The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Artistic Duel That Defined the Renaissance

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Overview

In 1504, the informal rivalry between two of the most celebrated artists in Florence became a direct competition. Michelangelo was commissioned to paint a scene from the ancient battle of Cascina on a wall of the Palazzo Vecchio—in the same room where Leonardo da Vinci had already been commissioned to paint a scene from another great Florentine victory, the battle of Anghiari. As the paintings progressed, Michelangelo set out to prove that his work, not Leonardo’s, embodied the future of art. In fact, the ...

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The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Artistic Duel That Defined the Renaissance

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Overview

In 1504, the informal rivalry between two of the most celebrated artists in Florence became a direct competition. Michelangelo was commissioned to paint a scene from the ancient battle of Cascina on a wall of the Palazzo Vecchio—in the same room where Leonardo da Vinci had already been commissioned to paint a scene from another great Florentine victory, the battle of Anghiari. As the paintings progressed, Michelangelo set out to prove that his work, not Leonardo’s, embodied the future of art. In fact, the influence of both is visible in the works of subsequent generations of artists.
 
Historian and art critic Jonathan Jones offers a riveting exploration of this great rivalry, which would become a turning point in the careers of both men, and brings to life an era of fascinating political and cultural transformation.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A Modern Art Notes Best Book of the Year

“An informative celebration of two competing geniuses.”
    —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“An intricate plot . . . [with] provocative ideas.” —The Wall Street Journal
 
“Thrilling . . . Written with a novelist’s sense of pace.” —The Independent (London)
 
“Fascinating, revelatory and often daring. . . . Jones makes a wonderful guide to this dramatic moment of history.” —Christian Science Monitor
 
“Art lovers, Renaissance junkies, and even travelers will love this book.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Delightful. . . . Vibrant . . . Sparing neither the two artists, nor Florence, their quirks of character. They are flanked by a vivid parade of supporting characters.”
    —The American Scholar

“Energetic, fast-paced . . . [and] dazzling.”
    —Publishers Weekly

“[Jones] recreates for us the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of 16th century Florence.... [And] compellingly creates the world the two antagonists inhabited, replete with a cast of interesting and colorful supporting characters. . . . That propels us as surely as any well written novel, straight through to the final page.”
    —New York Journal of Books

 “There is sensuous finesse in Jones's descriptions.”
    —The Observer

The Lost Battles . . . reanimates the giddy heights of the Renaissance through its evocation of a mighty scrap between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.”
    —The Daily Telegraph

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307741783
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/13/2013
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 406,697
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

JONATHAN JONES was born in Wales and graduated from Cambridge University. He is the art critic for The Guardian and a contributor to numerous magazines and newspapers, among them Frieze, RA Magazine, The Independent, the London Evening Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He appears regularly on the BBC series Private Life of a Masterpiece and has served on the jury for the Turner Prize and the BP Portrait Award. Jones has lectured at the National Gallery, the British Museum, and the Tate Modern. Jones lives in London with his wife and daughter.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

The candles cast a flickering light on flayed skin and exposed sinews. Leonardo da Vinci takes his knife and scrapes away more flesh from the arm, trying to make sense of the chaos revealed by his knife. With his left hand he makes a rapid sketch. As dawn breaks, the first rays of the sun catch the waxen face of the dead man. Bells in the hospital chapel ring for early-morning mass.

   This is the image of his own life that Leonardo paints in a passage in his notebooks on the vocation of the anatomist. Introducing his subtle, tender, yet precise drawings based on his own dissections of human bodies, he declaims:

And you, who say it would be better to watch an anatomical demonstration than to see these drawings, you would be right, if it were possible to see all the things the drawings demonstrate in the dissection of a single body, which with all your intelligence you will not see, nor get knowledge of more than a few veins . . . as one single body did not last long enough, it was necessary to proceed bit by bit with many bodies, until I had completed the research; which I did twice in order to see the differences.

Beyond all these practical challenges lie emotional and psychological barriers:

And if you should have a love of such things, you might be stopped by your disgust, and if that did not hinder you, then perhaps by the fear of spending the night hours in the company of those dead bodies, quartered and flayed and terrifying to behold.

   It is the last sentence that arrests the reader. Leonardo created his beautiful anatomical drawings under the most harrowing circumstances. He spent his nights among the dead, contemplating their eviscerated flesh, struggling with his own horror. How did he ever embark on such a strange adventure?

   Leonardo da Vinci had a lifelong interest in anatomy—he had a lifelong interest in all aspects of human existence, and in all of nature— but the great drawings he made of dissected bodies were begun in 1508 as work fizzled out on one of the most ambitious projects he ever undertook. If that project failed—if—then it gave life to what is in some ways Leonardo’s greatest body of work. It is only necessary to compare his drawings of heart valves, facial muscles, the brain, and the sinews of an arm with the harsh, gory prints in the slightly later work of the fi rst modern anatomist, Vesalius, to see how miraculous Leonardo’s eye was. His studies of the human frame are at once scientifically meticulous and artistically exceptional: each pen stroke aches with wonder. On timeworn yellow and blue sheets of paper, he touches into rich life shades and nuances of bone and muscle. Veins hang like the roots of a plant; the interior of a heart resembles a cathedral. Profound love of creation pulses in these drawings. Out of his nights of horror, Leonardo reveals a deep poetic admiration for the human creature.

   At the same moment, another artist is daring just as much, for an equally magnificent reward. Michelangelo Buonarroti climbs a wooden ladder to the platform he has built on wooden rafters slotted just beneath the arched Gothic vaulting of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It is 1508 and he is starting the commission of his life, to paint the soaring ceiling of the Pope’s personal place of worship. Within months Michelangelo will dismiss most of his team of assistants and turn his labour in the chapel into a struggle to impose a personal vision of humanity’s place in the cosmos onto this lofty interior. As Michelangelo plants his feet fi rmly on the wooden boards to start to fill the empty vault above him, he is just as conscious as Leonardo of his own heroism. His enterprise in the Sistine Chapel is a cruel physical trial. Only a young and fit man could take on such a thing—while Leonardo da Vinci is fifty-six years old in 1508, Michelangelo is thirtythree. In the kind of coincidence the younger artist relished, it is the age of Christ when he endured the cross. As he forces his tired body to keep its balance day after day, raising his leaden arm to brush bright colours onto the fictional heavens above, Michelangelo comes to see his labour as a strange torture, a ritual of pain. In a poem he describes what it feels like to stand on the scaffolding with his head bent back, his arm raised and his face covered in paint:

Beard to the sky, I feel my brain on my hump, I have the breast of a harpy,
and the brush constantly above me makes, as it drips, a rich pavement of my face.

   It’s tempting to speculate that he actually wrote these lines on the scaffolding, for as he looked down at the floor far below he would have found his image of a “rich pavement”—the chapel has a brightly coloured pavement of particoloured marbles, a kaleidoscopic mosaic like Michelangelo’s own paint-spattered face. It was observed by a nineteenth-century art historian that Michelangelo portrayed creation no less than five times on the chapel’s ceiling, as God divides light from darkness, makes the sun and moon, hovers over the waters, gives life to Adam, and creates Eve. It is as if the artist was depicting his own creative genius in the vault of the heavens.

   These two titanic talents were leaping to new heights of ambition and courage in 1508. They were working heroically—daring the dark, braving the heights. It is one of the great moments in cultural history, the epoch of the High Renaissance. In the hands of Leonardo and Michelangelo in the early sixteenth century, the art of the Italian Renaissance becomes fully conscious, lucid, and complete.

