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

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From one of Britain’s most respected and acclaimed art historians, art critic of The Guardian—the galvanizing story of a sixteenth-century clash of titans, the two greatest minds of the Renaissance, working side by side in the same room in a fierce competition: the master Leonardo da Vinci, commissioned by the Florentine Republic to paint a narrative fresco depicting a famous military victory on a wall of the newly built Great Council Hall in the Palazzo Vecchio, and his ...
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The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Artistic Duel That Defined the Renaissance

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From one of Britain’s most respected and acclaimed art historians, art critic of The Guardian—the galvanizing story of a sixteenth-century clash of titans, the two greatest minds of the Renaissance, working side by side in the same room in a fierce competition: the master Leonardo da Vinci, commissioned by the Florentine Republic to paint a narrative fresco depicting a famous military victory on a wall of the newly built Great Council Hall in the Palazzo Vecchio, and his implacable young rival, the thirty-year-old Michelangelo.

We see Leonardo, having just completed The Last Supper, and being celebrated by all of Florence for his miraculous portrait of the wife of a textile manufacturer. That painting—the Mona Lisa—being called the most lifelike anyone had ever seen yet, more divine than human, was captivating the entire Florentine Republic.

And Michelangelo, completing a commissioned statue of David, the first colossus of the Renaissance, the archetype hero for the Republic epitomizing the triumph of the weak over the strong, helping to reshape the public identity of the city of Florence and conquer its heart.

In The Lost Battles, published in England to great acclaim (“Superb”—The Observer; “Beguilingly written”—The Guardian), Jonathan Jones brilliantly sets the scene of the time—the politics; the world of art and artisans; and the shifting, agitated cultural landscape.

We see Florence, a city freed from the oppressive reach of the Medicis, lurching from one crisis to another, trying to protect its liberty in an Italy descending into chaos, with the new head of the Republic in search of a metaphor that will make clear the glory that is Florence, and seeing in the commissioned paintings the expression of his vision.

Jones reconstructs the paintings that Leonardo and Michelangelo undertook—Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, a nightmare seen in the eyes of the warrior (it became the first modern depiction of the disenchantment of war) and Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, a call to arms and the first great transfiguration of the erotic into art. Jones writes about the competition; how it unfolded and became the defining moment in the transformation of “craftsman” to “artist”; why the Florentine government began to fall out of love with one artist in favor of the other; and how—and why—in a competition that had no formal prize to clearly resolve the outcome, the battle became one for the hearts and minds of the Florentine Republic, with Michelangelo setting out to prove that his work, not Leonardo’s, embodied the future of art. Finally, we see how the result of the competition went on to shape a generation of narrative paintings, beginning with those of Raphael.

A riveting exploration into one of history’s most resonant exchanges of ideas, a rich, fascinating book that gives us a whole new understanding of an age and those at its center.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

One room; two artists; two frescoes: The story of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci working side by side in the Palazzo Vecchio's Great Council Hall, each painting a painting commemorating a great battle has been told before, but never quite as grippingly as Jonathan Jones' The Lost Battles. Both paintings (Michelangelo's The Battle of Cascina and Leonardo's The Battle of Anghiari) are now lost, but the impact of their creation helped crystallize the meaning of the Renaissance in unforeseen ways. (P.S. In recent month, the pertinence of this accessible narrative has been heightened: Scientific probes and samples have heightened speculation that da Vinci's painting might still exist, concealed behind an outer wall.)

Publishers Weekly
In 1503, Leonardo da Vinci, already famous for his towering genius, groundbreaking drawings of human anatomy, and scientific achievements, was commissioned to paint a mural in Florence’s Great Council Hall memorializing the Battle of Anghiari. As Leonardo was planning the contours of his painting, a young and less well-known sculptor and artist, Michelangelo, was commissioned to paint a mural of another battle famous in Florentine history, the Battle of Cascina, in the same room. As art critic Jones points out in this energetic, fast-paced, though sometimes repetitive, tale of rivalry and genius, this event became a competition to discover which of the two was “the greatest artist in the world.” Leonardo’s painting depicts the reality of war in all its horror and grows out of his own experience witnessing military battles. Michelangelo had never been in combat or seen its aftermath, and his scenes of combat are more cerebral. While Michelangelo’s The Battle of Cascina gravely and compassionately depicts the humanity of war, Leonardo’s The Battle of Anghiari portrays the horrifying images of the battle’s madness. Jones’s dazzling study of this little discussed competition illustrates the ways that these two great artists competed to assert their imaginations and personalities, giving birth to the Renaissance idea of the artist as godlike creator rather than mere artisan reshaping existing materials. Agent: Janklow & Nesbit. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“A page turner . . . well-argued and well-informed . . . infinitely accessible for the general reader . . . bold, provocative.”
Los Angeles Review of Books

