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September 22 2011

When Europe's single currency worked – the 1480s

A new exhibition in Florence explores money, sin and the birth of capitalism in a city where status and religion battled to prevail

Money – there just isn't any left. But in medieval Europe an abundance of cash appeared as if from nowhere, in new currencies cast in gold. One of these new currencies, the Florin, became the most desired and respected medium of exchange in the Europe that made the Renaissance – the dollar of its day. In Money and Beauty, an exhibition that has just opened at the Strozzi Palace in Florence, yellow Florins twinkle in glass cases, exhibited both as historical evidence and works of monetary art.

The Florin was the currency of one city, Florence, yet it succeeded where the Euro seems to be failing: it gave Europe a "single" currency accepted on all markets. Inventing a pure gold currency of universally accepted value was just one of the ingenuities of the Florentine economic Renaissance. Through contracts and letters, leather money bags and model merchant ships, Money and Beauty tells the dramatic story of the bankers and merchants of Florence and their invention of many basic features of modern capitalism. As the system shudders, it is wondrous to contemplate its fairytale origins in the Medici bank, which devised ways to provide international credit and play the foreign exchanges without falling foul of medieval usury laws. Well, not too far foul.

The sin of usury is richly shown in the exhibition: fragments of a medieval fresco show usurers – those who loan at interest and so make, according to Christian ethics 600 years ago, an immoral profit – in hell. Yet the heroes here are the money men who defied tradition and created modern commerce – heroes such as Francesco di Marco Datini, the Merchant of Prato, who gets a room of his own illuminating his wealth and his attempts to reconcile it with faith. We see him on pilgrimage, as well as in his counting house.

This exhibition – co-curated by British writer Tim Parks and heavily spiced with ebullient interpretative texts in Italian and English – has an ambitious argument to unfold. The plutocrats of Renaissance Florence, claims this exhibition, were tortured by guilt and emotional ambivalence. They craved luxury – even their money chests are works of rare art – but tried at the same time to buy off hell, by lavishing their wealth on religious art.

Cosimo de' Medici, the richest Florentine of all, was the most dedicated in his holy works. The funds he put into building the monastery of San Marco and its library helped to sustain the humanist revival of learning, not to mention the art of Fra Angelico. As it turned out, this Medici monastery also harboured the seeds of nemesis. By the late 15th century, the voice of San Marco was a visionary friar named Savonarola who denounced wealth and luxury. In 1494, he became the charismatic guru of a revolution that cast out the Medici.

That tale is told here through portraits and other relics of Savonarola, and above all by the works of Sandro Botticelli. This one artist embodies both extremes of Renaissance Florence – the rich culture of the Medici plutocrats, and the violent reaction against it. In the 1480s, Botticelli painted his celebrated classical works in the Uffizi Gallery, for the circle of the Medici. But in the 1490s and 1500s, he was a Savonarolan zealot, who saw the opulence and even the style of Renaissance art as a sin.

The exhibition includes one of his most compelling works, the Calumny. This eerie image, based on classical descriptions of a lost work, suggests a nightmare version of Florence itself. Statues in niches, like the ones that decorate the heart of this city, seem to come to life and listen as an innocent man is dragged by the hair before rich, stupid plutocratic King Midas.

Here is a problem with the exhibition. Midas in Greek myth was, it is true, an image of greed – he is the man who asked the god Dionysius to turn everything he touched to gold. So the curators link him to the wealth of the Medici. But this is a different story of Midas. It is a bit strained, and in fact, the curators struggle to find killer visual links between art and commerce. Everything here is fascinating, but where are the Florentine paintings that manifestly explore the imagery and anxieties of wealth?

Still, it is a provocative, stimulating introduction to Florence that will add a bit of historical muscle to any visitor's encounter with the city this autumn. Money and Beauty is a welcome attempt to shake up staid views of the Renaissance. Everyone knows that Florence is a city of staggering artistic beauty. This exhibition reminds us it is also the birthplace of the modern world. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 21 2011

The guilty pleasure of Florentine food

The art in Florence evokes a world of decadence and indulgence. And so does the cuisine

Some people think Italian food is healthy. Those people have obviously never eaten lard crostini. I am sorry to say that I became an expert on this carnivorous speciality on research trips a few years ago when I was writing a book on Renaissance Florence. I am back in town to see a fascinating art exhibition called Money and Beauty, that has just opened at the Strozzi Palace. The exhibition is about the luxury of the Florentine Renaissance – and I can't wait to taste some decadence of my own in the shape of my favourite local dish, lardo di colonnata.

