Friday, 27 April 2012

The Lost Battles - Jonathan Jones

An interesting book in many ways, this nevertheless hinges on the flimsiest of premises - a supposed competion between Leonardo and Michelangelo which never really happened and concerning which no completely reliable evidence remains.

Jones writes beautifully and it is in the digressions he is compelled to make to pad out the narrative that he excels.  Personally I was much taken with the considerable information he supplies about Piero di Cosimo, a resolutely barmy artist I stumbled across last year and who fascinates me.  Unfortunately, Piero had very little to do with Leonardo or Michelangelo (he was notoriously misanthropic) and absolutely nothing to do with their work in the Great Council Hall at Florence.

In the first decade of the 16th century, during a rare Medici-free republican interlude, the local art superstars were commissioned to paint huge patriotic paintings on the long walls of the chamber.  Neither was completed, hardly any actual painting took place, and Jones cannot come up with a single day on which the supposed antagonists were present in the building at the same time.  The cartoons (full-scale preliminary drawings) which were completed were impounded by the Medicis when they returned from their enforced holiday and gradually disappeared over the centuries, only surviving in the drawings of other, much later hands.

The other problem Jones has is that he clearly cares much more about Leonardo.  What should be a clever way of bringing together two Vasari-esque 'lives' of the Renaissance greats is in fact two-thirds about the one who achieved the least.  I am interested in Leonardo but am much more interested in Michelangelo, who at least knew how to stick paint on a wall and keep it there, and in the end I am most interested in the bit-part players of the period like Piero and Uccello (who also gets a lengthy mention, even though he died, at a great age, thirty years before the Great Hall commissions).

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