   The anatomical studies of Leonardo and the painted ceiling of Michelangelo could not seem more antithetical. As Leonardo draws tiny scientific images of dissected organs in fragile notebooks, Michelangelo paints huge figures on a vault at the heart of papal power. Yet a rivalry between the two artists lies just beneath the surface of these works. Leonardo in making the greatest drawings anyone has ever created of the dissected human form sets out to challenge Michelangelo’s unequalled sculptures of the nude body—to outdo the younger man’s muscular nudes by looking deeper, exposing the inner fabric of muscles themselves. Meanwhile, on a colossal scale in the Sistine Chapel, his younger rival paints his answer to Leonardo’s notebooks with their teeming imaginative wonders. The image of the book is unavoidable on the Sistine Ceiling. Michelangelo portrays prophets and sibyls opening gigantic tomes: with its many layers of fiction and decoration, his complex painting resembles a vast illuminated text. It is a history of the cosmos, the book of time. From a religious perspective that is the opposite of Leonardo’s sceptical science, it sets out to eclipse the older man’s intellect as well as his art.

   These rivalries and parallels come of intense mutual observation. When Leonardo and Michelangelo worked simultaneously on science and cosmology in the years just after 1508, they were rebounding from a competition that deeply affected both their lives. This book tells the story of that competition.

   The climax of the Italian Renaissance was not reached in a healthy dialogue of great minds. It was the outcome of savage, merciless rivalry. In the 1490s Leonardo and Michelangelo both, independently, developed a new kind of classical art, more lucid than any previous Italian attempt to revive the style of ancient Greece and Rome, and more eloquent in its capacity to make monumental statements. But what forged this new art into the full grandeur of the “High Renaissance”—the supreme age that lasted from 1504 to the 1520s, when Michelangelo designed his Laurentian Library in Florence—was a brutal confrontation between them.

   In 1503 Leonardo was commissioned to paint a mural of a famous historical episode, the Battle of Anghiari, in the Great Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. In 1504, as he was planning his painting, his junior Michelangelo was invited to paint a rival work, The Battle of Cascina, in the same room. It became a competition to discover which of the two was—in the words of Piero Soderini, the republican head of state who commissioned the pictures and launched the competition—“the greatest artist in the world.”

   The confrontation in the Great Council Hall made Florence, said an eyewitness, “the school of the world.” It was a spectacle that drew artists from all over Italy and beyond to admire the heights of ingenuity to which Leonardo and Michelangelo were driven by their rivalry. Out of it came a new idea of “genius”—of the artist as an enigmatic original—in which we still believe today. It was in this competition that artists were fi rst fully and openly recognised, not as artisans doing a job of work, but as godlike creators of the new.

   The Renaissance is an important moment in history not just because it gave us so much beautiful art, so many fi ne works of literature, so many great buildings. It is important because, as the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt argued in 1860 in his classic work The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, this culture gave birth to the modern individual.
The self striving for fulfi lment is a Renaissance concept that still describes our lives. There is no clearer evidence of its genesis than the contest between Leonardo and Michelangelo.

   This drama takes us to Florence, cultural capital of the Renaissance world, to behold titanic egos in collision. It is a spectacle of sublime ambition and low cunning, of great minds and petty dislikes, of genius stepping off its plinth to live among the flawed passions of a city of flesh and blood. The newborn modern self is about to take the stage in all its agony and ecstasy.

One
The Insult

In the autumn of 1504 Leonardo da Vinci made an inventory of his wardrobe. He had to leave Florence on a military mission, and so he stored some of his most precious possessions in two chests at a monastery, one of which contained his books. But if his reading material offers insights into his mind, his handwritten description of the contents of the other box gives us a uniquely intimate glimpse of his daily existence.

