From one of Britain’s most respected and acclaimed art historians, art critic of The Guardian—the galvanizing story of a sixteenth-century clash of titans, the two greatest minds of the Renaissance, working side by side in the same room in a fierce competition: the master Leonardo da Vinci, commissioned by the Florentine Republic to paint a narrative fresco depicting a famous military victory on a wall of the newly built Great Council Hall in the Palazzo Vecchio, and his implacable young rival, the thirty-year-old Michelangelo.
We see Leonardo, having just completed The Last Supper, and being celebrated by all of Florence for his miraculous portrait of the wife of a textile manufacturer. That painting—the Mona Lisa—being called the most lifelike anyone had ever seen yet, more divine than human, was captivating the entire Florentine Republic.
And Michelangelo, completing a commissioned statue of David, the first colossus of the Renaissance, the archetype hero for the Republic epitomizing the triumph of the weak over the strong, helping to reshape the public identity of the city of Florence and conquer its heart.
In The Lost Battles, published in England to great acclaim (“Superb”—The Observer; “Beguilingly written”—The Guardian), Jonathan Jones brilliantly sets the scene of the time—the politics; the world of art and artisans; and the shifting, agitated cultural landscape.
We see Florence, a city freed from the oppressive reach of the Medicis, lurching from one crisis to another, trying to protect its liberty in an Italy descending into chaos, with the new head of the Republic in search of a metaphor that will make clear the glory that is Florence, and seeing in the commissioned paintings the expression of his vision.
Jones reconstructs the paintings that Leonardo and Michelangelo undertook—Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, a nightmare seen in the eyes of the warrior (it became the first modern depiction of the disenchantment of war) and Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, a call to arms and the first great transfiguration of the erotic into art. Jones writes about the competition; how it unfolded and became the defining moment in the transformation of “craftsman” to “artist”; why the Florentine government began to fall out of love with one artist in favor of the other; and how—and why—in a competition that had no formal prize to clearly resolve the outcome, the battle became one for the hearts and minds of the Florentine Republic, with Michelangelo setting out to prove that his work, not Leonardo’s, embodied the future of art. Finally, we see how the result of the competition went on to shape a generation of narrative paintings, beginning with those of Raphael.
A riveting exploration into one of history’s most resonant exchanges of ideas, a rich, fascinating book that gives us a whole new understanding of an age and those at its center.
Jonathan Jones was born in Wales and graduated from Cambridge University. He is the art critic for The Guardian and a contributor to numerous magazines and newspapers, among them Frieze, RA Magazine, The Independent, the London Evening Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He appears regularly on the BBC series Private Life of a Masterpiece and has served on the jury for the Turner Prize and the BP Portrait Award. Jones has lectured at the National Gallery, the British Museum, and the Tate Modern. Jones lives in London with his wife and daughter.
From our Q&A with the author
Q: Leonardo and Michelangelo were both highly celebrated artists in Florence when they were commissioned to paint the two frescoes you write about. How could their work become “lost”?
A: In 1503 the city state of Florence commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint The Battle of Anghiari in its new Great Council Hall. He was in his early fifties and had already painted The Last Supper in Milan. This was to be his home city’s answer to The Last Supper—a permanent memorial to his genius. But in 1504, with Leonardo enjoying a state salary yet still nowhere near starting to paint in the Hall, his young rival Michelangelo was asked to paint The Battle of Cascina, another victory, in the same room. A competition was born. It was called by an eyewitness “the school of the world” but both the full-size drawings the artists finished have vanished. So has Leonardo’s unfinished wall painting. (Michelangelo never transferred his design to the wall.) Even allowing for the artists’ own egos and the demands on them—Michelangelo was called to serve the Pope—why have these works been so comprehensively effaced?
To understand this story we need to get into the mind of Florence in the 1500s. This was a city that loved art but it was also a city obsessed with politics. The battle paintings of Michelangelo and Leonardo were commissioned for political reasons—and “lost” for political reasons. Everyone knows the Florentine Renaissance was bankrolled by the Medici family—but it was not that simple. Florence was a republic, a city governed by its own citizens. The Medici family dominated it unofficially in the fifteenth century, as “first among equals.” In 1492, that influence broke and a revolution kicked out the Medici. The new radical republic commissioned the pictures I call “the lost battles.” When the Medici reconquered the city and eventually anointed themselves Grand Dukes of Tuscany, everything that remained of these works of art vanished. This was no coincidence. The lost battles are lost because their republican associations did not fit the Medici legend of a Renaissance bankrolled by one family.
Q: You write that competition was at the heart of Renaissance art. Have any modern periods of artistic achievement embodied that same spirit?
A: Competition was set in the genes, so to speak, of western art by the great rivals of the Renaissance. At the birth of modernism a century ago, Picasso and Matisse constantly checked what the other was doing and tried to outdo it. Their relationship was quite similar to that of Leonardo and Michelangelo—Picasso and his friends threw darts at a painting by Matisse of his daughter that Matisse had given Picasso as a gift.
Artistic competition is very much alive today. To speak from my own patch, British art revolves around the Turner Prize that pitches artists like Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor against one another. This controversial prize may not have spawned any new Leonardos but it has given British art a lot of ambition. I was a judge of the Turner Prize while I worked on The Lost Battles. I found it fascinating to compare the competitive spirit in different times and places.
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