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14. Leonardo and Michelangelo
I knew as soon as I decided to write this book that I would have to tackle the Everest of creating a believable representation of Michelangelo. Thanks to Giorgio Vasari, who worshipped him, we have a lot of information about the artist’s life. But Vasari is notoriously unreliable about his facts. There is another biography of Michelangelo written by a much younger contemporary, Ascanio Condivi, and there are various anonymous accounts that attest to the rivalry between Michelangelo and Leonardo when the older artist returned to Florence from Milan.
Great. Not only did I have to create a believable Michelangelo but a credible Leonardo as well. And show them in their relationship together. As I’ve said many times, Michelangelo is my favourite sculptor; I first saw his work in the flesh – “in the marble” – when I was twenty and was totally hooked.
But (*whispers*), I don’t really like his painting at all. Yup, the masterpiece that is the Sistine ceiling? Don’t like. I think the rot set in with his circular painting (tondo) in the Uffizi, of the Holy Family, done in pinks and blues and oranges. It led to the Mannerist school of painting of the High Renaissance which leaves me cold – too much exposed flesh and iron man musculature.
Leonardo, on the other hand, left a small number of exquisite paintings, of which my favourite is Lady with an Ermine. But he was a terrible non-finisher! He lost interest quickly and spread himself too thin. (Michelangelo left a lot of sculptures unfinished too and invented the “non finito” or “unfinished” technique, of leaving some parts unpolished and still roughly carved).
So just by looking at their work you can see Michelangelo as this monumental labourer with flashes of pure genius and Leonardo as the quicksilver dilettante, moving restlessly from work to work. We know that Leonardo was a bit of a dandy because there is a list of the clothes he left at his death – all rose-coloured velvet cloaks and suchlike. Whereas Michelangelo was the opposite of fastidious about his person, often not changing his clothes or washing for very long periods.
If you look at them through twenty-first century eyes, Leonardo would have been a lot nicer to be around!
But I can’t help that; if there are “Leonardo people” and “Michelangelo people” put me down as a fan of the sculptor. The author Theresa Breslin is a “Leonardo person” and has written about him in The Medici Seal. And now I have tried to create a credible portrait of my favourite sculptor. I feel that I understand him, different from me as he is in just about every possible way. Something speaks to me across the ages and this cantankerous, smelly, broken-nosed artist shows me in his work all the humanity and sense of the infinite that a truly great artist can achieve.
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