Leonardo and Michelangelo: An Ideological Rivalry

The history of art teaches us that the status of any given artist is elevated in accordance with the status of said artist’s antagonist. This is true in modern art as it is true of ancient art. It appears that we, as humans, are simply programmed to tell stories that way. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh. Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. The list is endless.

Another renowned rivalry was that between Leonardo and Michelangelo. Leonardo Da Vinci was born in 1454. Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in 1475. Both were active around the same time, between the Renaissance and the High Renaissance. In fact, both embodied the archetype of the “Renaissance Man,” one who is able to express creativity through a wide-variety of artforms.

Yet, both were radically different and their feud was not only generational. It was profoundly ideological. For instance, they did not share the same views on which was the higher of the artforms. Leonardo thought that painting was the most important of artforms because of the versatility and freedom it granted an artist to represent things, even those unseen. We see such potential expressed, for instance, in the Mona Lisa, including via the spectacular vastness of its landscape that could only have existed in the mind of Leonardo himself.

Michelangelo, on the other hand, appears to have been inspired by the more rigorous artform of sculpture. He preferred to focus on the detail of one thing, which generally was the naked male body. In such works as the David, more than the concept, we admire the size and anatomical details. There’s great poetry to be found in the composition itself. The David is not perfectly proportioned and yet, such apparent imperfection makes this giant all the more cerebral and dramatic.

This ideological disagreement is even more evident when we compare the paintings of these two artists. Leonardo’s paintings are rich in multiplicity whereas Michelangelo often pays little to no attention to backdrops. Even his paintings are rather sculptural and in the most famous of cases, his subjects seem to burst out of the canvas.

It is a lesser-known fact that Leonardo was also a musician. Obviously, he lived long before audio recording was possible. Because of that, no primary source documentation of his music exists. What we know through his journals and writings is that he admired the art of music for the same reasons as he did painting – for its lack of restrictions. By the same degree, he did not think much of poetry. Poets, he believed, were restricted by language itself, forced to follow a word with another and another and another…

Again, it should not be surprising that Michelangelo was also a poet and revelled in the challenge of the restrictions posed by semantics. In fact, his approach to poetry appears to be sculptural and for a period of time, he dedicated himself to it almost wholly – despite the many commissions of sculptures and paintings that began piling up before he had reached the age of 30.

Biographical accounts tell us that their ideological divergences were reflected in their opposite character traits and personalities. Leonardo was charming and elegant. Michelangelo was a recluse with little time for vanity or fashion. From this, we may deduce that both also used different approaches in landing prestigious commissions. Leonardo’s charm helped him pitch the works to wealthy patrons. On the other hand, wealthy patrons trusted Michelangelo’s diligence and commitment, which Leonardo sometimes appeared to lack.

It must be said that both men knew each other and may even have respected each other at some time. But their relationship came to an abrupt end in the early 1500s after a public quarrel in Florence, supposedly over the interpretation of a passage from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Shortly thereafter, there was a missed opportunity for a direct confrontation when both men were commissioned to produce a work depicting the same famous battle between the Florentines and the Pisans that ultimately did not come to fruition.

Yet, it is undeniable that both men also influenced each other’s art. For instance, Leonardo returned to his research of anatomy, which Michelangelo was a known practitioner of. Michelangelo, on the other hand, would come to see Leonardo as his rival and use the energy this generated within him to fuel his furnace of ambition.

Should the French return the Mona Lisa to Italy?

A partial transcript of episode 23 of THE ART MOVEMENT, my weekly arts and culture radio show.

If I was to say the word “painting,” which of the most famous paintings would be the first to pop into your head? I bet I can predict that many people would instantly think of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

This half-length portrait, which took Leonardo five years to complete was completed in 1507 and has charmed people all over the world for centuries. It has been defined as the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about and the most parodied work of art in the world.

In Italy, where I was born and where I am currently based, the Mona Lisa has a darker connotation. In fact, it’s been used by populists as a symbol for the traditional hostilities between Italy and France.

The general thought behind it is that the Mona Lisa is an important part of Italian cultural heritage and it was stolen by France (some even claim it was Napoleon who stole it). These people also say that it should be returned to Italy, where it belongs.

Actually, these claims are simply not true and yet another example of how art can be used to nurture unfounded hostilities, and that we should be careful about that.

Yes, Leonardo da Vinci was Italian. Yes, the man who commissioned the Mona Lisa was Italian. His name was Francesco del Giocondo and the sitter was his wife. It took Leonardo five years to complete the painting and he finished it in 1507.

But he never sold it to Francesco del Giocondo, partly because he saw it as a work of conceptual art rather than a mere portrait. It’s hard to disagree and many have written works where they support such a thesis.

