Renaissance man, Renaissance woman

by Colin McIntosh​

mona lisaRenaissance man has become a way of referring to a man who does many different things very well:

He’s a ​writer, ​politician, ​musician, and ​athlete – a ​real ​Renaissance man.

The origin of the expression looks back to the Renaissance, the ​period of new ​growth of ​interest and ​activity in the ​areas of ​art, ​literature, and ​ideas in ​Europe during the 15th and 16th ​centuries. The period has given us several art terms and words related to culture, some of which are new to the Cambridge dictionary. Several of them are from Italian, the language of the country that is often considered the cradle of the Renaissance.

This was a time when men were very much in control of women’s lives, and few women were allowed the opportunity to contribute to the arts in areas beyond the domestic sphere. While women must have drawn, painted, and sculpted, few of their works have come down to us.

Instead, women appear frequently as the subjects of Renaissance art. A new blockbuster exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London examines the legacy of Botticelli, whose masterpieces include The Birth of Venus and and Spring, an imagining of the (mainly) female spirits representing the season of spring. The most famous Renaissance portrait of all, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, supposedly represents Lisa del Giocondo, wife of a rich merchant, in the style of a Madonna (a religious painting of the Virgin Mary). The portrait is an oil painting, one of the techniques associated with this period – others include tempera (a type of paint that uses egg yolk to hold the pigment together) and fresco (painting on wet plaster). The contrasting light and shade of the painting (known as chiaroscuro) and the sitter’s gentle smile, often described as enigmatic, give the painting a mysterious atmosphere. Recent analysis of the Mona Lisa has revealed several pentimenti (instances where the artist changed his mind and painted over the original details, from the Italian for “regret” or “repentance”), suggesting that the original portrait of Lisa was altered to make it represent someone else – all part of the enigma.

Another exhibition dedicated to Leonardo at the Science Museum in London will show some of his designs for new technology – which in the early 1500s meant flying machines and parachutes – as well as his scientific writings and drawings. Artist, engineer, scientist, and writer – Leonardo must have been the inspiration for whoever coined the term Renaissance man.

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