At Antico Fattore, a trattoria that skulks in the shadow of the Uffizi Gallery's grey pilasters in the heart of Florence, this dangerous delight of Tuscan cuisine is on the menu. In my experience, a perfect version turns to a mist of fat in your mouth and leaves a delicious salty aftertaste. The dish at Antico Fattore is nice, but doesn't quite melt. However, the plate of roast wild boar that follows, in a sweet sauce, accompanied by cannellini beans and a powerful Chianti, more than satisfies my yearning for a taste that evokes the days of Medici banquets.

Italian food conjures rich historical associations, and not just because you can eat in old restaurants like this one, a few steps from the Ponte Vecchio which, 500 years ago, was at the centre of Florentine sustenance. The famous shops that span this ancient bridge over the Arno were in those days all butchers, who chucked their unwanted cuts – the bits that could not even be pressed in a vat to make lardo – straight into the river beneath them.

The simple ingredients and no-nonsense presentation of Italian regional cooking link us to age-old traditions of "slow food", perhaps in Tuscany more than anywhere else. But how authentic are such antique echoes? Money and Beauty offers a provocative perspective, suggesting that Renaissance Florence was more about refined hedonistic high dining than the hearty home cooking we now associate with the city.

The Renaissance began in Florence in the 1400s. That defining epoch in the city's history was made by money – through the immense wealth of the Medici and other families who invented modern banking. If you were invited to one of Lorenzo de' Medici's banquets in 1480s Florence, you could be expected to drink wine served from a black marble jug with gold ornamentation, made by by Andrea Verrocchio – there's one in the exhibition.

Yet the most revolutionary aspect of these Renaissance banquets might escape us because we take it for granted: the tablecloth. In Renaissance paintings, including Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, dishes are neatly laid out on a precisely folded cloth. The 16th-century Tuscan writer Aretino claimed it was "those clever little Florentine brains" that pioneered their use, putting flowers on the table, and delicately flavouring foods with herbs instead of gothic fistfuls of pepper.

As for the actual food, it included some treats that not even the bravest Florentine restaurant offers up today. Songbirds were a delicacy: larks, thrushes and other uccelli. In other ways, the Renaissance Florentine palette was more sophisticated than today. Experts on contemporary Tuscan food tell you it does not include fish – ordering seafood in Florence invites a defrosted disaster. Yet a painting in the Strozzi exhibition shows a young man carrying a fish for supper.

The various Tuscan varieties of Pecorino cheese are still arguably the region's finest product. When the Florentine artist Michelangelo lived in Rome it was cheese that friends used to send him as a reminder of home. Pork too is an enduring obsession. Da Vinci wrote a vivid description of how Tuscans slaughtered pigs by cutting their throats. A fresco of Florence under siege in 1529, in the Palazzo Vecchio, shows them being roasted in the open air by the attacking army, the aroma wafting over the walls to torment the inhabitants – 30,000 of whom were to die of starvation.

But is Florentine food now too hearty and rustic, too wedded to its ribollita – "reboiled", a warming compost of greens and bread – and its wild boar sausages? Some would like to revive the more refined tastes of the Renaissance court. The Strozzi Palace aims to "make Florence a dynamic contemporary city", and to accompany the exhibition has challenged seven restaurants to invent dishes that incorporate pure gold. So this autumn you can order squid ink and seafood cappellacci with pure gold and eggs garnished with gold leaf at experimental restaurants including Gastone and Ossi di Seppia. Gastone even flaunts the great taboo of modern Tuscan food – the shock is not the gold, but the seafood.

Still, Florence is not the place for futurismo. After a morning looking at paintings by Botticelli, I am more than content on the Uffizi cafe terrace on top of the Loggia on the city's great piazza, eating spicy, sweet-sour Tuscan salami. Long live the old masters of food. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 10 2011

The Medicis: money, myth and mystery

They were a family of Florence bankers whose riches powered the Renaissance, yet their art ignores the material world. Why?

