Today they’re considered as two of the greatest artists in the world, but Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were, in fact, bitter rivals. The beginning of this enduring conflict can be attributed to an entry in an anonymous manuscript called Codice Maglicabecchiano:
The story goes that as Leonardo was walking along the Spini family palace, a nearby group of men were debating about Dante, and seeing him, they asked him to come and explain it to them. At the same time he saw Michelangelo passing by, and so Leonardo suggested that the sculptor could come and enlighten them about it. This annoyed Michelangelo, who thought that this was a trick against him, and instead snapped back in a discourteous ‘tu’ form, “No, explain it yourself, horse-modeller that you are, who, unable to cast a statue in bronze, were forced to give up the attempt in shame.” According to the account, hearing those words, Leonardo was left with this face blushing red in embarrassment.
What Michelangelo was referring to was Leonardo’s sculpture of a horse, titled ‘Gran Cavallo’, which was commissioned by the Duke of Milan. The Duke wanted it to be the world’s largest equestrian statue, cast in bronze, in honour of his father, Francesco. Leonardo had done extensive preparatory work for it – for almost sixteen years – but in the end he could only produce a clay model that remained unfinished and later got destroyed when French soldiers invaded Milan in 1499.
The same year that Michelangelo’s famous sculpture, David, was unveiled at a public square in the center of Florence, the Florentine government commissioned Leonardo to paint The Battle of Anghiari in the council chambers of Palazzo Vecchio – the town hall. In order to promote some ‘healthy competition’, one of the newly elected statemans of the Republic – Piero Soderini – also commissioned Michelangelo to paint The Battle of Cascina, thereby pitting both artists against one another. The paintings would be aligned opposite each other so they could be compared and studied by people (for eternity.)
Leonardo was almost fifty years old at that time, and had already established himself as a supreme artist. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was only twenty-five, and was more known of as a sculptor than a painter. Although people were well-aware of his creative skills, his reputation in Florence bloomed only because of the masterpiece, David.
Their dislike of each other was hardly a secret. They’d often insult each other in public. Even as men, their personalities were poles apart. Leonardo was courteous and graceful, and therefore well-received everywhere he went. He kept servants and assistants mingling about him. Michelangelo was sensitive and moody, given to emotional outbursts and a mercurial temper. The hatred between them was so intense that there is not even a mention of Leonardo whatsoever in Michelangelo’s biography, which was written by one of his assistants.
As for the two battle paintings, Michelangelo’s work was sadly destroyed by a jealous fan while Leonardo’s was lost when the civic place was going through restoration work in the 16th century. Some commentators still believed that the fresco was actually hidden beneath the walls of the hall, but an extensive search in 2012 revealed no evidence, and the whole matter was closed shut once and for all.
Of course, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo are not the only two artists who were at loggerheads throughout their lives. Artistic contests between people of their caliber would often stoop to nasty endings. But one of the bright sides of these rivalries is that they would produce such exemplary examples of art which would be celebrated for centuries to come.