Michelangelo Copied Leonardo da Vinci

Vasari says Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci disliked each other “intensely”. But Michelangelo seems to have really studied the older master, hate him or not.
Here is a page of action figures by Leonardo, thought to be ideas for his Battle of Cascina fresco:
And here is a copy of two of the jousting horsemen Michelangelo made at the time he was preparing HIS fresco of the same battle in competition with Leonardo:

Michelangelo's study for the Battle of Cascina fresco

Did Michelangelo sneak into Leonardo’s side of the Consiglio Hall and make a quick copy of his fresco while he was out to lunch? Rafael Sanzio did that: he went to look at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings while he was away and copied them; and Michelangelo never forgave him for it.

That the one sketch was copied from the other is obvious. Some scholars doubt that the first page of drawings is by the hand of Leonardo—it may itself be a copy. But the source is certainly Leonardo da Vinci. Compare this horse study of his with the right-side horse in the sketches:


And see this same rearing horse of Leonardo’s, though it is very faint in this reproduction, in another study Michelangelo made for his Battle of Cascina fresco:

Michelangelo's study for the Battle of Cascina 2

What happened to these lively scenes—were they ever painted by either artist?
The copies of Leonardo’s spoiled fresco and of Michelangelo’s cartoon which have survived are almost certainly fragmentary. Probably Leonardo did more than this group:


And Michelangelo included other scenes than this:


Group and action figures were new to Michelangelo then. He had sculpted his giant David, the Roman Pietà, and the Bruges Madonna. And he had painted a strange Holy Family with some not-very-active nudes in the background. Now for this big fresco, whose subject was a cavalry skirmish, he needed to paint groups of men in action and he was looking for ways to give each the energy and grandeur of his statues while bringing them all together in one great general sweep. Leonardo did that like no one else. Michelangelo was obviously impressed.

Notice the horses in particular. In the Leonardo battle the horses not only take part, they are the real protagonists. They clash, they behave almost like fighting cats, one even bites the other. Michelangelo liked that. He liked the way everything participated in the violence and savage clash; and he tried to do his own version. He built the battle around the men, not the horses.

But Leonardo’s lightness and liveliness were not his thing: his deep, brooding nature produced another kind of art. Leonardo had the divine ease of Mozart, Michelangelo the heavier, tragic force of Beethoven.

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31 Responses to Michelangelo Copied Leonardo da Vinci

  1. christopher says:

    “Leonardo had the divine ease of Mozart, Michelangelo the heavier, tragic force of Beethoven.” Excellent observation swallows.

  2. christopher says:

    What a time in history that was, when so many masters rose up at the same time! There certainly was plenty of intrugue and jealousy.
    Slighly off-topic but related: I’m a so-so fan of impressionism but that was another time when the greats all rose together, also full of cheating and intrigue and backbiting. A possible exception to the dirty-tricks was Van Gogh. I watched Lust For Life with Kirk Douglas over Thanksgiving and noticed a line that Gaugain said about Van Gogh when he first saw his paintings, “This man owes nothing to nobody.” I don’t know if that line was accurate but the truth in it is.

    • 100swallows says:

      Christopher: I too am a great admirer of Van Gogh. One after another his pictures surprise and delight for their originality. But he did learn from other artists. It is funny to read him and see who he thought were the best ones–men most of us would consider second-rate. And his understanding of the art movements of his time was also a little off. Maybe you could say he owed more to philosophers and to his family’s religious ideas than to painters. Let’s ask Danu about this.

  3. wrjones says:

    You make them come to life as humans and not the idols many prefer. Good telling.

  4. erikatakacs says:

    You summed it up beautifully in that last paragraph, Swallows.
    I don’t know, I can’t picture that proud man sneaking in that hall to make a copy…but who knows.

  5. Rich says:

    Horses upon fine drawn and sculptured horses! Great!

    Still we owe that grand copy of Leonardo`s spoiled fresco to Rubens. As far as I know, Rubens also copied figures from Michelangelo’s Sistina.

    It seems, in spite of all those rivalries, Michelangelo, Leonardo, ..they must have been impressed by each other, and of course Rubens by both of them, later on.

    And still much later, I’m left speechless. Have to rest my jaw on the desk. May be able to retract it later.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: I hope you get that jaw working again. Yes, it really isn’t fair that the copy we have of the Leonardo is by such a great artist, while the one we have of the Michelangelo is by just anybody. Mike’s painting would surely have been better than this. And Leonardo’s would have been quite different–certainly with much of the attention given to color. Let me see if I can find a beautiful copy showing that feature of his fresco.
      Here: http://100swallows.wordpress.com/files/2008/12/leonardo-cascina-color.jpg

  6. Pingback: Leonardo da Vinci vs. Michelangelo « The Best Artists

  7. Aryul says:

    See! Leonardo is the BEST! haha

  8. Ken Januski says:

    Hi 100swallows,

    Well I have to say that what hits me over the head more than anything else is what’s missing:

    Particularly because I’ve been working from nature recently it’s fresh in my mind. I know how hard it is to capture the likeness of an animal that’s moving. But even then my visual knowledge of birds, horses or whatever, has been augmented by the thousands and thousands of photos I’ve seen of those animals frozen in movement. But there was no such thing at the time of Michelangelo and Leonardo. They couldn’t do some life sketching, then snap a few pictures on their digital camera that they could take home with them as reference for further enhancement of their drawings. They couldn’t check out a book of photos of horses in motion.

