The Lost Battles
A fascinating, daring look at Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti, and the artistic rivalry that shook the Renaissance.
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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 15th 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?"Skip to next paragraph
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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.