputed}. Nevertheless, despite his lack of real evidence, Ivan IV had a number of boyars tortured and executed. Of course, he had a strong dislike for the boyars since childhood anyway so he might’ve been using his wife’s death as an excuse. As for the abdication and leaving Moscow, he only did that a few years later alleging it was over aristocratic and clerical treason and embezzlement. He only returned because the boyars feared an uprising from the Muscovite citizenry, and Ivan only agreed on the condition he was granted absolute power. So the autocratic Czardom began.)


Eric of Sweden was king 1585. (His half-brother John III was at the time. Also, he had abandoned his proposal to marry Elizabeth I in 1560 when his father died. He was deposed in 1568 and had died in captivity in 1577.)


Philip II was a power hungry and religious zealot man who just wanted to dominate England so he sent the Spanish Armada. (Sure he was power hungry and yes, he did want to rule England as well as cash in on New World riches. However, he sent the Spanish Armada because English privateers were raiding Spanish ships and colonies as well as that Elizabeth encouraged a rebellion in the Netherlands.)

Philip II was a hunched and shadowy figure with a dark beard and an incompetent king as well as a religious fanatic. He was also a cruel tyrant. (Yes, he was a religious man and a rigidly conscientious one feeling he had a duty to retain his Hapsburg patrimony and re-establish the Roman Catholic faith in Europe, but he wasn’t cruel by 16th century standards. However, he was tall, blonde, and handsome as well as highly intelligent having several successes with his foreign policies. Many of his descendants are a different story {because he followed a tradition of marrying his relatives}.)

The Spanish Infanta was a child around the time of the Spanish Armada. (She was 21.)

Queen Isabella was in love with a Spanish Conquistador and had her life threatened by the Grand Inquisitor. (None of these happened. Also, she was the one who started the Spanish Inquisition in the first place and ran it as a state institution. Not to mention, she was dead before the Spanish Conquistadors even existed.)

Out of King Ferdinand and Isabella, it was Isabella who wore the pants. (Well, Ferdinand of Aragon was one of Machiavelli’s models for The Prince and did rule jointly with his wife, but yeah, the Spanish Inquisition was her idea.)

El Greco was imprisoned and facing execution before the Spanish Inquisition. (He lived spent the rest of his life in Toledo where he had a family {as well as lived to be a grandfather} and worked for various religious institutions. Also, he was living near an area the Spanish Inquisition had the most influence. So if he was ever tried by the Spanish Inquisition, he probably wasn’t facing a death sentence. Furthermore, he even painted a Grand Inquisitor’s portrait.)

Miguel Cervantes was imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition. (Cervantes actually did begin writing Don Quixote while in prison but wasn’t because he wrote a play that the Spanish establishment didn’t like. The real reason why he was imprisoned was due to financial irregularities in his accounts which happened twice. In short, it was money problems, not angering the Spanish Inquisition. It would’ve made more historical sense in Man of La Mancha to have Cervantes arrested for failing to repay his bookie.)

The University of Salamanca was filled with the medieval mentality that gripped Spain during the fifteenth century. (Like the Portuguese, the Spanish had the best geographical knowledge of the day at its disposal so they could’ve had justifiable doubt on Columbus’ theories. Also, is was a big intellectual center of Catholic Spain where they debated about the standing of Indians, economics, and law.)


The Great Siege of Malta involving the order of St. John of Jerusalem took place in 1528 in which it was a force of 400 Knights and 800 mercenaries against. (Actually the siege took place in 1565 and the Knights of St. John weren’t granted Malta and Tripoli by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V until 1530. As for numbers, the most probable is 9000 including the Maltese militia. However, they did face against 40,000 Turkish attackers at most though the number is more like 25,000-30,000.)

Renaissance Life:

Renaissance maidens never had to worry about mud stains on the train of their beautiful gowns. (Despite the fact that people peed and threw their bodily waste out of the windows.)

Most people executed for witchcraft were wise women who were ahead of their time. (For one, most people who were executed for witchcraft were people who their neighbors didn’t like and claimed them for practicing witchcraft. Favorite targets were outcasts/marginals or people who lived outside society norms like supposed thieves, supposed unbelievers, unwed mothers, strange old women living outside the village, and so on. And they weren’t always women, by the way. Also, since the late Middle Ages was the time of plague outbreaks, most landlords needed any workforce they could get, wise women were the only eligible midwives and local medics around. And when anyone died of from treatable conditions like childbirth complications, these women often took the blame but they probably wouldn’t be burned for it since to do so would obviously be the stupidest thing possible. Not to mention, anyone trying to denounce a “witch” at that time was considered a troublemaker and flogged.)