    So there was most likely extraordinarily little reference material, other than the live horses themselves. Maybe this makes the idea of one artist sneaking in to see the work of another artist a little less puzzling, regardless of how proud those artists might be.

    As I say this hits me over the head so strongly that it’s hard to even think about things like comparing them. But if someone were to set me down in front of the original illustrations I’m sure I’d come up with something. As it is though it’s hard to say much, except that the Leonardo sepia drawing is stunning.

    All I’ve said of course applies to all the horse sculptures that we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks. As I’ve been looking at them it’s really hit me that all these accomplishments are based on strict observation of real life, and not much else. Pretty impressive.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Again you came up with such a loaded subject. You always do that. If I put off answering, it isn’t because I have nothing to say but because I have too much to say and don’t want to, as the Spaniards say, “open that melon”[then you have to eat it all]. I have often had your same thoughts when considering old drawings and paintings, and your same admiration for them. I sometimes wonder if photography hasn’t been a curse, as far as art goes. (Photography art is its own thing, of course).

      The worst is the presumption that what the camera sees is the “real thing”, the truth. In fact the camera is as mindless as a cow and is only good if it is directed with a mind. Good drawings explain. Photos just stare at the thing. They have no emphasis, no accent, even if the photographer aims at his object. They are full of puzzling shadows and extraneous material. They are notoriously two-dimensional—instantly you know when a painting or drawing is a copy of a photo by the lack of relief. They mislead as to movement: you have to guess at the moment. The perspective is often uninteresting or uninformative. So many things. Those old masters made their eyes look with an idea and they recorded what they saw with lines and shadows guided by that same idea and as uniquely theirs as their fingerprint. That was half their secret.

      Didn’t you find that you learned more from the drawings by the masters than even from the animals themselves that stood (or perched!) in front of you? I did. Good were the academic drawings in textbooks like Lanteri and Ellenberger; but better were those by the masters, mostly masters before the last couple of centuries. And yes, real “fieldwork” was the best because you saw with your own ideas and drew your own “exaggerations”. And bad were photos; treacherous were photos. At least for life studies they are false friends.

  9. Aryul says:

    Yes, actually I use to favor Michelangelo a lot more in almost every aspect but my opinion on the two have changed over time the more I study both of them. Although when it comes to the battle frescoes, I have no doubt that Leonardo’s composition is the superior one.

    What you said about their similarities to Mozart and Beethoven is very true. I believe Leonardo was all about ideal beauty and obeying nature’s laws…while Michelangelo was more about rage and triumph over nature. I guess you could say it was a clash between classical balance and romanticism again, kinda like the rivalry between Ingres (another favorite of mine) and Delacroix.

    I also wanted to note the two documentaries that have been posted on youtube about both legends. Any big fan of the two should check these clips out!

    “Leonardo, the man who wanted to know everything”

    “The Divine Michelangelo”

    • 100swallows says:

      Aryul: Thanks very much for your comment and for those links to the Youtube videos. While writing these posts I too have often changed my mind about artists and their work. I resist giving a final verdict on the Consiglio frescoes because I believe Michelangelo’s would have been much better than our surviving copies. But I agree that the Leonardo by Rubens is wonderful and hard to beat. So is this version by an unknown author, which reminds one that Leonardo would have laid on beautiful colors too.
      I’m not sure about that “rage” in Michelangelo.

  10. Ken Januski says:

    Hi 100Swallows,

    Well I hate to force anyone to go “opening any melons” as you so colorfully put it! I’m not actually trying to say anything controversial, just a thoughtful response to what you said. Nonetheless photography is a big subject and I’m sure some of the things I’ve mentioned in other posts have touched on big subjects too. I’ll be more melon-conservation-conscious in the future.

    For many years I was a real opponent of photography. But I’ve settled down over the years, especially since I take a few photos for reference, and now I don’t really think about it much except for its effect on drawing and painting. I was looking at the Motmot’s site the other day and she mentioned winning the Don Eckleberry Fellowship. The accompanying site talks about how “the heavy reliance on photos as primary source material by today’s artists has, in many cases, resulted in not only a homogeneity of style and a slavishness to detail, but in a finished product devoid of the feeling or emotion that characterizes the best artwork.” Boy does that hit the nail on the head. It reminded me of all the bad effects of photography, especially on artists.

    Between my own struggles with drawing birds from life and my recent reading I couldn’t help but think about photos when I read your post and studied the drawings. I won’t comment at length (don’t want to open two melons!) on what you say about it, again quite colorfully, except to say that I wholeheartedly agree. All I wanted to point out here is how it’s easy not to admire earlier artists as much as we should because we forget that they didn’t have photos to rely on. For them it was just their eyes, and mind.