In the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery in London, the founding masterpieces of modern art are arrayed in all their splendour. The modern idea of art – our belief that artworks deserve to be taken seriously not as mere decorations or religious icons but unique displays of imagination and intellect – began in Italy in the Renaissance. The city that was most self-conscious about this new idea of art in the 15th century was Florence, and here in the Sainsbury wing you can see some of the glories of that place and time: the Pollaiuolo brothers' Saint Sebastian, Fra Filippo Lippi's Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli's Venus and Mars.

These artists had something important in common, beyond the fact that they all worked in 15th-century Florence. All of them had close ties with one family: the Medici. The Annunciation panel by Lippi actually comes from the Medici palace, and Antonio del Pollaiuolo painted decorations for this domestic temple of the arts. Botticelli was a Medici protege, who portrays himself among the men of this famous lineage in his Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi.

The Medici are among the most renowned art patrons in history, and with good reason. But here's a fascinating thing: they are also among the architects of the modern economy. They were the greatest bankers of their age, and the Medici bank pioneered crucial aspects of modern finance. They were "foreign exchange dealers" who enacted a "transfiguration of finance", points out the financial historian Niall Ferguson. When we look at Botticelli's Venus, we are looking at money.

An exhibition at the Strozzi palace in Florence this autumn (24 September, to be precise), called Money and Beauty, will explore this very contemporary aspect of the Medici. This timely show proposes, according to the press release, to "show how the modern banking system developed in parallel with the most important artistic flowering in the history of the western world". It sounds riveting. But there is one aspect of the relationship between art and money in Medici Florence that is deeply enigmatic.

In the Sainsbury wing, you can easily see the fruits of Medici largesse. But what you cannot see, what in fact you rarely find in Florentine Renaissance art, is a brass-tacks portrayal of merchant life.

The Medici chose to have themselves portrayed not working at the bank, but in the robes of the Magi. They commissioned paintings not of the marketplace, but of mythology. There is a glaring contrast between the art of Renaissance Florence, with its passionate recreations of classical myth and history, and the raw realism of northern European portraits of businessmen. Hans Holbein's portrait of a merchant surrounded by the instruments of his trade has no equivalent in the art associated with the Medici family. Why is that?

An answer may lie in the history of the family itself. The Medici bank was brought to the forefront of the European economy by Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, who died in 1429. His son Cosimo was the richest man in Europe. Yet Cosimo did not earn his honorary title "Father of his country" through financial brilliance. He was given it because he used the wealth of the family business to reshape Florentine politics. That obsession with politics grew until the most powerful and charismatic Medici of all, Lorenzo the Magnificent, let the bank decay while he concentrated on running the Florentine state.

It's a strange irony that Renaissance Florence was built by capitalist innovation, but went out of its way to make money invisible in its art. Politics, not money, dominated this city's culture. The ultimate beneficiary of Medici patronage was Michelangelo, who shared both the Medici instinct for making money and the Medici determination to ignore it. His Moses really has loftier things than money in mind.

The absence of financial imagery in Florentine Renaissance art may even explain why the city went into cultural decline after 1529. The later Medicis completed the change from merchants to aristocrats and even royals. As they made themselves Dukes of Tuscany and intermarried with European royal families, the art and architecture of Florence gradually lost its edge. The moral might be that if money makes art, snobbish disdain for money can kill it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 02 2010

Does great art make you ill?

Scientists are to monitor the vital signs of tourists in Florence after they see works of art – to test if Stendhal syndrome exists

There's only one problem with an attempt by Italian scientists to test the reality of Stendhal syndrome, the condition of being so overcome by beautiful works of art that you actually swoon, or at least go weak at the knees.

It was first recorded by the 19th-century novelist and art critic Stendhal in Florence, and so scientists are to monitor the vital signs of tourists in Florence after they see works of art. Their mistake, I fear, lies in their choice of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi as the test site. In the 15th century, when it was built as the town house of the Medici family, this was truly a place to make you pass out. It held an overwhelming ensemble of great works, now scattered around the world, with notable treasures in London.