   Leonardo wrote his clothing inventory in a notebook (known today as Madrid Codex II) which he carried around with him from 1503 to 1505 and filled with notes that abound with insight into his life in Florence in those years. His inventory brings us disconcertingly close to the very skin of this Renaissance dandy:

One gown of taffeta
One lining of velvet that can be used as a gown
One Arab cloak
One gown of dusty rose
One pink Catalan gown
One dark purple cape, with big collar and hood of velvet
One gown of Salaì, laced à la Française
One cape à la Française, that was Duke Valentino’s, of Salaì
One Flemish gown, Salaì’s
One purple satin overcoat
One overcoat of crimson satin, à la Française
Another overcoat of Salaì, with cuffs of black velvet
One dark purple camel-hair overcoat
One pair of dark purple tights
One pair of dusty-rose tights
One pair of black tights
Two pink caps
One grain-coloured hat
One shirt of Reims linen, worked à la Française

   This is an exquisite’s costume chest. Not the least striking of its contents are four garments specified as “di Salaì” meaning that Leonardo’s clothes were mixed up with those of his workshop assistant Salaì. In the sixteenth century it was said this Salaì “was most attractive in grace and beauty, having beautiful hair, curly and bright, in which Leonardo delighted much.” Salaì first joined the workshop as an apprentice in 1490, when he was ten; his master was shocked to find the boy an accomplished thief, taking money out of his own and friends’ purses, and bitterly summed up the kid’s personality as “thief, liar, obstinate, glutton.” But by the early 1500s Salaì—whether or not his character had improved—was the unquestioned leader of Leonardo’s workshop, and people who needed to speak to the absent- minded genius found themselves dealing with this young man whose curly hair and slightly podgy face make him look in drawings by Leonardo like a decadent young Roman emperor. The list of clothes reveals how close they were: there’s even an alteration where “di Salaì” was added later, as if there were some dispute over who owned what. 

   Yet the garments ascribed to Salaì are far more conventional than Leonardo’s own clothes. The coat with black velvet cuffs that belongs to the assistant could have come straight out of numerous sixteenth-century portraits of stylish young men, such as the disdainful individual in black portrayed by Lorenzo Lotto in 1506–8 against a white curtain that emphasises his severe dress. When Salaì went around in clothes that were obviously expensive yet muted in hue, he showed fashionably restrained good taste. Leonardo by contrast dressed almost exclusively in pink and purple, a delicate palette that harmonised with his own paintings. It was as if he were a character escaped from a fresco.

   Surely this was a deliberate badge of professional identity—wearing colours that might have been mixed in his own workshop. Leonardo believed in painting as a vocation, an ethos, a way of life. The painter, he exulted, “sits in front of his work well-dressed and moves a very light brush with lovely colours, and is adorned with clothes as he pleases . . . ” He mentions the painter’s excellent clothes and freedom of dress twice in this passage, which also stresses that painting is the manipulation of colour. In fact Leonardo’s taste in dress was of a piece with his aspirations as a painter. From his very earliest works, one of his overriding fascinations is with how oil paints can reproduce the transparencies and opacities, folds and twists, brightness and darkness of textiles. Among the first drawings that can be ascribed to him are studies of drapery which convey not just the weight of cloth as it hangs in mountainous creases, the shadowy valleys between folds, but the very grain of woven fabric. In his youthful Annunciation, both Mary and the angel are decked out in garments of almost curdling richness and a colour range of great complexity and power. Mary has blue skirts which turn into a robe covering her right shoulder, a glow of gold satin at her elbow and over her midriff, and beneath all this, a red dress with pale purple belt and collar. The angel wears a white tunic tied at the arm with a violet ribbon, a drapery of green, and long, dark red robes. It is as if they were waiting patiently while Leonardo draped them according to his fantasy—for Mary’s blue skirts are not really skirts at all but an enormous cloth he has arranged on her shoulder and legs, spreading it over a chair arm whose form becomes an enigmatic bulge.

