Uncovering Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Battle of Anghiari’ will destroy one of the great legends of Renaissance art history.
It is one of the most influential paintings that never quite were. Commissioned for the Hall of the Five Hundred, the gigantic meeting room of Florence’s governing body in the city’s Palazzo Vecchio in 1504, Leonardo’s ‘Battle of Anghiari’ was to have been his largest painting, a vast fresco that was for centuries a watchword among artists for the portrayal of heroic muscular effort.
Depicting a battle of 1440, in which the papal forces, led by Florence, defeated those of Leonardo’s home city Milan, it centred on a murderous struggle between four horsemen for the possession of a standard. Their snorting steeds writhing and rolling as the knights grapple, the scene couldn’t be further from the transcendant serenity that characterised the National Gallery’s recent Leonardo blockbuster.
Yet it’s a work that changed the way artists approached the problems of movement and physical struggle. Or that is what we’ve been led to understand, for no one has set eyes on the painting for over 450 years.
Its great rival in this category of non-existent exemplar was commissioned to hang on the wall opposite: Michelangelo’s ‘Battle of Cascina’. This was to have been the place where the two giants, and the great artistic rivals, of that extraordinary period came face to face across the political fulcrum of the most important city of the Renaissance.
In fact, the whole thing was a fiasco from first to last. The two artists had as little to do with each other as possible. Leonardo, who had had problems with fresco – tempera on wet plaster – while working on the ‘Last Supper’, took the unprecedented step of applying oil paint directly onto the wall. A thunderstorm created excessive humidity, causing the colours to drip and merge into each other. Discouraged, he abandoned the project.
Michelangelo completed a cartoon, or full scale drawing, but had barely begun the painting itself when he was called to Rome to work on the tomb of Pope Julius II, whereupon his cartoon was destroyed by a jealous rival.
These unfinished, compromised works faced each other across the hall for half a century, before the Florentine authorities decided to get some proper frescoes painted over them in 1555 by Giorgio Vasari, author of ‘Lives of the Artists’, a brilliant chronicler of the artists of his age, but a mediocre painter.
Leonardo’s painting is known principally from a powerful drawing by Rubens, made from a later engraving. Michelangelo’s work, a supremely unrealistic catalogue of male nudity, is known from a copy of his cartoon made by a pupil.
Both of these works and the preparatory drawings produced for them, have been not only endlessly ‘quoted’ over the centuries by artists of the order of Titian, but have been talked and fantasised into a kind of cult-phenomenon.
While it would be wonderful to get further insights into either of them – and in the wake of the London Leonardo exhibition interest couldn’t be higher – I’m not going to get over excited on the strength of two holes bored into a wall and a few minute fragments of plaster.
Vasari may have been a self-serving opportunist, but he genuinely revered both artists and it’s impossible to believe he would have painted over a significant work by either of them. There is of course the currently much discussed possibility that he painted onto a false wall erected to save Leonardo’s painting.
Yet even if a substantial chunk of the Battle of Anghiari is unearthed I suspect the experience will be disappointing. Not only will it be in a deleterious condition, but rather like those lost and legendary albums you wait half a lifetime to hear, only to find your internal life somehow the poorer for the experience, the idea of Leonardo’s painting may prove to be far more potent and inspiring than the actuality.