Later the palace belonged to another family as the Medici made themselves Grand Dukes of Tuscany and inhabited more grandiose Florentine buildings. Today, much of it is occupied by government offices and only vestiges of its beauty endure – admittedly including Gozzoli's fresco of the journey of the Magi. This is a delightful work but not, I think, in the Stendhal syndrome category.

It would be much more effective to put the heart monitors at nearby San Lorenzo, where anyone with a soul emerges stupefied from the sublimely dark and disorientating architecture of Michelangelo's Laurentian library. That really can discombobulate you.

But seriously – can great art have a physical effect? My recent holiday was in Venice, rather than Florence. It has its own, different beauty – more colouristic, molten, and dreamy. I think the answer is yes. The beauty of Italian art has a concentrated perfection and transcendent sensuality that is incredibly addictive. I still feel a bit strange almost a week after coming back from Venice – like a stranger on the traffic-perfumed streets of central London, pining for the Bellinis (meaning the paintings of Giovanni Bellini – we didn't get to Harry's Bar).

Even though I suspect the scientists may have set up their gear in the wrong place, they are surely on to something. There is something dangerous about great art. That is what makes it great. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 21 2010

Florence, without the machine

Steeped in art, history and architecture, the Tuscan capital is a summer wonder. And you don't have to visit any of the tourist-trap museums to experience it in full

If you are daydreaming about a summer holiday, can I suggest Florence, a city I got to know better in researching my book The Lost Battles. Don't let the summer queues for the big galleries put you off a Florentine trip. This is a city so rich in art and history that you can have a profoundly satisfying cultural break without ever visiting the main museums: here's how.

Start with a walk up the hill of San Miniato. Strolling towards it through the well-preserved quarter south of the river, you will pass some nice wine bars, and then ascend a steep staircase marked with the stations of the cross, before reaching the romanesque church of San Miniato on top of the hill. Its facade is one of the earliest architectural splendours of the city, but the biggest delight is to turn back and see the most beautiful of all views of Florence and the twinkling river Arno spread out below you. The church is surrounded by a cemetery which (I theorise) may have inspired Isle of the Dead, the spookily classical painting by the German artist Arnold Böcklin, who spent a lot of time in Florence. But it's worth walking the perimeter of this graveyard, through eerie woods, to see the 16th-century bulwarks of a fortress, built here to dominate the city and secure Medici rule. There are some traces in its design of an earlier earthwork that no less an architect than Michelangelo built to fortify Florence in the siege of 1529-30. The movingly austere church of San Salvatore al Monte, by Il Cronaca, can also be seen on the hill.

When you go down, it's worth lingering in the Oltrarno, the part of town south of the Arno, to see its artistic glories. It is always a little quieter here than on the north side of the Ponte Vecchio. You can see paintings by Raphael, Caravaggio and Rubens in the Pitti Palace, then wander in the fantastical Boboli Gardens that ascend the hill behind the palace. The Boboli Gardens are actually my favourite place in the city – don't miss the Grotto, with its stucco shepherds and painted satyr.

Next go to the Brancacci Chapel, also in southern Florence, to see its stern and revolutionary frescoes by Masaccio and Masolino. Oh – and one sight in this part of Florence must not be missed: Jacopo Pontormo's wafer of colour, his Deposition, in the little church of Santa Felicità next to the Ponte Vecchio.

I don't want this to turn into a list, so perhaps we should leave it there, for now: the basic message is, in Florence in summer, go south, and explore the hills, gardens and churches on the less crowded side of the river. Also, in those wine bars I mentioned, don't forget to try a good chianti like Ruffino Riserva Ducale © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 30 2010

Leonardo v Michelangelo

Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo – who was the greater artist? A close look at their two masterpieces offers clues – but in fact the truth had already been established in an extraordinary competition

People are pushing at my back and trying to shove me aside, so they can pose, smiling, in front of the most famous smile in the world. Every photographic device the 21st century can invent, from the slenderest mobile phone to the most phallic telephoto lens, is being raised above the crowd to point at the woman isolated in her glass box. Her twilit painted world is jarred by flashbulbs as if by lightning.

This is the Louvre, in March 2010, and there are no prizes for guessing what painting is causing the fuss on this ordinary day. It seems, every time you see the Mona Lisa, crazier. As I cling to the crash barrier to stare as hard as I can, I can't deny it's a bit bizarre to see a painting idolised like a star at a movie premiere. But in truth, this is wonderful.

Here is a painting that is five centuries old – a relic from history, some would say. And yet it gets more visitors, from more places, than any modern work of art. This isn't to denigrate today's art, only to marvel at the timeless and universal genius of Leonardo da Vinci. Inevitably, the very fame of the Mona Lisa incites disappointment – having a pop at it is a critical vice – but I happen to believe she's worth every bit of adulation. The crowd is right.

If you were to look for an analogy with the fame of the Mona Lisa, the pushing and noise, only one other work of art comes close. Just as people make a beeline through the Louvre to find Leonardo's masterpiece, so do they queue right along a street in Florence, on a hot summer afternoon, to get into the Accademia gallery. The graffiti on its walls – "Don't bother, it's just a big statue" – doesn't put us off.

Two artists and two Renaissance wonders: Michelangelo's David and Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Centuries after they were created, these are surely the two most renowned artistic objects in the world. They seem almost mirror images of one another – or rather, positive and negative: the woman who sits smiling, the man who stands grimacing.

That is no coincidence, because they were created at the same time, in the same city, by artists who were direct rivals, watching each other as intently as Matisse would one day watch Picasso. David and the Mona Lisa are monuments to a competitive standoff as direct and public and frenzied as today's Turner prize. It was the original and ultimate art competition, the Genius prize.

Over time, it became Michelangelo's habit to leave marks of the chisel on his works (the only signature most of them bear), as if his living, straining actions were fossilised in the chipped, unpolished surface of the marble. Entire works look like this: unfinished conundrums. Others are divided in their nature, with beautiful lifelike limbs and anguished faces bursting from pillars of stone, raw as it came out of the mountain. But there are no marks on the perfect youth. No chisel wounds blemish the masterpiece that made Michelangelo's name.

Luna was the Roman name for the quarry of Carrara, whose marble is as white as the moon's shining disc. The block Michelangelo stood in front of in 1501 had come from the quarry years before, had been "badly begun" by a semi-competent sculptor in the busy workshops of the cathedral, and then left there unwanted for 40 years. The tools with which the 26-year-old proposed to hew this massive lump of stone into a human shape were hammers and chisels, rasps and files and scrapers, and a wooden bow like an archer's whose string you could pull back and forth to rotate a drill.

With this simple technology, he had to excavate slowly into the 13ft-long marble slab, negotiating the clumsy damage done by its previous assailants, hoping his labour would not be wasted and that he would find the perfect limbs, the breathing sternum, the keen gaze within. The work was dusty, sweaty, back-breaking and secret, done behind partitions in the cathedral workshop so no one could spy on his measurements with the dividers, or watch him drill heart-shaped pupils into the statue's stone eyes.

It is impossible to picture this labour as you approach David today in the Accademia gallery; inconceivable, really, how he got from toil to miracle. Other works by Michelangelo may call attention to the struggle of creation – you walk towards the tall hero down a long avenue of unfinished bodies, striving to be liberated from formless stone – but this hero of youth is as absolutely himself as are any of the people walking around his plinth.

Stand far back, and his outline is a sharp drawing, as if Michelangelo had confidently mapped the shape in the air with pen and ink. The face, turned almost 90 degrees to look to the left, with its triangle of a nose, mountain outcrop of an overhanging brow and florid hair flying out into space, forms a scintillating profile. The proportions of the body are, from this distance, mathematically graceful. The measurement from the hair on the head to the fusillade of hair above the penis appears identical to that from genitals to toes. You can almost feel the weight of the body gracefully shifting on to its right foot, as the figure easily inclines its left knee forward, rolling its ribcage on top of its stomach to move its centre of gravity.

As you approach, this harmonious silhouette stays in your mind, yet also dissolves into glances and momentary impressions. The ridges and tensions of the immense chest high above you – the statue is more than twice the height of a living person, still higher because of the tall plinth – drink in nuances of shadow so that, up close, David is richly shaded: the belly button a pool of darkness, the nipples and ribs collecting delicate grey-greens. At his side hangs his gargantuan right hand – out of proportion, you suddenly realise, not just in scale but in the mesmerising, exaggerated attention to detail the sculptor lavished on it: those veins throbbing in the marble, those knobbly knuckles and wrinkled skin on the vast thumb.

Once you recognise the strangeness of this hand, the beautiful body Michelangelo has carved becomes still more alive. This, you start to comprehend – although actually you sensed it from that very first view along the avenue – is not some chilly, perfect nude. It is mobile, active, keen-eyed. The hand is the most radical instance of a quality that all David's parts possess: they are separate and slightly at odds with each other, like characters in a play. The statue may be finished as a work of art, but what it portrays is unfinished: a body still growing and changing. David contradicts himself even in his grace, because to be alive is to be contradictory.

Where David displays every muscle, his rival is respectably swathed. Her only action is to smile – to use what the anatomist Leonardo described coolly as "the muscles called lips". She is both mortal and goddess, smiling archaic personage and merchant's wife. Her pose has an eternal inevitability, as if she contained within her a serpentine column, revolving heavenward in a perfectly calibrated spiral: this effect of torsion means she is in energetic motion even as she sits still in her chair. The relief of shadow on her strong features gives her feminine beauty a masculine counter-life. She is a hall of mirrors, a shrine of paradox. Those who see the Mona Lisa's reputation as exaggerated are refusing to see how formidable her mixture of classical perfection and dreamlike ambiguity actually is; how much is in that smile.

The Mona Lisa dwells in a painted atmosphere so thick she might be suspended in tinted liquid. Reality melts in her world. Mountains dissolve, roads wind to nowhere. The power of this painting owes a lot to the strangeness and universality of its landscape, which feels like some kind of conclusion about the nature of life on earth.

Her portrait is drawn with shadows. The darks that deepen her features are so bold, you can lift them off and reproduce them as a black template. These shadows have the effect of diminishing the distance between foreground and background; the colours of the landscape bring it forward as her shadows draw her back. This heightens the psychological and poetic sense that somehow she contains grottoes and rocky recesses within her.

The tenebrous voids that darken her beauty make us unconsciously recognise that we cannot interpret this as merely a portrait with a landscape in the background. The vista beyond her, with its coiling road, arched bridge, rocks, rivers, lakes, mountains and sea, is as much part of her as she is.

The Mona Lisa – "Mona" or "Monna" being short for "Madonna", the reverent way to title a married woman in 16th-century Florence – started life as a portrait commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo, a textile manufacturer and merchant who had business dealings with Leonardo's notary father. But the picture of Francesco's wife that Leonardo showed his fellow-citizens in 1503 must have looked very different from today's unfathomable mystery. She must have looked like a real woman.

Leonardo worked on the Mona Lisa for years – perhaps until close to the end of his life. He never let the painting go, never handed it over to Francesco and Lisa del Giocondo. The poplar-wood panel was with him when he died. Leonardo's long and loving work – that and the smoke of time – created the dream picture we see today; it is impossible to see this as a "portrait" in any normal sense. As her obscurities deepened and her landscape ramified, so Lady Lisa was transfigured into a being of myth and fable.

Yet Leonardo's rhapsody really did start out as a portrait of a Florentine woman, and what amazed the first people who saw the picture was its brilliant verisimilitude. This, surely, is where she mirrors the lifelikeness of David who, though an ideal character from the Bible, was so closely observed in his anatomy that he seems almost to move.

"In this head, anyone who wanted to see how art has the power to imitate nature could easily understand it; for here were counterfeited all the minutiae that it was possible with subtlety to paint . . . the eyes had the lustre and moisture always seen in life . . ."

So wrote the artist and critic Giorgio Vasari in 1550, going into raptures for the curve of the Mona Lisa's eyebrows, the graceful nose, the mouth that "seemed, in truth, to be not colours but flesh". I feel the same way, standing under what seems the animate stone form of David.

