This paper will briefly analyze the life and work of the two most famous artists of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). There are some substantial key differences between the two lives under study here that might shed some light on their different emphases on their work, and this is the main thrust of this paper. Both men were Italians living at the same time, and both have come down as giants of western civilization. But their differences in lifestyle and patronage have created two very different people.
The Renaissance was a time that joined these two men together. It was a time of fantastic wealth concentrated in few hands, and this wealth was meant to ritualize itself in the commissioning of the art of the period. Florence, Milan and Rome were oligarchies, centered around money and the intelligence and shrewdness necessary to get it and keep it. Purity and asceticism were no longer important, but the ability to dominate the market. From this came the idea of humanism: the idea that man makes his own destiny, that man, in other words, can confront fate and force it to his will. From this idea can the realism of the Renaissance painters and sculptors make sense.
Leonardo was born illegitimate. This is a major distinction between him and Michelangelo and will become important as his work commences. Leonardo does not come from a prominent family and his mother was a simple peasant woman, Caterina. Hence, it was his talent and ability to impress onlookers to his work that got him his “first break,” an apprenticeship with the highly regarded painter of the day, Verrocchio. It is not to say that his family was not prominent. They were legal clerks in the small village of de Vinci, from whence the family takes its name (Vallentin, 4). However, da Vinci was not exactly a metropolis, and hence, work, rather than connections, was to be Leonardo’s ticket. From here, he went to work in Milan, a Greek city in north Italy. His patrons were the Sforza family of Milan. But when the French monarch Francis I invaded and briefly occupied this strategic city he befriended the great artist and assisted him financially and, in fact, overloaded him with commissions (Vallentin, 518). Hence, unlike Michelangelo, Leonardo was born with specific disabilities. Illegitimacy, poverty, and a lack of political connections in the great cities of Renaissance Italy stand out as the debilities that Leonardo did not share with his rival. Michelangelo was to have none of these disabilities.
However, Just as importantly, both artists needed to develop patronage networks. It seems that, at the time, no artist could be truly successful unless one of the major families of northern Italy financially supported you. For Leonardo, it was the oligarchy at Milan, for Michelangelo, it was the infamous Medici oligarchy at Venice.
But the life of Leonardo is only interesting to the extent it is reflected in his works. Unlike Michelangelo, Leonardo was a painter more so than a sculptor. While he is known for many works of art, there are four that are specifically striking, The Annunciation, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, the Mona Lisa and the Virgin and Child with St. Anne.
The first, The Annunciation (1475) is striking because it shows Mary as relatively strong in the face of the visitation of St. Gabriel. But this is no proto-feminist idea, but the very nature of humanity having a part in the divine. One might say that the humanist approach to religious art is not to deny or to de-emphasize the nature of the divine in human life, but to raise the status of human life. Salvation is not merely the act of God on passive mankind, but rather the cooperation of man with God (Cust, 54). This is certainly nothing new in Catholic theology, and the Renaissance can also claim the exact opposite, or the doctrine of total depravity of the Protestants. But it might be said that The Annunciation is precisely a way of restating Catholic doctrine on cooperation rather than depravity to face the protestant storm that was less than a generation away. In other words, the painting of Leonardo is meant to stress the basic truths of Catholic doctrine at a time when new ideas were making their appearance throughout Renaissance Italy.
The unfinished work, St. Jerome in the Wilderness (1480), stresses this same point. The painting is striking at first glance, making the saint look ghostly and frightening. This saint was likely chosen because he was a literary saint of the early church, the man largely responsible for the Latin Vulgate Bible so important to the Roman Church. With the rise of literacy and civic virtue in this era, it makes some sense that a saint of this caliber and type be used. However, Jerome here is not reading or translating, but suffering. His ghostly figure, pained yet muscular, is depicted in a posture of repentance. This great literary intellectual lis depicted on his knees, seeking forgiveness for his sins. Regardless of what else this painting has to offer, this powerful message is a warning, or so it seems, to the oligarchy of Milan or Rome–literary work and humanism is all well and good, but a strong sense of man’s relationship to God and sin must always exist to balance the developing ego of western man (Cust, 56).
