Waldemar Januszczak on why we have the wrong idea about the Renaissance

The art critic dispels some myths and reveals some unexpected truths about Renaissance art

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Everything you thought you knew about the Renaissance isn’t wrong, but it isn’t quite right either. “We’ve all been told a misleading story,” says art critic and broadcaster Waldemar Januszczak. “It was a fabulous epoch where lots of things happened, but not in the way we have been told. It wasn’t a rebirth – it was a period of mad innovation.”

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Rather than rediscovering the knowledge of classical Greece and Rome, many of the people we revere as rational geniuses were actually fervent Christians in the grip of messianic visions. “Michelangelo is the greatest artist there has ever been,” says Januszczak. “But the Sistine Chapel only makes sense as a piece of powerful iconography about the end of the world. Some of the figures may have been borrowed from Greek statues, but it is a warning to people – this is what is going to happen if you don’t improve.”

He even thinks we get Leonardo da Vinci wrong. “Wherever you go you’re presented with this scientific Leonardo who invented the first parachutes. But Leonardo’s art is the art of a slightly mad visionary. The Mona Lisa is an extraordinary picture; she has this powerfully mysterious, weird aura and the mountains behind her, this Game of Thrones background, sets that tone.”

Having been convinced that the 16th century was a flowering of rational enquiry, we miss the dark side of the Renaissance. Most of us don’t even know the work Januszczak regards as one of its masterpieces, the Compianto sul Cristo Morto by Niccolo dell’Arca. The remarkable terra-cotta life-sized group scene, in a church in Bologna, has little to do with any rediscovery of ancient Greek values of philosophical enquiry. It is hysterically Roman Catholic. ‘This is when Italian art starts to get realistic,” says Januszczak. “Not when they are carving in marble, but with terracotta. Look at those screaming women – it’s 1460!”

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If the Renaissance was altogether more bonkers than we have been led to believe, then Januszczak says our ignorance is down to one man, the Florentine painter, sculptor, architect and writer Giorgio Vasari.

Arguably the world’s first art historian, Vasari published his Lives of the Artists in 1550, in which he coined the term Renaissance and set the basis for art history as we know it. “Vasari was a jingoistic Florentine pushing his own city’s artists – Michelangelo, Botticelli and the rest,” he says. “People believe the Renaissance started in Italy because Vasari said it did – no!”

But rather than Italy, Januszczak points over the Alps to Belgium for the true roots of the Renaissance. “The cloth merchants at Bruges were able to fund great art, like Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, and the discovery of optics in northern Europe was way ahead of anything the Italians were doing. Along with the invention of oil paint in the Netherlands it means realism becomes part of the storyline. Things became so detailed, so unbelievably convincing, they had a force close to magic.”

Januszczak particularly champions the brilliant German artist Albrecht Dürer. “Look at his watercolour of a clump of grass. Leonardo and Botticelli were great experts at botany but neither of them painted a nondescript clump of grass so beautifully that it says something profound about the magic of God’s world. That’s not something you think up in Rome – that needs to come from the north.”

Relegating Leonardo and Botticelli is what we might expect from a man who in previous series has argued that the Dark Ages weren’t that dark, but with the Renaissance it’s personal. “When I was a boy,” says the 61-year-old, “I was a lonely little sod living in a dark hole. I was born in a refugee camp after my mum came here from Poland after the war. It was a very basic and tough time but she found the money to get me a subscription to a magazine called Knowledge, which had a colour reproduction of a great painting every week. So art saved me.” Knowledge is where he first saw El Greco’s St Martin and the Beggar – “extraordinary, free, wild, expressive art” – and he grew up naturally inclined to believe the Renaissance was “mysterious, dark and strange”.

It was also driven by sex. “Look at Venice. All the great Venetian artists, Titian and the rest, were renowned for their sexual passions – they were the great sensualists in art. And you don’t really hear about Rudolf II, the Habsburg emperor with his opulent and wacky Prague court, who employed the Flemish master Bartholomeus Spranger simply to paint nudes.” Nudity still has power. Januszczak reveals there have been “arguments with the BBC promotion people because they didn’t want to put images of nudity out before the watershed. It was a 15th-century manuscript…”

Januszczak made his name at Channel 4, where he was the first to televise the Turner Prize, but he sees the BBC as the nation’s natural art broadcaster. Although they’re not immune from criticism.

“The BBC has a lot to answer for,” he says. “They’ve helped create this image that art is a kind of homework, that needs to do you good. I hate that art isn’t really popular on television, it really annoys me. You get some bloke talking about frogs in the Amazon and there will be a million and a half watching every time. People would rather see frogs shagging in the Amazon than a great Raphael. Why is that?”

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That is one thing, at least, we can’t blame Vasari for, but it does leave the problem of how we are going to make compelling, intelligent and popular art programmes in the future. “If everybody made art films like me there wouldn’t be a problem,” says Januszczak. “How can it not be fascinating – this endless, bottomless pit of great visual excitement out there?”