Duel for Eternity: Michelangelo and Da Vinci

Artistic rivalries between geniuses usually produce wonders. Bernini and Borromini, Brunelleschi and ghiberti, Mozart and Salieri…how about Michelangelo and Da Vinci? Here is the story:

“In 1504, soon after the marble David was complete, Michelangelo had been hired by the government of Florence to fresco one wall of a council room inside the Palazzo della Signoria. The opposite wall was to be decorated by another Florentine artist with an equally illustrious reputation, Leonardo Da Vinci. Then aged fifty-two, Leonardo held the field in painting, having recently returned to Florence after almost two decades in Milan, where he had painted his celebrated Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie. These two men –by far the most renowned artists of the age –were thereby thrown into direct competition.

The artistic duel (between Michelangelo and Da Vinci) was made even more compelling by their well-known dislike of each other. The surly Michelangelo had once taunted Leonardo in public for having failed in his attempt to cast a giant bronze equestrian statue in Milan. Leonardo, meanwhile, had made it clear that he had little regard for sculpture. “This is a most mechanical exercise,” he once wrote, “accompanied many times with a great deal of sweat.” He further claimed that sculptors, covered in marble dust, looked like bakers, and that their homes were both noisy and filthy, in contrast to the more elegant adobe of painters. All Florence awaited the outcome.

(…) Michelangelo was commissioned to pain The Battle of Cascina, depicting a skirmish fought against the Pisans in 1364, while Leonardo was to illustrate The Battle of Anghiari, showing a Florentine victory over Milan in 1440.

After toiling in great secrecy for several months, both emerged in early 1505 with the fruits of their labors: full-size chalk drawings that revealed, in bold strokes, the overall design of their compositions. There to 1,100-square-foot drawings caused an outbreak of almost religious fervor in Florence. Tailors, bankers, merchants, weavers, and, of course, painters –all flocked to Santa Maria della Novella, where the two cartoon were displayed together like holy relics.

Michelangelo’s cartoon features what would become his trademark: muscular nudes in frantic but graceful gyrations. He had chosen to illustrate a scene leading up to the battle, when a false alarm was sounded to test the readiness of Florentine soldiers as they bathed in the Arno, resulting in a mad scramble of naked men onto the riverbank and into their armor. Leonardo, on the other hand, concentrated on equestrian rather than human anatomy, showing mounted soldiers battling for a fluttering standard.

Transferred in color to the walls of the Hall of the Great Council –a vast chamber supposedly constructed with the help of angels –these two scenes would have created, without doubt, one of the greatest artistic wonders of the world. Alas, after such a promising start, neither fresco was ever completed, and the duel between these two famous sons of Florence, each at the summit of his powers, failed to come off. Michelangelo’s fresco, in fact, was never even started. No sooner had he finished the magnificent cartoon than, in February 1505, he was ordered to Rome by the Pope to sculpt the Pope’s tomb. Leonardo made a tentative start on The Battle of Anghiari, but his experimental method of painting failed drastically when the colors began dripping from the wall. Chastened by this humiliating failure, he lost his appetite for the work and soon afterward returned to Milan.”

From ‘Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling’ by Ross King

Even though we cannot enjoy neither the frescos nor the original cartoons, we can still admire some original preparatory sketches as well as two reproductions of the full cartoons by different artists:

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