Who Won? The Competition Between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo

Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were once pitted against each other in a painting competition.

Feb 24, 2024By Cory Claus, BA Classical Studies & English Literature

leonardo da vinci michelangelo competition


Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti are two of the most talented artists in the history of Western art. Their works defined the Renaissance. Both artists made a great impact on the art world in general. However, they not only shared almost otherworldly abilities but they also had a mutual dislike of each other. And so when the two men were commissioned to paint in direct competition with each other in 1504, they relished the chance. So, who won the competition, and what happened to their paintings?


Leonardo da Vinci’s Career

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Presumed Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1505. Source: Wikimedia


Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452, twenty-three years before his rival. By the time Michelangelo came along, da Vinci had already established himself as a painter unrivaled in talent. Even when he was a little boy, his superior abilities were evident.


Leonardo was an apprentice to another great Renaissance artist, Andrea Del Verochio, who was making a panel painting of St. John and Christ. He picked up a brush and painted an angel. When Verochio saw it, he swore off painting in color forever because he recognized that the young Leonardo was already the superior artist. From there, his fame grew and his subsequent career has left us with some of the most beautiful and natural paintings ever made.


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Ginevra de’ Benci by Leondardo da Vinci, c. 1478. Source: The National Gallery of Art, Washington


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One of his earliest works is a portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci. Da Vinci shows here he is already a master of chiaroscuro as the direct light on her forehead fades slowly to a shadow under her chin. But the portrait changed the way portraits were painted forever. The standard at the time was to paint the subject in profile. Leonardo’s work here and in his later portraits, such as Lady With an Ermine, were so inspiring that other artists began to do the same.


One of his most famous works, the Mona Lisa, shares many of the elements we see in Ginevra. Not only does Leonardo show once again his mastery of light and shadow, but of nature and perspective too. Behind the woman with the most famous smile in the West, da Vinci paints a beautiful scene of nature in perfect perspective. This was another hallmark of the Renaissance, and no one did it better than Leonardo.


The Last Supper

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The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, 1498. Source: Milan Museum website


The Church was the single biggest commissioner of art at the time. So it comes as no surprise that Leondardo was chosen to paint The Last Supper while he was in Milan. What he produced was a revolutionary masterpiece. The figures are arranged in groups so that the viewer sees them as a series of distinct images instead of one large melange. But he also established the convention of triangular groupings. Each set of three forms a triangle, as does Christ by himself. This became a mark of great painters that stretched into the 19th century.


Leonardo, however, showed another hallmark of his work here: his unquenchable desire to experiment with the new. Da Vinci could have created this work in the conventional fresco style by painting on wet plaster. Instead, he used lead, which was reserved for panel painting. His intention was to make the colors more vibrant, but the decision backfired. The stone wall he painted on would not absorb the lead, and within a few years, the painting began to flake off.


Someday, the painting could disappear altogether.


Da Vinci returned to Florence after completing his Last Supper more admired than when he left. It was no surprise, therefore, when he was commissioned to paint a battle scene in the newly built Great Council Chamber. What he didn’t know was that this would soon turn into a competition with his rival, Michelangelo.


Michelangelo Buonarroti and the Great Council Chamber

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Michelangelo Buonarotti by Daniele de Volterra, 1545. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Michelangelo was only 29 when he was given a wall to paint in the Chamber. Like Leonardo before him, he was recognized as a genius from a young age. They even shared similar career beginnings. While Michelangelo was an apprentice to a man named Domenico, he corrected one of his master’s paintings. The work of the boy stunned Domenico, who proclaimed in awe that the young man knew more about painting than his master.


But unlike his rival, Michelangelo became famous as a sculptor, not as a painter. By the time of the competition in 1504, he had already completed two of his masterpieces. The first is his Pieta. Through it, he showed his mastery of the human form as every emaciated muscle and sinew of Christ’s body was clearly delineated. He juxtaposed that with the completely clothed figure of his mother, Mary. But her drapes were as real and fully realized as Christ’s body.


But it is the expressions that Michelangelo captured that make this work a masterpiece. Jesus is spent and exhausted but at peace. Mary, meanwhile, as the very image of a loving mother, looks down with a mixture of sadness and relief.


