As Leonardo and his friend Giovanni di Gavina were passing the public benches at the Palazzo Spini Feroni, near Florence’s Church of Santa Trinita, some men were debating a passage in Dante. They called out to Leonardo, asking him to expound the passage for them. By chance, Michelangelo happened to be passing too, and one of them hailed him. At this, Leonardo declared, “Michelangelo will be able to expound it for you”. Michelangelo assumed this was said to entrap him, causing him to reply: “No, you explain – you who have undertaken the design of a horse to be cast in bronze but were unable to cast it, and were forced to give up in shame.” So saying, he turned his back on them and began to depart. Leonardo remained, blushing at these words. Finally, wishing to humiliate his rival further, Michelangelo called out again: “And to think you were believed by those castrated Milanese roosters!”
Di Gavina, Leonardo’s companion, was a painter, now little known. The grand Palazzo Spini Feroni, near the Ponte Santa Trinita, was stripped of its hospitable exterior benches some time ago and is now the home of a fashion museum dedicated to the shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo. The above anecdote is recounted in an anonymous manuscript, apparently written in the 1540s. Its author is now recognised as Bernardo Vecchietti, an important patron and member of the Medici circle of literati. Recorded during Michelangelo’s lifetime, albeit well after Leonardo’s death in 1519, it may be taken as an accurate signal of how the relationship between the artistic giants was perceived by those in the know.
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The earliest encounters
The two great masters were not of the same generation. Leonardo was born in Vinci in 1452, the illegitimate son of a young lawyer and a peasant girl. By 1500, his career had embraced some youthful years in Florence, and a period in Milan from 1482–99, marked not least by The Last Supper. Michelangelo, born in 1475, was from a ‘good’ family, the son of Lodovico Buonarroti, who sometimes worked as a minor Florence official. The young Michelangelo had completed the Bacchus and Pietà in Rome, but there was no public evidence of his abilities in Florence. In 1501 he was commissioned to make something of a massive marble block in the cathedral workshop. This was to become his David.
The first encounter of the artists took place when Leonardo was appointed to a committee to determine where to place the David. After much discussion the huge sculpture was placed in the square outside the Palazzo della Signoria (now called Palazzo Vecchio), headquarters of the ruling body of the Republic of Florence.
Inside this palace was a spacious hall, the Salone dei Cinquecento, for assemblies of franchised citizens. It was here that the two artists’ work first collided. Leonardo had been commissioned in 1503 to paint a very large mural (probably about 24 by 60 feet) depicting the battle of Anghiari, a victory over the Milanese in 1440. He was to be joined by Michelangelo, whose subject for an adjacent fresco was the battle of Cascina, fought against the Pisans in 1364. Surviving drawings for the project, a copy of Michelangelo’s lost cartoon and visual records of Leonardo’s unfinished mural demonstrate the divergence in their vision of what art should be.
Leonardo’s battle was to depict a bestial conflict of soldiers in elaborate and fantastical costumes, mounted on savage horses. In his account of how to paint a battle, he speaks of dust and smoke in the air, of raining fusillades of arrows, and of foot soldiers thrashing in water and dragged through slimy mud that was saturated with blood. A filmic vision. High drama and intense naturalism were to be mingled.
By contrast, Michelangelo’s approach to the battle was to portray a moment of human alarm, when bathing soldiers were alerted by an urgent cry that the enemy were about to attack. Naked men scramble out of the water, some dragging clothes on to damp limbs. As always with Michelangelo, the drama is narrated through the human body. We may imagine, as on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, that the landscape setting was cursory, even abstract.
In the event, the collision of contrasting visions was never to be realised on the walls of the council hall. Michelangelo was summoned to work for the pope in 1505, and the Florentine authorities reluctantly agreed with the French rulers of Milan that Leonardo should return to the Lombard city in 1506 to serve them. The republic fell to the returning Medici in 1512, and that was that.
Had the works come to fruition, what we would have witnessed on the walls of the council hall would not just have been a clash of styles. For Leonardo’s part, he saw the perfection of nature’s inventions, where nothing was lacking and nothing was superfluous, as proof of the presence of God. All was in accordance with the mathematical rules that the Creator had established for nature’s operations. Leonardo believed the painter’s job was to remake nature through a profound study and understanding of it, just as the aspiring aeronautical engineer’s job was to understand the flight of birds and bats so as to fabricate a great artificial uccello (bird). The necessary understanding was to be achieved by a heroic research of an empirical kind, guided by the mathematics that ruled at the heart of natural systems. In broad terms, this related to the tradition of Aristotle as understood in the Middle Ages, with a greater emphasis on mathematics than was apparent in Aristotle himself.
Michelangelo, by contrast, adhered to a philosophy that was strongly Platonic in flavour. Instead, the focus was on the soul within the body, and the striving of human insight to transcend our mortal limits. Divine purpose was to be discerned through a vision of beauty and truth realised through God’s supreme creation, the human body, which was the house or prison for the immortal soul. The mind, serving the soul, aspired to comprehend divine ideas, as far as this was possible.
When God infuses human life into the receptive Adam on the Sistine ceiling, he is granting the first man’s beautiful body a rational soul to accompany the animal and vegetative souls that it already possesses. The degradations of the fallen Adam on the ceiling are preceded by a metaphysical vision that transports us to the transcendental essence of creation, above all, the division of light from darkness. For Michelangelo, the study of nature was largely devoted to the human body. His mastery of anatomy enabled him to create a divine race of beings. For Leonardo, anatomy allowed him to tell us about the actions determined by human minds within the divinely designed mechanism of the body. And, beyond that, Leonardo insisted that nature as a whole – animal, vegetable and mineral – was to be studied and represented with comparable reverence.
The divergence of principle between Leonardo and Michelangelo was profound. It is doubtful whether they ever directly debated these matters, but they did not have to. The difference was readily apparent. Michelangelo was certainly aware of Leonardo’s opinions, about which the older artist does not seem to have been reticent. When Michelangelo was asked by Benedetto Varchi in 1549 about the paragone, the long-standing debate about the ranking of the various arts, he wrote acidly: “As to that man who wrote saying that painting was more noble than sculpture, if he had known as much about the other subjects on which he has written, why my serving maid could have written better!”
However, this is not the whole story. Their art was in productive dialogue in Florence during the early years of the 16th century, and in Rome while Leonardo was in the holy city between 1513 and 1516. As a result of his deliberations about where to place the younger artist’s David, Leonardo had made a small sketch of a more heavily muscled figure to which he added some horses galloping in the foam, converting David into Neptune – perhaps an implicit criticism. It is also possible that Leonardo’s warning in his notebook to an un-named “anatomical painter” about the dangers of emphasising musculature for its own sake, resulting in figures that look like bags of walnuts, was a reaction to the heroically defined bodies created by Michelangelo.
A discernible influence
The evidence is more plentiful about the effect Leonardo’s art exercised on Michelangelo. When he returned to Florence from Rome in his mid-twenties, Michelangelo was demonstrably affected by what his 50-year-old rival Leonardo was doing. This is most evident in their Virgin and Child compositions. In 1501, Leonardo was painting the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, in which a symbolic reference to Christ’s Passion (in this case a device for winding yarn, which resembled the cross on which he would be crucified) is built into the composition as an intense narrative. The child surges across his mother’s lap to embrace the cross, while she reacts with uncertainty.
Michelangelo picked up this novel narrative quality in his unfinished marble relief tondo, a type of circular composition, for the Florentine merchant Taddeo Taddei, in which the awakening Christ reacts with some alarm to the flapping bird (a goldfinch, symbolic of the Passion) proffered by the infant John the Baptist. By 1503, Leonardo had embarked on at least one of his compositions of the Virgin, Child and St Anne (with or without a lamb and St John), the formal and emotional complexities of which were translated into Michelangelo’s very different style in his painted Holy Family in the Doni Tondo.
Yet beyond such issues of influence, there was a deeper and surprising affinity that they are unlikely to have realised for their own parts. Both artists, in their later creations, were striving to capture the ineffable – the otherness and inaccessibility of the ultimate realm of the spirit. We do not generally think of Leonardo as a spiritual artist, but the Salvator Mundi and St John the Baptist somehow magically combine his late ideas about the optical uncertainties of vision with an implied sense of a world beyond our earth-bound perceptions. After 1500 – not least after becoming aware of Arabic optical science – he increasingly realised that seeing was a slippery business, and stated that the “eye does not know the edge of any body”. There are no rigidly defined edges in his paintings from the Mona Lisa onwards.
This optics of uncertainty was complemented by Leonardo’s conviction that there was a divine realm outside the finite cosmos, accessible only via faith and not amenable to his beloved reason. As he declared, he did not intend “to write or give information of those things of which the human mind is incapable and which cannot be proved by an instance of nature”. He considered that “the definition of the soul” should be left “to the minds of friars, fathers of the people, who by inspiration possess the secrets. I let be the sacred writings, for they are the supreme truth.” He goes on to lambast those who “want to encapsulate the mind of God, in which the universe is encompassed, weighing it and mincing it into infinite parts, as if they had to anatomise it”. To Leonardo, our only feasible job on earth is to discern God in the perfection of nature.
For his part, Michelangelo, towards the end of his life, was tortured by the inadequacy of his material media of marble, paint and drawing for realising the non-material essence of the holy spirit. As he wrote in one of his sonnets:
So that passionate fantasy, which made
Of art a monarch for me and an idol, was laden down with sin, now I know well.
Like what all men against their will desired…
There’s no painting or sculpture that now quiets
The soul that’s pointed toward that holy Love
that on the cross opened
Its arms to take us.
His late Crucifixion drawings somehow dematerialise the figures he sees and the medium in which he represents them. The tension between what is seen in the eye of the mind and our physical eye is extreme.
Leonardo and Michelangelo both confronted a key dilemma of the human condition for the Christian believer: how to deal with the finiteness of our flesh-and-blood existence and the limitations of our minds in the face of divine ineffability. How could we know the divine? Leonardo’s visual answer was to use the elusiveness of his own painterly technique to imply a realm beyond the picture to which our rational understanding has no direct access. Michelangelo’s desire was always to strive to transcend our manifest limitations and to reach out to a conceptual realm that is not circumscribed by our material existence. Towards the end of his life, he harboured a devastating sense that he was not succeeding.
Leonardo never lost faith in his art, but he must have been aware, as he neared death, how few were the examples of his having manifested his pictorial genius at its supreme level. Michelangelo seems radically to have doubted the power of any art to achieve his ultimate aim. I suspect that neither artist died with a sense of fulfilment.
Martin Kemp is emeritus professor of history of art at the University of Oxford and one of the world’s leading experts on Leonardo da Vinci. His latest book is Leonardo by Leonardo (Callaway Arts & Entertainment, 2019)