Who are the Ninja Turtles named after?

Who are the Ninja Turtles named after? Whether you studied art history or not, it is certain that you can name at least four Renaissance artists thanks to a comic book about the Ninja Turtles from the 1980s.  From an art history point of view perhaps it is rather depressing that the four baby turtles covered in a mutagenic slime who became the pizza-loving ninja heroes were given the names of artistic geniuses from the Italian Renaissance.  From another point of view, it is possible that this simple act gave these artistic titans from 500 years ago relevance in the modern world and perhaps more fame among the new generation.   Why were these comic and cartoon characters named after Italian artists and who were their namesakes and are the characters anything like the geniuses whose names they were given?

Who are the ninja turtles named after
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Comic Strip

The Comics

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird – artist friends from Northampton Massachusetts, who often hung out together to draw comic characters.  One night, while Laird was engrossed watching TV, Eastman (hoping to distract his friend) drew a turtle standing upright with human features, a mask and nunchakus with a crude logo above – ‘Ninja Turtle’.  Laird responded by drawing a similar turtle, Eastman drew two more and Laird added ‘Teenage Mutant’ to the Ninja Turtle logo.  The next day they wrote a story for their Ninja Turtles and created a comic book; the first 1,000 copies were produced in 1984.  This would be the beginning of a multi-million-dollar franchise of comics, cartoon series, films, video games, toys, and other merchandise that gained worldwide success and fame and has endured to this day (the newest CGI action-adventure film is due for release on 28th December 2020).

In the comic and cartoons the turtles are named by their ‘sensei’ the art-loving ninja teacher Hamato Yoshi who was turned into a rat (nicknamed Splinter) by the mutagenic slime.  He named the turtles from his favourite artists in a tattered book on Renaissance art he found in the sewer.  Of course, this doesn’t explain why the creators Eastman and Laird gave their characters these names.  Originally, they wanted ninja sounding names but couldn’t come up with anything that sounded Japanese, so they named them after their own favourite artists.  The problematic one was Bernini; it didn’t rhyme with the others and he was a Baroque artist over a hundred years after the others.  In the end Bernini was ditched for Donatello, another great sculptor from the Renaissance period whose name conveniently ended with an ‘O’.

renessaince painters teenage mutant ninja turtles
Street art in Brooklynn | Who are the Ninja Turtles named after?

Donatello

Donatello, chosen only for his rhyming name came first among these artists, born Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi in Florence in 1386, he was of great influence to the other three.  He studied classical sculpture which he developed into a new Renaissance style; working with stone, bronze, wood, clay, stucco and wax he enjoyed a long and productive career all over Italy. 

Donatello was the first sculptor of the renaissance to produce or ‘re-introduce’ nude figures.  His most famous work, the bronze sculpture of David now in the Bargello museum, is the first known free-standing life-size nude statue since antiquity.

His turtle counterpart (Donnie or Don) wears a purple mask and wields a bo (staff) – the least violent turtle, he prefers to use knowledge to solve conflicts.  He is a scientist, inventor, engineer, and technological genius, who despite being pacifist never hesitates to defend his brothers. If it were a reflection of reality this turtle should be called Leonardo.

Donatello Renaissance Painter
Donatello | Who are the Ninja Turtles named after?

Leonardo

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born in Vinci near Florence in 1452.  He was a polymath of pure genius who excelled not only in drawing and painting but in the sciences too; he was also an anatomist, engineer and inventor. In art his most famous work is of course the Mona Lisa, yet his last supper and the Vitruvian man are also renown worldwide.  His contribution to art seen in the Mona Lisa was the use of ‘sfumato’ a technique of blending tones and colours into one another gradually which gives a characteristic softness. Leonardo left extensive journals which served as a reference to both technology and human anatomy.  He was the first to study the human body down to muscle formation and the nervous system through dissecting corpses.  Leonardo’s contribution perhaps outweighs those of his contemporary turtles not in art but his scientific contribution; he created numerous machines that influenced the later invention of the bicycle and aeroplane to name a few. 

Leonardo the turtle (Leo) has a blue mask and wields two swords; tactical, level-headed and a courageous leader, he is the most conscientious of the four often taking responsibility for his brothers. Whilst he bears little resemblance to the artist in this regard, his devotion to his sensei certainly matches Leonardo’s respect for his teacher Varocchio who he continued to live and work with after becoming a master himself.

Leonardo Da Vinci Self Portrait
Leonardo Da Vinci Self Portrait | Who are the Ninja Turtles named after?

Michelangelo

The artist Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, born in 1475 was the exact opposite of his ninja turtle counterpart.  A sculptor, painter and architect he was a bad-tempered, sullen character who was difficult to work with – most unlike Mikey or Mike who is a free-spirited, relaxed, goofy, jokester – the most stereotypical teenager of the team.   Michelangelo the artist became an overnight sensation at 24 when his Pieta was unveiled in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  His next masterpiece the David was given pride of place next to the town hall of Florence.  Known in his day as Il Divino (the divine one) he boasted of his great skill as a sculptor and mocked the inferior skill of painting, yet he is perhaps most famous today for the frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican which he initially refused to paint.  Of the four artists he is perhaps considered the most talented thanks to Vasari’s ‘lives of the artists’ and in modern times he has been described as ‘the greatest artist of his age and even the greatest artist of all time’ thanks to his artistic versatility and the quality of the masterpieces he left behind.

His reptile equivalent wears an orange mask and wields a pair of nunchakus. He is the least mature of the four Turtles known for his love of pizza and kind-hearted nature which is totally at odds with the real Michelangelo who disliked Leonardo and came to hate Raphael even more.

Michelangelo Last Judgement
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment | Who are the Ninja Turtles named after?

Raphael

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino was born in central Italy in 1483, he was the last of the great Masters in our group and benefitted greatly from studying their work.  Although he died young at 37, he was incredibly productive and worked in Umbria, Florence and in Rome, unlike the others he managed a huge workshop of students and assistants.  From an early age he had the ability to copy the styles of his teachers and contemporaries yet create something entirely of his own which would set him apart from the others.   In Rome, his most famous works are the frescoes in the ‘Raphael rooms’ in the Vatican as they are called today – the personal apartments of Pope Julius II.  In his portrayal of the ‘deliverance of St Peter’ he was the first artist to accurately portray the movement of light.  His most famous work the ‘School of Athens’ shows his ability to portray architectural features; not to mention his skill at absorbing Michelangelo’s style from what he saw in the Sistine chapel in his portrayal of Michelangelo himself as the philosopher Heraclitus.

Raphael’s turtle is again the exact opposite of the painter, (Raph) wears a red mask and wields a pair of Sai.  He has an aggressive nature, can be fierce and sarcastic and seldom hesitates to throw the first punch although he is intensely loyal to his brothers and sensei.  Raphael the painter was known for his easy-going nature, his charisma and his ability to get on with everyone

Raffaelo Sanzio, Self Portrait
Raphael’s Self Portrait | Who are the Ninja Turtles named after?

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