Art in the 21st century happens in the glare of publicity and fame. New art is a public event, a media circus. It was like that in Renaissance Italy, too. Leonardo's new portrait got people talking when it was still just a sketch. The installation of Michelangelo's David in front of the city's government palace in 1504 suddenly unveiled a new star, nearly a quarter of a century younger than Leonardo but in the same incredible category of human genius. Their new works were self-evidently similar not just in quality, but in appearance and theme. The human individual had never been portrayed so convincingly before. The Mona Lisa's first admirers said she was so lifelike, there seemed to be a pulse in her throat; thus with David's almost-beating ribs. The power of these objects, then and now, is to seem alive.

Both are classical; that is, harmonious and proportionate – the two most absolute Renaissance assimilations of the Greek style. Yet both have a quirky strangeness that takes them beyond that heritage, into the richness of the human. As to which is greater . . . can we give an answer? Contemporaries could not, so they decided to take it further.

The Florentine government set up a formal competition between the creators of these startling works. Both were challenged to translate their individual figures into multi-figured history paintings – to splurge their creativity on the grand scale of frescos. We might think it absurd to look at such supreme human treasures and ask which artist is best – but that was what the Florentine republic tried to establish, by getting them to work at public expense on competitive battle paintings, Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina, for the Great Council Hall of the civic palace. In inventing these vast compositions, both artists went beyond the public perfections of David and the Mona Lisa to create what are arguably their most personal, and tantalising, works. Known today only through traces and memories after the original designs were torn apart, the painted images covered over by later works, these lost battles still burn the imagination. They added another layer of originality to the wonders we still admire in the Louvre and the Accademia.

By 1506, after two years of the competition, the city of Florence was confident it knew who was the best artist, the ultimate genius. The prize was nothing so small as money. It was to decorate Rome itself, to define the look of the Vatican and shape the future of art. Meanwhile the loser left Italy, crossing the Alps to sulk in France, taking his most famous painting with him . . .

Today, she smiles enigmatically at her swarm of fans. It is a strange defeat.

The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Artistic Duel that Defined the Renaissance, by Jonathan Jones, is published by Simon & Schuster on Thursday, £25. To order a copy for £19.05 including free UK mainland p&p, go to or call 0330 333 68467 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 15 2009

Kevin McCloud's favourite cathedrals and temples

The designer and television presenter on magnificent domes in Rome, Florence and London


This is the mother of all domes. On the outside it's a disastrous building – the joints are pulling and it looks awful. But inside it's a revelation, all coated in marble, and beautifully decorated and panelled. It is also phenomenally powerful; the columns are massive, and the doors are more than 40ft high – at any moment you expect a door to be flung open and a 35ft-high Mercury to stride in. That is the brilliant thing about it – it is not built on a human scale. You feel as though it was designed not as a chapel to the Gods but for the Gods – Pantheon means "all Gods" in Greek, because it was dedicated to all the seven planetary Gods.


This represents an extraordinary feat of engineering. It was the first cathedral in the world to be built without the use of scaffolding – the drum was too far off the ground for a supporting structure. So Filippo Brunelleschi, who designed it, instead wrapped a combination of huge iron chains around the structure to stop it from bursting. The dome is made up of four million bricks and weighs thousands of tonnes, yet appears to float.


I love this tiny temple above Rome, in the rectangular little courtyard of San Pietro church. Outside it can't be much more than 12m in height, and what's amazing is that it looks like a mini version of St Paul's Cathedral. Sir Christopher Wren was able to adapt its form almost exactly for St Paul's. It's a poetic little building.


The cathedral dominates the skyline, 350 years on from when it was built. This was Britain's first and only classical cathedral and, inside, it is like being in St Peter's, the way it is gilded and decorated. But unlike St Peter's, it is full of light. You feel you could be anywhere in Europe, other than England, when you are inside it. Put simply, it's the finest classical cathedral in the world.


Personally I find this place very over the top. As you walk up the nave there are markings of the lengths of the world's other great cathedrals, and they are all shorter, telling you that St Peter's is the longest. And you have to ask, "So what?" But the dome itself is splendid and is the work of Michelangelo. Within the cathedral there is a 4.5m-high wooden model of the dome, which you can walk under. It was made by Michelangelo and is a very powerful object.

Kevin McCloud's Grand Tour of Europe (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25) is out now

Interview by Nicola Iseard © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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