Leonardo and Michelangelo, Triumph and Disaster 

ARTH-UA 350.001, Fall 2019

Please do not hesitate to come and see me during my office hours or by appointment.

To schedule a meeting, please sign up in the large binder, located in the Dept.’s front office, or speak to me personally.


Prerequisite: Hist. of W. Art II or Renaissance Art, or with instructor’s permission.


Principal texts & outside readings


Martin Kemp, Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man, 2nd ed. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). — * Only text listed here not available via NYU Bookstore

Leonardo da Vinci, Leonardo on Painting, ed. and trans. Martin Kemp and Margaret Walker, 2nd ed. (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

Anthony Hughes, Michelangelo (London: Phaidon Press, 1997).

Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, trans. Hellmut Wohl, 2nd ed. (University park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999).


* Highly recommended but not required:

Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, trans. J. and P. Bondanella (Oxford World Classics, 1998).

Hugo Chapman, ed., Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master, exh. cat., British Museum, London, and Teylers Museum, Haarlem (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005).

Everyone must purchase the four required texts. Copies have been ordered at the NYU Bookstore but the same texts should also be available from internet discounters (Amazon, Alibris, etc.) at comparable, if not better, prices.

The required readings will provide important background information and overviews. Additional assigned readings will focus mostly on firsthand accounts, criticism and artists’ own writings that reveal the concerns of artists and patrons through unmediated (yet hardly unbiased) accounts. Most important, these primary sources will invite us to study the artistic and cultural events of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries through the eyes of those who lived them. The secondary reading material – available as scans –will pertain to more specific themes, strengthening your grade on exams if thoughtfully incorporated into your responses; many will focus as much on scholarly method as on pure content.

Many, if not all, of the secondary readings will be available to you on our NYU Classes site (to be found under the “Resources” tab). Another, equally convenient alternative (available for most, but not all, of the English-language journals that we will require) is the online source JSTOR, accessible from any computer connected to the NYU network: http://www.jstor.org/action/showBasicSearch

Course description

“He who, without Fame, burns his life to waste

leaves no more vestige of himself on earth than

wind-blown smoke, or foam upon the water.”

Dante, Inferno 24: 49-51

“The divinity which is the science of painting transmutes the painter’s mind itself into a likeness of the divine mind.”

– Leonardo, on creating phantoms, beautiful or otherwise, that never existed in nature but convinced the eye (Codex Urbinas 36; Treatise on Painting, trans. McMahon, I, 280, 113).

This is a upper-level Renaissance course and will require considerable effort on your part. Many of the images that we will examine are inherently challenging in the complexity of their formal and conceptual vocabulary and polyvalence of meaning. What better case in point than the fugitive theory and practice of the ever-questing Leonardo da Vinci: architect, engineer, sculptor, inventor, philosopher, mathematician, expert in anatomy, optics, natural science, hydraulics, ballistics, cartography – and, yes, sometime painter.

As rigorous as this course may be, I hope that it will reward and stimulate you in equal measure. You will be acquainted with the lives and artistic (and literary) careers of two of the most influential figures of the Italian Renaissance from the second half of the 1400s to the 1560s: Leonardo and Michelangelo. By necessity then, we will focus predominantly on the culture of Florence, Milan, and Rome, three artistic centers where intellectual, commercial and devotional life went hand in hand with painterly and architectural magnificence.

As a matter of course, our study will also bring us into contact with our formidable duo’s one-time mentors, consisting of such versatile practitioners as Andrea del Verrocchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Bertoldo di Giovanni – without whom our inquiry would remain one-dimensional at best.  At various points, our cast of characters will expand to also embrace Masaccio, Donatello, the Pollaiuolo brothers, Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Piero di Cosimo, and Raphael.

Having excavated the roots we will move on to address questions of legacy. To this end, we will examine the new pictorial modes emerging around 1520 in the richly varied art of Leonardo’s and Michelangelo’s younger contemporaries, chief among them Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Jacopo Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Giulio Romano, Correggio, and Parmigianino. A close study of these vanguard masters as individual figures, laboring at their art with very specific intentions and audiences in mind, will, in turn, allow us to critically question the validity of broader – and often reductive – historical concepts such as “classicism,” “Gothic,” “High Renaissance” and “Mannerism.”

It is my hope that our diverse approaches to this remarkably fertile period will foster analytical thinking and searches for unifying connections and symmetries rather than neat and orderly definitions. Works will be examined both as physical objects, with sensitivity to their intended function and reception, and as visual images within larger cultural contexts. The latter approach will introduce students to a wide range of methodological lenses and different types of art historical writing, addressing themes such as: artistic practice and technique, issues of style, the heritage of antiquity, iconography, patronage, economics and material culture, artistic rivalry and competition, and modes of creative exchange, transmission, and quotation. Special attention will be given to the surviving material evidence, both in terms of formal analysis and each object’s manufacture and condition.

Rather than aiming for systemic classifications of types or engaging in pure formal analysis, we will take up these various leads to trace, in microcosm, the transformations that took place at a given time in the lives and careers of flesh-and-blood artists – all of whom were born, lived, worked, struggled, experienced great triumphs and dispiriting failures, and died. In between, they produced some of the most compelling and moving images in the history of art.


Regular class attendance and punctuality, active engagement and keeping current on reading assignments are expected. Three unexcused absences (without a note from a physician or Health Center professional) will result in a drop in a letter grade for the class (from A to A- and so on). Leaving early twice will equal one absence.

Reading should be coordinated with lectures and should be done before class and the introduction of new topics. Before each class, students are also advised to glance over the class notes from the previous lecture. We will cover a great deal of material and cramming is hardly a smart approach. So, please do your best to study the material as it is presented to you: the perfect antidote to later panic attacks and all-nighters.

If you don’t believe me, here’s an excerpt from an insightful NYT article, “Research Upends Traditional Thinking on Study Habits” (9.7.2010): When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found. No one knows for sure why. It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff – and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.” Changing up the physical environments in which you study seems to help with retention of information, too.

Some of the visual material might not be readily familiar to some of you. The same can be said for certain vocabulary. Please use an art dictionary if you come across unfamiliar terms – or names. As always, students will be responsible for the meaning of all the terms discussed in the previous class, both for following the next lecture and participating in our discussions. Everyone will also be responsible for the correct spelling of the relevant terms on the exam and research paper.

To this end, the Grove Dictionary Online provides an excellent resource. Your old Gardner or Janson textbook (for History of Western Art I & II) offers a useful glossary in the back as well. I have also gone ahead and posted additional glossaries on NYU Classes.

As far as useful surveys on Renaissance art history are concerned, or if you simply want a quick refresher, I would recommend as two fine introductions to Italian Renaissance art: Frederick Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture; or John Paoletti and Gary Radke, Art in Renaissance Italy.

For Northern European art, I would suggest: James Snyder, Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575.


Finally, I would encourage everyone to exchange their phone number/email with at least one other classmate with whom he/she can correspond regarding missed material, contact to share ideas or clarify topics covered in discussion or readings.


The grade for the course will be based on the following (again, subject to the professor’s discretion):

Midterm exam: 25 %

Final exam (on material post-midterm): 40 %

Research term paper (to be discussed): 35 %


Attendance and active participation in our class discussions are a given. You are expected to bring your top game every day to class –as I too promise to bring mine.


The midterm and final will cover not only material presented in lecture but also the assigned readings, and will include some combination of the following, to be decided:

  1. terminology; 2. slide comparisons; 3. slide unknowns; and 4. short essays


Images appearing on the exams will be drawn exclusively from the objects illustrated in the required readings and those discussed in class. That said, students are expected to remember pertinent information and terminology from previous sections. Therefore, in your preparations I would urge you to review the whole chapter(s), not just the brief passages that apply narrowly to the works you must know. If you understand the period as a whole, you will be able to place and make sense of images you have never seen in lecture that you will encounter in the slide unknowns.


For each artwork appearing in the exams, everyone is responsible for the object’s

  1. title or subject / type of object (if without a title)
  2. artist
  3. medium / media and support (example: fresco or oil on canvas)
  4. date (within ten years)
  5. original location, only if the object remains in situ (that is to say, it has never been moved). If a painting was originally installed in the church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence and is still there, you need to know that. You do not need to know the location if this work is now in The National Gallery, London.


As all of us well know, New York museums provide an extraordinary setting for a near-encyclopedic study of works in the original. For this course, the Met Museum, Frick Collection, and the Morgan Library & Museum in particular will allow us many opportunities to engage directly with visual objects. Everyone thus will be expected to take full advantage of all available opportunities to view permanent collections and temporary exhibitions outside of class. There are wonderful shows on offer this term!



Main rules of engagement


* As mentioned above, three unexcused absences (without a note from a doctor or Health Center professional) will result in a drop in a letter grade for the class (from A to A- and so on). Leaving early twice will equal one absence. I have eyes like a hawk … at least for a few more years yet.


* No make-up exams are given unless in the case of a serious illness or a family emergency. This is non-negotiable. Absence from exams without previous communication will result in a grade of F for the exam. Therefore, do not make travel plans that will conflict with the examination schedule; you will not be excused because of an airline reservation or similar reason.


* Extensions for the writing assignment will not be granted, so please do not ask. Papers that are not handed in when due will not be accepted. If you are absent on the date the paper is due, the paper must still reach us, dropped off in the professor’s departmental mailbox by a friend or roommate.

* Papers are never to be accepted as email attachments. No exceptions.

* Your paper must be typed, either 1.5- or double-spaced. It is strongly recommended that you keep all of your written submissions after they are handed back; this is very helpful for me in case I am asked for a letter of recommendation in the future.

Other important reminders

* Leave the outside outside. Please keep all cell phones turned off. Texting is an absolute no-no.


* The use of electronic devices in general (laptops, smartphones, tablets) is prohibited in class during lecture.

* Please come to class on time and stay until its every exciting finale. If you absolutely must leave early, please do so with minimal disruption.