The Mona Lisa is likely Leonardo’s most famous painting, but at first glance, this portrait seems unremarkable. Again, the identical concept of mankind being raised to that of the divine is to be found. In this case, the divinity, so to speak, of an attractive young woman is to be seen. The curves of her face, hair and even fingers seem to be matched with the natural scenes behind her. The fact that Leonardo was a student of botany, geology and anatomy are central here. In all his works, this knowledge comes to the fore. In previous art of the middle ages, these sciences, while they existed in Greek, did not matter to the icon painters of that era, since the symbolism of the spirit, rather than that of man, was central. But in this case, it seems that a very close look is necessary, since the sense of the woman is mirrored in the curves and movement of the landscape behind his subject. This is central, since man here is depicted as a part of nature, not above it or beneath it (Kemp, 256).
It seems that the Mona Lisa is dedicated to several propositions. First, that humanity, in its natural state, should be a serene and unperturbed as nature herself. Man is a part of nature and hence, partakes of the same causality of nature. If this is the case, then serenity in the inevitability of nature is central. But even more, it is the female, with curves rather than the angular, utilitarian nature of the male figure, that more clearly imitates nature, and hence, is actually divine, or at least partakes of it.
Lastly, the Virgin and Child with St. Anne (1508) should be mentioned. Again, strongly here is realism in terms of clothing, facial expressions and the basic structure of the natural world surrounding the action. All of this is pure Renaissance and is a major similarity between Leonardo and Michelangelo. The nature and structure of the painting itself might have symbolic value, but this does not take away from the realism of the scene itself. What is central here, as in all the work of Leonardo, is the centrality of the human form and the realism of nature. This raises the status of human beings, hence, the symbolism is embedded in the realistic forms, creating a multilayered work that needs to be read rather than seen. Nevertheless, it seems here that St. Anne, the grandmother of God, is serene, with a facial expression like the Mona Lisa, while the Mother of God is upset with the Christ child seemingly wanting to get away from her (Kemp, 343). Here, Christ is prefiguring his later ministry and the departure into a hostile world. It is Mary who realizes her fate, to be the woman of sorrows, the opposite of the serene and aristocratic Mona Lisa.
All told, Leonardo, from this brief description, brought science to bear on art. The realism involved here concerns the education that Leonardo received both in his formal apprenticeship as well as his own studies. Humanity must be elevated: the form and the nature surroundings this form should be depicted according to the current scientific knowledge that makes it real, rather than purely symbolic. Symbol is imminent, rather than transcendent here, since symbolism can be detected in nature, as nature has an end, a purpose (the purpose of which will be seen in Michelangelo below). Putting this differently, realism matters because man is a cooperator in creation (as the artist is in a special way) in that he partakes in God’s plan of salvation through his own cooperation, as Mary when she said “yes” to the Archangel.
Unlike Leonardo, Michelangelo came from a powerful and illustrious family of bankers and government officials in the epicenter of the Renaissance, Florence. It seems that without taking anything away from Michelangelo as a sculptor, the fact that he did not have to work as hard in building up the financial connections necessary for his work may well say something for their styles. Michelangelo had some difficulty with the “upstart” Leonardo, and in fact, since sculpture is more expensive to finance than painting, this might well derive from the very different class origins of the two men. Painting might be the “poor man’s” art, since it is relatively cheap to begin, while the blocks of stone or bronze are expensive and demand powerful connections.
Leonardo was financed by the oligarchy of Milan, Michelangelo was financed by the infamous Medici’s the banking family of Florence that, in a word, created the Renaissance. It is difficult to hold that the Renaissance would have happened the way it did had not this immensely powerful family financed it. But since the Medici’s took over the papal banking, it was not a stretch to see his career go from Florence to Rome, where he then took commissions from the popes who themselves were part of the Medici clan or received funding from it (Clement, 16-17).