   From the clinging dresses of goddesses carved on the pediment of the Parthenon in fifth-century-b.c. Athens to the precious work of Leonardo’s teacher Verrocchio with its ribbons fluttering in the air, textiles swag the history of art. Yet no one has ever painted clothes quite as consummately as Leonardo. If he does have predecessors, they are the Gothic painters of fifteenth-century Germany and the Netherlands. The massive capaciousness of Leonardo’s draperies, the apparently arbitrary spread and redundant quantity of cloth, resembles the heavy fabrics of North European art. There are strange rewards for the curious eye in watching him pour deep shadows down valleys of satin, weaving mysterious daydreams and conjuring phantom forms in an art that begins by dwelling on powerfully coloured, ornately folded draperies and evolves to encompass the most gossamer of translucent gauzes.

   This evolution is apparent in the first and second versions of his composition The Virgin of the Rocks, which he first painted in the 1480s and then re-created in a picture still unfi nished in 1506. The earlier version has an angel swathed in bright, bulky red and green satin; the angel in the later painting wears a sleeve whose gold-embroidered tracery floats on transparent layers of light- filled, colourless material gradually forming into a white creaminess. It is a stupefyingly intricate effect—precisely the type of challenge Leonardo sought as a painter, although how much of this second version is by his own hand will never be certain. In The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, which he worked on more or less to the end of his life, he again gives the Virgin a semi-transparent filigree sleeve. Having learned from the Gothic-tinged training of his youth in 1460s and ’70s Florence to depict draperies with a crisp attention to their folds, he became in his maturity obsessed with the ambiguous semi-transparency of gauzes and veils.

   That is how Leonardo hangs clothes on women and angels. Women appear in far more of his surviving paintings than men do—four portraits of women exist by him. Even Ginevra de’ Benci, who posed for one of his earliest and plainest paintings in about 1474, sports a black velvet scarf that contrasts sensually with her simple brown dress and pale skin. There’s only one portrait of a man, a young musician whose costume isn’t especially interesting or well preserved.

   There is, however, one painting by Leonardo that is full of male figures nobly robed. The Last Supper started to rot and flake the second he set down his brush for the last time in the monks’ canteen of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan in 1497–8. Restorations and repaintings over the centuries added layer on layer of glue and pigment to try and preserve what people thought—long after living memory was lost—the picture must have looked like. The most recent (perhaps quixotic) restoration pared away these later layers to get as close as possible to the “original” paint. The fragmented result is infinitely paler and drier than any of the artist’s better-preserved paintings, with scarcely a hint of the low-toned ambiguities he loved. While this makes it hard to interpret the appearance of the clothes, it is apparent that he arranged the men’s robes as freely and sculpturally as he layered satins and gauzes on his female models. At the far end of the table on our left, Bartholomew stands up from his seat in shock at Christ’s revelation that one of the disciples will shortly betray him; the heavy green robe over his thin blue tunic gathers in a bunch on his shoulder and hangs in the air, defying gravity as impossibly as the crinkly satin garments that float unsupported in Leonardo’s later Virgin and Child with St. Anne.

   Look again at the same disciple. What is the green drapery I’ve called a robe? It falls in a mass onto the table, bunches extravagantly on Bartholemew’s back, and is piled around his lower body. It is just as wilful and gratuitous as the voluminous skirts of the Virgin in his youthful Annunciation. In fact all the disciples at Leonardo’s table are just as artfully clad. What is the garment slung over one shoulder of the feminine-looking John, seated at Christ’s right hand? It is simply a loose cloth, there at the painter’s whim and as pink as the clothes in his own wardrobe. Further along the table, James the Minor’s crinkly shift is also pink.

   Long before he painted this heroic and tragic scene, Leonardo drew the portrait of an executed criminal. He was still in his twenties when, in December 1479, he stood in the high, narrow courtyard of the Palace of the Podestà—today’s Bargello Museum—in Florence and recorded the appearance of a hanged man in a few perfect pen strokes. Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli swings, in Leonardo’s drawing, from a rope that inclines, like his mirror-inverted writing, leftward on the page. The dead man’s hands are tied behind his back and his legs hang limply. The terrible thing about him is his face. The eyes are deep dark voids, already looking like the empty sockets of a skull. The skin, Leonardo suggests in a couple of lines, is discoloured. There are clear signs of rot and postmortem decay on this face, the only part of Baroncelli’s body that is naked.

   The rest of his body may be equally emaciated and skeletal, but it looks more alive, more human, because every part of it except the face is concealed by clothes. Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli was hanged in Florence in the last days of 1479 for his part in a conspiracy that had claimed the life of Giuliano de' Medici, brother to the city’s ruler, Lorenzo the Magnifi cent. It was said that Baroncelli plunged the fi rst dagger into the victim, but while his fellow conspirators rapidly suffered horrible retribution, he escaped to Constantinople. When he was finally dragged back from the Ottoman city, he was hanged still wearing the Turkish coat and slippers in which he had disguised himself.

   Leonardo dwells on the assassin’s exotic clothes, already a bit big for the corpse that shrinks within their bulk. He captures with his pen the soft folds of a long coat, the distinctive bobble buttons on its collar, and its fringe of fur. He records the executed assassin’s slippers and skullcap and tights. In a note written as a column next to the swaying body he gives precise descriptions of each garment:

A little tan cap
A black satin doublet
A black jerkin with a lining
A Turkish jacket lined with foxes’ throat fur,
and the collar of the jacket covered with velvet stippled black and red;
Bernardo di Bandino
Baroncelli;
black tights.

Although this was written a quarter of a century before Leonardo’s inventory of his own clothes, the mature artist’s list contains a peculiar echo of the youthful drawing, which lingers with fascination on the dress of a hanged criminal.

   Among the clothes Leonardo placed in a chest for safekeeping in 1504 he mentions “one cape in French style, which belonged to Duke Valentino; of Salaì.” “Duke Valentino” was the name by which contemporaries knew Cesare Borgia—son of the Pope and commander of the papal armies, who cut a terrifying path through central Italy in the first years of the sixteenth century as he conquered one small city-state after another in his drive to build an empire for his family. Borgia had menaced Florence itself; his men perpetrated atrocities in its countryside. To most Florentine citizens in 1504, his name was diabolical; a diarist called him “this serpent.” But for Leonardo, this murderous prince was apparently as darkly seductive as the hanged assassin had once been. Why else dress Salaì in Valentino’s old clothes?

   It is no small thing to be able to list the exact clothes a particular human being wore in everyday life half a millennium ago. The 1504 inventory of Leonardo’s wardrobe is the next-best thing to possessing the clothes themselves. It is an archaeological fragment that allows us to reconstruct one part of his physical being, to see what he wore as he walked the streets of Florence. In fact his notebooks abound in odd physical details of his life. Sometimes there will be a list of groceries, or calculations of household expenses. All such glimpses delight. But the inventory of his clothes is special because it lends startling substance to one of the most amazing, even embarrassing, anecdotes that sixteenth-century gossips told about him.

The book is a lovely thing to hold, like touching a pebble worn smooth by the sea. A creamy-white binding, flattened and honed by time, swings open to reveal paper whose yellowed edges and soft textures tell its age. It breathes out its four-and-a-half centuries (and more) when opened, as when an ancient attic is unlocked and the trespasser coughs on dust. The slippery, leathery paper leaves a smell on one’s hands—not unpleasant. Each page is printed in thick black type. The title page is designed like a fantastic window, with robed women supporting a marble pediment upon which play little winged boys, holding between them a shield emblazoned with six spheres. Through the window, beneath the shield, one can see a walled city in a hilly landscape, dominated by a vast cathedral dome and a formidable fortress.

