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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Leonardo & Michelangelo: rivalry and inspiration | Renaissance - BBC History Magazine

They may have been born a generation apart, but Leonardo could not deny the significance of the young Michelangelo’s work. Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of history of art at the University of Oxford and one of the world’s leading experts on Leonardo da Vinci considers the impact that these two giants of the Renaissance had on each other’s artistic careers. 

Photo: History Extra
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 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...

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.

Read more... 

Additional resources

Leonardo by Leonardo:
Leonardo da Vinci
Source: BBC History Magazine