An artistic hub
Florence at the start of the 16th century was one of Europe’s great mercantile and banking centres. Ruled by a civic government, it was a hotbed of artistic creativity. Talent, both native and immigrant, was prodigious.
Leonardo and Michelangelo both hailed from Florentine families and were formed as artists in the city. Rapahael was born in Urbino and trained in Perugia, but it was in Florence that he made his name in the early 1500s with works such as the Ansidei Madonna.
Leonardo returned to Florence in 1499 after more than a decade and a half in Milan. In 1501 he exhibited a full-size drawing, or cartoon, of the 'Virgin and Child with Saint Anne'. This may possibly have been the one in the Gallery, but more likely was the lost prototype for his painting of the same subject today in the Louvre (below right), on which the Gallery’s cartoon (below left) is a variation.
Michelangelo had also recently returned to Florence from a period in Rome where he carved the 'Pietà' for St Peter’s and painted the Entombment of Christ.
Michelangelo's 'Taddei Tondo' of 1504–5, (below), on loan to the Gallery from the Royal Accademy, is a direct reflection of Leonardo’s cartoon which Michelangelo would have seen in the city; yet Michelangelo's approach is emotionally expressive where Leonardo is lyrically observant.
Rivalry and mutual disdain grew between Leonardo and Michelangelo and came to a head when the Florentine Republic put them in open competition in 1504 by commissioning from them two monumental, historical battle paintings, one for each of the long walls in the newly constructed Great Council Hall in the Palazzo Vecchio.