People washed their faces with water. (They rarely bathed at this time since they thought it was bad for you. Also, they thought water was unhealthy.)

Double bittted axes were used to chop down trees. (They were invented in the US during the 1870s.)

Sidesaddles had 2 pommels. (They only had one which held only the right leg in place.)

The Renaissance only lasted for 100 years. (It actually overlaps with the Middle Ages and may have perhaps lasted for 300 years starting in Italy in the 1300s with Dante, Giotto, and others.)

The Renaissance was a period of Enlightenment. (In a way, yes, but it wasn’t one of the most enlightened time in Europe with the Protestant Reformation {and all the ugly stuff that went with it}, people being tortured, and notions like freedom of religion and speech being almost unheard of {or used as a pragmatic policy}. And almost nobody gave a shit about the working class or poor other than themselves {the peasants in Protestant principalities learned the hard way and Luther gave them absolutely no sympathy}. Besides, the fact the first person to play Juliet was a teenage boy kind of illustrates how people viewed women during that period. Also, the notion of religious toleration was much more exercised in Asian entities and to a much greater extent for hundreds of years than in Europe at this point {since religious pluralism was the norm in many of these vast Asian empires}. Not to mention, while there were plenty of Renaissance scientists, Renaissance medicine was just as terrible as it was in the Middle Ages and will remain so until well into the 19th century. Oh, and the 1500s also marked the early years of Spanish colonialism, too. And there were all kinds of wars and violent crime. So to say that the Renaissance was a period of Enlightenment really doesn’t hold up.)

People drank water. (No one drank the stuff during this time. It was considered unhealthy. Most would drink ale instead {including children.})

The early 16th century was an age of superstition mixed with paganism and fostering an unquestioning obedience of people. (Not necessarily since this the Renaissance was in full stride by this time. But this was a time rife with a high level of religiosity in Northern Europe which gave rise to the Reformation.)

Solid chocolate was available at this time. (It wasn’t until two centuries later. Though chocolate was introduced in Europe by the Spanish during the 16th century, most people would either be drinking or eating the beans at this time.)

Men used to drape their cloaks on mud puddles for ladies to walk on, which either never got dirty or washed regularly. (I doubt men did this in Renaissance Europe, even if the women behind them were queens. This is probably a myth.)

Formal duels of honor were the preferred means of settling fights. (Only among the upper classes who were the only ones with any time to concern themselves with codes of honor, formal challenges to their character, reputation, or social status. Scuffles, street-fights, reencounters, affrays, ambushes, brawls, dunking violence, and assassinations were far more common. Men went around armed because they lived in a violent world where self-defense was necessary against the daily possibility of personal assault.)

Only gentlemen owned rapiers. (It originated with common citizen and soldiers with frequent street-fighting, brawling, urban gang wars, and dueling. The earliest references for rapier use pertain to urban homicides, criminal assaults, and common fighting guilds. If The Wire took place during the Renaissance, you can pretty much guess that almost every character would be armed with one of these.)

It wasn’t unusual for a noblewoman to want to aspire to be an actress. (For someone of noble birth from up until very recent times, an acting career would be unthinkable regardless of gender. Actors were looked down upon during much of history and the Age of Shakespeare was no exception. If a nobleman was ever involved in a theatrical production during the 1500s, he was either a patron or a playwright, not an actor. Thus, it would’ve been more accurate in Shakespeare in Love if Gwyneth Paltrow’s character was either a peasant girl with acting ambitions {since most roles were played by men} or a noblewoman who wanted to be a playwright.)

Being “broken at the wheel” was a way to extract confessions. (It was an execution method, mostly for offenders who committed the most serious crimes. As TTI explains: “The victim would be strapped to a cart wheel, then have their arms and legs broken with sledge hammers. They would then bleed to death slowly. It was reserved for people such as heretics whom even the ordinary painful death by burning or hanging was considered too good for. In the Austria-based Empire of the Habsburgs, it was the harshest punishment reserved for traitors and rebels against the State.”)

2 responses to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 23 – Life in Renaissance Europe

  1. More than 310,000 women worked in the U.S. aircraft industry in 1943, making up 65 percent of the industry s total workforce (compared to just 1 percent in the pre-war years). The munitions industry also heavily recruited women workers, as illustrated by the U.S. government s Rosie the Riveter propaganda campaign. Based in small part on a real-life munitions worker, but primarily a fictitious character, the strong, bandanna-clad Rosie became one of the most successful recruitment tools in American history, and the most iconic image of working women in the World War II era.

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