“Perceptively renders the competition between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo . . . in this far-ranging account of their rivalry, Jones evokes also a period, a place and the ideas that shaped both men and their times . . . an informative celebration of two competing geniuses.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Vibrant . . . sparing neither the two artists, nor Florence, their quirks of character. They are flanked by a vivid parade of supporting characters . . . delightful.”
The American Scholar
“Everyone loves an artist-rivalry . . . Jones adds recent research and an abundance of storytelling verve to his telling.”
ArtInfo, “Modern Art Notes’ best books of 2012”
“Intricate . . . provocative.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Fascinating, revelatory, often daring . . . a wonderful guide to this dramatic moment of history. The most rewarding parts of the book are [Jones’s] bold and often persuasive speculations about the ways in which the works of the two contentious heroes speak to each other.”
The Barnes and Noble Review

“Recreates for us the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of 16th century Florence . . . engaging and informative . . . not just for historians or art aficionados . . . illuminated but not overwhelmed by accurate historical detail that compellingly creates the world the two antagonists inhabited, replete with a cast of interesting and colorful supporting characters . . . [and] that propels us as surely as any well written novel, straight through to the final page.”
New York Journal of Books
“A portrait of two geniuses continually trying to outdo each other . . . a scholarly work . . . recommended for students of art history as well as the general reader interested in these two Renaissance masters.”
Library Journal

“Energetic, fast-paced . . . dazzling . . .
Jones’ study of this little discussed competition illustrates the ways that these two great artists competed to assert their imaginations and personalities, giving birth to the Renaissance idea of the artist as godlike creator rather than mere artisan reshaping existing materials.”
Publishers Weekly
“There is a wealth of information about da Vinci and Michelangelo, and Jones skillfully harvests the best, amusing with his delightful asides and enlightening with his erudite opinions. . . . Art lovers, Renaissance junkies and even travelers will love this book, which brings these two geniuses to vivid life.”
Kirkus (starred review)

Library Journal
Jones (art critic, Guardian) recounts the rivalry and competition between the two great Renaissance artists, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. The conflict began when Michelangelo, the younger of the two by 23 years, approached Leonardo on a Florence street and insulted the more mature artist, criticizing what he perceived as Leonardo's lack of technical skill in casting in bronze, specifically in reference to a design for a giant horse sculpture that Leonardo planned but never executed. In turn, Leonardo sketched a parody of Michelangelo's famous sculpture David and went further, condemning it for indecency to the extent that, when it was placed on public display, it was strategically covered with a brass thong ornamented with copper leaves. Thus, Jones's book is a portrait of two geniuses continually trying to outdo each other through their creative prowess and individual artistic visions. VERDICT Although this is a scholarly work complete with footnotes and a bibliography, Jones's writing style is somewhat informal with an emphasis on narrative, so this is recommended for students of art history as well as the general reader interested in these two Renaissance masters.—Sandra Rothenberg, Framingham State Univ., MA
Kirkus Reviews
Guardian art critic Jones rejoices in revealing the talents of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and the challenge of deciding who was the true master. Competition was fundamental to the culture of brilliance in Renaissance Florence, driving creativity and innovation. The contest between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi to create the bronze doors of the Baptistery is a case in point; the author firmly states that the committee was correct in its choice of Ghiberti, leaving Brunelleschi to his dome. There is a wealth of information about da Vinci and Michelangelo, and Jones skillfully harvests the best, amusing with his delightful asides and enlightening with his erudite opinions. As Giorgio Vasari declared, da Vinci was the first great artist of the period who defined nature, perspective and technical mastery, while Michelangelo was its ultimate genius. The story focuses on two commissions to decorate the Great Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio, with each artist painting an opposite wall. Jones deftly analyzes their talents and personalities. The preening da Vinci launched theories and works of art but seemed only to enjoy the journey, as he often failed to complete his works. His interests constantly distracted him from his tasks. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was an emotional, fiery poet constantly seeking a cause for his anger. While da Vinci was a master of dissection and produced brilliant drawings, Michelangelo presented the human body as an idyllic landscape. Even as they appeared to be at odds, each often used ideas from the other, like Leonardo's bastions of Piombino, which Michelangelo copied for Florence. Art lovers, Renaissance junkies and even travelers will love this book, which brings these two geniuses to vivid life and teaches how easy it is to love art.
The Barnes & Noble Review
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?

Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Brooke Allen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307594754
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/23/2012
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,029,351
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.32 (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


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.

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
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:


   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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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Jonathan Jones author of THE LOST BATTLES

Q: Leonardo and Michelangelo were both highly celebrated artists in Florence when they were commissioned to paint the two frescos you write about. How could their work become lost?

A: In 1503 the city state of Florence commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint The Battle of Anghiari in its new Great Council Hall. He was in his early fifties and had already painted The Last Supper in Milan. This was to be his home city's answer to The Last Supper—a permanent memorial to his genius. But in 1504, with Leonardo enjoying a state salary yet still nowhere near starting to paint in the Hall, his young rival Michelangelo was asked to paint The Battle of Cascina, another victory, in the same room. A competition was born. It was called by an eyewitness the school of the world but both the full-size drawings the artists finished have vanished. So has Leonardo's unfinished wall painting. (Michelangelo never transferred his design to the wall.) Even allowing for the artists' own egos and the demands on them—Michelangelo was called to serve the Pope—why have these works been so comprehensively effaced?

To understand this story we need to get into the mind of Florence in the 1500s. This was a city that loved art but it was also a city obsessed with politics. The battle paintings of Michelangelo and Leonardo were commissioned for political reasons—and lost for political reasons. Everyone knows the Florentine Renaissance was bankrolled by the Medici family—but it was not that simple. Florence was a republic, a city governed by its own citizens. The Medici family dominated it unofficially in the fifteenth century, as first among equals. In 1492, that influence broke and a revolution kicked out the Medici. The new radical republic commissioned the pictures I call the lost battles. When the Medici reconquered the city and eventually anointed themselves Grand Dukes of Tuscany, everything that remained of these works of art vanished. This was no coincidence. The lost battles are lost because their republican associations did not fit the Medici legend of a Renaissance bankrolled by one family.

Q: You write that competition was at the heart of Renaissance art. Have any modern periods of artistic achievement embodied that same spirit?

A: Competition was set in the genes, so to speak, of western art by the great rivals of the Renaissance. At the birth of modernism a century ago, Picasso and Matisse constantly checked what the other was doing and tried to outdo it. Their relationship was quite similar to that of Leonardo and Michelangelo—Picasso and his friends threw darts at a painting by Matisse of his daughter that Matisse had given Picasso as a gift.

Artistic competition is very much alive today. To speak from my own patch, British art revolves around the Turner Prize that pitches artists like Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor against one another. This controversial prize may not have spawned any new Leonardos but it has given British art a lot of ambition. I was a judge of the Turner Prize while I worked on The Lost Battles. I found it fascinating to compare the competitive spirit in different times and places.

Q: The Lost Battles provides exquisite detail about the city of Florence. How much time did you spend in the city during your research?

A: I first visited Florence as a child with my parents and it is the place where I fell in love with art. But after becoming an art critic for a newspaper and being lucky enough to travel around seeing art all over the world—including New York, where the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum have taught me so much—I had not been back to Florence for many years. Then I got interested in the story of how Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo once had a competition to decide who was the greatest artist of their day. I was commissioned to write a newspaper article on it. A flying visit my wife and I made to Florence to research this was so exhilarating that I fell in love a second time with my favourite city. Writing a book was the perfect chance to know it better. So I travelled to Florence as often as possible over a period of several years, ranging from long stays to day trips (you can just about do Florence as a day trip from London). It is a place of inexhaustible beauty and fascination.

Q: You've crafted fascinating portraits of Leonardo and Michelangelo's personalities (including descriptions of Leonardo's colorful wardrobe). Did you find yourself rooting for one artist or the other?

A: I started out rooting for Leonardo because he has always struck me as an enigmatic and dazzling thinker as well as artist. As I got deeper into the research—and, on one of my visits to Florence, explored its forgotten fortifications where Michelangelo held off a besieging army in 1529—I started to prefer Michelangelo. He leaps out of his poems, letters, and 16th-century biographies as a man of deep principle and great courage. I think it was his brave and daring personality that made his contemporaries prefer him to the mysterious Leonardo. But, when I finally started to believe I was getting under the skin of Leonardo, so to speak, my sympathies reversed again: I love his freedom of mind and determination to follow his creative impulses. What other famous artist tried to make a flying machine when he was meant to be finishing a great public commission?

Q: What did Leonardo and Michelangelo's works say about the nature of war?

A: Leonardo and Michelangelo took opposite views of war in their battle pictures. Michelangelo, a young man who had never been near a battle, believed strongly in the Florentine Republic and thought citizens should fight for their city state. He created a homage to the heroism of volunteer militiamen. Like his statue of David, his picture The Battle of Cascina celebrated youth and courage and looking your enemy in the eye.

By contrast Leonardo da Vinci had worked as a military engineer and knew mercenary soldiers up close. His work The Battle of Anghiari was a hellish vision of war as a savage, futile outburst of rage. Leonardo portrayed horses biting each other as their riders hacked with swords. In his notebooks he says the first weapons were nails and teeth. In this picture, he showed how the evolution of weapons enhances but cannot change the primitive nature of battle as an intimate, cannibalistic confrontation between frenzied warriors pumped full of adrenaline and testosterone. Meanwhile at the same time he was painting the Mona Lisa—the smiling face of maternal love. Leonardo saw war as a male pathology.

Q: You write that Leonardo's Mona Lisa was famous almost from the beginning. What set this work apart?

A: Leonardo wanted it to be famous: the Mona Lisa was his advert for himself. He came back to Florence in the early 1500s after a long absence as court artist to the ruler of Milan. One of the works he had left in Florence was his portrait of Ginevra de' Benci, done in the 1470s when he was in his twenties (today it hangs in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). Leonardo set out to do a portrait that showed how far he had come since painting Ginevra. This time, in 1503, he sketched out a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentime silk merchant. People could compare the woman and the portrait—this was a small city where people knew one another face to face—and they were amazed by how lifelike the portrait was. Women especially had never been seen with such intimacy and rich character by an artist. All the modern fascinations—what's she smiling about?—of this painting add to a fame that originally rested on its sheer similarity to a living person.

Q: When Michelangelo's David was first displayed, it appeared differently than we now know it, in part because of Leonardo. Can you describe what was added to the statue and why?

A: The statue was given a brass thong to cover up its groin. This decision was made by the Florentine Republic after Leonardo da Vinci said it needed decent ornament—that is, ornament to mute its profane display of nudity!

Q: Machiavelli also makes an appearance in this story. What was his relation to the two artists and what role did he play in the city of Florence at this time?

A: Machiavelli is infamous as the supposedly sinister author of The Prince, a book that appears to advise tyrants on how to fool and cheat their subjects. But in life he was a conscientious and idealistic civil servant devoted to the interests of the Republic of Florence. He was Second Chancellor of the Republic and Secretary of its war committee at the time when Florence commissioned Leonardo to paint The Battle of Anghiari. He was directly involved in the competition between Michelangelo and Leonardo—this is clear as his signature is on Leonardo's surviving contract for his battle painting. Machiavelli's belief that a republic needs its young men to fight for it in a citizen militia is illustrated by Michelangelo's work The Battle of Cascina. Letters suggest that he and Michelangelo got to know one another during the contest. So although there is evidence that Machiavelli talked ideas with Leonardo, it was the pro-war art of Michelangelo that he most influenced. It was Michelangelo who was praised by the Republic as the best of the two—this is no coincidence. He was Machiavelli's man.

Q: Recent explorations at the Palazzo Vecchio have revealed what some experts believe is evidence of Leonardo's lost fresco. What can you tell us about this discovery?

A: It is tremendously exciting. A cavity in the wall has been identified behind one of the visible frescoes in the room, which are by Giorgio Vasari and his assistants. Vasari was court artist to Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and a talented architect. In the mid-16th century he remade this room, raising its ceiling, giving it new frescoes. What happened to the unfinished wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci that was apparently still here? Vasari was also the author of The Lives of the Artists, first published in 1550, the captivating narrative of Renaissance art whose most fascinating figure is Leonardo. How could Vasari, who calls Leonardo celestial in this book, simply destroy one of his finest works? Perhaps he preserved it under one of his own paintings. If so there would presumably be a cavity like the one that has been found. But the discovery goes further. There are traces of pigment on the hidden wall within it. What painting could be on that wall? The Battle of Anghiari has to be a very strong candidate indeed.

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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

    No text was provided for this review.

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