Heroes in a half-shell

Michelangelo loathed Leonardo. It’s clear from their work why they might not have got along. Michelangelo’s hard-edged line, even in painting, was sculptural, and deliberately antithetical to the softened atmospherics that Leonardo pursued. But the animus was also personal. Michelangelo, then in his mid-twenties, was gruff, hardworking, ill-kempt, and, by his own account, celibate, because of what appears to have been his severely repressed and spiritualized homosexuality. At one point, he insulted Leonardo on the street, with a taunt about the bronze horse that had been left unfinished, reportedly leaving Leonardo standing red-faced. The witness to this incident found it worth noting that Leonardo, ever beautiful in his person, went around Florence in a rose-pink tunic, and it is irresistible to infer how irritating Michelangelo must have found the older artist, with his peacock clothes and his perfumed air, and with what now amounted to an entourage of swankily dressed assistants.

Leonardo seemed to delight in adding fuel to the fire. Some months before Michelangelo was commissioned to paint alongside Leonardo, in early 1504, there was a meeting to view his nearly completed statue of David and to decide where in the city it would stand. All the important artists in town were present—Botticelli, Perugino, Filippino Lippi (child of the artist-monk and the nun)—but Leonardo alone objected to the figure’s exposed nudity, and pronounced the need for “decent ornament.” A tiny sketch he made on the spot shows the statue with its offending member neatly hidden by what Isaacson describes as “a bronze leaf.” It’s hard to believe that the man whose notebooks contain a section, “On the Penis,” in which he argues against “covering and concealing something that deserves to be adorned and displayed with ceremony” was truly offended by what he saw. Yet his objections prevailed. The genitals of the marble colossus were covered, and stayed that way for some forty years.

It isn’t hard to imagine the defiant mood in which Michelangelo set about producing his rival cartoon for the Council Hall. Instead of a battle scene, he depicted a whole troop of naked, twisting, posing, and extremely well-muscled men, who are caught bathing in a river just as the battle alarm sounds. (As Jonathan Jones notes, in “The Lost Battles,” this work, like Leonardo’s, quickly became a school for younger artists.) But, before Michelangelo could begin to paint, the Pope summoned him to Rome for another commission. Leonardo had seen enough to comment on certain artists who made figures so conspicuously muscled that they resembled “a sack of walnuts.”