Leonardo and the battle of Michelangelo's penis
Date: 22 Nov 2010 | | Views: 2015
My love for microhistory inspired me to uncover Leonardo da Vinci's attempt to shroud the greatest nude statue ever
So, I gave the last talk in the 2010 tour of my book The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Artistic Duel that Defined the Renaissance, at the National Gallery the other day – which in my eyes was a bit like ending it at the art critics' Wembley – and in the middle of the talk, I found myself recommending a book: someone else's. Since I have offered the same bibliographic recommendation to other audiences at book festivals, perhaps I should take the opportunity of what I promise is my last book-related posting of the year to recommend to you the very same beloved work.
It is called Montaillou and its author is the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. It came out in English in 1978, and is still available in paperback. This is my idea of a magical and liberating history book because it breaks down the barriers of time and space. It allows us to meet, as living and speaking human beings, a rowdy and fascinating company of 14th-century French villagers. Normally such people vanish completely from the historical record. The peasants of Montaillou have names, and their personalities can be glimpsed, because they were interrogated by an inquisitor hunting down the last traces of the Cathar heresy.
I fell in love with this book in the 1980s when I was getting ready to read history at university. I also fell in love with the genre of "microhistory" that it made famous. Today there is a vast field of popular writing about history. But before that, there was microhistory. What I realised while working on The Lost Battles was that the simple, humane project of history books like Montaillou – to bring to life the texture of everyday reality in another place, another time – is actually what I want to do for art and artists.
Thus, a crucial chapter of The Lost Battles is based on a transcript of a meeting that took place in Florence in 1504 to decide where Michelangelo's newly carved David should be put. Artists including Botticelli, Perugino and Leonardo da Vinci were at this meeting and their words were recorded word for word by a clerk. Gold dust! In the transcript, Leonardo says the statue needs "decent ornament" – which I take to mean it needs decently covering up, for only in recent times has the notion of decency lost its connotations of Christian modesty.
Since the book's publication in April, no reviewer has disputed this reading of Leonardo's recorded words. Indeed it seems so natural that you may think I got it from some other book – but in fact this obvious reading of Leonardo's speech has been assiduously avoided by art historians who, I suppose, did not want to mention penises and great art in the same sentence.
So, I can claim to have brought a bit of microhistory to light. Great artists are people, too. And in this miraculously preserved bit of his real speech, Leonardo da Vinci is caught out spitefully attempting to emasculate the greatest nude statue in the history of the world.