The lost battle scenes

In the early years of the sixteenth century, the two greatest artists present in Florence at the time were commissioned to produce two prestigious works for the Sala del Gran Consiglio (Hall of the Great Council) in Palazzo Vecchio: wall paintings depicting two great battle scenes. Neither of the works was ever brought to completion.

Giuliana Piutti

The Sala del Gran Consiglio. The terrible crisis that erupted in Florence in 1474 with the expulsion of Pietro de’ Medici, the ruler of the city, and that continued over the subsequent years, dominated by the obsessed preaching of the Dominican friar Gerolamo Savonarola, was calmed in the first years of the sixteenth century.

The Republic achieved a degree of stability in particular after the 1502 election of Pier Soderini to the post of Gonfalonier of Justice. A man held in very high regard throughout the city, Soderini launched an arts policy aimed to increase the nascent republic’s prestige. His various initiatives included that for the decoration of the Sala del Gran Consiglio in the Palazzo Vecchio with celebratory history paintings depicting Florentine military victories.

THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT ARTISTS IN FLORENCE AT THE TIME WERE CALLED UPON TO CONTRIBUTE: LEONARDO AND MICHELANGELO. The former was commissioned to paint the Battle of Anghiari, won by the Florentines against the Visconti in 1440, and the latter the Battle of Cascina, won in 1364 against the Pisans.

The Hall was built between 1494 and 1498 for the Great Council. Vasari, in his biography of the architect who designed it, described it as a trapezium-shaped room. On the east wall, the longest in the room, was the tribune, a wooden architraved loggia in the centre of the wall, where the Signoria (the supreme political organ, comprising eight Priors and the Gonfalonier of Justice) sat. To the sides of the tribune were two large free sections of wall measuring around seven meters high and eighteen meters wide, reserved for the two battle scenes. The space on the right was probably assigned to Leonardo, that on the left to Michelangelo.

Today, the room is different in appearance, due to the intervention of Vasari, who, over a twenty-year period starting in the 1560s, remodeled and decorated the entire hall, following an iconographic program celebrating the deeds of the House of Medici and, in particular, Cosimo I. The Sala del Gran Consiglio was thereafter known as the Salone dei Cinquecento. 

LEONARDO’S COMMISSION. On 4 May 1504, the Signoria resolved to commission Leonardo to paint the Battle of Anghiari, also establishing that the artist could begin painting prior to completing the preparatory cartoon. But already at the end of the previous year, between October and December 1503, work had begun to secure the Sala del Papa in the monastery of Santa Maria Novella, which was to serve as a workshop for preparing the cartoon and, beginning on 8 January 1504, Leonardo appears in numerous documents attesting to payments made to the artist and various expenses for the already-active worksite, including those for the realization of the cartoon, for which were used “one ream and twenty-nine quires of reale-size sheets, eighty-eight librae of flour for pasting it, a three-cloth sheet for binding it”.

Thanks to a note made by Leonardo himself, we know the exact day and hour he began work on the wall of the room. “On the 6th day of June, 1505, Friday, at the stroke of the 13th hour I began to paint in the palace”. In that moment, Leonardo must have therefore had a very clear idea of the composition of the scene, which comprised multiple distinct episodes that moved from the sides towards the center scene, the Fight for the Standard, which would be the only part of the painting to be completed. But he had surely not worked out the whole cartoon, limiting himself to developing the model for just the central episode, the one painted on the wall.

Work continued, but in May 1506 Leonardo asked the Signoria of Florence for permission to go to Milan for three months, interrupting progress on the wall painting. While in Milan, he requested more time away, which was granted, and he did not return to Florence until 1507.

A SECOND SERIES OF PREPARATORY STUDIES DATES TO THIS PERIOD, evidence of the artist’s final return to the composition, specifically the two side portions. He did not, however, continue work on the painting and it remained incomplete.

Nonetheless, on 30 April 1513, the Signoria, aware of its importance in spite of being left unfinished, had a wooden structure built measuring around twenty-five meters “to fortify [which is to say, protect, frame] the painted figures in the Sala Grande della Guardia, by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci, to defend them from ruin”.

The method that was used for the painting and that can be gleaned from the documented list of materials used and various contemporary accounts, was the “putty” technique, which entailed spreading a kind of primer on the wall with a red-hot pan, creating a sort of impermeable, ‘puttied’ base on which the artist could then work with oils as if painting on panel, achieving colors that were more brilliant than could be attained with the traditional fresco technique.

