Reniassance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian by Rona Goffen

James Hall wonders if the masters really did behave like a bunch of mobsters
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It is not often you read a serious art history book that is nearly as violent and cynical as a spaghetti western. But, in Renaissance Rivals, every waking thought of every great Renaissance artist is given over to devising dastardly stratagems for shafting contemporaries and predecessors.

It is not often you read a serious art history book that is nearly as violent and cynical as a spaghetti western. But, in Renaissance Rivals, every waking thought of every great Renaissance artist is given over to devising dastardly stratagems for shafting contemporaries and predecessors.

We learn that when Leonardo and Michelangelo painted battle scenes in the Florence Town Hall, they were also battling each other. Rona Goffen raises the stakes to epic proportions by adopting the Greek word agon to describe these turf wars. Thus a stucco Hercules by arch-villain Baccio Bandinelli was a "gauntlet" signifying his "doubled agon" with Donatello and Michelangelo. Michelangelo only stops fighting in his last sculpture – "a prayer in stone that transcends agon". This book should have been entitled The Agon and the Ecstasy.

There is a serious point here, because the Renaissance has always been characterised as a period of heightened self-consciousness, in which rivalry among artists, and with antiquity, acted as a motor for innovation. The opening gambit of the Renaissance is often said to be an Italy-wide competition for the Baptistery Doors in Florence in 1401, which was won by Lorenzo Ghiberti with Filippo Brunelleschi coming a sore-headed second. Yet beyond noting such things as the burgeoning literature on the visual arts and the beginnings of both a theory and practice of self-portraiture, it is hard to pinpoint a moment when the so-called Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance began.

Goffen solves these problems by all but ignoring them. She offers no substantial explanation of the social, economic or cultural changes that caused this supposed orgy of competitive self-fashioning. She shrugs off the Middle Ages almost in passing. Without offering evidence, she asserts that patrons had always had preferences, but only after the 14th century in Italy was one master no longer regarded as inter-changeable with another.

This is patently untrue. The names of the architects of Pisa's romanesque Cathedral, Baptistery and Bell Tower are recorded. The Baptistery bears an inscription to its architect, Diotisalvi, while the sarcophagus of Buscheto, architect of the Cathedral, is embedded in its façade.

Once the Middle Ages have been dispatched, Goffen gets down to the real business of chronicling the artistic argy-bargy. Whereas in previous centuries, artists borrowed from each other out of respect for tradition, now it was "dialogue or dialectic, sometimes combative (as when Titian revises Michelangelo), sometimes a pacific declaration of admiration (when Raphael emulates Leonardo), sometimes hostile (when Cellini confronts Bandinelli)". Goffen has little patience with "pacific" borrowings, and immediately denies their possibility: "In each case, the response was rivalrous ... only one art (or artist) can win". Most of the basic information about these rivalries is culled uncritically from Vasari. Vasari's equal emphasis on gentlemanly behaviour, on virtuous rivalry and co-operation, is ignored. One wonders how any real work got done in this snake pit.

Nowhere does Goffen suggest a motif may have been borrowed simply as a short-cut. Thus there is no mention of Michelangelo basing the biblical scenes for the medallions for the Sistine Ceiling (above) on cheap woodcut illustrations from a vernacular Bible. When young Titian borrows motifs from Michelangelo for a fresco in Padua and for a woodcut, Goffen is amazed at his audacity, "announcing his intention to rival" the Florentine. This seems unlikely. The borrowings would not immediately have been recognised, and Titian's main competitors were Venetian.

Goffen's best writing occurs in the section on Michelangelo, when she concentrates on close analysis of the work. She makes persuasive and often original points, particularly about the strange body language of his Madonna and Child images. Here she seems to allow an artist to absorb the lessons of other art with gratitude rather than rancour. Her next project should be a book on Michelangelo.

Goffen never really says what she thinks about all this rivalry. As a successful citizen of the US, mecca of capitalism, one assumes she thinks it a good thing. Yet Vasari hated the in-fighting among artists, for it had detrimental consequences on careers. He harked back to highly productive earlier artists who showed generosity and geniality.

Renaissance individualism has not always been looked on uncritically. Whereas the Middle Ages produced vast "total works of art" such as their cathedrals, the legacy of the Renaissance is more piecemeal and dispersed. The great Renaissance fresco cycles and tomb sculptures are mostly found in Gothic buildings, not least because Renaissance architects left little room for art on their own buildings. The greatest Renaissance "total work of art" – Michelangelo's Medici Chapel – remained unfinished, largely due to his own bloody-mindedness.

Rona Goffen clearly sees friendship as essential for her own creativity. In the acknowledgements, she writes: "My subject is rivalry, but I never found a trace of it in working on the book, only generosity and collegiality." Here, ironically, more aggressive criticism from her colleagues might have made for a better book.

James Hall is the author of 'The World as Sculpture' (Pimlico)

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