Michelangelo vs. Leonardo : great artist or genius who made some great art?

Inspire graphiti art by Daz Lartist
Inspire graphiti art by Daz Lartist

If you study art history then you’ll know that during the Italian Renaissance there were hundreds of artists that could sculpt and paint on par with Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci and Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (both still so famous that we can just use their first names).

There was a lot of marble, charcoal and fresco plaster dust in the daily life of an artist back then, not to mention the fact you had to make your own paints! Only the rich could even consider fine art as a hobby and much like today still, parents preferred that that children find a better career than ‘artist’.

Leonardo, or as Michelangelo called him ‘that lute player from Milan’, was apparently a dandy (a man unduly devoted to style, neatness, and fashion in dress and appearance). Leonardo was a genius for hire rather than ‘an artist’. He used his genius level art skills to make fine art but it wasn’t who he was.

They called Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Il Terrible”. He was young, twenty-six, brilliant and arrogant, so arrogant that he didn’t sign his works1; he thought that people would know the creator, by looking. Just the man to attack a large marble commonly referred to as “Il Gigante”, lying in a churchyard. Agostino di Duccio had attempted to carve a David out of the stone thirty-five years prior. “Il Gigante” intimidated every sculptor there after. – Marjorie Masel

Being an artist in the way we think of it today was quite different 600 years ago. Back then it was more like being a contractor, a professional who constructed things and who was respected for doing a competent job – but rarely with the possibility of  becoming a celebrity. It took Michelangelo’s dedication to change this perception; to translate his passion for the craft into what we now consider fine art.

Because we as a society  respect fine art it has allowed me to paint on walls that I didn’t own and to be appreciated for what I love to do rather than to get in trouble for it. When I have been exhausted and paint splattered from a day of mural painting I often think of Michelangelo and say “thanks man”!

Giorgio Vasari, former student of Michelangelo (and his biggest fan), was a competent Renaissance Man in the complete definition of the word. His love of and dedication to the artistic lifestyle lead him to literally be the father of art history. He immortalized himself when he wrote his Lives of the most excellent artists biographies. The artistic lifestyle is one that has been romanticised ever since the time of Michelangelo and thank you Mr. Vasari for starting that meme!

There was a time when Leonardo could have inspired his people as much as Michelangelo did in a artistic sense, but, as Vasari said (I paraphrase), Leonardo didn’t like to get dirty, and doing art on a grand scale requires one to get filthy!

Haha makes me think of the movie Paint Your Wagon and that song “the best things in life are dirty“, hell, Michelangelo washed his feet less than Sid Vicious! (yes I know all we have is Vasari’s account of how Michelangelo slept with his boots on and movie quotes from Sid and Nancy to back up that last statement!).

I think Leonardo could have done so much more, to inspire everyone than he did back in the day. Remember that while generations of people thrilled to the Sistine Chapel and the statue of David et al, Leonardo’s sketchbooks were not publicly available until relatively recently.  The Mona Lisa is a little overrated in terms of painting in my opinion.

I have a beef with Leonardo because he drew the greatest Renaissance sketch ever, The Battle of Anghiari and then never attempted anything as spectacular again!

Peter Paul Ruben's copy of Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari
Peter Paul Ruben’s copy of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari

Leonardo saw art mostly as a job or at best a tool, but Michelangelo did art to glorify God and to inspire people. Michelangelo showed what was possible, even by someone who considered themselves tragically flawed.

The artist doesn’t need to look presentable but the art does! This of course is something we saw happen in music when the Beatles opened the doors for the counterculture. The anecdote about John Lennon on stage in Hamburg with a toilet seat around his neck is just a funny reminder that human beings are multi-faceted. You can be a genius and an idiot at the same time and that is perfectly acceptable!

Perhaps the following quote is closer to the point I want to make.

By the time he moved from the Borinage to Brussels, in the fall of 1880, van Gogh was committed to being an artist—a commitment he would never break. –  Nellie Hermann

As you know, prior to being the artist we know him for, Vincent Willem van Gogh was a preacher. The scene where (Kirk Douglas playing Vincent) sees the children in the Borinage coal mine in the awesome 1956 movie Lust for Life is powerful. You can see that clip via this link to youtube. In the long run it was the coal miners themselves that saved their children from the barbarism of that time of course. Vincent, after deciding to just be himself instead of trying to be something that society/culture offered, gave us one of the greatest inspirational stories in the art world.

Almost a century later a group of young men around the same age that Vincent was when he decided to be a real artist, (the same age Michelangelo was half a millennia before that when he sculpted his David), were on tour, the final Black Flag tour. The excellent documentary REALITY ’86’D filmed by David Markey might not be your cup of tea but it shows that passion for the artistic lifestyle can make a lasting impression in art regardless of commercial success in it’s time. 

You can look to the results of what people dedicated to being full time original artists, like Vincent van Gogh and like Greg Ginn (founder of and guitarist for Black Flag) did as your inspiration if you want to reach your full potential (like I did). You may have to load your own equipment and may ultimately die as an unknown weirdo but if you want to be a great artist you have to be all in. You might even accomplish something as great as what Michelangelo did if you are dedicated to being a great artist!

I too decided to become a ‘great artist’ in my mid 20’s, I literally proclaimed this improbable statement and meant it! It has been quite a journey avoiding the ‘sensible’ career path and was the right choice. Ultimately if you don’t want to be a ‘great artist’ you can still make great art (like Leonardo did) but your story won’t be as romantically inspirational! As Jim Morrison said (I paraprase) did you have a good enough life to base a movie on? Vincent and Michelangelo did  and Greg is still kicking ass today!

A still from the movie REALITY '86'D showing Greg Ginn rocking out on Main ST. USA is most excellent!
A still from the punkumentary movie REALITY ’86’D of my favorite scene. Greg Ginn is rocking out on Main St. USA making art that no one has done before, knowing it is good and not caring if no one else gets it. Pure inspirational genius.



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