A PARTICULARLY IMPORTANT ACCOUNT is that of the Anonimo Gaddiano or Magliabechiano, the author of a text written between 1537 and 1542, dedicated to the work of contemporary Florentines, in which he described the experimental technique used by Leo- nardo involving drying the paint using a “big coal fire”. According to this source, the artist did a test on a small panel before trying the technique on the wall, with positive results. But in the case of the wall painting, the experiment only worked on the lower part, while as for the upper part, “...on account of the great distance, the heat did not reach it, and it ran”.

THE WORK WAS DESCRIBED BY ANOTHER CONTEMPORARY, PAOLO GIOVIO, in the short biography of Leonardo written in the third decade of the sixteenth century, as “...magnificent but unfortunately incomplete”. It would remain visible for little more than fifty years, until the remodeling carried out by Vasari and, although incomplete and damaged, it would remain until that time one of the most interest-ing things to see in the city. This is explicitly stated in a letter from 17 August 1549, in which the Florentine Anton Francesco Doni provided his friend the Venetian Alberto Lollio with a list of the most interesting things to see in Florence, recommending that he stop by the Palazzo Vecchio to take a look at “...a group of horses and men, a battle piece by Leonardo da Vinci, which will seem to be a miraculous thing”.

With Vasari’s intervention, Leonardo’s scene was covered by a large fresco of the Victory of Cosimo I in Marciano in Val di Chiana. The phrase “cerca trova” (seek and you shall find), painted in white on a green standard on the background of the fresco, might refer to the work underneath, which was probably simply covered and not destroyed. It has been surmised, in fact, that Vasari limited himself to covering, without destroying, the work underneath, as he would do, for that matter, in the case of Masaccio’s Trinity in the church of Santa Maria Novella, hidden behind the altar that he made for the Capponi family and brought back to light in 1860.

MICHELANGELO’S COMMISSION. It was during the summer of 1504 that Michelangelo, who had just completed the marble David placed at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio as an emblem of Republican liberty, was commissioned to paint the Battle of Cascina, probably on the section of wall in the Sala del Gran Consiglio to the left of the tribune, almost as if to invite comparison and competition between the two artists.

Michelangelo ended up producing only the preparatory cartoon, since in early 1505 he was called to Rome by Pope Julius II to sculpt his monumental tomb, which was to be placed in St Peter’s Basilica.

Instead of a moment during the battle, Michelangelo chose to depict the scene before the clash, an event that took place during the sunbaked July of 1364 and was reported in Villani’s Chronicle, from which we learn that the Florentine soldiers were taken by surprise by the Pisans, who attacked while they were refreshing themselves in the waters of the Arno River. 

The cartoon therefore represented the moment in which the Florentines were abandoning the river and arming themselves, confirming, in this work as well, the centrality of the male nude that would accompany the artist throughout his long career. 

THE CARTOONS. Neither of the cartoons produced by the two artists survive, having been so admired, studied and copied that they were quickly ruined. What have survived are various copies of both.

The best known copy of Michelangelo’s cartoon – which was immediately considered, as expressed by Vasari, “more divine than human”, preserved in a room in the Ospedale dei Tintori in Sant’ Onofrio, then brought to Santa Maria Novella, then Palazzo Medici and likely destroyed by 1516 – is the one by Aristotile da Sangallo. He had made an initial copy of it on stiff paper from which, in 1542, on the suggestion of Vasari, he produced a “chiaroscuro oil painting” (and so, not in color, to reproduce the effect of the original cartoon), which has been identified as the panel now in the Leicester Collection.

VASARI WROTE THE FOLLOWING EVOCATIVE DESCRIPTION OF THE WORK: “...there could be seen, depicted by the divine hands of Michel-agnolo, some hastening to arm themselves in order to give assistance to their companions, others buckling on their cuirasses, many fastening other armor on their bodies [...] and there were to be seen the most extravagant attitudes, some standing, some kneeling or bent double, others stretched horizontally and struggling in mid-air, and all with masterly foreshortenings”. The artist emphasized the representation of vigorous nude bodies, distinguished by impossible torsions, unprecedented views and varied and artificial poses, in part drawn from classical art, in part inspired by the principle of “varietas”, which was originally borrowed from literary culture but by that point had become part of an experimental artistic language.

