The most common question I get about my art-historical novel, Oil and Marble: a novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo, is: “What inspired you to write it?”
For five years, from 1501 – 1505, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti both lived and worked in Florence. Leonardo was an aging master, the most famous of his day. Michelangelo was a young, up-and-coming sculptor.
Art historians acknowledge the two had a contentious relationship, culminating when the city commissioned the two masters to paint “dueling frescoes” on opposite walls of Florence’s town hall.
This double commission was billed as a battle between the two greatest living artists.
For a few brief months, they worked alongside each other in the same room. But neither completed his fresco. Drawings and copies of both designs remain, but not a single brushstroke survives.
For centuries, art historians have regretted that this great clash of the titans came to nothing. Imagine, they lament, what wonders those two geniuses might have created if they had only stayed in that room to compete? How sad that the world missed out on such promise.
But did we miss really out?
Don’t governments usually follow trends, not start them? For the government to plan such a contest on such a public stage, Leonardo and Michelangelo’s rivalry must have already been in full force. The historical record tells us the two openly disliked each other long before the dueling frescos debacle. Contemporaries reported that they had contentious run-ins on the streets. Plus, their personalities, family lineage, spiritual beliefs, work ethics, and even appearances were at extreme odds.
But there is even more compelling proof that these two were already well-known antagonists. During the years just prior to the fresco commission, while working side by side in Florence, Michelangelo carved the David, while Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa.
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Fraser. The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones. Federer vs. Nadal. Mac vs. PC. Great rivalries beget greatness. Seemingly invincible opponents drive us all to grander heights than we could ever reach on our own.
Surely it isn’t just a coincidence that the two most iconic works of art in all of western civilization were created in the same town, at the exact same moment. Are we supposed to believe that these two brilliant, competitive artists did not try to best each other? Isn’t it only logical that the young Michelangelo pushed the aging Leonardo to paint the Mona Lisa, just as Leonardo drove Michelangelo to carve the David?
Oil and Marble is my attempt to answer that question.