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After years of taking “exotic” art history courses such as “Arts of China and Japan” and “Egyptian Art and Architecture” (where I had to learn the differences between pharaohs Snafu and Snafaru…it was rough), last semester I took a Renaissance Art class. I was ecstatic to learn about pieces I’ve been hearing about my whole life – some of the most famous pieces in the world. I didn’t realize that I’d find a great deal of design and life lessons hidden in the course. Below are a few gems I picked up (in between learning about Raphael’s smooth ways with the ladies and my professor’s obsession with Florentine gelato shops):

1. Styles are constantly evolving

Duccio vs. Giotto - the ultimate altarpiece showdown

Take a look at altarpieces done by Duccio (left) and Giotto (right). These paintings have the same theme, Madonna and Child, but are handled completely differently. Duccio’s style is more so of the early Renaissance, flat planes of color, little depth, awkward stances for main figures as well as the angels that are perched around the throne. Giotto painted his altarpiece about 20 years later, and gave the typical Madonna and Child altarpiece a major facelift. His figures look three dimensional, Mary’s robes look soft and light. The angels are arranged as real people would be, and above all, there is a feeling of depth. Both of these artists were going along (and starting to push) with the styles of the times. No style stayed still for too long, every so often an artist would come along who tested the limits and tried new things.
The same holds true for design today. Trends come in and out of design, and nothing stays the same for very long. If Renaissance art evolved from Duccio into Caravaggio, then I can’t wait to see where graphic design will be in 25 years.

2. There will be things you won’t want to do…

Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo painted the ceiling while standing up, not lying down

…but its very important that you do them. Michelangelo was a self-proclaimed sculptor, and complained endlessly when he was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Nevertheless, he marched through it, and though he was often in pain from craning his neck and lifting his arm for so many hours a day, he ended up producing arguably the most famous artwork in the history of mankind. Maybe what you’re least excited about designing will be your best piece yet.

3. Collaboration is key

My favorite piece of all - Michelangelo's Moses. Legend has it that Michangelo thought Moses was going to come alive after he finished - he was just so lifelike

Although all the great, famous paintings from the Renaissance are each attributed to one, single person, these masters all had assistants in their workshops that lent their skills to projects. I always wondered how Michelangelo churned out so many sculptures and paintings and worked on the tomb of Pope Julius II and even got to write a little poetry. Its because he wasn’t doing it alone. Yes, he did the majority of the works and art directed everything else, but he was only human. This is important to keep in mind for anyone, artist or not: we’re all in this together, we can all give each other a helping hand.

4. Sometimes, you just have to do things over

The two Virgin of the Rocks side by side. The older version is on the left

Whether its because a client is unhappy with a piece or you’re inside a designer’s block, often the best thing to do is just completely start over. This is something I’ve known and put into practice for a while, but its comforting to know that even Renaissance masters like Leonardo da Vinci have done it too. His first “Virgin of the Rocks” was flat out rejected by its commissioners and he had to redo it more to their specifications. (Art historians have a few theories as to why there are two VotRs, and this one is a widely agreed upon). This included taking out the angel’s pointing finger, turning her gaze downwards to the baby Jesus, and softening the harsh landscape in the back. He could’ve taken the old painting and changed things right on the canvas, but instead chose to redo and improve. The newer version, which hangs in the National Gallery of London, has a more realistic and friendlier (and bluer) quality to it. It looks as if he relished in the second chance to paint it.

Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and co. (and I’m not talking about turtles) might have lived 500 years ago, but the lessons they teach will stick around for a long time. These are universal lessons that can lend themselves to any profession, from graphic design to health care and everything in between. Think of any other universal career truths that everyone can benefit from? Share them in the comments section!

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