An entire generation of young artists – among whom we should note, at the very least, out of the many cited in Vasari’s Lives, Raphael, who was in Florence between 1504 and 1508, Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino – was shaped by this innovative visual text, which was far removed from the balance and composure of the Renaissance language. But the fame of the cartoon, and, presumably, one or more of its copies as well, spread as far as Venice, where Titian, at the beginning of the 1520s, inserted a figure drawn from Michelangelo’s work in the Bacchanal of the Andrians, one of the four paintings made for the camerino of Duke Alfonso d’Este.

BENVENUTO CELLINI AS WELL, in his writings and above all in his autobiography, written between 1558 and 1566, confirmed that the Florentine works by Michelangelo were fundamental to his own formation as an artist, in particular the Battle of Cascina, which he described thus: “...these nude footsoldiers rushing to arms, and with so many beautiful gestures [...] no work by the ancients or moderns was ever seen to reach such a high mark”. For Cellini, this work was even superior to the vault of the Sistine Chapel, painted by the art-ist between 1508 and 1512. “Even though the divine Michelangelo executed the great chapel for Pope Julius later on, his skill never again reached such a level of perfection even by half; his skill never again equaled the power of those first studies”.

And it is to Benvenuto Cellini that we owe the definition ‘school of the world’, attributed to the cartoons by Michelangelo and Leonardo, due to their exemplary function as an innovative model for the subsequent generations of artists.


Numerous copies, graphic and pictorial, have come down to us, derived either from the painting on the wall, the cartoon or the experimental panel made by the painter.

The subject, in all of the copies, is only the central part of the scene, which as we have seen was the only one to have been completed and painted on the wall: The Fight for the Standard. Many color painted copies were made, including the so-called Uffizi Copy, the Doria Panel and the copy in the Museo Horne in Florence, all made in the sixteenth century.

Even after the disappearance of both the painting on the wall and the cartoon, Leonardo’s work continued to be copied, thanks in part to the existence of the panel on which the artist tested the technique he then used, with the disappointing results mentioned above, on the wall. Such is the case of the engraving by Lorenzo Zacchia, which bears an explanatory inscription at the lower right and also reports the name of the author and date of execution.

But the most famous copy is the one made by Rubens during his stay in Italy, in the early seventeenth century, drawn from the engrav-ing by Zacchia, which, in turn, would become the source for further copies.

THE EXPRESSIVE CONNOTATION OF THE SCENE REPRESENTED BY LEONARDO IS RADICALLY DIFFERENT FROM THAT OF MICHELANGELO’S SCENE. In a kind of condemnation of the folly of war, which he defined as “bestial madness”, he presented a tangle of men and animals, highlighting the violence of the struggle and insisting on the exasperated alterations of the physiognomies and humans and animals, almost frantically developing his studies of the “movements of the soul” that characterize the entire path of his artistic research. (Here one thinks of the studied variety of expressions he used for the apostles in the Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, expressing their various reactions to the words of Christ, or the ineffable, ambiguous, indecipherable expression of the celebrated Mona Lisa.)

THE VIOLENCE AND WRATH DISTORTING THE EXPRESSION OF THE FIGURES IS more accentuated in the Milanese soldiers, the enemy. In particular, in the center of the scene, Niccolò Piccinino, captain of the Visconti troops, with his right arm raised to grip a sword, almost prey to primordial instincts, expresses an extraordinary eloquent ferocity, clearly evidenced in a preparatory study, preserved in Budapest, of his face in a three-quarter view. The image fully corresponds to Leonardo’s indications in his Treatise on Painting for representing the conquered: “You must make the conquered and beaten pale, their brows raised and knit and the skin above their brows furrowed with pain [...] the lips arched upwards and discovering the upper teeth; and the teeth apart as with crying out and lamentation”. Expressively less charged and bestial, in a study at the same museum, is the representation of Giampaolo Orsini, com-mander of the Florentine troops, identified as the soldier at the extreme right of the group.

THE SCENE EMITS A POWERFUL ENERGY, almost expanding in space. Each figure is in torsion, creating an intricate tangle of human and animal bodies where even the horses participate in the battle, struggling one against the other. Unchained bestiality and violence triumph, expressing an utterly pessimistic vision of humanity, far from the heroic conception of man expressed in the Renaissance. It is, together with Michelangelo’s cartoon, a work of rupture that leaves the Renaissance world behind, opening the path to Mannerism.

And Leonardo’s work, as noted by Vasari in his biographies of Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, and Morto da Feltre and by Cellini in his writings, became, like that of Michelangelo, an object of study for the subsequent generations of artists.

Together, the “school of the world”. *

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