Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars snapshot of a dazzling historical and artistic turning point, 9 Nov 2013
This review is from: The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Artistic Duel That Defined the Renaissance (Vintage) (Paperback)
This is a very fun read. Focusing on the competition between 2 of the greatest artists in history, the author illuminates what was at stake, the political context, and how their rivalry changed everything that followed. Though the book is written in a free-flowing narrative that is non-linear, it is a delicious intellectual and artistic treat.

The frame of the story is a competition between the 2 artists to complete paintings of battles in the official building of the republican government of Florence. Insulting one another constantly and juggling other commitments, Leonardo and Michelangelo set out to create the greatest depiction of war yet achieved, surpassing the classical cultures that the Humanists were unearthing at the time. In many ways during the process, the author argues, they carved out conflicting visions of what fine art should be. While this is a dichotomy that may appear clearer in retrospect, it is as good a place as any to take a popularized look at what the Renaissance means.

On the one hand, there is Leonardo. He is the artist who broke the most ground. From his work, one can see: 1) a striving for a new kind of realism that requires proto-scientific observation and study and 2) an injection of personal vision into the work of art. According to the author, all post-classical art that preceded him was stylized and curiously neutral, as if the idea behind the images - almost always Christian - were more important than the artistic achievement itself. In a way, he opened the way for individualized artistic genius to come to the fore. One of the best examples of this is the Mona Lisa, apparently the first realist portrait of a woman in many centuries. His war painting (well, the sketches for it) was not political in a propagandistic sense, but naturalistic, showing the true brutality of war in anatomically accurate terms. On the other hand, Michelangelo pursued the pure vision side, injecting ideals and subjectivity into his work, which was based much more on abstract ideals, both in favor of the Florentine Republic and Catholicism. It is heroic and propagandistic, flattering the existing order in ways that Leonardo never quite did, and opening the way for the mannerist movement with its overdone flourishes and romanticism. Though their work did not physically survive, Jones argues that all the greatest artists of the age studied both styles, incorporating them into their work in ways that survive to present.

While I do not have the knowledge to judge these characterizations, they are compellingly portrayed in political context. Not only were the FLorentines fighting for their existence (as a republic or simply to preserve their autonomy in an age of despots and cannons), but the turmoil of freedom of thought was coming to the fore - the Pope was tightening control, huge autocratic states were being created, and lastly, the Reformation had begun. All of this is explained with the most elegant clarity, through such characters as Machiavelli, Pope Julius II, and the Medicis, among many others.

I do have some criticisms of the book. First, there are way too many interpretive descriptions of various works of art. They got tedious for me, but then, it is a book of art history so others may enjoy it. Second, the author clearly prefers Leonardo to Michelangelo, at least in my reading. He spends far more time discussing and interpreting his work. Third, the narrative was a bit procrustean, forcing its subject matter to fit the story of their duel. It felt too much like a rhetorical device by the time I reached the end of the book.

Nonetheless, this is a wonderful reading experience. I learned something on every page and feel hungry for more, always a good sign. Recommended with enthusiasm.
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Location: Balmette Talloires, France

Top Reviewer Ranking: 775