Michelangelo’s David

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The David by Michelangelo, 1504. Source: Florence Museum


Michelangelo followed that up with an equally impressive monumental sculpture, his David. Here he displayed one of his artistic hallmarks: capturing the moment of tension. There were several other sculptures of David commissioned and executed in the earlier years of the Renaissance. But all of them showed David in his glory after he slain Goliath. That’s not the moment Michelangelo chose to portray. Instead, he showed a David still holding the fateful stone in his hand, pensive and unsure. Although we know what will happen, this David does not. The decision imbues the sculpture with the kind of heightened emotion the others failed to capture. Vasari declared it the greatest sculpture in the history of Western art, better than anything the Greeks or Romans produced.


Michelangelo Buonarroti as a Painter

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The Entombment by Michelangelo, 1501. Source: The National Gallery of Art, London


But it’s not that Michelangelo didn’t have any professional experience as a painter. In a painting of the burial of Christ called The Entombment the artist shows he is equally capable of depicting the human form in painting as well as sculpture by representing Christ as nude. He drew attention to Christ by surrounding him with clothed figures. And, of course, he created a natural landscape for the background.


But while he never finished it, he did finish his next one, the Doni Tondo. Commissioned to commemorate a marriage, Michelangelo filled the scene with figures. In the foreground, Mary and Joseph are seen holding the baby Jesus. They are wrapped in brightly colored garb. These are juxtaposed with four nude figures in the background, crowding out the obligatory nature scene behind them. Michelangelo also showed his mastery of perspective by using the rare middle ground. There he put an image of John the Baptist who is easily identified by his hair shirt.


Still, Leonardo was seen as the master of painting. But that didn’t stop Michelangelo from jumping at a chance to compete against him. And befitting their talents, both created legendary works of art.


Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo: Who Won?

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The Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci, 1505. Source: Wikimedia


Leonardo was the first to be commissioned to create a war scene The Battle of Anghiari. He proceeded to create a cartoon of horses and horsemen in a desperate battle to keep their flag.


Vasari saw the drawing and described the scene as one where both horses and riders are filled with rage, fury, and revenge. Leonardo shows himself once again as the master of physical description. Horses and humans rear and twist and fight for their lives, muscles, and bones stretching in the attack. Vasari also pointed out the amazing way Leonardo drew the garments and helmets worn by the participants.


While he worked, Michelangelo was commissioned to paint a different battle on the opposite wall, The Battle of Cascina.


Like he did with his David, though, Michelangelo chose a moment before the actual battle began. He showed a group of soldiers who had just been bathing in the Arno River when the alarm sounded. They are seen naked, scrambling to prepare for the fight.


Michelangelo, like da Vinci, showed he was also a master of depicting the human body. His figures stretch and turn in almost every way imaginable, again showing off every muscle and sinew. Unlike Leonardo, though, Michelangelo created figures set apart from each other. It’s a study in individual poses, where da Vinci captures one chaotic moment. But then, Leonardo was always more interested in truth, while Michelangelo was more interested in artistic expression.


Both, however, created masterpieces. The question is, who won?


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The Battle of Cascina by Louis Schiavonetti, 1808. Source: The National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburg


Sadly, the two paintings were never finished. Leonardo once again tried to use a new method of binding the painting to the wall, as he did for the Last Supper. This time, his mistake became apparent almost immediately as the painting began to peel off right before his eyes. The failure caused da Vinci to give up on the commission.


Michelangelo never even got that far. His sketch was hailed by all who saw it as an unequaled masterpiece. But he was called away to Rome by Pope Julius II to start work on the Pope’s future tomb. Michelangelo might have been able to forestall the request but chose not to, possibly because Leonardo had already given up.


But at least his drawing survived. For years it resided in the Great Hall and became almost a lesson unto itself for other future Florentine painters to study. It seemed no artist could be considered great if he had not studied and copied from it. Sadly, it was eventually separated into pieces and the pieces were finally lost to history.


Since then, our knowledge of these two renderings is known only through reproductions made by other artists. Their work has given us a glimpse, a hint, of what the original might have looked like. That, and a sense of jealousy for Vasari and the others who actually got to see these legendary images from two of art’s greatest artists.

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By Cory ClausBA Classical Studies & English LiteratureCory is an educator and twice nationally recognized award-winning novelist. He is also an art and art history lover who has traveled all over the United States and Europe in order to see some of his favorites paintings and sculptures in situ. He earned his BA from Dartmouth College and has continued his research and studies since then. His first novel, Surrounded by Chu Songs, is out now.