We all know something about the Renaissance. The names Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo are known to most people. If you show someone a picture of the Mona Lisa or the statue of David in western civilization, a lot of them will be able to tell you the name of the work and the master that created it. However when we think of names like Leonardo, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, or Michelangelo we really never think of them as living in the same places at the same times. We tend to think of them as these monolithic figures in art history that stand apart existing almost in a vacuum. Perhaps, at least in my mind, that is because the artist is often a solitary profession and so many throughout history have been eccentrics and loners. But did you know that there was a time when Michelangelo and Leonardo were in competition with one another and were working in the same room at the same time? Yes, the two most praised and masterful artists of the Italian Renaissance once squared off against one another.
For those who do not understand the business of being an artist in the Renaissance, it was somewhat different than being an artist today. Today many artists first create a piece and then a buyer will come along and buy it at a gallery while a minority of works are commissioned. However, in the Renaissance there were no galleries and in order to put bread on the table, most masters relied completely on commissioned works and sometimes were put on retainer by a single rich family. This is why so many Renaissance works are religious in nature, for few had the deep pockets that the Latin church possessed. Well at one point, the rich banking center of Florence was looking for a way to glorify Florentine power after expelling the Medici's. This was the age of fierce rivalry between Italian city states and the best way to show off power was via building construction and art. In the famous Palazzo Vecchio two artist were commissioned to paint two walls of the famous hall. In 1503 Leornardo(in his 50s), fresh from painting the Mona Lisa was commissioned to paint a depiction of the Battle of Anghiari and in 1504 Michelangelo(in his late 20's), fresh from sculpting David was brought in to paint the Battle of Cascina.
It was an unusual matchup, and one that bred rivalry and contempt between the artists. Sadly only descriptions and copies of the works survive today. But the story is one between iconic masters with clashing personalities. First, Leonardo was not used to having a rival, and took Michelangelo's competition as an insult. Indeed at one time he left for France to just get away from the younger artists. His quiet, private, and sulky nature contrasted with the hyper focused and determined Michelangelo. In his notebooks are very viscous critiques of Michelangelo's abilities. More than once Leonardo calls Michelangelo's paintings "wooden in appearance". Oddly in what we know of Michelangelo, he lacked confidence in his painting abilities and often said he was a sculptor and not a painter. Indeed later when he was contracted to paint the Sistine Chapel in Rome, he thought the Pope was playing a cruel joke on him and setting him up for failure. But the whole idea of bringing in competition for Leonardo was simply to get him to finish something he started. By 1504 it was well known that getting Leonardo to complete a project was difficult. And those he did finish often took much longer than hoped because the master liked to experiment so much. This commission was no different. Leonardo, like with the famous Last Supper, decided to try to find a way to paint on dry walls versus wet plaster. The result was a painting that deteriorated fast and dried to a much darker hue than intended. He also invented an elevator so he could indeed paint the wall more compfortably without using a ladder. All this took time and distracted him.
Oddly Michelangelo from this time onward would have a tendency to not finish projects also. One could say the older Leonardo's bad habits began to rub off on him. He never got past the design stage, but his design was met with much acclaim. He was pulled away from the project by the Pope to paint the aforementioned Sistine Chapel. Whether the allure of money from the vastly rich Vatican pulled him there, or the conflict with Leonardo pushed him there is one open for debate. It is sad that the rennovations destroyed Leonardo's painting. Even though it quickly deteriorated, there are is only about a dozen painting of his left in existence, and like the last supper would have been idolized to the modern day even if in poor condition. And it is also sad that Michelangelo's original drawings were destroyed by greedy souvenir hunters in his own lifetime, simply eager for a piece of something that came from an artist who was a "rockstar" of the time. But we have accurate copies and drawings and we can only image what might have been if both were there today. The artist that painted over Leonardo was at best mediocre, more well known for his writings than visual art. Our consolation prize with Michelangelo does survive today however, and all those that go visit the Sistine Chapel can see that he was indeed more gifted than he thought himself. The shear size and quality of that work stands as testament that the sculptor could indeed paint.
Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina
Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari