“Are you a Leonardo person or a Michelangelo person?”
This is the question Stephanie Storey asked me at Books in Bloom when I approached her about autographing my copy of her book Oil and Marble, a novel that chronicles the heated rivalry between two of the best artists who ever lived. Both of whom are definitely people who changed the world for the better!
Now, personally, when it comes to favorite artists, I’m a Caravaggio person. I’ve been obsessed with Caravaggio since I was a teenager. What with his strikingly realistic paintings that wonderfully capture human emotions but also absolutely horrified his 17th century contemporaries, his defiance of then-current painting tradition, his fixation on depicting decapitations (frequently starring his own severed head), and his tumultuous life (which included numerous brawls, at least one murder, being run out of several cities, and a mysterious death), he’s just always intrigued me.
But picking between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo was pretty easy for me. I told her I was a Leonardo person. My dad, a talented artist in his own right, introduced me to da Vinci, one of his personal favorites, when I was a kid. (Thanks for having great taste in art, Dad!) Da Vinci’s art interested me, but the man himself was what really fascinated me. I loved that that he was talented in so many different fields, from art to engineering, and that he was so fixated on experimenting with flight. And on a personal level, as a kid who compulsively kept a journal and loved to write backwards, I always appreciated his massive collection of journals, full of mirror writing.
So, when Stephanie Storey asked me if I was a Leonardo person or a Michelangelo person, I told her I was a Leonardo person. We chatted a little about why, and then when I turned to leave, she smiled and told me she–a self-proclaimed Michelangelo person–hoped after I read the book that I’d appreciate Michelangelo too.
And having read Oil and Marble, I will admit that if she asked me that question today, my response to that question would now be “Both.”
Oil and Marble chronicles the time period of a few years in the early 1500s when da Vinci and Michelangelo both were working in their native Florence, Italy. By this point in time, da Vinci was middle-aged, an acknowledged master artist, though one distracted with a million interests and with a reputation for skipping out on commissions because he’d rather not finish something than create something that was not exceptional. Michelangelo, meanwhile, was a young, up-and-coming sculptor, who tended to lose himself in his obsession with his work, to the neglect of his family, friends, personal hygiene, and health.
By all historical accounts, the two men absolutely despised each other. Their personalities were completely opposite of each other–da Vinci, a charming extrovert, and Michelangelo, an awkward introvert–and appreciating each other’s respective talents quietly and respectfully was just simply not an option.
That right there is a story in and of itself. But Storey, a trained art historian, posits in her novel that this feud, which frequently descended into childish pettiness, and the resulting desire to best the other one was exactly what drove da Vinci to paint his iconic Mona Lisa and Michelangelo to sculpt his masterpiece David. Both these masterpieces were created during this time period.
One of the greatest strengths of Storey’s novel is that it delves so thoroughly into both men’s personalities and brings both of them to life. I’ve talked about this before, but I think historical fiction about real people is the absolute hardest to pull off. It’s so easy to just make the person a caricature or to go overboard exaggerating their flaws or skimming over those faults.
When historical fiction really works, in my opinion, is when the author avoids these pitfalls and presents his or her famous historical characters not as icons but as recognizable people. Da Vinci and Michelangelo could both easily be depicted as complete jerks with, ahem, artistic personalities, but Storey avoids making them that simple.
She does a lovely job of depicting the creative process and how different it is for each artist, as well. I’ve always enjoyed well-done stories about the creative process. (That was honestly my favorite part of the television show Mad Men–watching creative ideas germinate and become an actual something.)
But I don’t think a lot of biographical novels or movies or TV shows always know how to do this, so they usually ignore it or make it seem like it is completely an act of insanity or depict the act of creating art as originating in one single flash of revelation. Storey, instead, takes the time to delve into all of the actual work that goes into making art, whether it is da Vinci always having his sketchbook handy to capture people’s reactions, even if it in the middle of a terrified stampede, or Michelangelo becoming increasingly frustrated because his marble is not speaking to him like it always has in the past. The result is a lot more interesting, at least to me, than if it were a strictly biographical work that focuses more on other aspects of life.
She also does a good job of bringing Renaissance-era Florence to life, complete with its complicated, dangerous politics and the tricky balancing act that was working as an artist for a patron, in a way that is easy to follow. In the back of the book–as well as on her website–Storey delves into what is fact and what is artistic license. She strikes a good balance between being authentic and also not letting that bog the pacing down.
If you like biographical fiction or historical fiction, give this book a try! It’s a delightful blend of fact and fiction and sheds some new light on two of the most famous artists in history and their respective masterpieces. To learn more about this book, just follow this link to our online library catalog!
Are you a Leonardo or Michelangelo person? Or are you a fellow Caravaggio person?! Can a piece of art change the world? Tell us in the comments!