Art Battles: Michelangelo vs. Leonardo, Raphael and Titian
Updated: Jan 6
Four Renaissance masters. Individually they were artistic geniuses. Collectively their bodies of work are considered the epitome of the Renaissance. They were highly competitive for lucrative and prestigious commissions, especially those from princes, cardinals, or Popes. They could be admiring or disdainful of each other while at the same time borrowing freely or more obliquely from each other.
But one artist kept stirring the pot – a trouble maker. Michelangelo took an accusatory and disparaging stance regarding his peers while protecting his own art from his contemporaries. It’s fair to say he waged war with words, paint and marble to dominate.
He was ultimately his greatest public relations machine and enlisted the help of other artists to promote him and his greatness. Michelangelo’s biographers (aka spin doctors) Ascanio Condivi and Giorgio Vasari masterminded the enduring critical bias that Michelangelo was the greatest artist, genius, and God given talent. Michelangelo, they said, didn’t need live models but lesser artists, such as Raphael, did.
This was a long war: from the late 1400s well past 1550 Michelangelo engaged in clashes with contemporaries, even long after they (for example, Raphael) had passed away. While they borrowed artistically from each other they battled over technical superiority and commissions.
The Fab Four
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564): brooding genius renown for mastering painting, sculpture, architecture and poetry. Supremely proud of his God given talents, which did not include social graces. Notoriously secretive about his work. He exceled at representations of the human figure. Masterpieces: Sistine Ceiling, Pieta’, David.
Daniele da Volterra, Portrait of Michelangelo, detail, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Daniele was a close follower of Michelangelo and painted this portrait about 1544 when Michelangelo was about 70. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): often thought of as a true Renaissance man.Generous in spirit and inclined to perfectionism. Superb draughtsman, inventor and painter. The elder statesman for Central Italian painting. Masterpieces: Mona Lisa, Virgin of the Rocks, his notebooks.
Wincelslaus Hollar, etching of Leonardo da Vinci. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This etching is done after Leonardo’s self-portrait. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) 1483-1520: princely in his social graces and diplomacy. Favored Papal painter. He learnt much from Michelangelo and Leonardo and incorporated essentials of their style into his own. Masterpieces: Stanza della Segnatura (Vatican), many Madonna and Child paintings, Transfiguration.
Wincelslaus Hollar, etching of Raphael. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This etching is done after Raphael’s self-portrait. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) c. 1487-1576: Venetian master whose art became internationally sought after and influenced generations. Although he may not be a household name now, Titian was the top artist in Venice. After Raphael’s death in 1520 Titian and Michelangelo were the most desirable artists. Titian borrowed generously from the other three artists and combined their best elements into a unique Venetian version. He won many commissions for sacred and mythological scenes including lots of nearly nude reclining women. Masterpieces: Assumption of the Virgin, mythological paintings with Venus.
Titian, Self-Portrait, detail, 1562-4, Berlin Staatliche Museen. Titian was in his mid-seventies when he painted this self-portrait. Digital image courtesy of the Berlin Staatliche Museen, CCO 3.0 Germany.
Although these four artists’ work spanned nearly a century they were peers for much of their careers. They were without doubt very aware of each other’s work. Michelangelo met Titian probably once in Venice and once in Rome. Michelangelo and Leonardo were commissioned to paint battle scenes at the same time in the same room in Florence in 1504.
Certainly Titian knew of Raphael’s work in the Vatican when he visited Rome. Leonardo was known to invite Raphael into his studio and share drawings with him and other artists. In 1508 Michelangelo and Raphael were working in the Vatican – Sistine Ceiling for Michelangelo and the Stanza for Raphael – right next door to each other.
The Battlefield. There were two contentious debates in the war: drawing vs. color and sculpting vs. painting. While these topics don’t seem particularly relevant today, they were hot topics in the sixteenth century, especially regionally between Florence and Venice. Color and drawing were considered separate functions by artists and theorists.
