I was intending on doing a post today on the unpleasant contrariness of Michelangelo and Leonardo. (These guys are two of a small number of people who are instantly identifiable by one name only, though a very popular and vastly oversold modern author chooses to use Leonardo’s second name as the identifier, a distinctly minority position….like referring to Michelangelo as Buonarotti of Florence.) And then it struck me how interesting a chess set would be made up of such opposed figures, happily or not squaring off against one another on the 64s.
contraries is not so simple. Skipping
past Leonardo/Michelangelo (I’ll get to them in a minute) I went to the most
famous of all contrarians in the world of science—Isaac Newton. (Is the “Isaac” really necessary?) During his
famously grumpy and combative lifetime Newton
“Art is the tree of
life; Science is the tree of death” wrote Blake, and so he chose the
“Athesistic” Sir Isaac to stand for the
beast, depicting him in art as a naked geometer intent on subjugating the world
with a compass and a keen brain, reducing glory to quantification, the work of
Satan.. For most of my life I thought
that this image by Blake was celebrating Newton
leaves no doubt about where he stood on the issue, even though much of it (to
me) seems not terribly understandable due to its repeated and visceral
self-reference and private language (“Reason is the bound or outward
circumference of energy”, the “ratio of the things of Memory”:
The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man, and when Separated from Imagination and enclosing in steel a Ratio Of the Things Of Memory, It thence frames Laws & Moralities To Destroy Imagination.
Science—embodied here in Newtonian mechanics, there in Renaissance rediscovery of classical perspective—was killing the “eternity of the imagination”.
I could well imagine
a “conversation” between the two men:
Blake saying Things, and Newton
In his otherwise brilliant book, Art & Physics, Leonard Shlain refers to Blake as a Cassandra, having the ability to see the future but not being able to say or do anything about it. To think that Blake was “correct” in foreseeing the problems that technology would bring to people’s lives leaves me baffled: it is certain that people became more cog-nified with the advance of technology, but it also allowed for the birth of “free time” for the masses, giving them some soul and imagination that they would’ve have had if they were in a flat field in Poland pulling potatoes out of the ground for 18 hours a day. Perhaps Blake was just referring to those lucky enough to wear clean white shirts and have a benefactor; perhaps all of those Others didn’t exist in his many scheduled god/heaven visions he had every day. (I should point out that Blake published Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul in 1794, which was actually a varied republication of his 1789 Songs of Innocence with the addition of the Songs of Experience. Blake exposes the duality of experience and innocence, of their opposing nature in human existence, neither negating the other, both trying to survive simultaneously. His engraved poems really are striking and gigantically, unreservedly, ars-religico-veritas of the highest Romantic order. And then some.)
Back to chess and
picking out the first pieces: : Blake
Chess Contraries, Piece Two: Michelangelo and Leonardo.
It is odd that even
though Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Leonardo (1452-1513) lived in the same city
(Florence) for several years that the only thing that developed between them in
the smallish societal/artist communities was a brew of mutual disdain. Diplomatically speaking, the men did not
care for one another, though it seems that the junior of the two,
Michelangelo--who was a well-established rising star of 35 or so to the more
famous Leonardo, who was 55—possessed the young man’s temper and was more
outspoken in his dislike of Leonardo. It
does seem spectacular that the two greatest talents of the Renaissance could
live so close together for several years and have no working or collegiale
relationship, no exchange of ideas, nothing.
They did, however,
almost work together in the same (big) room, though that too never came to
fruition. Both men received a commission
from Piero Soderini to decorate the walls of the Council Hall of the Palazzo
Vecchio with massive (20x50’ !) paintings
of great Florentine military victories: Leonardo would paint the Battle
I don’t mean to set out for pure contraries (like Ovid’s question of water and fire--cunctarum contraria semina rerum, Fasti, IV, 783, f--the yin and yang, and other entities combative at all points. The question here is for entertaining contraries at some interesting points—that’s good enough. All aspects needn't be the mutually exclusive of the other such that if one is true the other must be false. There’s room enough for neither-true-nor-false, at least for this game, a wide-open Wittgensteinian arbitrary contrary.
It might be interesting to have a look at Vasari's estimation of Leonardo and Michelangelo; I've reprinted the first tow paragraphs for each from Vasari below.
Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors, published 1550 (revised 1568)
LIFE OF LEONARDO DA VINCI: Painter and Sculptor of
"The greatest gifts are often seen, in the course of nature, rained by
celestial influences on human creatures; and sometimes, in supernatural
fashion, beauty, grace, and talent are united beyond measure in one single
person, in a manner that to whatever such an one turns his attention, his every
action is so divine, that, surpassing all other men, it makes itself clearly
known as a thing bestowed by God (as it is), and not acquired by human art.
This was seen by all mankind in Leonardo da Vinci, in whom, besides a beauty of
body never sufficiently extolled, there was an infinite grace in all his
actions; and so great was his genius, and such its growth, that to whatever
difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease. In him was great
bodily strength, joined to dexterity, with a spirit and courage ever royal and
magnanimous; and the fame of his name so increased, that not only in his
lifetime was he held in esteem, but his reputation became even greater among
posterity after his death..."
Excerpt from Giorgio Vasari, Lives
of the Artists:Michelangelo BUONAROTTI of
Florence, Painter, Sculptor and Architect (1475-1564)
"WHILE industrious and choice spirits, aided by the light afforded by Giotto and his followers, strove to show the world the talent with which their happy stars and well-balanced humours had endowed them, and endeavoured to attain to the height of knowledge by imitating the greatness of Nature in all things, the great Ruler of Heaven looked down and, seeing these vain and fruitless efforts and the presumptuous opinion of man more removed from truth than light from darkness, resolved, in order to rid him of these errors, to send to earth a genius universal in each art, to show single-handed the perfection of line and shadow, and who should give relief to his paintings, show a sound judgment in sculpture, and in architecture should render habitations convenient, safe, healthy, pleasant, well-proportioned, and enriched with various ornaments. He further endowed him with true moral philosophy and a sweet poetic spirit, so that the world should marvel at the singular eminence of his life and works and all his actions, seeming rather divine than earthy."
"In the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture the Tuscans have always
been among the best, and