Nothing fed Renaissance art like competition. Some of the greatest works of the period were created in head-to-head artist competitions. These were said to bring out the best in each artist, but sometimes they led to disastrous results instead.
It all started because Bertoldo di Giovanni dreamed of completing the last marble work of Donatello, left unfinished after Donatello’s death. The best way to get it done right, Bertoldo thought, would be to pit the two best young sculptors in the San Marco garden against each other.
Michelangelo and Pietro Torrigiano were already competitive. Until Michelangelo came to San Marco, Pietro had been the star. At 19, Pietro was three years older and far more experienced. But because of Michelangelo, Pietro wasn’t Bertoldo’s golden boy anymore — and he didn’t like that. What’s more, Michelangelo enjoyed teasing him about it.
Early one morning, Bertoldo took his two young sculptors to the cathedral work yard to show them his greatest unfulfilled dream: a 17-foot-long piece of white Carrara marble. Bertoldo’s eyes watered when he saw what they called “The Giant” lying on its side, covered in weeds. Bertoldo still remembered the hopeful look in Donatello’s eyes when he first saw that tall thin block of marble. It was the look of a man trying to recapture the greatness of youth.
This large hunk of stone was supposed to have been Donatello’s swan song. At 75, Donatello had been too old to work the stone, however, so he showed his assistant Agostino de Duccio how to reveal the prophet that lay buried inside.
Donatello died not long after the carving began, and finishing the piece proved to be far beyond the skill of Agostino. Ten years later, another Donatello protégé by the name of Antonio Rossellino tried to work the block, but he too was not good enough.
If Bertoldo had been a marble sculptor, he would have finished The Giant, just as he had completed Donatello’s unfinished bronze pieces. But he couldn’t carve marble, nor had he known of any sculptors who had the talent or guts to try. He hoped that by telling the story to the two young men, one of them would be inspired to complete it someday.
Immediately, both Michelangelo and Pietro clamored to be chosen to finish what Donatello had started.
Perhaps Bertoldo should have stopped there. Instead he led the boys south from the cathedral, crossing the Arno and heading for Santa Maria del Carmine. He must have felt there was one last way to illustrate the importance of his story, especially knowing that Michelangelo had previously dreamed of being a painter.
“Masaccio!” Michelangelo said as soon as he saw the fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel. He couldn’t count the times he had sat on the floor of the nave of Santa Maria Novella, drawing the Holy Trinity. And now he was looking at his hero’s greatest work, a commission Masaccio never finished, having died at the age of 27.
“Donatello used to tell me how badly his friend Masaccio wanted to complete this painting before he died,” Bertoldo told the boys. “Instead, Filippino Lippi did it. Just imagine what it must have felt like for him to finish what Masaccio began.”
Michelangelo studied the brushstrokes Lippi had used to complete the scenes. “I could have done better than Lippi. I could have done as well as Masaccio.” There wasn’t an ounce of doubt in his voice.
This was too much for his jealous rival. “Who the hell do you think you are?” asked Pietro. “First you say you can carve as well as Donatello, and now you think you can paint as well as Masaccio. There’s no way you’re that good.”
“But I am that good; both in marble and paint. You know it.” Again Michelangelo’s voice was certain.
“Sure,” Pietro said, taking a step closer. He towered over Michelangelo. “You’ll never be that good.”
“I will be, but you’ll never be.”
Frustrated, Pietro shoved Michelangelo up against the wall.
“Don’t touch me!”
“You’re not that good,” Pietro shouted. “You’re just a mess. You’re nothing.”
They tussled. The older, bigger, faster boy was first to land a punch. It hit Michelangelo square on the nose, cracking cartilage and spurting blood over both of them. Michelangelo dropped to the floor, unconscious.
When Bertoldo had revived the boy and carted him back to the Medici Palace, Lorenzo the Magnificent flew into a rage. “I want that bastard Pietro sent away, exiled. I never want to see his face in Florence again!”
With that, Pietro Torrigiano fled to Rome and became a soldier. He eventually found work as a sculptor in England, and later made his way to Spain, where he was thrown into prison during the Inquisition for mutilating his own statue of the Virgin Mary. Pietro killed himself before the authorities had a chance to torture him on the rack.
Bertoldo died shortly after the incident in the Brancacci Chapel, never knowing whether anyone would ever complete Donatello’s Giant.
Michelangelo’s nose healed slowly, and appeared more flattened than before. The boy continued sculpting in San Marco and continued with his rapid improvement. Change was coming, but he was too busy to notice.