Challenging two geniuses
A Leonardo da Vinci vs Michelangelo contest would raise discussions for centuries; well, it happened, and it was in Florence Italy in 1503. At that time, Florence was a free republic, attracting many artists. The Medici family had been banned in 1494, and after getting rid of the dictator Girolamo Savonarola in 1498, the city flourished again. Michelangelo Buonarroti came back from Rome in 1501, Leonardo da Vinci came back from Milan in 1503. Piero Soderini, Mayor of the city, wanted to decorate the brand new Hall of the 500 in Palazzo Vecchio, and with the two greatest artists ever in town, he didn’t hesitate to put them in competition. Now you are curious to know who was the winner, aren’t you?
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Two different personalities
The Leonardo da Vinci vs Michelangelo contest didn’t start with this commission, but as soon as Leonardo came back to Florence: 23 years older than Michelangelo, didn’t like the fame reached by the new young star, who was working on a statue of David, that would later grant him immortality and the title of greatest artist ever. Leonardo da Vinci would expect some respect from the younger competitor, who instead, aware of his talent and with a completely different point of view on arts and beauty, considered everybody else inferior. Once Leonardo Da Vinci tried to embarrass Michelangelo, challenging him in a discussion about Dante Alighieri’s Comedy, but the young sculptor attacked Leonardo, making fun of his failed attempt to cast in bronze a huge statue of a horse. While Michelangelo thought sculpture was the most important of the visual arts, Leonardo was a supporter of painting on panel. Michelangelo’s argument on sculpture was that you cannot correct a mistake when you remove marble from a block, so you need to have a lot more talent than in painting, where you can still go back and do a better job. Leonardo da Vinci considered perfection as a “work in progress”. For him, correcting in order to obtain a better result was normal, and most of his works have many layers of paint because of this.
Leonardo da Vinci vs Michelangelo
Piero Soderini found the perfect conditions to convince the two artists to accept the challenge. It wasn’t easy: Leonardo didn’t like to paint in fresco, because unlike painting on panel, in fresco you have to hurry. At the same time, Michelangelo didn’t like to paint at all; he didn’t want to subtract time to sculpture. Money was probably good, and they both had to prove their superiority. They had to paint two huge frescoes, representing the most famous battles fought by the Republic of Florence. In the Western wall of the Hall of the 500, Leonardo da Vinci had to paint the Battle of Anghiari, in the Eastern wall Michelangelo had to represent the Battle of Cascina. Leonardo da Vinci vs Michelangelo contest was officially underway! Busy with his David, Michelangelo didn’t start immediately, confident to start later and finish earlier, given that Leonardo was notoriously slow. Leonardo da Vinci started his work, and in an extreme attempt not to win, but to completely outmatch his opponent, he tried a new untested technique: encaustic painting. Encaustic painting was used in antiquity, and consists in mixing color pigments with beeswax, fixing them on the surface with heat. My opinion on this risky choice: Leonardo was one of the first Florentine painters to abandon tempera for oil color (which can’t be used for fresco works). Fresco is dull if compared to painting on panel, tempera is dull if compared with oil color. Leonardo wanted to give his battle the same brilliance as an oil on panel work. This way, Michelangelo’s fresco would appear dull, compared to his shining work. The problem is, as soon as Leonardo tried to fix colors, using fire, they started to melt and pour down. Reason: the painting was too large, and it was impossible to reach the high temperatures needed to do a good job. Frustrated, Leonardo abandoned the job. At the same time Michelangelo, who had prepared drawings on a paperboard, didn’t even start his fresco.
Who won the contest?
The Leonardo da Vinci vs Michelangelo contest was won by… Giorgio Vasari. About 60 years later, Cosimo I Grand Duke of Tuscany asked him to decorate the hall, and he covered the unfinished work by Leonardo da Vinci. In recent years, the National Geographic made x-ray analysis and also obtained the permissions to make some small holes in Vasari’s fresco. According to a theory, Vasari didn’t destroy Leonardo’s work but built a new wall, leaving a gap with the old one. A small probe with camera picked up a white pigment that would be compatible with the pigments used by Leonardo Da Vinci. What remains of this contest today is the many copies of both the unfinished work by Leonardo, and the paperboard by Michelangelo, both lost.
Who lost the contest?
The loser was the city of Florence because the two great artists left Florence shortly after. Their personalities were incompatible. The argument between the two (painting vs sculpture) which happened in Florence, and another episode of the life of Michelangelo, who had a broken nose after being hit in the face with a punch by an older artist (not Leonardo), was summarized (with artistic license) in the TV series “Borgia”, locating the clash in Rome. Here is the excerpt of episode 5, season 3, with the meeting between the two great geniuses.
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