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.


Art Picks the Week #2: Michelangelo, Kurt Schwitters and more

Here are some artworks that have been rocking my world lately for you to feast your eyes on. This week’s list includes works by Michelangelo, Kurt Schwitters, George Frederic Watts and more.

Riccione – The Green Pearl of the Adiatic
Giovanni Maria Mataloni, 1930

The Torment of Saint Anthony
Michelangelo, c. 1487-88

Kurt Schwitters, 1945

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874

George Frederic Watts, 1886

Ceramics from the Sepulchre of the Necropolis of Ervidel
Centuries XIII BC – VII BC

Rest 2
Chang Hong Ahn, Ko Chang-seok, 2010

Madonna of the Goldfinch
Raphael, 1505-1506

Considering Michelangelo’s Antisocial Behavior in the Times of the Coronavirus

Bleak times appear to be ahead for all of us, as number of coronavirus cases are on the rise again all over the world. The looking threat of another imminent lockdown, which has been actuated in some parts of the world, hangs over us like a shadow.

It is important, in these times, to remain positive. It’s easy to give into the negativity brought on by such frustration. Why not embrace, instead, the potential of having to spend time on our own? Such potential includes the possibility of learning a new skill and dedicating our time to passionate self-development, in response to social distancing.

Indeed, this has been the secret of many of the great masters of the past. Including Michelangelo, the great Italian Renaissance sculptor, among the most celebrated of his period. Michelangelo lived a remarkably long life during which he held fort as the most important artist in the world, loyally serving several popes in his lifetime.

A true Renaissance man, Michelangelo was a 360 degree artist — a painter, poet, architect and philosopher. But most of all, especially as the years progressed, he considered himself a sculptor. In reading Martin Gayford’s 2013 biography on his life, Michelangelo: His Epic Life, I have been fascinated to find that he had already reached an incredibly high standard of sculpting in his adolescence.

Part of his secret, Michelangelo would have said, was that he was endowned with a divine gift from God himself. He so wanted to promote this idea that in his lifetime, he almost successfully concealed the contribution of the people who trained him in his craft, including Ghirlandaio, and underplayed the importance of his mentors in his formative years.

Yet, to be sure, part of the reason why he was able to reach such a high standard of sculpting from an early age was that he truly did eat, think and breathe art, and dedicated himself wholly to perfecting his skills. In fact, Gayford even concludes from his research on Michelangelo’s formative years that as a young man, he was downright anti-social.

“Michelangelo, however, stood apart from these musical parties. It sounds as though, even as an adolescent, he was already antisocial, reclusive, and driven: constantly drawing and carving. Only such dedication could explain the rapidity of the progress he made. Within two years, he had become as skilful a sculptor in marble as any alive.”

Martin Gayford, Michelangelo: His Epic Life

In coming across this particular quote, I found it particularly inspiring and worth of being shared. I am not suggesting that the key to maintining a positive frame of mind is withdrawing from the world entirely, though it may suit some just fine. However, I do believe that in these times where withdrawing from others is more or less imposed on us, remembering that Michelangelo’s self-imposed social distancing greatly contributed to his rise as one of the greatest artists in the world.