Color or drawing. Central Italian artists were well-known for “disegno” or the art of drawing and representing human figures and Venetians had equal expertise in “colorito” or the use of color to unify the painting and give it expressive meaning. Florentines viewed drawing as the fundamental building block for a great painting. The Venetians of course knew how to draw, but favored the use of color over exacting representation of the human body or subject.
Michelangelo was the four-star General in charge of spinning the pre-eminence of drawing. Leonardo seemed to have preferred drawing over color, especially in consideration of his notebooks and study of anatomy. Primarily Titian, and later Raphael in his mature work, were colorists. Michelangelo critiqued Titian’s famous mythological painting Danae saying it was good but would be better only if he learned to draw.
Titian, Ca’ Pesaro Altarpiece, I Frari, Venice. 1519-26. The asymmetry is typical of Venetian painting in this time period; Central Italian painting valued stability in triangular compositions. The kneeling man with the red cape is a Pesaro family member.
To illustrate the different approaches, Michelangelo and Leonardo would depict a garment as dependent on the volume of the figure and expression of movement. The mass of the figure would determine the flow and draping of the garment. Venetians would prefer expressive color and texture in garments before expression of movement. A rich red velvet would signify an important figure in a painting and make a statement about a family’s wealth or importance rather than represent the figure under the garment. Central Italian artists started their work using line and drawing. Central Italian art tends to be more linear while Venetian art might blur lines and favors distinctive use of color.
Sculpture or painting. The other battle was the debate between sculpture and painting – which was the higher art? While not discussed today, it was passionately argued in the sixteenth century. Debates occurred. Theories proposed. Treatises written.
Michelangelo could assume superiority as the only artist to have completed sculpture and painting. He approached painting as a sculptor and signed documents, "Michelangelo, Sculptor." These discussions were typical of the humanist era where the elite pondered questions such as whether beauty was best discerned by seeing or hearing. Nonetheless, these topics influenced patrons and what they wanted in a painting or sculpture.
Michelangelo, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1508-10. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Borrowing to Make it Your Own. As the debates went on between drawing and color, sculpture and painting, so did the borrowing between the fab four. Michelangelo’s forte was representing a heroic figural form – muscular, strong, twisting, with rather massive figures in active poses. Landscape or background weren’t critical to Michelangelo.
Raphael borrowed rather directly from Michelangelo by including similar poses and emphasis on showing the human body move, but Titian was subtler. Titian’s St. John the Evangelist looks like something from Michelangelo’s playbook. A viewpoint from below with a strong male figure whose pose and gesture convey emotion are very Michelangelo, but the slightly asymmetrical composition, dramatic sky, brilliant red robe and how light and dark space frame the figure are very Venetian.
Raphael was influenced by Leonardo’s atmospheric effects – the smoky “sfumato” that creates the effect of the figures emerging from the background. Raphael also borrowed figural arrangements from Leonardo, especially in his Madonna and Child paintings with a triangular composition. Raphael’s Madonnas, like Leonardo’s, are maternal, sweet, and elegant while Michelangelo’s are robust and stoic.
Michelangelo in turn borrowed from Titian, not poses or figures, but subjects. Titian’s popular subject of Venus or nearly nude mythological figures appeared in Michelangelo’s late work.
Titian, St. John the Evangelist at Patmos, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. 1547. This oil painting was originally installed as a ceiling painting in the Scuola Grande di S. Giovanni Evangelista in Venice. Digital image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Each artist very successfully developed their own pictorial language. Yet it was Michelangelo who persisted in self-promotion and bitterness towards his rivals. More than two decades after Raphael’s death he lamented his former peer’s success. In an undated letter to a Cardinal, Michelangelo wrote whatever Raphael had achieved in art, was due to Michelangelo.
To summarize, if the analogy of the “glass half-empty/full” were applied to these Renaissance masters:
Michelangelo saw the glass as half-empty. And everyone was trying to steal his glass and his water.
Raphael saw the glass as half full. And let’s borrow some water from others and mix it up.
Leonardo studied the hydraulics of his water and wanted to share it with everyone.
Titian put a little bit of everyone else’s water together into his own Venetian glass.
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