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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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 16th 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."Skip to next paragraph
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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?