WHEN TWO OF THE GREATEST artistic talents of all time, living in the same urban hothouse, are enticed into intense rivalry by leaders and patrons of their community, the consequence is a consummate competition exacerbated by the politics of pride and instability. The ego-driven desire to surpass a rival can uncover suns of genius casting long-term shadows. In this particular instance, the artists happen to be the middle-aged Leonardo da Vinci and the zealous, energetic Michelangelo, a generation younger.
The place is republican Florence; the focal time is 1503 to 1506, with many implications far beyond, when the Medici family, tossed from power late in the 15th century, successfully schemed to regain firm control (they ultimately did in 1530). By then Leonardo had died in France as a self-imposed exile and court painter to the king, and Michelangelo had gone to Rome, first to build a mausoleum for the Pope and later to labor on his masterwork, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Court painter to the Pope and hardly alone, he was one of the architects who figured out the math needed to raise Bramante’s immense dome over St. Peter’s.
Jonathan Jones — a Cantabridgian art critic for The Guardian and contributor to many magazines and newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times — has written a well-argued and well-informed page-turner about the artists and their rivalry that is infinitely accessible for the general reader. It is also little more than half the length of Rona Goffen’s very fine Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian (2002). Readers intrigued by The Lost Battles, as I am, may choose to follow up with Goffen’s tome. Jones’s is a treatise of political and artistic intrigue, crafted in muscular and arresting prose. He makes bold, provocative assertions that some scholars may not find entirely acceptable. Two examples:
Leonardo […] dressed almost exclusively in pink and purple, a delicate palette that harmonized 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. […]
Michelangelo is the first artist who had a youth. That is, he is the first artist whose works seem to express his youthful experience of life — the first artist to become personal enough to express the passion, energy, ambition, and risk with which he seethed in his twenties.
Hmmm. Well, Praxiteles of Athens (4th century BC), for one, was once a precocious youth who sculpted astonishing nudes of both genders with considerable enthusiasm and genius.
Michelangelo carved his touching Pietà in 1500 at the astounding age of 25 and the next year received a commission to sculpt his monumental David, resolutely ready to slay Goliath, an emblem of manifold Florentine enemies. On May 14, 1504, it was first rolled out and displayed in the Piazza della Signoria, less than eight months after Leonardo had received his commission for a grand battle scene. Michelangelo’s award would soon follow. Machiavelli had a hand in both endeavors, not simply to be manipulative but because artistic competition at the highest level would benefit his republic.
(Leonardo did n...