Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 27, 2003
Rona Goffen Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 521 pp.; 80 color ills.; 120 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (0300094345)

Competition is something we are all familiar with, both inside and outside of our professions. We compete with our parents, mentors, siblings, friends, and lovers. We compete with our enemies. We compete with the living and, even, with the dead—occasionally, in order to transcend death. We need to prove our worth, both to ourselves and to the world at large, as we attempt to give meaning to our lives. Competition sustains us. It can be productive and can lead to breakthroughs (i.e., progress). It forces us to surpass ourselves in order to triumph over others. Thus, competition has a dual nature: It makes us strive for perfection while—perhaps more often than not—hoping for the failure of our opponents. Competition comes with a moral price tag, for it often goes hand-in-hand with envy, jealousy, and hatred; it can also lead to lying and deceit. (Michelangelo, Baccio Bandinelli, and Benvenuto Cellini were plagued by such feelings and often resorted to such stratagems.) We even compete during our leisure activities, say, on the tennis court or when playing chess. We compete in conversation: “What is your take on world events? What did you think of that book or movie?” Most of us have the urge to win. Should we be unable to do so, say, for a lack of talent, then quite a few among us are prepared to cheat—like Sebastiano del Piombo and Bandinelli—to obtain the recognition we so desperately need. That recognition can assume a variety of forms, such as accolades, financial or honorific rewards, professional advancement, and perhaps fame, however relative.

In her new book, Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Rona Goffen discusses the rivalries among four outstanding and extremely influential Italian Renaissance artists. The book is divided into eight chapters. The first three, which are grouped together as a “Preamble,” examine key Renaissance concepts such as imitatio and the paragone in light of artistic competition. These chapters go on to explore several fifteenth-century cases of rivalry among artists working mostly for courtly patrons, thereby offering precedents for the sixteenth-century artistic competitions that are at the heart of this book. Most of the cinquecento cases are divided into four chapters, with Michelangelo, the focus of chapter 4, acting as the “Protagonist,” and Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian, the subjects of chapters 5, 6, and 7 respectively, featuring as his “Antagonists.” Bandinelli’s and Cellini’s schemings for commissions and greater glory are discussed in the eighth and final chapter, which serves as a somewhat loose-ended “Coda.”

Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance style in the visual arts, was extremely competitive. Unfortunately, Goffen makes little attempt to explain how this came to be, whether this was unusual, and how this affected the development of Renaissance art. How did the Renaissance interest in individuality, virtù, and fame feed the flames of competition? Michelangelo, the principal actor in Goffen’s account, was very class conscious. How did this attitude figure into his highly competitive nature? As Michelangelo was unable to share the limelight, he aggressively confronted the artists he perceived as threats to his artistic hegemony—either head-on or through subterfuge. Goffen’s book centers to a large extent upon Michelangelo’s battles with contemporary artists.

Renaissance Rivals has the ingredients of a bestseller, as the author’s four leading men remain superstars to this very day. The artists she discusses must be endlessly fascinating, for their lives and works have been the subject of continuous scrutiny. Those who are familiar with their careers already know a great deal about the projects that are examined in this book, for these artists’ endeavors have been reviewed again and again in standard monographs. The works in question include Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs, Bacchus, Roman Pietà, the colossal David, the Battle of Cascina, the second planned colossus for the Piazza della Signoria, the unrealized project for the façade of San Lorenzo, and the Florentine Pietà; Raphael’s Entombment, Galatea, and Transfiguration; the paintings allocated to several artists for Alfonso d’Este’s Camerino in Ferrara; Titian’s Averoldi altarpiece in Brescia, the Death of Saint Peter Martyr, and his final Pietà in the Accademia, Venice.

Sadly, Goffen does not have much new to say about these commissions. One consequently wonders for whom this book is intended. The writing is clear and often concise; this author has remarkable powers of synthesis. Additionally, Goffen knows how to tell a good story. Although she has overlooked some important literature on the projects she discusses, she has succeeded in mastering an enormous amount of information. She puts this knowledge to excellent use in endnotes that enable us to reconstruct the history of particular commissions. (There are, however, a few slips, for example, when Donatello’s Saint Mark becomes a Saint Matthew, or with dates—errors that good editing should have caught). The information is remarkably well organized, and the transitions from one project to the next are mostly smooth and logical.

