Critical Analysis of Jonathan Jones'

Critical Analysis of Stephanie Storey's Oil and Marble

No two artists stand as tall as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti in the pantheon of Western civilization, at least by most accounts. The attraction and compulsion to compare these two titans has fascinated millions and has fueled countless debates. As to be expected, it even inspired the direct challenge that tasked each master with painting a famous Florentine battle scene, both of which were to decorate the Great Council Hall in the Palazzo Vecchio.

In the book The Lost Battles, by Jonathan Jones, the author awards Michelangelo as the winner over da Vinci in this famous yet ultimately vaporous competition, as neither painting survived.

Naturally, Leonardo and Michelangelo were both geniuses, which is beyond dispute. However, in their famous Battle, Jonathan Jones evidently failed to comprehend the extreme innovation of Leonardo’s battle scene. As the images below attest, artists of the time, such as Paolo Uccello, painted battle scenes in rigid and emotionless states, as if the soldiers and their steeds were cardboard characters or had posed for a photograph, in modern terms.


However, da Vinci captured the heat of battle, men and their horses twisted in the ferocity of war, their very faces enraged with animus: death to their foes. As they say, seeing is believing, and a simple comparison of Leonardo’s intense facial sketches of a warrior and the close-up of Uccello’s soldier below says it all.

More importantly, the influence of Leonardo’s avant-garde style and verismo composition not only spurred Rubens to salvage a section of this chaotic and savage scene with his own sketch, but Leonardo’s prophetic vision also inspired Caravaggio and others, who likewise emulated the verismo (true to life) direction the Renaissance master pioneered, and thus bestowed upon future generations.

Going a step further, Leonardo's twisted scene, captured by Rubens, is almost abstract, and mingles man with horse in a moving and symbolic fashion that amplifies the animalistic nature of war: man as beast. It was radical, it was raw, it was real, it was the Renaissance.

Anyone familiar with Leonardo’s style, as I have been since childhood, knows that Leonardo perfected the art of what I call static vitality. Leonardo's Mona Lisa is simply posed and stationary, yet her body is slightly twisted and the background (with its swirling road and swirling river, let alone her enigmatic smile), brings vitality to an otherwise static portrait. Or Da Vinci’s Last Supper, which could have been a static frontal-view of men gathered at a table, is vitalized by the agitated figures upon hearing Jesus’ words, “One of you shall betray me.” The emotional intensity gives life, action, and profound meaning to the event. Take for example Salvador Dali's Last Supper, where the apostles are all static, drone-like statues. Although a compelling masterwork in its own right, Dali did not capture the deep emotional verismo impact that Leonardo did.

Leonardo’s other paintings likewise are generally portraits, yet with subtle and brilliant arrangements that capture the essence of their respective subjects, giving them a unique vitality. Meanwhile, his limited works featuring groups all exhibit subtle but sweeping movements.

However, Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari was something entirely new for Leonardo, but also radically new for the art of painting. It was ferocious, bold, dramatic, and, as always, true to life. And especially true to Renaissance life, capturing the brutal strife of his times more fully and profoundly than Michelangelo, with his nude bathers, set in a composition without a focal point, eschewing the horrors of war and the ferocity that not only made Florence the center of European life in its day but also the bloody, yet extremely creative, heart of the Renaissance.

Michelangelo's sketches, judging by the copies, indicated a scene without the intensity of Leonardo's, a composition of nude male bodies, his obsession, that evoked nothing pertinent to the actual battles of Florence or the many that had ravaged Renaissance Italy. Michelangelo’s art, in general, was more often Herculean and dynamic, such as God giving life to Adam in his Sistine ceiling scene, yet he failed to attain the raw hostility of war in this commission. Additionally, and of equal importance, Michelangelo's works featuring groups, such as Battle of the Centaurs or the Last Judgment, were also collages of nude figures, just like his Cascina battleless scene, highlighting his obsession with ancient Roman and Greek nude sculptures and his personal style that he favored over the subject at hand.

Ironically, Jonathan Jones and a few other historians credit the Cascina sketch with having the greater influence on succeeding generations of painters. Yet, when we look at the evidence, namely all the great painters who followed Leonardo and Michelangelo into the Baroque and then Mannerist periods, we blatantly see that nude Herculean figures were not the norm, not by a long shot. Here we can see Leonardo's far greater influence with our own eyes and with factual evidence, not the personal opinions of a few historians with a bias. Moreover, Michelangelo's Cascina battle scene gave him the chance to go beyond his normal restraints and venture into new territory, but he did not, he fell back into his safe zone of creating just another collage of nude Greco-Roman sculpted figures.

In contrast, Leonardo, whose paintings were often imbued with a subtle hint of graceful or emotional/spiritual movements, was shown here to break new ground, once again, being vigorous and chaotically dynamic, as well as capturing a ferocity that even his young rival never managed to attain, thus proving Leonardo's versatility and ability to adapt to whatever project he set his great mind to. And this commission to create a battle scene shifted Leonardo’s mind to the cold and harsh realities that surround war. Furthermore, being a military engineer, Leonardo certainly knew more about the ugliness of war than Michelangelo.

As such, judging from all the remnants, Leonardo was clearly the winner in this competition, as Michelangelo's successes lie elsewhere. Da Vinci's only loss in this battle was that his experimental technique of using oils instead of tempera failed miserably: dripping into a muddy soup of colors as it was heated in a vain attempt to expedite the paint's drying process. Yet, that only sketches of each battle scene survive, we are left with grave disappointment and wonder: what the end results might have looked like?

Rich DiSilvio
September 8, 2018

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