* No food is allowed in the classroom.


* Students may not tape-record lectures or recitation sections, unless given permission by the instructor in light of special circumstances.

Students with disabilities

If you are a student with a documented disability who will require accommodations in this course, please contact me as soon as possible.

Research consultation at Bobst Library


Giana Ricci, the Librarian for the Fine Arts at Bobst, has kindly offered to conduct student-initiated consultations about various aspects of your projects. Consultations can be held in-person at her office at Bobst Monday-Friday, based on availability. Schedule an appointment by contacting her via email: giana.ricci@nyu.edu

Be sure to have specific questions ready when the two of you meet.

DAH Writing Tutors & the NYU College Learning Center

I encourage everyone to take full advantage of our fantastic art history-specific writing tutors – both graduate candidates at the Institute – who are available every Monday to Friday downtown in the DAH from 12.30-2.00pm.

Some of you may find that you need or want extra help with class matters. Expert (and free) peer-on-peer tutoring – albeit not necessarily given by an art history student – is available at the College Learning Center, located at Weinstein Residence Hall at 5-11 University Place, 1st floor. Contact: Ms. Soomie Han (998.8160). General contact info.: 212.998.8085 or cas.learning.center@nyu.edu. To find out more, visit: http://www.nyu.edu/cas/clc/

Internet Use and the Virtue of the Virtual


“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” – T.S. Eliot, “The Rock”


Nothing can replace the experience of standing before Leonardo’s Last Supper in the refectory of S. Maria delle Grazie, Milan. The best print reproduction offers a less than satisfying substitute. The World Wide Web does present us with a readily accessible and often helpful resource to study art. Leonardo himself is proof enough that the creative and the technical mind are far from mutually exclusive and capable of producing extraordinary results. Nonetheless, the element of speed and convenience that makes the Web so tempting should be approached with caution, as it can become all too easy to go adrift in an ocean of information that is inaccurate, misleading, and ultimately unreliable. The “WebMuseum,” put together by a computer technician, is the most notorious example of unfiltered information with dubious, undisclosed sources. As many of you already know, Beware!


I strongly encourage everyone to read the “Guidelines for Evaluating Websites,” written by the Electronic Resources Librarian at the Metropolitan Museum and providing useful criteria for critically judging the legitimacy of any given site. The main question to be answered is whether the site was designed by a recognized authority in the field … or someone who merely pursues art history as a hobby.


I ask that a student should consult with me prior to using any website as a research tool for a written assignment. The following are a few of the trustworthy sites of which students should take full advantage:


For images, online:


  1. ARTstor – one of the finest image data services available


  1. Bridgeman Art Library – another excellent image data service

– http://www.bridgeman.co.uk/search/quick_search.asp

  1. Index of Christian Art – available online via Bobcat. Search “Index of Christian Art database”; follow the link and click on “Explore the Database” (top right) on the homepage. A useful resource for images focusing on earlier material (through 1500), often with bibliographic citations.


* Museum web sites are traditionally reliable and the image quality is improving by the day.


Artist-specific research resources (available through Bobst’s web site – go to “Find Resources” – “Articles via Databases” – “Database title”: [type in] “Art”):


  1. Grove’s Dictionary of Art Online – http://www.groveart.com/shared/views/home.html

For the original in hard copy, see J. Turner, ed., The Dictionary of Art, 34 vols. (NY, 1996).

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica Online – http://www.britannica.com


For finding specific articles via online indexes/databases (available through Bobst’s web site – go to “Find Resources” – “Articles via Databases” – “Database title”: [type in] “Art”):


  1. JSTOR
  2. Art Abstracts (indexes over 300 art journals; coverage is from 1929 to present and 1984 to present)
  3. BHA, or Bibliography of the History of Art (indexes approximately 2,500 American and European art journals; coverage is from 1973 to the present).

The Met’s website in fact offers a useful, tried-and-true list of online resources, organized by curatorial departments, under the heading “Educational Resources.” Particularly useful is the site’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, which can be searched by Chronology, Works of Art, or Essays: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/chronology/

Academic Integrity & Plagiarism


I hold my students accountable to the highest standards of academic honesty. Academic dishonesty is a violation of the very principles upon which our college community is founded. As in any community, membership comes with certain rights and responsibilities. Cheating on an exam or a paper undermines the efforts of others who are playing by the rules and doing the work on their own.


NYU has a zero tolerance policy for plagiarism, as do I. Buying final paper online or submitting a project completed by someone else are the most flagrant manifestations of plagiarism, yet it assumes other forms that are no less offensive. If I find that you have cheated on an exam or plagiarized a paper– passing off the ideas or concepts of another as your own without giving due citation or credit – you will at best receive a zero on the paper. At worst, the punishment may include failure in the course and other disciplinary action on the part of the University. You must therefore use proper footnotes/endnotes and bibliography, when applicable (form to be discussed before your first writing deadline). If you are unsure as to how to cite sources, please do not hesitate to speak with me.