The Pitfalls of Genius: Leonardo and his frustrated patrons

I’m in the midst of giving several talks and papers – two in the last week, in Birmingham and Glasgow respectively, and one next week in Washington D.C. at the Renaissance Society of America conference. I thought I’d post my powerpoints here in a series of posts (as more manageable PDF files) for those who might be interested.

Leonardo da Vinci, Study of Battles on Horseback and on Foot, Venice, Accademia, c. 1503-6.

First the Birmingham talk, which was give at a study day for the exhibition of ten drawings by Leonardo da Vinci from the Royal Collection and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. There’s a summary of the whole study day by Mar Dixon.

My talk was about how difficult Leonardo could be to work with – and how Florentines tended to complain about the fact that he really just never got round to finishing anything. Most famously (and frustratingly for the Florentine government) he never finished his mural of the Battle of Anghiari. This has been very much in the news this week as initial researches have indicated that something MAY be behind Vasari’s frecoes in the Sala dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio; who knows what they will find if they go on with this procedure, given that this was an incomplete painting that went badly wrong technically from the beginning…

Dilatoriness mattered in the mercantile culture of renaissance Florence. Unlike in courts – where people seemed to be able to make a living by hanging around, being charming and coming up with witty or fantastical ideas – Florentines expected results for their money. Leonardo also, compared with Michelangelo, was a bit of a spendthrift, both with his own money and other people’s. As Bartolommeo Cerretani said, around 1509:

“At this time there were two Florentines who were leaders, most excellent in sculpture and painting. One was called Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, he wasn’t legitimate and was employed with the king of France in Milan… amongst other excellent things he did a very famous Last Supper; but he didn’t do much work. The other was Michelangelo di Francesco di Buonarotto Simoni, citizen, who did many things in sculpture, especially a marble David, which is in front of the Palazzo della Signoria, and also in painting, and he was in Rome painting the Chapel of Pope Sixtus, and he was doing the tomb of Julius II. And they both earnt a lot, but Michelangelo earnt more because he worked harder, and really well. And I spoke to them many times and saw them work.

The talk was partly taken from recently published material, arguing for the construction of the notion of “artistic temperament” in the early sixteenth century – (“Missed Deadlines and Creative Excuses: Fashioning Eccentricity for Leonardo and Michelangelo” in “una insalata di piu erbe”: A Festschrift for Patricia Lee Rubin, ed. Jim Harris, Scott Nethersole and Per Rumberg (Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 2011), pp. 129-37.

Here’s’ the powerpoint (as a PDF file):
The pitfalls of genius: Leonardo and his frustrated patrons

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