Famous figures under scrutiny

New thinking about Da Vinci and Michelangelo considers their different approaches and the reception their work received

Michael Cole’s latest book, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Art of the Figure, addresses the famous competition between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo for history paintings on the walls of the council hall of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Although neither artist completed his commission and only fragmentary evidence of their compositions survive, their competing figural styles are commonly believed to mark a pivotal moment in the creation of the High Renaissance. Between 1504 and 1505 both artists were drawn into an arena that focused on what the author calls “painted force”. Each emphasised aspects of art that were his particular strengths. Thus, Leonardo created a cavalry skirmish in which horse and rider swirled around a standard; Michelangelo, in contrast, projected soldiers, putting on armour in order to do battle. These unfinished works became, in Giorgio Vasari’s words, a “school for artists”, and the surviving drawings and later prints are a pale reflection of what would have been overpowering compositions.

Michael Cole’s Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Art of the Figure, presents the artists as polar opposites and Cole explores their intentions and the subsequent reception of their work under headings such as The Force of Art, Circumscription, Flexion and Motivation. His text teases out meaning through a collage of contemporary and later comments on the role of the individual figure as part of a larger narrative. The danger of such an approach is that it can fall into anachronism. By focusing on force or forza as a common denominator in their approach to the body, Cole blurs a number of different words that Vasari used to describe both artists—words like terribilità, galiardezza, and bravezza,which are more nuanced than the single English word “force”. Neither, for that matter, is forza the same as “figure sforzate”, a term meaning contrived or laboured figures used by subsequent writers as a critique of Michelangelo’s frescoes. Again, Cole suggests that Michelangelo’s cartoon for the Battle of Cascina “laid the groundwork for… bravura painting… likening the painter’s handling of the brush to swordplay”; yet the 17th-century word bravura does not figure in Vasari’s discussions of Michelangelo although he did employ the somewhat different word bravezza in praise of Leonardo’s compositions.

The approach here unintentionally narrows the range of both artists, which encompassed a wider range of figural types than discussed. Cole maintains “that a preoccupation with painted force had reoriented Renaissance painting, narrowing its focus from the composition to a smaller pictorial unit”; yet Michelangelo famously criticised artists whose compositions consisted entirely of quotations from other works. The technique of buon’ fresco may have contributed to the compartmentalisation of compositions, but that did not diminish the interrelationship of the parts to the whole as advocated by Alberti, among others.

John Paoletti’s study, Michelangelo’s David: Florentine History and Civic Identity, similarly subjects a famous Renaissance work to close study, but with more substantial results. He returns to the documents—newly transcribed and translated by Rolf Bagemihl—and traces the prehistory of the large but compromised block of marble that would become Michelangelo’s most celebrated sculpture. He also looks at it in the context of a wide range of sculptural commissions for the Florentine cathedral and baptistry that intertwined civic and religious allegiances at the turn of the 16th century. This wider context produces some suggestive ideas: for example, that Michelangelo’s swift progress in carving the marble between 1501 and 1504 would indicate that it must have been substantially blocked out by Antonio Rossellino a generation earlier; that early references to the stone as having been “badly blocked out” may have been a publicity ploy to magnify Michelangelo’s success.

The placement of the statue on the platform in front of the Palazzo Vecchio was considered a “good omen” for the new republic, but Paoletti writes perceptively about the startling nature of the inclusion of Michelangelo’s gigantic nude David in such a public place. He also notes the skill with which Michelangelo elided the natural and idealised aspects of his figure. Paoletti’s interpretation of the David may occasionally be overly subtle, but it is always adroit and thoughtful.

• Bruce Boucher is the director of the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virgina, Charlottesville

Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Art of the Figure

Michael Cole

Yale University Press, 192pp, £25, $45 (hb)

Michelangelo’s David: Florentine History and Civic Identity

John Paoletti

Cambridge University Press, 399pp, £70 (hb)