   In the time-stained sky above the city framed by the window is the book’s title and author:

LA TERZA ET
ULTIMA PARTE
DELLE VITE DE
GLI ARCHITETTORI
PITTORI
ET SCULTORI
DI
GIORGIO VASARI
ARETINO

   It has been printed and reprinted many times in many languages; there are currently at least three rival popular editions in English, but this is how it fi rst appeared in the world in 1550. The wondrous artefact we’re admiring in the rare-books room of a great library is the very fi rst edition of the sixteenth-century artist Giorgio Vasari’s extravagant, gargantuan literary masterpiece, The Lives of the Architects, Painters, and Sculptors.

   One of the most productive crafts in Renaissance Italy was storytelling. Before Spanish and English writers invented the novel, there were Italy’s novelle—brief tales, tragic or comic, assembled in generous, expansive collections in a genre whose timeless classic is the fourteenth-century Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s bawdy masterpiece the Decameron. Shakespeare was to get some of his most famous plots from these Italian story collections: Romeo and Juliet and Othello started their lives in Italian books of novelle. It is tempting to wonder what might have happened if, in addition to the tales of Matteo Bandello in which Romeo and Juliet can be found, Shakespeare had known Vasari’s tales of murderous rivals and star-crossed lovers. Vasari’s book is so rich in narrative that it sometimes seems less a history than a collection of novelle. Although it is full of brilliant descriptions of works of art and acute critical observations, and has a serious argument to make about the progress of culture, its facts are mixed with fiction to a riotous degree.

   Vasari’s “Life of Leonardo da Vinci” is his most intoxicated, and intoxicating, parable of genius, a mythic tale whose hero is superhumanly intelligent. Vasari’s tone is rhapsodic, the man he evokes magical—“marvellous and celestial,” “mirabile e celeste,” was this boy born in 1452 in the country town of Vinci, in the hills to the west of the great art capital that was Florence. One day when he was still a teenager, Vasari tells us, Leonardo was asked by his father, Ser Piero da Vinci, to turn a twisted piece of wood into a shield as a favour for a peasant who worked on the family estates. First Leonardo got the roughly shield- shaped wood smoothed to a convex disc. Then he went out into the countryside to collect the strangest-looking animals he could find: beetles and butterflies, lizards of all shapes and sizes, bats, crickets, and snakes. He killed these animals and took them to his private room, where he started to dissect them and select components of their bodies—wing of bat, claw of lizard, belly of snake . . . Leonardo took no notice of the growing stench as he worked on these dead animals, stitching bits of them together to create a composite monster. He also added something extra, by means Vasari does not explain, for the monster he made “poisoned with its breath and turned the air to fi re.”

   Once Leonardo had created his monster, he sat down to paint its portrait on the round shield. Finally, he invited his father to see the result. The painting was so realistic that when the door opened on the teenager’s darkened room, it looked as if he had some hideous living creature in there that belched fi re. Ser Piero was terrified; his son was delighted, for this was the desired effect.

   Vasari also tells how, after Leonardo completed his apprenticeship in Verrocchio’s painting-and-sculpture workshop, the young genius went to Milan to play for its ruler Ludovico Sforza on a grotesque-looking lyre of his own invention. Later he relates how Leonardo made a robot lion to greet the king of France that walked forward, then opened to reveal a cargo of lilies; and how sometimes for fun he would inflate a pig’s bladder like a balloon, pumping it up until it filled an entire room. One might take these to be tall tales. But Leonardo really did move from Florence to Milan in 1481–2, working there for Ludovico Sforza until 1499; he really did make a robot lion; and he wrote in his notebooks about how to create bizarre effects such as an explosion inside a room.

   Leonardo’s death offers Vasari a fi nal folkloric image of fame. Having left Italy to end his days as court painter to the French king, the old artist was visited on his deathbed by the monarch in 1519: “A paroxysm came to him, the messenger of death; on account of which the King having got up and taken his head in his arms to help him and favour him, in order to ease his pain, his spirit, which was so divine, knowing it was not possible to have a greater honour, expired in the arms of that King, in his seventy-fifth year.”