Just recently, a research concluded that the much-talked about smile of the Mona Lisa is fascinating because it’s not a fully formed smile but a smile in the process of becoming one.

Because Leonardo realized its worth, he kept it with him and traveled with it in 1511 when he went to France, after being called by the King himself. Leonardo spent his final years in France and when he died there, his assistant Salai, who is also known as being his lover, inherited the painting. It was Salai who rightfully sold it to King Francis the first, the King of France, for 4,000 gold coins and thus, the Mona Lisa has rightfully been kept by the French government since then.

The only exception occurred in 1911, when a worker of the Louvre named Vincenzo Peruggia, stole it and took it back to Italy. This is the only actual known case of the painting being stolen and it was an Italian who stole it from the French. The Mona Lisa was presumed lost for some years until in 1913, Peruggia was discovered and arrested after attempting to sell it to a gallery in Florence for the equivalent of $100,000.

When the arrest was made, the Italian state returned the painting to France, and it has been housed by the Louvre ever since. However, Italy did try and occasionally does try to have its masterpiece returned.

Notable figures joined in the battle cry, in support for this cause, including George Clooney, who resides by Lake Como. Indeed, France may have considered returning the Mona Lisa to Italy, had it not been for the fact that the painting is far too fragile to be moved. Well, at least that’s what they say.

But I don’t see why they should return it. France rightfully bought the painting so it doesn’t need to return anything. In any case, I don’t particularly think that those who call for the Mona Lisa to be returned actually have the interest of the artwork itself in mind.

Actually, there have been cases of artworks from countries taken by other countries, particularly during several of the European wars. But I don’t hear as much said about the vast majority of them.

I mean, Europe was plagued by wars for centuries and the one thing that put a significant stop to that was the establishment of the European Union, which is maligned by the vast majority of the people who ignorantly claim that the Mona Lisa should be returned to Italy but who have no idea of how the Mona Lisa ended up in France in the first place.

In any event, I actually see the presence of artworks of different origins scattered all over Europe or the world, for that matter, as important cultural bridges that should unite people rather than inspire hostilities.

Download the full radio show HERE.

5 clips from THE ART MOVEMENT – Episode 21 (RADIO SHOW)

Here are five clips from the latest episode of my radio show, THE ART MOVEMENT, the weekly radio show hosted/produced by arts presenter Matt Micucci. The show revolves around art and culture, and where all art forms and free thoughts are allowed.

(To listen to/download the full radio show, scroll to the bottom of the page.)

Trans-genderism in Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando.

The problem with major bookstore chains like WHSmith.

The music of planets.

What Pablo Picasso told the Nazi secret police force about Guernica.

A tourist damaged a 19th-century Antonio Canova artwork while taking a selfie.

Lots more where that came from! You can listen to the full epsiode of THE ART MOVEMENT (including the music) via the player below.

Download the full radio show here.

THE ART MOVEMENT – Episode 21 (RADIO SHOW)

Welcome to THE ART MOVEMENT, a radio show about arts and culture, where all art forms and free thoughts are allowed. The show is hosted and produced by globe-trotting arts presenter Matt Micucci, and features plenty of music, interview clips and thoughts on current events.

Listen to episode 21 via one of the players below.

Download the full radio show here.

In this episode:

  • The sound of the planets
  • Trans-genderism and Virginia Woolf
  • Are people reading less?
  • Are tourists harmful to artworks?
  • What Pablo Picasso told the Nazi Gestapo.

and more, plus lots of music.

5 clips from THE ART MOVEMENT – Episode 20 (RADIO SHOW)

Here are five clips from the latest episode of my radio show, THE ART MOVEMENT, the weekly radio show hosted/produced by arts presenter Matt Micucci. The show revolves around art and culture, and where all art forms and free thoughts are allowed.

(To listen to/download the full radio show, scroll to the bottom of the page.)

What is The Art Movement?

My thoughts on the negative feedback on this year’s Venice International Film Festival program.

Orson Welles and Dennis Hopper were unruly geniuses.

What is art nouveau?

Who is Alfons Mucha?

Lots more where that came from! You can listen to the full epsiode of THE ART MOVEMENT (including the music) via the player below.

Download the full radio show here.

Click here to buy my book of thoughts on film, Eye of the Beholder, on Amazon!

Who is Alfons Mucha?

A partial transcript of Episode 20 of THE ART MOVEMENT. Click here to listen to the full radio show.

So, having introduced art nouveau a little bit, it’s time to take a look at Alfons Mucha himself.

I have already said that he is rightly regarded as one of the most important exponents of the art nouveau. But it is important to note that Mucha himself wasn’t crazy about being regarded as belonging to this style. In fact, he saw art nouveau as contemporary and trendy, thus in stark opposition to his own beliefs that art should be timeless.

Mucha was born in 1890 in Bohemia, in what is known today as the Czech Republic. And he was born at a time when Bohemia’s cultural identity was threatened by Austro-Hungarian rule and the Germanization of Bohemia.

It’s worth mentioning this because his slavic nationalism would play a great role in his artistic endeavors. Mucha was keen on getting a serious education in the arts but was rejected by Arts Academy of Prague, the motivation being there were already too many artists in the city and not enough money.

This was only the beginning of his troublesome relationship with the academic world at large, which would also include a vintage wealthy troll as a benefactor who withdrew his funds for his arts education at a prominent art academy in Munich only a year later to teach young Mucha a lesson about the hardships of real life. Ouch!

In any case, for the vast majority of his formative years, during much of the 1880s and first half of the 1890s, whatever jobs he could find whether with a group of theatrical scenery makers or as a fixer of family portraits, decorating the homes of the wealthy or illustrating less than glamorous magazines and finishing off the assignments of more established artists… all of this replaced an academic education. During this time, he perfected his craft and found his style.

The opportunity of a lifetime occurred at Christmas time in 1894. A prominent Parisian theatre company was seeking out an artist to complete a series of posters for Sarah Berhardt’s theatrical productions. Nobody was willing to give up their rest during the holiday period and so, they were left with no choice but to give Mucha a shot.

Mucha took it and ran with it and when the posters were exhibited in Paris, they became the talk of the town and immediately caused a sensation. They also affirmed the Mucha style of lithography, which can be briefly described as beautiful, seductive women against a botanical backdrop.

The backdrop and patterns usually collaborate with the protagonist to create a concise and complete narrative. Meanwhile, the intricate patterns and flora of his works is a direct reference to his Czech origins, thus promoting that Czech identity and revealing his own Czech nationalism.

After the Bernhardt posters, Mucha could not have been busier, working with Champagne companies, cigarette companies, biscuit companies and even creating a memorable series to promote travel in Monte-Carlo. Book illustrations and series on the seasons of the year, the art muses and so on are just as popular. He was one of the most sought after artists, illustrators and designers of his time.

Once his status was established, he sought to realize his magnum opus, commonly referred to as The Slav Epic, which took him several years to complete and depicts the history of the Slavic people via 20 imposing canvases.

Mucha gifted the city of Prague with the series upon Czechoslovakia’s independence in 1928 but about a decade later, the country was occupied by the Nazis. Mucha died in 1939, shortly before his death he was interrogated by the Gestapo.

It should be mentioned that even while he was essentially creating artworks for brands, he lent his skills and abilities to more notable social causes. A few of his works, for example, champion women’s education.

In fact, the seductive women of his posters, the central figures of the vast majority of his most celebrated works, seem absolutely contemporary, empowered and in charge of their sexuality — which is an absolutely modern representation of femininity at large.

Some of his practices too were quite modern. For example, he painted and drew his works from photographs rather than live modeling. Some of these photographs are displayed in Prague’s central gallery and actually reveal him as quite a skilled photographer.

At the time, however, this technique was heavily criticized by traditionalists and purists who looked at Mucha’s aid from instruments of mechanical reproduction as cheating and even claimed that because of that, he was not a true artist.

Today, his works are rightly celebrated worldwide and continue to influence designs and graphics greatly. Just last night, as I reflected upon one of the women of his seasons series, it occurred to me that it greatly reminded me of Lauren Bacall’s famous look of empowered and sexually charged femininity of classic American cinema. A further evidence, I suppose, that all art is connected.

Download the full radio show here.

5 Clips from THE ART MOVEMENT – Episode 19 (RADIO SHOW)

Here are five clips from the latest episode of my radio show, THE ART MOVEMENT, the weekly radio show hosted/produced by arts presenter Matt Micucci. The show revolves around art and culture, and where all art forms and free thoughts are allowed.

(To listen to/download the full radio show, scroll to the bottom of the page.)

Why is Franz Kafka so celebrated and what is the meaning of “Kafkaesque”?

How Diego Velázquez gifted the Infanta Margarita Teresa with immortality.

Who was Emmett Till?

A Joaquin Phoenix-narrated animal rights documentary sparked a hostage crisis crisis in Ukraine.

What did Pablo Picasso in Cannes after the Second World War?

Lots more where that came from! You can listen to the full epsiode of THE ART MOVEMENT (including the music) via the player below.

Download the full show here.