Patrons were in large measure responsible for setting up artists against each other in order to force them to outdo their rivals and thereby to surpass themselves, while making steady progress with the commissions at hand. Pope Julius II had Michelangelo and Raphael work for him, during the same period, at the Vatican. Later, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (the future Pope Clement VII) ordered altarpieces from Sebastiano and Raphael for one of his archepiscopal sees, the cathedral of Narbonne in southern France. Cardinal Giulio thereby revived the already keen competition between Raphael and Michelangelo, since it was known that the latter provided Sebastiano with preparatory drawings. These were not open competitions like the one for the second set of doors for the Baptistery of Florence, the mother of all Renaissance competitions (which Goffen briefly discusses in chapter 1). Instead, these artists were handpicked by their patrons and urged to outdo one another. Patrons competed with other patrons in obtaining works of ever-greater preciousness and/or artistic merit by artists of greater and greater renown. To be able to secure such works was a sign of power. Competition is, after all, about power.

As Goffen notes (3–4), competition cannot be disassociated from influence and thus from the concept of imitatio, a notion that was of enormous import during the Renaissance. As a result, there is plenty of hunting in this book for motifs that were lifted from other artists. The author rightly observes that rivalry is integral to the paragone debate, the discourse on the comparison of the arts. In 1496, Isabella d’Este requested a painting from Giovanni Bellini, to be placed “al parangone” of a picture by Andrea Mantegna in her Studiolo in Mantua, an invitation Bellini resisted. The Imagines of Philostratus the Elder inspired Isabella—and subsequently her brother Alfonso d’Este—to arrange for the juxtaposition of works by leading artists. Later, when Michelangelo was asked to produce a work in the medium of his choice for Titian’s patron Alfonso d’Este, he chose to paint a Leda, the kind of mythological subject on the theme of love for which the Venetian master was renowned. Goffen sees this lost picture, known to us from copies, as “privileging masculine disegno over feminine colorito, regendering Leda herself from female to male, Michelangelo’s Leda challenges Titian on every front” (309). She suggests elsewhere that:

Perhaps Michelangelo would have been more amenable to a softer palette, more gently modulated modeling, and even the painterly exploitation of the oil medium, had these not been adopted, or coopted, by Leonardo. But Michelangelo’s intention, as Timothy Verdon has noted, was precisely to invent a language diametrically opposed to Leonardo’s sfumato, “muscular and clear like a silogistic demonstration.” (165)

The author makes too much of Michelangelo’s “masculinization” of women, which leads her to state that “his masculine [Doni] Madonna is the true Madonna, a woman of virile virtue…. Believing (with most of his contemporaries) that the male was superior to the female, Michelangelo intended to honor Mary by making her male” (166). If this is so, why wasn’t this aspect of his work more influential? Goffen’s interpretation raises significant theological problems. It is more likely that the muscular bodies of Michelangelo’s women (based, like so many female figures of this period, upon the study of the male nude) reference their moral, spiritual, and intellectual virtù—and in the case of Leda, who is capable of copulating with the king of the gods himself, actual physical strength—while embodying Michelangelo’s ideal of beauty. Also, it is worth repeating that as a Renaissance artist Michelangelo was always competing with nature and the antique, in addition to Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masaccio, rivals who are sidelined in Goffen’s focus upon certain of Michelangelo’s contemporaries.

Unfortunately, Goffen never fully explains the nature of the pressures that competition brings to bear. What makes us compete—and why to such varying degrees? Is competition taught, or is it instinctual? Is it proper to humans, or is it common to the world of living things? (Charles Darwin will take that question.) What are the effects of competition upon us and upon the world around us? (How do we—and how do artists—cope with stress?) Are highly successful individuals—including artists—by definition extremely competitive? Answers to these questions would have required forages into areas other than the history of Italian Renaissance art, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and Kulturgeschichte.

Nevertheless, Goffen invites us to think again about a problem that lies at the very heart of creativity, and consequently of artistic practice. Artistic rivalry has intrigued us for centuries, and still does—witness the recent Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi and Pablo Picasso–Henri Matisse exhibitions. The time is now ripe for an interdisciplinary, theoretical study of competition in the visual arts.

Michaël Amy
Professor, School of Art, Rochester Institute of Technology