Geniuses are rare. Rarely do two of them live in the same area in the same country at the same time. But it does happen, and as Columbia professor Denise Budd explains…this created an unusual rivalry between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Denise Budd / Columbia University
“From the earliest times when they were planning Florence Cathedral, the Florentines had the idea to create colossal sculptures, and lift them up around the base of the buttresses. Artists had attempted to do this in the early 15th century including Donatello and Brunelleschi, but they kept running into problems of perspective; how to make a figure satisfying when seen from way down below. None of their attempts survived, but in the 1460s, the Florentines unearthed an enormous block stone seventeen feet high, and they somehow transported it to Florence in one piece. Which in itself is a sort of engineering feet.
The Florentines gave it to a local sculptor in the 1460s to carve, but the block was very tall and very skinny and the sculptor abandoned the project. So, in the 1470s, they give the block to another sculptor who worked on it a little bit and then he abandons the project. So, right around 1500 there is this idea that they’re going to give away the block. Leonardo, who never carved a piece of marble in his life, rushes down from Milan because this was sort of a project of a lifetime, to make a colossal statue of this type. Oh, and yes, Michelangelo comes home to Florence too.
By the way, Michelangelo comes home because of a massive guilt trip from his father. I’ve really never seen anything quite like this. This is an actual letter from Michelangelo’s father to Michelangelo complaining about his kids. ‘Not a single one of you is in a position to help me with so much of a glass of water, though now fifty-six years old. I have to pay for my keep and besides must cook for myself, sweep up, wash the pots and pans, bake bread. I must think of everything even when I have a headache. And if God were to take away my good health I would have to go to a hospice for there’s no one to take care of me.” By the way, he would live another three decades, and Michelangelo is just like him. He said he’s dying from the time he’s 35 and he lives to be 88, swinging a hammer right to the end.
Well, as you’ve probably guessed, Michelangelo had just came off this triumph of the Pieta, is given the block – and he creates The David. Wow.”
In 1504, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), the two greatest artistic geniuses of the Italian Renaissance, were both working on enormous paintings of battle scenes for the Salone dei Cinquecento in the palace of the Florentine government. Though neither Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo would ever see their share of the ambitious project to its completion, the brilliant full-scale drawings they created of rearing horses and muscular soldiers were known in the 16th century as the “school of the world”. Notwithstanding the generational difference, the pairing of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo might have seemed like the ideal opportunity for intellectual collaboration: both were accomplished artists as well as so-called Universal Men, with shared interests across many disciplines, including painting, sculpture, architecture and anatomy. On the contrary, it only exacerbated what was described by their contemporaries as a mutual, fervent disdain, a relationship that was best exemplified by anecdotes of the two artists hurling insults at each other in the streets of Florence.
This lecture will explore how this great rivalry between Leonardo and Michelangelo – who were dissimilar in temperament and beliefs, as well as the manner in which they worked – contributed to the creation of some of the most famous and influential artworks the world has ever seen.
Denise Budd teaches art history at Columbia University and a wide range of Renaissance art classes at Rutgers University. She has published several articles on Leonardo da Vinci based on her studies of the artist and his documentary evidence. Following this interest in archival work, her current research has extended to the history of collecting Renaissance art in Gilded Age America, with a focus on the tapestry collector and dealer Charles Mather Foulke.