   If Vasari’s image of the death of Leonardo is poignant, his explanation of how it was that such an eminent Florentine genius ended his days not just far from Florence but outside Italy itself is one of the most extravagant claims in his entire book. It seems that Leonardo had a potent enemy: their rivalry bordered on vendetta: “There was very great disdain [sdegno grandissimo] between Michelangelo Buonarroti and him; because of which Michelangelo departed from Florence for the competition, with the permission of Duke Giuliano, having been called by the Pope for the façade of San Lorenzo. Leonardo understanding this departed, and went to France . . . “Of all the anecdotes in Vasari’s “Life of Leonardo,” this is the most tantalising.

   Vasari was not the first writer to tell tales about Leonardo’s strained relationship with Michelangelo. Anecdotes about artists were part and parcel of the storytelling culture of Renaissance Italy. This goes back ultimately to the ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder, who included anecdotes about famous Greek artists in his Natural History. Boccaccio himself includes a funny story about the painter Giotto in the Decameron. One of the earliest accounts of Leonardo was written by the novelist Matteo Bandello, who, having as a novice monk at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan in the 1490s witnessed the painting of The Last Supper, introduces Leonardo as a character in his Novelle and even has him narrate a tale of his own, about the amorous friar and painter Filippo Lippi.

Rumours of some vicious, irreconcilable enmity between Leonardo and his younger contemporary started to circulate in Italy in the first half of the sixteenth century. Such a feud was bound to fascinate a culture in which ritualised vendetta was practised as readily by artists as by aristocrats. The autobiography of the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini is full of stories about his rivalries, grudges, and brutal acts of revenge. This was a fiercely competitive world and also one obsessed with “honour,” with the public image of a man and his family, which must not be sullied by insults or slights. Vasari tells tales in which artists do not merely try to outdo one another but even in one case commit murder out of professional jealousy. The story that the century’s two greatest artists loathed each other found a ready audience.

   In the 1540s—that is, before the publication of Vasari’s Lives—an anonymous Florentine author compiled a manuscript collection of reminiscences about artists that anticipates his comment on the geniuses’ mutual “disdain.” This writer, known as the Anonimo Magliabechiano, tells how Leonardo was walking in Florence “by the benches at Palazzo Spini, where there was a gathering of gentlemen debating a passage in Dante’s poetry. They hailed Leonardo, asking him to explain it to them." Leonardo’s brilliance was, it would seem, well-known to Florentine citizens. But he passed on the compliment:

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.

   A precious clue testifies to the reliability of this tale—a striking, physical clue. It seems that the Anonimo’s informant had an excellent visual memory of Leonardo, for his story of the insult at Palazzo Spini is preceded by a precise pen portrait of Michelangelo’s victim in what must have been about 1504: “[Leonardo] cut a fine figure, well-proportioned, pleasant and good looking. He wore a pink [rosato] cloak . . . ”

   That pink cloak is a startling detail. In the painter’s inventory of the clothes chest he left in the monastery, the predominant colours in his wardrobe are pink and purple. The colour terms rosa and rosato recur so often that it’s safe to say this was the colour you were most likely to remember Leonardo wearing if you’d seen him around Florence. Among the items he mentioned were:

Una gabanella di rosa seca [one dusty-rose-coloured gown]
Un catelano rosato [one rose-pink Catalan cloak]
Un pa’ di calze in rosa seca [one pair of rose-pink hose]
Due berette rosate [two rose-pink caps]

Leonardo’s rosy clothes were memorable—so memorable that an eyewitness accurately recalled their hue forty years later, along with bitter words exchanged between famous men in the street.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2012

    A fine book that gets one involved

    My wife and I have spent lots of time in Florence and believe the art is beyond comparison. This book is very well written and takes us back to many marvelous hours spent looking. The more time you have spent in Florence, the more you will appreciate this book. Not light reading, but rather a thorough study.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2012

    Never heard of the book

    A HISTORY BOOK WOW REALLY! History is great learning you people who falling behind in History class

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2013

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