While Leonardo argued for the superiority of painting in both his artwork and writing, the younger virtuoso Michelangelo (born Michelangelo Buonarroti) claimed that sculpture was the supreme art. Their rivalry was part of the ongoing Renaissance debate of paragone, which asked what the ultimate form of art was: painting or sculpture. Like Leonardo, Michelangelo was a polymath, an exceptional talent in many fields. Yet although he redesigned the architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica and arduously painted the revered frescoes in the Sistine Chapel (including the iconic Creation of Adam, 1508–12), Michelangelo considered himself first and foremost a sculptor.
No work encapsulates his so-called divine gifts or ambition so much as the colossal David (1501–04). Based on the same Old Testament story of “David and Goliath” that inspired Donatello years earlier, Michelangelo’s 14-foot-tall sculpture offers a different interpretation. Rather than standing on the head of the slain giant in the aftermath of battle, this muscled, heroic nude in contrapposto pose stares intensely the moment before the confrontation. Carving such a large figure from a block of marble was a precocious technical achievement for an artist in his 20s, but Michelangelo’s clear grasp of human anatomy astounded his contemporaries.