In 1504 no less a historic name than Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince, brought together the two greatest artists of the time to decorate the walls of the Great Council Hall of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The aging Leonardo da Vinci and the up and coming star Michelangelo found themselves pitted against one another in a competition to decide whose work and whose style would reign supreme. Jonathan Jones’ The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Artistic Duel that Defined the Renaissance tells the story of this battle royal between the Renaissance heavyweights that somehow resulted in a befuddling draw thanks to the political intrigue of the times. With great detail and captivating insight, Jones puts us there between the battlers, always wondering who will come out on top.
When the call to battle came, da Vinci was not long removed from work on his Last Supper. Similarly, Michelangelo had just brushed away the dust from sculpting his mammoth David. Both at the peak of their powers, yet separated by two decades in age, the two artists represented the two poles of taste and style of the Renaissance—da Vinci with his soft modeling and beautiful figures, versus Michelangelo of the taut, muscular heroes straining against all conventions. What better way to have these two battle it out once and for all but to ask them to depict battles? da Vinci selected The Battle of Anghiari as his weapon, while Michelangelo chose The Battle of Cascina. The ostensible goal of each was to sing the praises of Florence and the Florentine people who would gather in that Great Hall, but nobody missed the symbolism of this clash of the titans.
Jones wonderfully recreates not only the atmosphere in which these works were created, but also the works themselves, which have been lost to us today. These “lost battles” live on only in accounts, preparatory works, and pale imitations. Why? To answer would be to ruin Jones’ tale, but let it suffice that the politics that brought the two artists together also eventually separated them and destroyed the artwork that those in power felt threatening to their control. We like to think of these artists as floating free above the petty concerns of the world, but Jones shows how they lived amongst the mortals and fell prey to mortal jealousy and betrayal as anyone else would.
The same wit and art history wisdom Jones brings to his writing and blog at The Guardian, a major UK paper, shines through on every page of The Lost Battles. Jones dives deep into the muddle of historical figures actually brushing up and bumping into each other with authentic gripes and eccentricities. Renaissance men long sanitized by the canonization of art authorities regain the taint of common humanity and regain their status as living, breathing people. Jones resurrects da Vinci, Michelangelo, and others while maintaining their brilliance. Just as we’ve lost the artworks at the heart of this grand story, we’ve lost the artists as individuals striving for excellence. The magic of their art was hard work and relentless imagination, a secret that Jones forces us to remember.
Couched as a historical whodunit, The Lost Battles keeps you on the edge of your seat despite knowing the outcome. The how outlasts the what in this story, which makes these artists and their lives—fraught with intrigue, beset by war, and hounded by everyday life itself—more realistic than any other treatment of these geniuses I’ve ever read before. Jones brings these two giants down to size without ever diminishing who they were and what they accomplished.
[Many thanks to Simon and Schuster UK for providing me with a review copy of Jonathan Jones’ The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Artistic Duel that Defined the Renaissance.]