Michelangelo and Leonardo felt “an intense dislike for each other,” says their biographer Vasari. He doesn’t say why.
There is only this story from an anonymous manuscript called the Codice Magliabecchiano:
“As Leonardo, accompanied by [his friend] Giovanni di Gavina, was passing the Spini Bank, near the church of Santa Trinità, several notables were assembled who were discussing a passage in Dante and seeing Leonardo, they asked him to come and explain it to them.
Santa Trinità Church, Florence ( Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo)
At the same moment Michelangelo passed and, one of the crowd calling to him, Leonardo said: ‘Michelangelo will be able to tell you what it means.’ To which Michelangelo, thinking this had been said to entrap him, replied: ‘No, explain it yourself, horse-modeller that you are, who, unable to cast a statue in bronze, were forced to give up the attempt in shame.’ So saying, he turned his back on them and left. Leonardo remained silent and blushed at these words.” (quoted in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Oxford University Press, 1952, trans. Irma A. Richter, p.356 )
This makes Michelangelo look like a jealous ass. Perhaps he was. He was quick to take offense. But the story doesn’t say why Leonardo asked him to explain the text or in what tone. Maybe it was provocative, maybe it sounded like ridicule. It may be the reason Leonardo disliked Michelangelo but Michelangelo’s aversion for Leonardo was already there.
Why would he hate such a genius if not out of jealousy?
He had heard of Leonardo da Vinci all his life. How could he not? Leonardo was revered as the world’s greatest genius.What was his reputation as an artist based on? What was his great work, his Sistine, his David, his Moses, his Pietà?
That’s easy, you may say: the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.
The Mona Lisa is about the size of a small bedroom mirror. Leonardo worked four years on it and still didn’t finish it. Ah, but the size of a work of art shouldn’t matter, you say: many of the greatest paintings are small. True.
The Last Supper is big—460×880 cm. (181×346 in.). Leonardo spent six years on it before giving up because he couldn’t find the right head for Christ. He drew sketch after sketch and spent whole days staring at the wall.
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy
He finally spoiled it with some experimental medium mixture. It began to disintegrate almost as soon as he painted it.
His Sistine Chapel should have been the Great Equestrian Monument for the Duke of Milan. On it he horsed around for sixteen years until the Duke finally made a cannon with the bronze he had saved for the statue. Leonardo’s clay model stood around for years until it was destroyed. That’s the horse Michelangelo was talking about in the Codice Magliabecchiano story.
But it was an incredibly beautiful clay horse, you may say. Everyone praised it.
Ask a sculptor if a clay model is to be taken as anything more than a first step. A work of art has to be permanent. Clay dries and cracks and disintegrates—it is only a model or guide for the next two or three (or ten!) steps before the sculptor’s idea becomes a statue.
Now, Michelangelo never saw either of those. They were in Milan. What might he have heard about the Master? What was Leonardo’s actual record of achievement? What was he employed to do?
He was good at decoration for pageants and weddings and stuff. He could make big toy lions that ran and growled. He played the lyre and sang like an angel (and dressed like one).
Yes, but wasn’t he inventing airplanes and tanks and bombs and things?
On paper. He did a lot of reading too and devoured books on math and engineering and botany. He was a brilliant conversationalist. Everyone loved to have him at their party.
He went from prince to prince on the strength of a reputation and he was often given room and board as a distinguished guest—for months. He wowed them with his brilliant talk and the originality of his ideas on everything under the sun. But few or none of his fantastic projects were ever brought off.
Except for Cesar Borgia’s map, what else did he actually do for him, which ingenious project was carried out? And the great bridge over the Bosphorus for the Great Turk—it was only a little sketch. The monument for the Duke of Trifulzi—it was a wonderful sketch. So light, so artistic. The St. Anne and the Virgin with Christ and St. John—it is a cartoon, not a painting.
He lived in style. “He owned, one might say, nothing and he worked very little,” says Vasari, “yet he always kept servants as well as horses”—the great artist. His patrons were forever after him to paint them a picture. He seems never to have said no. By the time he was fifty he had half a dozen great dukes and kings and ladies begging him to remember his promise to do a little something for them. But Leonardo was busy. Busy observing, doodling, dreaming.
He planned a flying machine and pictured the glory it would bring him: “The first flight of the great bird from the summit of the Monte Ceceri will fill the universe with wonder,” he wrote in his notebook. “All writing will be of its fame, bringing eternal glory to the place of its origin [and a little to the creator maybe?].”
He got a commission from the City of Florence to paint a mural on the wall of the Council Hall. He finished the cartoon, the first big step—he got that far. But then he started to paint the wall, not in fresco but with oils—a novel thing to do (always the genius!). He tried a new way to make the colors stick by applying heat and it failed—the colors ran. Michelangelo, who was working on a mural in the same Council Hall, perhaps thought it served him right.
So, dust-covered and sore as he was all the time from long hours of sculpting, he must not have enjoyed seeing Leonardo cologned and in fine clothes with a following of admirers and censer-swingers trailing.
“Michelangelo, come over and meet Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest artist in the world! He can do anything.”
Michelangelo, old at sixty by Jacopino del Conte
Michelangelo was someone who, besides coming up with brilliant designs, solved gigantic practical problems to realize them. He had to go and get his marble in the cold mountains. He had to find it, cut it out and put it on a cart, then on a barge, and bring it to his workshop a hundred miles away. Sometimes he had to build the very road through the mountains to transport it. “We’re almost through,” he wrote from Serravezza. “There’s just one more big boulder to chip away and then the cart can go forward another hundred feet.” It was dangerous: “This morning one of the workmen fell and broke his neck. I myself was almost killed.” Another time a chain from which a big block was swinging broke. “We were so lucky,” he wrote. “Any of us could have been killed.”
He was cruelly abused by his patrons. Pope Julius sent him to Carrara for eight months to get marbles for his tomb, then cancelled the project. Pope Leo, the next pope, sent him to the hills of Serravezza for three years and then cancelled his project. Altogether at least five or six of Michelangelo’s best years were wasted in quarries.
Once he got the marble home, he had to carve it, which is slow, hard work. He worked all day swinging a hammer and coughing at the dust until exhaustion put him to sleep. If he still had a moment before dropping off he thought about the design for the building or tomb where the statue would go, or about something his patron had said. Thank God the statue was looking pretty.
There was luck so bad it was like a curse. Pope Julius ordered Michelangelo to make a colossal (three times life-size) portrait of himself in bronze and when Michelangelo had finished modelling it after fourteen months the bronze caster spoiled it and Michelangelo had to do part of it over again. He did finish it but four years later it was melted down and made into a cannon: a major work and two of his best years lost. While he worked in Bologna he had to live at a cheap hotel in a room with four other workmen and he suffered terribly from the discomfort and the lack of privacy.
Nothing was easy for him: there was obstruction after obstruction, with things and with people. Try to actually DO anything in this world.
And you should have seen him at work in the Sistine Chapel.
A fragment of the Sistine Chapel ceiling (Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license photo by Aaron Logan)
He taught himself to paint in fresco and he put three hundred figures on a three-thousand-square-foot ceiling. He didn’t crack. Probably no one who ever lived could have held up but him. He had superhuman stamina and a slave-driving sense of responsibility. He had a job to do and he would do it.
“Explain this passage from Dante for us, Michelangelo,” Leonardo calls over in his charming way. “They say you know so much.”
Note: This portrayal of Leonardo does not do him justice. It is a caricature used here to justify Michelangelo’s contempt.