The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Artistic Duel that Defined the Renaissance, By Jonathan Jones, Knopf, 368 pp., $35
Leonardo and the Last Supper, By Ross King, Walker, 336 pp., $28
Those two enigmatic, titanic figures, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, come to vibrant life in two new books, The Lost Battles, by Jonathan Jones, and Leonardo and the Last Supper, by Ross King. Both men are seasoned writers for the general public, which means that readers who enjoyed Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code can return to the terrain of vast conspiracies, cutthroat competition, arcane symbolism, Machiavelli, the Borgias, and beautiful art—but this time the conspiracies are genuine, the symbolism works, and the characters, in all their flesh-and-blood eccentricity, are real, often painfully so.
Leonardo painted the Last Supper in Milan between 1495 and 1498, a decade before the city council of Florence commissioned two huge battle paintings for the glorious new assembly room it had added to Palazzo della Signoria, the 13th-century city hall. Using an age-old gambit for getting good work done quickly, the city fathers advanced the project by hiring two local artists to work in competition, and what artists they were! The first was Leonardo, 52, returned from years abroad in Milan. His recent work in Florence, though incomplete, had already caused a sensation: spectacular, large-scale drawings for his Adoration of the Magi and Virgin, Child, and St. Anne, and the oil portrait of a young Florentine woman, Monna (“Mrs.”) Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. Early in 1504, Leonardo added another item to his lengthening list of unfinished projects: a large wall painting of the Battle of Anghiari, a skirmish with Milan that had ended with a victory for Florence in 1440.
The commission was a godsend both financially and personally for the aging artist, the promise of boundless opportunity—until the day the city council called a mass meeting of Florentine artists to discuss what to do with a colossal statue that the 30-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti had just carved from a huge, apparently unsalvageable chunk of moon-white Carrara marble. As Jones reveals, Leonardo urged the councilors to protect the statue’s surface sheen by tucking it into a corner of the Loggia dei Mercanti in the piazza outside the city hall and redeem its modesty by outfitting the figure with bronze underpants. He knew as well as anyone what Michelangelo had created in David—but his attempt to downplay the masterpiece by installing it under a roof had no effect (the brazen underpants, on the other hand, were apparently put in place).
Furthermore, the city council gave Michelangelo a space in the same hall as Leonardo to paint a second battle scene: the Battle of Cascina, a victory against Pisa in the 14th century. The most riveting battle, of course, was the one carried out at the start of the 16th century between these two artists, both of whom already belonged to the world as much as they did to Florence.
King’s account of the Last Supper gives an added poignancy to our sense of what Leonardo’s situation might have been in Florence in 1504. Born in the provincial village of Vinci and the result of his young, unmarried father’s liaison with a servant girl (who may have been an Arab slave), Leonardo was barred from the profession of his notary father by his illegitimacy. He never had a last name; in later years, he simply would be known as Leonardo from Vinci, the Florentine. As King notes, many of Renaissance Italy’s other most prominent figures were illegitimate: Petrarch, Boccaccio, Leon Battista Alberti, Pope Clement VII. Frequently these “natural” children were brought up in their fathers’ households, and Leonardo had, by all accounts, a loving childhood in Vinci and then in Florence.
Of course, his ambiguous social status had nothing to do with his evident talents, and he became an apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio, one of the city’s most prominent artists. Verrocchio was predominantly a sculptor, though he also produced tempera paintings on panel (one of which, a Baptism of Christ in the Uffizi in Florence, gave young Leonardo the chance to outshine his master by painting a divinely delicate angel next to Verrocchio’s gaunt, wiry figures of Christ and the Baptist).
One medium that Verrocchio seems not to have tried was fresco, the art of painting fresh plaster as soon as it has been applied to the wall. Fresco was the most difficult medium for a Renaissance painter to master; colors change as the plaster dries, and a painter has only one chance to apply pigment to the limited area that can be completed in a single day. As a result, King notes, Leonardo may simply never have learned how to do it. He did famously learn to do a great many other things; in an age renowned for its men of many talents, Leonardo had an almost bottomless bag of tricks. That very versatility may have been his downfall as an artist. There were so many other claims on his attention, many of them recorded in his extraordinary notebooks.