Like Leonardo, Michelangelo was also an apprentice (typical for the time) as well as also studying anatomy and the modern sciences. This is essential for Renaissance humanism in the type of Leonardo in raising the status of the human form. (Clement, 10). The fact that both men studied this science is important in the development of Renaissance humanism.
However, this humanism was overthrown for a short time by the insurrection of the Catholic rebel Savonarola. This was an important rebellion since it exposed the oligarchic nature of this humanist school, the school that came into being because of the money of the Italian bankers. Savonarola, a Dominican and opponent of the new arts and sciences, sought a more egalitarian order based on virtue rather than the domination of money and its correlate, the republican form of state where money, rather than royal or knightly power, was to rule (Clement, 16). It was at this period when Michelangelo sculpted his famous David (1504). It is difficult to see how that radically realistic work could have been accomplished without an intense study of anatomy and the realistic human form in general. It is a statue of David contemplating his future battle with Goliath. If anything, it seems that this statue brings about a cult of youth in Florence as Leonardo helped create the cult of (the beautiful) woman in Milan. The muscles, strength and contrapposto form speaks of courage and determination to crush the giant, and this determination became a symbol for the entire city of Florence defending its republicanism. Savonarola might have said that this was a symbol of depravity and the worship of the human form that sought to legitimize the rule of the Medici.
But the ultimate work is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1512). What was intimated by Leonardo is made explicit by Michelangelo: the real point of Renaissance humanism, the divinity, or quasi-divinity, of man, man made as divine by the hand of God through Christ. The concept of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, commissioned by Medici clansman pope Julius II, was to trace the ancestors of God in anticipation of the salvific mission of Christ. Hence, it begins with creation, through the fall and the flood and to the prophetic movement in Israel. All of this is to prefigure Christ and his reversal of the fall (Rolland, 41).
But included in this is some figures of non-Hebrew background, including the Persian prophets. At first, this seems strange in such a painting, but it is clear that the Renaissance form of humanism spoke of one God who speaks through all peoples. The prophets such as the Greek oracles or even Plato all spoke of the coming of Christ, not just the Hebrew writers of the Old Testament. Hence, this might be speaking of the universality of the Renaissance understanding of man and human society.
Michelangelo is trying to get at the suffering of these prophets in the time before Christ (Rolland, 42). This is a time of suffering because Satan still rules the world as a result of the Fall. But the eventual triumph of Christ brings hope and new life. Could Michelangelo be condemning his sponsors? Is he speaking of his own sufferings n the oligarchic world of Florence? This is speculation. But it may well be true given the fact that Julius II and Michelangelo often clashed: power and money fought with artistic ability (Rolland, 43-44).
At this paper comes to a close, it is clear that Leonardo and Michelangelo had far more in common than anything else. The ideas of Renaissance humanism animated them both, and without understanding that, the work of these two masters is incomprehensible. Both were dead set against the ideas that were to come to typify the German Reformation the idea of man as helpless before God, passive and submissive to Him alone. For the Italians at this time, man was a powerful creature, capable of creating his own destiny despite the cause and effect of nature. God could only create such a being, and it is part of the divine dignity that man is so accented.
Importantly, both sets of work show the influence of modern science, as realism takes over from symbolism in artwork. Anatomy and general physics needed to be understood before the work could be accomplished, such was the realism. But the realism is meant to convey the message of the painting or statue to the masses, through still with many hidden features. The realism is meant to speak directly to the observer, almost like a mirror. Realism is the message itself, the medium is the message in that man is the “carver” the “forger” of his own destiny. This, for better or worse, is the ultimate legacy of the Renaissance.
Clement, Charles. Michelangelo. Sampson Low, 1880
Cust, Robert HH. Leonardo Da Vinci. George Bell and Sons, 1908
Vallentin, Antonia. Leonardo: The Tragic Pursuit of Perfection. Read Books, 2007
Kemp, Martin. Leonardo Da Vinci. Oxford University Press, 2006
Rolland, Romain. Michelangelo. Duffield and Company, 1921