December 3, 2012 2:42:06 PM
In this corner we have Leonardo da Vinci, and in the opposite corner we have Michelangelo Buonarotti. Gentlemen, take up your brushes, and may the best man win. Such a clash of titans actually happened between the two Renaissance rivals. In 1504, in Florence, the chief advisor to the head of state, none other than Niccolò Machiavelli, wanted not only to decorate the walls of the Great Council Hall, but to inspire the citizens to patriotism by having the two artists paint murals showing previous Florentine military victories on different walls. The outcome of the battle was never settled, since neither painting was finished. The story of the competition, however, had repercussions in art and history, and is told in The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Artistic Duel That Defined the Renaissance (Knopf) by Jonathan Jones, the art critic for Britain's The Guardian. The book is full of a refined but enthusiastic appreciation of the work of the two artists, and many more artists as well, and is an entertaining review of bustling Florence in her prime. We get to see the effects on the city, and the artists, of war, intrigue, religion, and superstition, and we get a new appreciation of the personalities of the two combatants.
The complicated sociopolitical history of the time was due largely to Florence's longstanding conflict with Pisa. Machiavelli (whose famous The Prince would not be published until after his death) was interested in keeping up the city's belligerent patriotism. Florence had gotten rid of Medici rulers ten years before, whereupon the city came under the puritanical rule of the charismatic friar Girolamo Savonarola. After Savonarola's execution, the newly elected Piero Soderini and his counselor Machiavelli wanted to push their view of a republic free of Medicis while free also of religious tyranny. The murals were not the first attempt to have art promote civic idealism. Michelangelo's colossal statue of David was completed in 1503 and went on display in a piazza outside the center of government, a show of potent masculinity. And yet, it was not as masculine as we know it to be. Both Michelangelo and Leonardo had strong sexual preferences for men, which makes their clash over the statue even funnier: during a debate about placement of the statue, Leonardo suggested that in such a public display, David's genitals needed to be covered. And so when the statue first was set up, a dainty fringe of copper leaves (Jones calls them "ridiculous metal underpants") toned down the virility. Jones shows, from descriptions and inventories, that Leonardo enjoyed colorful and dandified clothing, and demonstrates that he blended male and female beauty in his portraits. His painting of the infancy of Jesus shows the child tended by two women with an androgynous John the Baptist. Jones shows that Michelangelo's version restores the male figure of Joseph in paternal priority, and Jones speculates that Michelangelo despised Leonardo's effeminate clothing and depictions.
At the time of the painting of the murals, the two artists had been rubbing each other the wrong way for a long while, and the feud was publicly known. "Such a feud was bound to fascinate a culture in which ritualized vendetta was practiced as readily by artists as by aristocrats." There was a story, for instance, that called in from the street to explain a passage from Dante, Leonardo then said Michelangelo would explain it, whereupon Michelangelo spat, "You explain it yourself, you who designed a horse to be cast in bronze but couldn't cast it and abandoned it in shame." Not really a snappy comeback, or witty, but it made Leonardo's face red with embarrassment or anger, and he had no retort. The insult involved his ambitious equestrian statue commissioned in Milan which indeed could not be finished. Vasari, in his famous Lives of the Artists, referred to the "great disdain" between the two artists. The two could have found plenty of grounds for antagonism. Leonardo was 56 at the time of the Council Hall paintings, and Michelangelo was 33. Leonardo was having trouble finishing artistic projects, and anyway was more interested in his scientific research. He was a heretic with independent religious opinions, and his painting of a vicious war scene might have been a sign of rebellion, as it would have sat within the Council Hall which was stuffed with religious memorabilia. Leonardo was not anchored in Florence; he was a cosmopolitan who would render his services to France or to a Turkish sultan. Michelangelo was a Florentine patriot, and a devout Christian; he had youth and the consequent idealism.
The duel of paintings started with the commission given to Leonardo to paint a mural of the Battle of Anghiari, a famous victory of Florence over Milan in 1440. It was a great subject, and Leonardo even wrote an essay on how to paint a battle scene: "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..." Leonardo had been in battle and he knew what war meant. He began preliminary sketches for his huge painting and a cartoon, a preparatory full-sized design that could be transferred to the wall itself. Michelangelo, while Leonardo got ready, was given a commission to paint another Florentine victory, the 1364 Battle of Cascina against the city's long-time rival Pisa. Michelangelo would do drawings and a cartoon, too, but it would be almost pastoral compared to Leonardo's work. It was a picture of calm before the storm of battle, with nude soldiers bathing in a river, some of whom have just heard the cry to arms. It was a picture that better represented the citizen militia that Machiavelli was promoting; Michelangelo's picture showed the republican ideal while Leonardo's showed the brutality of war.
War itself, and politics, were to interrupt the completion of the pictures; Spanish troops besieged Florence and then the Medici were restored to power. Neither the Cascina or the Anghiari picture was finished, although designs for both endured on the walls (and maybe Leonardo's was painted over). Jones writes, "The cartoons that were shown in competition in Florence from about 1506 to 1512 were revered, studied, ransacked." They disappeared, but not before inspiring many artists, like Benvenuto Cellini who said they served as "the school of the world." The most prominent artist inspired directly by them was Raphael, and his concept of narrative painting, Jones says, was initiated by his study of the paintings in the Council Hall. The influences have not stopped; that maddened horse in Picasso's Guernica, for instance, is a descendant of the poor beasts Leonardo included.
In his final pages, Jones mentions that there is a controversial initiative to chip away at the current frescos to see if anything of Leonardo's painting remains beneath. He thinks it not worth the effort. The artists did preparatory drawings that remain, and there are copies, written descriptions, and lifting of the subjects into paintings by other artists. "Almost because the originals are not visible," Jones writes, "the process of reconstructing these great works in our minds can give us a stronger feeling for them than we might have for many a well-preserved painting." The key word is "almost." Certainly reading about these works in this detailed description, which includes lots of biographical information and sociopolitical history, will make anyone long to have seen the completed paintings, which after all never existed. Jones has, however, gone a long way to enable readers to perform their mental reconstruction.