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Book Review: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Art of the Figure

By (January 4, 2015) No Comment

Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Art of the Figureleonardo, michelanglo - cole cover

by Michael W. Cole

Yale University Press, 2015

The artistic event at the heart of Michael Cole’s new book Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Art of the Figure took place at the dawn of the 16th Century in Florence, when the city commissioned first Leonardo da Vinci in 1503 and then in 1504 Michelangelo to paint the walls of a new meeting space in the old City Hall. Leonardo chose to paint The Battle of Anghiari, a small skirmish between Florence and Milan in 1440; Michelangelo picked The Battle of Cascina as his subject, a battle between Florence and Pisa in 1364; and for a time, the two greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance – and two of the greatest artists in human history – showed up for work in the same hall and watched each other’s works progress.

The intersection was referred to by Kenneth Clark as “the turning point of the Renaissance,” and Cole’s interesting and lavishly-illustrated book explores that turning point in detail, extrapolating outward from the initial contrast between the two men’s works:

Already in their time, but more clearly in retrospect, the paintings of Leonardo and Michelangelo could be read as mutual critiques, Leonardo faulting Michelangelo for the mysteriously motivated actions of his figures, Michelangelo, Leonardo for sacrificing a focus on the figure in favor of something else.

We don’t know much about this epic contest. Neither painting survives; Michelanglo’s model cartoon for his Cascina could still be viewed by appointment as late as 1507, and it’s likely that Leonardo never actually completed his Anghiari – Cole sets out the few surrounding facts, but his book is mainly a study of the broader Renaissance concepts of visualizing the human body, everything from the philosophy to the art techniques like the sfumato practice so loved by Leonardo and so avoided by Michelangelo:

Ruben's copy of the Battle of AnghiariJust taken as representations, moreover, sfumato paintings sacrificed the colors of nature, denying that there are ever clear, dry, sunny days. Among the reasons why Leonardo favored sfumato must have been that misty scenes suited the new oil medium, with its translucent glazes laid one atop the other, and that he simply liked the way sfumato looked: when he recommended that the battle painter pay attention to smoke and dust, after all, he was not primarily reflecting on the nature of perception, but showing his interest in a distinctive subject matter.

Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Art of the Figure is filled with beautiful reproductions of Renaissance art representing the human body, and it also gives readers as many snapshots and hints of what those two central pictures might have looked like. Those hints are tantalizing, of course; the whole book raises the fantasy of these two masterpieces being extant in the world today, gloriously cleaned and lovingly mounted in the Palazzo Vecchio, facing off against each other for all eternity.

Instead of that, we have only the powerful echoes resonating down from the moment in history when these two titans shared a workshop. Cole is excellent in evoking those echoes, and he’s also excellent in his insights into the very different essences of these two men’s work. That work dragged the artistic representation of the human body out of the fog of discretion and religious admonition that had cloaked it since the age of the Antonines, and Cole is alive to the different approaches of Leonardo and Michelangelo, the different underlying approaches:

We tend to think of the Renaissance body in terms of anatomy, unveiling. The artist with anatomical interests was the one who exposed what was on the inside. But the counter-impulse, the visualization of the body’s occulation, has its own history … The mysteriousness of the forced figure was its virtue. Those who accused Michelangelo of being “anatomical” had it wrong: he did not show what was inside his figures, he hid it.

Vasari famously admired the forza della arte, the force of Michelangelo’s art, and he likewise pointed to the force of Leonardo’s painting – two very different kinds of force, and Cole’s written a very good book on how those two things intertwine and work off each other.