As both King and Jones show memorably, Leonardo was a flamboyant personality: handsome, courteous, and eccentric, with long hair and a passion for rose-colored tights, capes, and caps in an era when sober, respectable men wore black. His studio assistants were his family, ranging from well-born, talented pupils like Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Francesco Melzi to the curly-headed kleptomaniac Gian Giacomo Caprotti, whom Leonardo nicknamed Salaì, “devil,” and pampered outrageously because he was so beautiful.
For the Milanese warlord Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo designed costumes, pageants, and automata, played and sang, conversed, advised on military matters, and painted portraits of Ludovico’s mistresses—all while conducting his own private studies of nature, arithmetic, Latin, and literature, at a time when he was also supposed to be painting the Last Supper on the refectory wall for the Dominican friars of Santa Maria delle Grazie. King writes with verve and enthusiasm about the various figures in the painting, from their identities (the blond in blue is definitely St. John rather than Mary Magdalene; in a particularly choice passage, King reveals the source for Dan Brown’s grand conspiracy theory as a 20th-century French forger and anti-Semite), the colors of their clothing, their passionate hand gestures, Leonardo’s perspective, the theological significance of the table setting, and how they all came together in a marvelously compelling work of art.
And as Leonardo painted, or pretended to paint, or procrastinated rather than painting, the crowned heads of Europe—Charles VIII of France, Emperor Maximilian Habsburg, Louis the Duke of Orleans—massed their forces along the Alps to move in on Sforza and take Milan; the suspense is political as well as artistic. By the time a French army captured the city, Leonardo had finished his commission for the Dominicans by applying oil paint to dry plaster, and for about 20 years the technique made for an incomparably dazzling Last Supper, the likes of which the world had never seen. The lime content in plaster limited the range of pigments that fresco painters could use, but Leonardo’s lustrous oils ranged across the spectrum—until the paint began to flake away from the wall. The rest of the story piles tragedy on tragedy, ending with the restricted viewing conditions now aimed at preserving the last heroic effort at restoration, directed between 1979 and 1999 by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon.
Hopelessly damaged, the Last Supper at least survives as a specter of its former self. But the battle that pitted Michelangelo against Leonardo on the walls of the Florentine city hall has left only indirect evidence of its virulence, and its bursts of genius. The hall was remodeled in the mid-16th century, its roof raised and its walls frescoed by Giorgio Vasari, a painter who knew that getting the job done can sometimes count as much as talent. The current mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, recently authorized soundings in the wall of the great hall to see whether traces of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari might have survived beneath Vasari’s work, so far without success.
It seems unlikely that much will be found. Vasari was not just a painter; he was also a superb architect and a superb writer, the author of a series of artistic biographies that are an essential (though not invariably accurate) source for our knowledge about Renaissance Italy. Would a man so sensitive to his own predecessors really have covered over work by two of the artists he most admired? Jones makes a cogent case for a project that never went much beyond the stage of large-scale drawings; when Leonardo tried to apply oil paint to the walls in Florence, it slid off almost immediately. Michelangelo, on the other hand, knew how to do fresco, and by 1508 he was in Rome, applying fresco paint to the Sistine Chapel ceiling from a scaffold, its design poached from Leonardo.
But the effect of these two incomplete, long-gone battles on subsequent art, as Jones argues, has been profound. He points up the vast differences of personality that separated the suave, dandy Leonardo from the gruff, unkempt Michelangelo, sparing neither the two artists, nor Florence, their quirks of character. They are flanked by a vivid parade of supporting characters, from sweetly smiling Machiavelli and fearsome Cesare Borgia, both of whom worked with Leonardo, to the young Raphael, who floats through the battlefield on the walls of Palazzo della Signoria like an epiphany. Who wins the battle? This reviewer isn’t telling. The best way to find out is to read these two delightful if tragic books.