Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti are by general agreement the two greatest artists in European history; coincidentally (or perhaps not, as we shall see), they were near contemporaries and even acquaintances, both products of the art-obsessed Florence of the later Renaissance. These painters represented the culmination, each in his different manner, of the artistic revival that had begun in the thirteenth century. Inevitably, in this intensely competitive society, they were rivals for pre-eminence in their field. As Jonathan Jones tells us in his fascinating, revelatory, and often daring new study of the rivalry, The Lost Battles, this was a culture “in which ritualized vendetta was practiced as readily by artists as by aristocrats,” a culture obsessed “with ‘honour,’ with the public image of a man and his family, which must not be sullied by insults or slights…. The story that the century’s two greatest artists loathed each other found a ready audience.”
In the 1540s, more than twenty years after Leonardo’s death, an anonymous Florentine author related an anecdote about the two local heroes. Leonardo, it seems, was passing Florence’s Palazzo Spini when some of his acquaintances hailed him and asked him to explain a passage of Dante for them.
It happened that just then Michelangelo passed by and one of them called him over. And Leonardo said: “Michelangelo will explain it to you.” It seemed to Michelangelo that Leonardo had said this to mock him. He replied angrily: “You explain it yourself, you who designed a horse to be cast in bronze but couldn’t cast it and abandoned it in shame.” And having said this, he turned his back on them and left. Leonardo remained there, his face turning red.
The insult had been a pointed one: the technically ambitious equestrian statue that Milan’s ruler, Ludovico Sforza, had commissioned from Leonardo had indeed come to nothing. Other anecdotes about the two men’s rivalry circulated, so that by the time Giorgio Vasari’s groundbreaking Lives of the Artists appeared in 1550, the tradition of what Vasari called the sdegno grandissimo (great disdain) between the two was well established.
As well as being competitors they were different enough, indeed, as to be naturally incompatible. Leonardo, the elder of the two by twenty-three years, was a notable eccentric “[w]ith his coiffed hair and his pink tights and his extravagant wardrobe, his equally finely got-up servants and followers…, his strange sensuality and ‘family’ of attractive young men.” By the early 1500s Leonardo, now in his fifties, found it hard to finish a project and had taken to avoiding commissions so that he could concentrate on scientific research. Michelangelo presented a striking contrast: young, ardent, idealistic. Where the older man was religiously heretical, looking at man as an organism — just one species among many — the younger was a devout, even passionate Christian. Where the older man was cosmopolitan, happy to offer his services to France and even to the Turkish sultan, the younger was a Florentine patriot.
Leonardo had been living in Milan during the years of Michelangelo’s rise to fame. Returning to his native city in 1499 he found the young genius, himself just back from a triumphant three years in Rome, the darling of a nascent Republican culture. Florence had thrown off Medici rule in 1494 and had more recently executed the charismatic friar Girolamo Savonarola, whose puritanical rule of the city in the last few years of the fifteenth century had convulsed Florentine society. The city’s leader was the newly elected Gonfaloniere, Piero Soderini, who ruled in close consultation with his counselor Niccolò Machiavelli. (The latter’s masterwork on political philosophy, The Prince, would not appear until after its author’s death.) Soderini and Machiavelli wished to inaugurate a new style of public art that would symbolize Republican and specifically Florentine values: “Keeping the Republic free from a return to Medici rule yet also safe from the tyranny of religious fanaticism was a tricky course. How to give compromise a glamorous face?”
Michelangelo’s colossal David, completed in 1503, appeared to be the capstone of this project. Soderini wanted the statue — whose potent masculinity, as Jones points out, was its virtue — as a symbol of the city, and arranged for its display in the piazza outside the Palazzo della Signoria, the center of government. “When it took up its grand vigil outside the Palace it instantly reshaped the public identity of Florence — transfigured the Republic’s self-esteem,” Jones writes. And yet the David that contemporary Florentines saw was not quite the virile figure he is today, for Leonardo’s suggestion that the statue should have “ornamente decente” — that is, a modest cover for his genitalia — was taken up by the authorities. “This assault on his rival’s virility was just as vicious as anything Michelangelo said outside the Palazzo Spini,” Jones contends. It was a direct strike, for “Michelangelo had come to identify himself with the young hero…. Michelangelo is a citizen-soldier, armed with genius,” Leonardo “the towering opponent” he was taking on. And indeed, while Michelangelo worked on David, Leonardo was himself at work on the Mona Lisa — a very different type of work yet still, as Jones convincingly asserts, one that in its own way asserts values as Republican as those of the David, for the sitter is not an aristocrat or a court beauty but the “pious, polite wife” of a bourgeois citizen.
In 1503 Soderini offered Leonardo a plum commission. He was planning the Palazzo della Signoria’s Great Council Hall as a symbolic representation of Republican Florence, and what better forum could there be for a patriotic painting by the city’s grand master? Leonardo was to paint a mural depicting the 1440 Battle of Anghiari, a famous Florentine victory against Milan, and he went about his work in his usual leisurely way, fiddling with numerous sketches for the cartoon (preparatory design). While he experimented, Michelangelo was given a commission in the very same Hall, and he chose as his subject another Florentine triumph: the Battle of Cascina against the city’s traditional rival, Pisa, in 1364. The rivalry was now quite explicit.
Leonardo was not to be hurried. The Battle of Anghiari became the focus for many of his interests, both scientific and artistic; as Jones tells us, the sketches for the cartoon “went far beyond essential preparatory work. They constituted an entirely new project, an analysis of motion in horses that anticipated, by several centuries, the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and the Impressionist racing pictures of Degas…. They are among the greatest evocations of movement in the entire history of art.” The design in its entirety was to show a whirling vortex of battle — horses, men, dust, blood — conforming with Leonardo’s own treatise “How to Paint a Battle,” which included these instructions: “Make dead men, some partly covered with dust, others completely…others as they die grinding their teeth, rolling their eyes, tightening their fists against their bodies, their legs distorted; some might be shown, disarmed and beaten down by their foes, who turn on the enemy to take a cruel and bitter revenge with teeth and nails.” Michelangelo’s design for Cascina was something entirely different: an elegant, mannered vista crowded with nude soldiers, bathing in a river, who hear the cry to battle and rush to arms. It is an idealistic view of war that harmonizes with Machiavelli’s innovation of a citizen militia, and it is in direct opposition to Leonardo’s brutal realism.
If the competition between the two can be seen as a popularity contest, the younger man won it. It was Michelangelo’s vision that better expressed the ideals of Republican virtue that were in the air that first decade of the sixteenth century, though Leonardo’s depiction of war has been better borne out by history. Michelangelo was the good citizen, extolling heroism, Leonardo the political and religious cynic. Jones puts it all into clear historical perspective: “We tend to picture Leonardo as a benign and wondrous philosopher, bearded and otherworldly. Michelangelo, meanwhile, is conventionally imagined as a bad-tempered, terrifying character. It is Leonardo who charms the modern world. Yet to Soderini, who knew them both, their personalities looked remote from their later images. Leonardo was a lazy and dilatory rogue, Michelangelo a sincere and virtuous young man…. Michelangelo communicated more naturally and openly with his fellow citizens of Florence.”
The Florentine Republic fell in 1512, when Spanish troops besieged and sacked the city before restoring the Medici to power. The designs for both The Battle of Cascina and The Battle of Anghiari were destroyed, looted, or perhaps, in the case of Anghiari, painted over (a controversial investigation into the last possibility continues in Florence). But in the six years between 1506 and 1512 they served, in the words of Benvenuto Cellini, as “the school of the world.” Artists who studied the cartoons included not only Cellini himself but Raphael, Bronzino, Jacopo Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, and Andrea del Sarto — “a roll call of the makers of Mannerism.” Thus the products of this great competition lived on beyond their destruction, influencing — particularly through the great works of Raphael — the course of art over the next century and more. Indeed, traces of The Battle of Anghiari are clearly visible in Picasso’s Guernica.
Jones, an art historian and the art critic for Britain’s Guardian, makes a wonderful guide to this dramatic moment of history. The most rewarding parts of the book are his bold and often persuasive speculations about the ways in which the works of the two contentious heroes speak to each other, often in challenging and even insulting ways. The Mona Lisa, for instance, is not conventionally thought of as a response to Michelangelo’s twisting, mannered nudes, but Jones sees it as such: to Michelangelo, he writes, “[t]he Mona Lisa is a hidden enemy with which his gyrating nudes compete. Her circular motion even as she sits still becomes, in his drawings of mighty male figures turning their heads, twisting their backs, a vortex of power. And this, in turn, provokes Leonardo’s most brilliant riposte to the strident energy of all those nudes…. All those surging backs and stretching limbs, those contorted poses, that strident heroic display of feeling in the human body — and really, the only muscles you need to display emotion are your lips.” Claims like this will no doubt give plenty of provocation to academic art historians; and what could be more fun?