    But as my wife said when I told her I’d been accused of melon-breaking: well there were a lot more horses around then! She’s right. So that takes a wee bit away from my amazement at the artist’s skills, but just a very little. They still had to really use their eyes, something I’m really learning to do anew as I draw birds from life.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: If I had seen that essay on the Fellowship page I wouldn’t have opened your melon at all–just sent you there. I agree with what they (and you) say about photography–I guess that’s evident. Like your wife I remembered that there were horses everywhere in the old days. But their abundance alone doesn’t mean much. There were people everywhere too and nevertheless few could draw THEM. The farmer believes he is the one who knows the cow best because he milks it every day; but don’t ask to see his drawing of one. Seeing something, even having it around, even loving it, doesn’t yet capacitate for drawing. But now that is another big melon and I’ve just had breakfast.

  11. Rich says:

    “How To Draw” – I’ve lost a small booklet, my favourite one on the subject! When it comes to the human figure in such books, always there will be a Michelangelo example to show how a supreme sketch looks like.
    On the subject of animal drawings, the author had presented a Rubens drawing of a few assembled cows – a marvel!

  12. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Swallows,

    I don’t want to drag this on but I’m happy that you did write down your thoughts on the use of photos. They add more weight and new reasons to avoid the use of photos as a source for art, and as usual they’re very well written and fun to read. When photography used to infuriate me I think it was for the same reason: that people thought it was ‘real.’

    Now off to ask my local farmer to see his cow drawings……….

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Ken. One thing photographs did was bring us perfect reproductions of all the great works. After writing to you about how noxious they were I thought about the old difficulty artists had of getting to see famous paintings, how even if they were able to stand once in front of one, they had to make a copy on the spot or never see the painting again except through someone else’s copy. I complain about having to use copies of those Battle of Cascina frescoes, but in the past a copy of almost anything was all you got. See my latest post.

  13. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Swallows,

    Purely by accident a Christmas walk gave me a chance to try my first ever horse drawing But I did cheat with a photo. If the horses are still there in warm weather I’ll try from life.

  14. Ken Januski says:

    They don’t move so much as birds it’s true and that’s a happy change. But birds are all over the place including the back yard. Horses are a lot harder to find.
    I don’t know if I ever mentioned that I first started with bird subject matter in 2006. I suppose if I’d been doing birds longer I would have tried horses earlier too. I actually used to live in a place that had horses right outside my door when I lived on a Kentucky farm. But I was doing only abstract art at the time so I admired them but never thought of drawing them.
    And of course I wasn’t reading blogs that went on at length about drawing horses from memory! Now that I am I’m paying more attention to them. I think this spring will find me with my sketch pad at the corral.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: I didn’t know you came to bird-sketching such a short time ago. It looks very hard to me. Your abstract paintings and drawings look so accomplished I would have supposed you had already done a lot of sketching from nature and then “went abstract”. I understand about letting those Kentucky horses go by unsketched because you were interested in something else at the time. I have plenty of sheep and goats around me every day and haven’t yet put any in my drawing block. Remember what Henry Moore made of his sheep?

  15. Ken Januski says:

    Ah to have a chance to draw sheep and goats! Don’t let the opportunity pass you by. Though of course I could believe that you don’t have a whole lot of time on your hands….. I actually don’t remember Henry Moore and sheep but I’ll have to investigate.

    Thanks much Swallows for your comments on my abstract work. I did most of it when I was an artist more or less full-time. Now I can’t devote as much time to art and I know that my naturalistic work isn’t as ambitious or as accomplished. That bothers me somewhat. But I just keep working at it. My latest post about the ‘Baaad Example’, no sheep pun intended, of Winslow Homer touches on this.

    I did do a whole lot of figure drawing before I got seriously involved in abstract art and I’m sure that the experience played a part in my abstract art and in my newer naturalistic art.

  16. Anonymous says:

    hey this is an awsome sight because i am doing a reserach report and i just love thisss sight

  17. Brian says:

    The soldier checking out his own ass in Michaelangelo’s work is featured alone on his own pedestal in Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus”.

  18. soria says:

    Your answer to Ken is wonderful. I would like to borrow it for my blog. I also once tried to write something about photos compared to drawings, and guess what: I didn’t know what to say as it seemed to be a very difficult comparison as I also thought of apples and oranges.

  19. Tucker says:

    Neat post! Artists can learn so much from copying great works of Art, but sometimes I think it’s easy to get stuck thinking of the practice as an exercise for amateurs. It’s refreshing to see/read how the artists we revere continued this tradition throughout their lives and that there is so much value (for the audience as well as the artist) in copies of great works.
    p.s. This is my first time venturing through your posts, and I love them! Gonna put it on my blog’s feed for sure.

    • 100swallows says:

      Tucker: Thanks! Remember that in the old days an artist had to copy a painting that he liked because he might never see it again. That copy by Michelangelo of Leonardo’s cavalry battle looks like a quick sketch to take along home and consider.

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