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The Lost Battles

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Leonardo had been living in Milan during the years of Michelangelo's rise to fame. Returning to his native city in 1499 he found the young genius, himself just back from a triumphant three years in Rome, the darling of a nascent Republican culture. Florence had thrown off Medici rule in 1494 and had more recently executed the charismatic friar Girolamo Savonarola, whose puritanical rule of the city in the last few years of the 15th century had convulsed Florentine society. The city's leader was the newly elected Gonfaloniere, Piero Soderini, who ruled in close consultation with his counselor Niccolò Machiavelli. (The latter's masterwork on political philosophy, "The Prince," would not appear until after its author's death.) Soderini and Machiavelli wished to inaugurate a new style of public art that would symbolize Republican and specifically Florentine values: "Keeping the Republic free from a return to Medici rule yet also safe from the tyranny of religious fanaticism was a tricky course. How to give compromise a glamorous face?"

Michelangelo's colossal David, completed in 1503, appeared to be the capstone of this project. Soderini wanted the statue – whose potent masculinity, as Jones points out, was its virtue – as a symbol of the city, and arranged for its display in the piazza outside the Palazzo della Signoria, the center of government. "When it took up its grand vigil outside the Palace it instantly reshaped the public identity of Florence – transfigured the Republic's self-esteem," Jones writes. And yet the David that contemporary Florentines saw was not quite the virile figure he is today, for Leonardo's suggestion that the statue should have "ornamente decente" – that is, a modest cover for his genitalia – was taken up by the authorities. "This assault on his rival's virility was just as vicious as anything Michelangelo said outside the Palazzo Spini," Jones contends. It was a direct strike, for "Michelangelo had come to identify himself with the young hero…. Michelangelo is a citizen-soldier, armed with genius," Leonardo "the towering opponent" he was taking on. And indeed, while Michelangelo worked on David, Leonardo was himself at work on the Mona Lisa – a very different type of work yet still, as Jones convincingly asserts, one that in its own way asserts values as Republican as those of the David, for the sitter is not an aristocrat or a court beauty but the "pious, polite wife" of a bourgeois citizen.

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