Michelangelo & Leonardo da Vinci

From Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of da Vinci, here is about as concise and colorful a summary of how true genius can, in the same century and even the same city, manifest itself in entirely different ways:


When Leonardo left Florence for Milan in 1482, Michelangelo was only seven years old. His father was a member of Florence’s minor nobility who subsisted on small public appointments, his mother had died, and he was living in the countryside with the family of a stone-cutter. During the seventeen years that Leonardo was away in Milan, Michelangelo became Florence’s hot new artist. He was apprenticed to the thriving Florence workshop of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, won the patronage of the Medici, and traveled to Rome in 1496, where he carved his Pietà, showing Mary grieving over the body of Jesus.

      By 1500 the two artists were back in Florence. Michelangelo, then twenty-five, was a celebrated but petulant sculptor, and Leonardo, forty-eight, was a genial and generous painter who had a following of friends and young students. It is enticing to think of what might have occurred if Michelangelo had treated him as a mentor. But that did not happen. As Vasari reported, he displayed instead “a very great disdain” toward Leonardo.

      One day Leonardo was walking with a friend through one of the central piazzas of Florence wearing one of his distinctive rose-pink (rosato) tunics. There was a small group discussing a passage from Dante, and they asked Leonardo his opinion of its meaning. At that moment Michelangelo came by, and Leonardo suggested that he might be able to explain it. Michelangelo took offense, as if Leonardo were mocking him. “No, explain it yourself,” he shot back. “You are the one who modelled a horse to be cast in bronze, was unable to do it, and was forced to give up the attempt in shame.” He then turned and walked away. On another occasion when Michelangelo encountered Leonardo, he again referred to the fiasco of the Sforza horse monument, saying, “So those idiot [caponi] Milanese actually believed in you?”

      Unlike Leonardo, Michelangelo was often contentious. He had once insulted the young artists Pietro Torrigiano, who was drawing alongside him in a Florence chapel; Torrigiano recalled “clenching my fist and giving him such a blow on the nose that I felt bone and cartilage go down like biscuit beneath my knuckles.” Michelangelo had a disfigured nose for the rest of his life. Combined with his slightly hunched back and unwashed appearance, that made him a contrast to the handsome, muscular, and stylish Leonardo. Michelangelo’s rivalries extended to many other artists, including Pietro Perugino, whom be called a “clumsy [goffo] artist”; Perugino unsuccessfully sued him for defamation.

      “Leonardo was handsome, urbane, eloquent and dandyishly well dressed,” wrote Michelangelo’s biographer Martin Gayford. “In contrast, Michelangelo was neurotically secretive.” He was also “intense, disheveled, and irascible,” according to another biographer, Miles Unger. He had powerful feelings of love and hate towards those around him but few close companions or protégés. “My delight is in melancholy,” Michelangelo once confessed.

      Whereas Leonardo was disinterested in personal religious practice, Michelangelo was a pious Christian who found himself convulsed by the agony and the ecstasy of faith. They were both gay, but Michelangelo was tormented and apparently imposed celibacy on himself, whereas Leonardo was quite comfortable and open about having male companions. Leonardo took delight in clothes, sporting colorful short tunics and fur-lined cloaks. Michelangelo was ascetic in dress and demeanor; he slept in his dusty studio, rarely bathed or removed his dog-skin shoes, and dined on bread crusts.

      – Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci