The Battle of Anghiari : of violence and virtue in the visual arts

Digressions around an engraving

The Battle of Anghiari – Engraving by Gérard Edelinck after P.P.Rubens (Museo della Battaglia e di Anghiari, Anghiari, Italy)

In June 1440, the great condottiere Niccolò Piccinino, then in the service of the Duke of Milan, learnt on his way back to Lombardy after having campaigned in Central Italy that the Florentines and their Allies were camping below the walls of Anghiari, a fortress on top of a hill; he summoned a war council to decide whether or not to continue marching north, or meet the enemy in battle. Two of the main allies of the Duke, Astorre and Guidantonio Manfredi, fearing that their territories might be sacked by the Florentine should they not be preemptively defeated, and the representatives of the Albizzi faction that had been replaced at the helm of Florence by the Medici in 1434, argued in favour of battle. A victory would have opened the possibility for Piccinino to establish for himself an independent statelet in Central Italy, preferably in his hometown of Perugia. Last but not least, he was at risk of being caught between the Florentine forces in his back and the army of Francesco Sforza, the other great condottiere then in the service of Venice, in the north: he decided for battle. His headquarters were in Borgo Sansepolcro, a city fiercely opposed to Anghiari and situated in the valley at a distance of approximately nine kilometers on the other side of the Tiber. This is a two hour walk which would have prevented any surprise effect and exhausted his infantry walking in the blazing sun before the shock.

Piccinino therefore decided to have his army take the road to the north, as if he was going back to Romagna, until a bridge known as ponte delle Forche, distant only about six kilometers from Anghiari. He started off at the hottest hour of the day of this hot 29th of June, when an attack was least probable and the Allied would expect it less. Having reached the bridge, his heavy cavalry and infantry turned left towards Anghiari, with approximately 2500 cavalrymen and 1000 foot soldiers, many of them with fire arms, more or less equivalent to the total Allied force. However, the Allied were in a favourable position on the slopes of the hill, with the land below having been adequately prepared for defense. The competent and ever suspicious Florentine commissar, Neri Capponi, and the condottiero Micheletto Attendolo, reacted fast enough, moving a force to the river so as to prevent passage. The ensuing fight was particularly violent; despite having lost the surprise effect, the Milanese managed to cross the river but could not obtain a rapid advantage. Contemporary chroniclers were impressed by the fact that, having broken spears and swords, the two sides continued fighting with their metal gloves alone…

As they moved forward, the Milanese reached a more favourable terrain, the one prepared beforehand by the Allied for their own deploying, but they now became exposed to the fire of Genoese crossbowmen on the hill, from which the infantry’s light armor was inadequate shelter (contrary to hardened metal used for the cavalry, which the Italian metalwork had recently developed, but which remained very expensive). In addition, the Allied had managed to bring out of their camp a few bombards, a primitive form of artillery which could nevertheless kill several soldiers in one shot at a relatively short distance. This combination of crossbows and artillery broke the Milanese advance, anticipating on future tactical developments on the European battlefields. At that point, the fresh papal contingent led by the Legate Trevisan lept into the cauldron, pushing back the exhausted Milanese to the bridge. It was already six in the afternoon. Piccinino decided for an all-out attack, in the hope of smashing the enemy lines. To the braccesco system of operating with alternating fresh, flexible small squadrons, he moved to the sforzesco system of seeking victory by applying rapidly a large force on a chosen pressure point where he could hold a temporary numerical advantage. That he could implement this change of tactics in the middle of the battle, and after hours of fighting in the afternoon heat, demonstrates the outstanding level of training and discipline of his army. 

Model of the Battle of Anghiari in the Museo della Battaglia (Anghiari)

The Allied were able to resist; Astorre Manfredi, in a bold and heroic initiative, moved forward alone in order to disrupt the line of the attacking Milanese, which indeed created a diversion; a moment chosen by the experienced Orsini to launch his reserves into the battle. The wind itself turned against the Milanese, blowing dust in their eyes. Some soldiers started to run away, then the whole Milanese army disbanded, running towards Sansepolcro. Piccinino regrouped some forces, trying at least to save the standards, and fight their way back to the safety of the walls of Sansepolcro. Although they managed a semblance of organized retreat, they ultimately failed to save the standards. The Allied had captured – according to the reports sent to Florence – more than 300 men and 2500 horses, carriages loaded with spoils from previous Milanese plunder, as well as some prestigious condottieri: a huge potential for ransom. Most of the men, though, were released the next day: an odd decision, given that it was much more difficult and costly to train a professional combatant than provide him with new weapons. It has be estimated that perhaps as many as 500 or 600 Milanese died either on the battlefield or from their injuries, although the deaths among footmen were hardly taken into account given their lowly social status. This is a loss rate not far from that of Napoleonic battles (estimated at an average of 20% before the Russian campaign), despite the absence of any meaningful artillery. Although the total number of soldiers on the battlefield of Anghiari was much smaller than in 19th century battles, the violence of these encounters was considerable, and the impact on relatively small city-states was quite high: in 1425, the population of Florence was around 60,000, leaving little room for heavy military losses…   

Florence increased its territory by seizing the lands of those who had sided with the Milanese, and in particular Borgo Sansepolcro and the strategically important Casentino. Meanwhile, Piccinino had restored his military capabilities, and won a series of local victories for the Duke. His fortunes changed radically when he asked, as payment for his services, to be given the city of Piacenza. Although such behaviour was common among condottieri, the Duke refused, saying: “ with enemies one accepts to deal; to one’s subjects, deals are imposed”. Adding insult to injury, he married in 1441 his daughter Bianca Maria Visconti to the rival condottiere, Francesco Sforza. A move which would alter the Italian strategic scene since Francesco was not only the main commander of the Republic of Venice, but also the feudal owner of the Marca di Ancona, a territory potentially linking the possessions of the Duke to the Adriatic.

A Florentine defeat at Anghiari would probably have delayed the artistic projects of Cosimo de Medici, and perhaps, as a consequence and for lack of moneys, the development of the naturalistic school associated with the Florentine Renaissance; a Renaissance which was encouraged and financed to a large extent by the patronage of the oligarchy, and in particular that of the Medici family. The golden decades that followed Anghiari until the death of Lorenzo in 1492 might have looked quite different in the midst of permanent wars, insecurity, and financial distress.

It would be a very long discussion to try and explain the causes of the war, ultimately one episode in the centuries-long fight between Holy Roman Empire and Papacy, between the Venitian thalassocracy and the Milanese attempt at dominating northern Italy. Simply looking at a map of Italy in 1299, of the Duchy of Milan at the maximum expansion of the Visconti dominions in 1402, and of Northern Italy after the peace of Lodi in 1454, gives an idea of how volatile the situation could be at the time of the early Renaissance.

Suffice it to say that the aftermath of Anghiari saw a change in alliances. After ten years of treasons, battles and intrigues, Francesco Sforza entered Milan in 1450 as its new master; Florence acknowledged his power, and abandoned the traditional alliance with Venice. After the peace of Lodi in 1454, where the main Italian states agreed to maintaining a form of status quo, the governance corresponding to a state of emergency which had been in place since 1434 in Florence and had allowed Cosimo de Medici to exert de facto quasi-absolute power, could not be justified any longer. With the military support of Francesco Sforza, he engineered a coup in 1458 which provided him with monarchical power in all but the name until his death in 1464. His son Piero continued the same policy, supported by the new duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza. The battle of Anghiari had ultimately consolidated the regime of the Medici, which was to be of such relevance to the Italian Renaissance, and ensured some decades of relative peace until the invasion of Italy by the French king Charles VIII de Valois in 1494. Decades which represented an immense financial relief, given the huge costs of semi-permanent war on the Italian states and statelets: it has been estimated that during the early 15th century, several states spent close to half their annual income just to hire condottieri and the required cavalry force. A financial relief that could be used in the pursuit of other, worthier purposes.

In 1494, the Medici were chased out of Florence, which gave itself a new Republican constitution inspired by the monk Girolamo Savonarola. After the rebellion of the city of Pisa, many other dependencies defected under the impulse of Cesare Borgia, the son of pope Alexander VI; it is only the death of the latter in 1503 which gave Florence some respite, but deep internal divisions remained. That is when the project of having the two greatest artists of the time decorate the hall of the “Great Council”, the main legislative body of the city, with frescoes glorifying its past achievements, matured in the mind of the newly-elected gonfaloniere, Piero Soderini and his advisors, among which the well-known Niccolò Machiavelli. A powerful common narrative, supported by images painted by the greatest artists of the time and permanently under the eyes of the legislators, would perhaps provide a form of pride in a shared identity, a desire to strive for the common good, and most certainly impress the world far beyond Florence itself.

The enterprise was as daring as the hall was immense: 54 meters long, 23 meters wide, 18 meters high (see picture): exactly the same length, but much higher, than the hall of the Great Council at the Palazzo dei Dogi in Venice (53m x 26m x 10m) which had been rebuilt in 1400 – 1410… This was one of the most ambitious artistic projects in the world, not a project among others. In October 1503, despite the major technical failures affecting his Last Supper painted in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan between 1492 and 1497, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned with a large fresco representing the battle of Anghiari. He had left Florence twenty years before and had since been working for the Sforza in Milan until the French occupation in 1499, then for Cesare Borgia and others.

The difficulty was to find the right subjects: for more than a century, Florence had mostly suffered a string of military defeats compensated by a mixture of luck, intrigue and diplomacy. The only victories of any relevance were the battle of Cascina in 1363 against Pisa, and the battle of Anghiari in 1440. The trouble was that Anghiari was won in part thanks to the Venitians who were now Florence’s enemies, but also at the time when Florence was governed by the oligarchy led by Cosimo de Medici; indeed, Bernadetto de Medici was one of the two “commissars” of the city on the field, and his action had a key role in the Florentine success. Now, the ideology of the new Republic was deeply hostile to the Medici. In addition, Piero Soderini belonged to a faction opposed to that of the Capponi family, while Neri Capponi was the other Florentine commissar at Anghiari.

It is quite possible, indeed most probable, that Niccolò Machiavelli, who had been appointed the Second Chancellor of the Republic of Florence in June 1498, and then Secretary of the Dieci di Libertà e Pace in July 1498, therefore the man in charge of diplomacy and military affairs for the Republic, gave his advice about the iconographic programme. After all, Da Vinci had long been at the service of foreign rulers, his reputation extended to the whole of Europe, and his work would bring prestige – and carry a message – well beyond the walls of the city. We know that Machiavelli was profoundly hostile to the system of mercenaries and condottieri, rightly seeing that their interests did not coincide – or only temporarily – with those of the state which their were meant to serve. As he observed in his History of Florence (Book 6, Chapter 1), “A republic or a prince is enriched by the victories he obtains, when the enemy is crushed and possession is retained of the plunder and ransom. Victory is injurious when the foe escapes, or when the soldiers appropriate the booty and ransom. In such a case, losses are unfortunate, and conquests still more so; for the vanquished suffers the injuries inflicted by the enemy, and the victor those occasioned by his friends, which being less justifiable, must cause the greater pain, particularly from a consideration of his being thus compelled to oppress his people by an increased burden of taxation.”

Strangely perhaps, while attributing to Anghiari its whole diplomatic significance (“This victory was much more advantageous to the Florentines than injurious to the duke; for, had they been conquered, Tuscany would have been his own”), Machiavelli belittled the military feat with his famous – and factually wrong – comment that “Nor was there ever an instance of wars being carried on in an enemy’s country with less injury to the assailants than at this; for in so great a defeat, and in a battle which continued four hours, only one man died, and he, not from wounds inflicted by hostile weapons, or any honorable means, but, having fallen from his horse, was trampled to death”. This would greatly contribute to the lasting impression in historiography that all those endless Italian wars in the 15th century were bloodless – though costly – theatrics carried out so as to promote the individual ambitions of princes, and enrich through outrageous fees, ransom, and looting, a handful of condottieri. This is an exaggeration. It is the combination of the very political structure of the Italian peninsula – five states of roughly equivalent power and a number of semi-independent cities and principalities in need of protection to survive – added to the state of military technology at the time, which created a permanently inflammable context. Territorial ambitions were encouraged by the existing of easy preys as well as by the apparent weakness of any rival state, while the risk to the state’s survival was limited by the game of alliances and changing loyalties aimed at preserving the existing balance of power. It is true however that the very existence of mercenaries permanently threatened that balance because the condottieri aimed at being rewarded not only by money, but also by sovereignty over a territory, and had therefore an incentive to drive rulers to war.     

The iconography of the battle of Anghiari would reflect these historic, ideological and political considerations, and contradictions. It is known that Leonardo received information about the battle from the chancery of Machiavelli, and most likely instructions with respect to the program to be followed, or at least the values to be expressed, although he probably neglected any instructions related to the choice of what to represent and how, as he usually did.

It would appear from Leonardo’s sketches that a key role was to be given to the Legate Trevisan, kneeling in prayer in front of the weapons of the vanquished; thus Trevisan would appear as the main victor so as to reduce the role of the Florentine commissars and the other allied condottieri, who would have been represented in a less prominent position. This was also a way to reassert the link between Florence and the papacy, between Florence and the Church. What is known of the general conception of Leonardo is relatively little, because he abandoned his work after a couple of years after having painted the episode of the “Fight for the Standard” which was to be the central portion of the fresco, and went back to Milan in May 1506. This was supposedly at the request of the French governor Charles d’Amboise, but more likely because the technique which he employed was leading to disaster, with colours actually leaking and the fresco progressively vanishing. For the second time, Leonardo’s refusal to resort to well-proven methods was leading to failure. The boldness of the engineer had suffocated the artist, to our loss: what remains from him is his art, his machines were never used, despite their promises.

When the rule of the Medici was restored to Florence in 1512, thanks to the intervention of the Spanish army, the whole point of the iconographic programme was anyway lost, and it was not before 1563 that the duke Cosimo I instructed Vasari to redecorate the room that had been of the Great Council with a new programme emphasizing the glory of the house of Medici. What was left of Da Vinci’s work, the episode of the “Fight for the Standard”, may not have been destroyed by Vasari but only covered by some partition, out of respect for the great master, so that it could be still there, behind Vasari’s Battle of Marciano (sometimes called Battle of Scannagallo) which, in all honesty, is better propaganda than art. The writing “cerca trova” (look for and find) on one of the banners painted by Vasari led an engineer, Maurizio Seracini, to examine the wall with contemporary radar techniques and to find that Vasari’s work was indeed painted on a second wall. It remains to be seen if technology can “read” a painting behind a wall. A technique suggested by physicists from the Argonne laboratory in the US would consist in shooting beams of neutrons at the wall so as a to detect the existence of a painting. Some of these neutrons would strike the layers of Leonardo’s paint behind it, if it still exists, and by doing so, produce radioactive nuclei that emit gamma rays characteristic of each color paint. Each oil paint color contains unique isotopes, such as mercury sulfide for red paint; and the gamma rays coming from mercury sulfide have a specific energy and decay rate which can be measured. That Vasari could have envisioned anyone in the future to destroy his own work so as to rediscover Leonardo’s masterpiece is psychologically intriguing: an elaborate and unlikely form of artistic masochism. Most probably, what remained to be seen was little, by the time he started his work.

Countering this viewpoint, a group of art historians including Roberta Barsanti, Giancula Belli, Emanuela Ferretti, and Cecilia Frosinini claimed, at a roundtable held by the Uffizi Galleries in Florence on October 8, 2020, that the Leonardo work was never painted in the first place because the paint wouldn’t hold on the preparation as it was made, and therefore the Battle of Anghiari existed only as a cartoon, never as paint on a wall. Obviously this is only an educated guess until one can actually look – by one means or another – at what actually exists behind the wall. Reproducing in a laboratory what one thinks Leonardo did five centuries ago with compounds which one thinks that he used, on the basis of slim documentary evidence, will never demonstrate what he actually did, and how it performed over time. It is also a hardly plausible opinion, considering that there exist good reasons to believe that both the pala Doria (now belonging to an investor who at some point smuggled it out of Italy to keep it in a tax “free zone” in Switzerland, before it was recovered by Italian police and a deal was made…) and the copy currently at Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, are both from the painted and already damaged original. The Battle of Anghiari is now fought on new grounds, in search of new, more modest professional glories…

What is known, or believed to be known, is that Leonardo’s assistants covered the stone wall of the room with a coating – which could have been a combination of gypsum and rosin – to even out the surface and seal out moisture. Over that coating probably came a layer of white paint, most likely “tin white” containing tin and linseed oil. The next step, which may or may not have been taken, would have been the assistants taking Leonardo’s cartoon and transferring its outlines onto the wall.

The particular challenge faced by this work stems from the fact that Leonardo wanted to experiment with oil paint, rather than follow the age-old techniques of fresco whereby watercolor paints are applied to wet plaster, which dries in a few hours and therefore leave no room for subtle shadings and re-working of the first coat of paint. Oil paint, on the contrary, dries very slowly and therefore allows for much greater control of the gesture, enhanced brightness, and multiple layering of color. At the time, nobody had ever applied such a technique to such a large wall.

Leonardo began painting the scene of the fight for the standard, probably quite slowly as this was not a fresco, and because the layers most likely took weeks to dry. It is probable that he first experimented this new technique on a small surface before starting to paint the huge wall of the Great Council, but something must have gone wrong at the larger scale. Accounts vary, some saying that the paint didn’t adhere well enough, others that the mixture began to drip down the walls; there also exist accounts that he tried to dry the painted sections faster by using charcoal braziers directed at the walls, an attempt which either failed or indeed worsened the situation by melting the paint.

What we know of the work is based on a few preparatory sketches by Leonardo’s hand, and contemporary copies from either the cartoon or the mural itself. All the 16th century copies show the same fundamental structure, namely four horsemen contending a standard and three footmen fighting on the ground, as if trodden by the horses. Among the horsemen, we can distinguish on the left-hand side Francesco Piccinini and his father Niccolò, the famous condottiere leading the Milanese army, and on the right-hand side Lodovico Scarampo and Piergiampaolo Orsini, captains respectively of the Florentine and papal contingents.  In a small sketch made by Raffaello before 1505, this structure is already present.

A very precise copy in ink and chalk, now in the collections of the Queen of the Netherlands, seems to be closest to the original cartoon, although it was made in the 17th century, most likely from a very early copy. The same can be said from the copy made by Rubens, now at the Louvre, which includes a few additions such as the right horse’s tail, a scimitar in Scarampo’s hand, and a small banner on the shaft held by Orsini. A very exact copy of the drawing by Rubens (now at the Fogg Art Museum) was made in the 17th century, perhaps by the same Gérard Edelinck (1640 – 1707) who produced the most famous engraving of this work, the one by means of which this particular work of Leonardo is mostly known today.

P.P.Rubens – Battle of Anghiari (after a 16th century copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s cartoon)

Another group of works seem to have been painted from the mural itself, rather than the cartoon. This is the case of an oil on wood called the Tavola Doria, considering that Orsini is not represented, either because he had not yet been painted, though he obviously must have been drawn on the cartoon itself, or because the paint had already been damaged, while the lower part of the legs of Francesco Piccinino’s horse and of the injured foot soldier are also missing, for similar reasons. One should add that some important details differ from the copy of the cartoon, such as Scarampo’s helmet. The slightly wider oil on wood – currently at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence – is very close to the Tavola Doria, with the same missing Orsini and the left-hand side footman missing entirely. A third 16th century copy, from the Museo Horne in Florence, is much larger though of much lower artistic quality, and includes some fantasy elements such as the landscape. The last of the contemporary copies is the one from the Charles Timbal collection, much better painted and with colours that could be consistent with the original. However, there are differences in colour between the various versions, which lead to think that – concerning the Museo Horne and Charles Timbal copies – either what was actually left on the wall when these copies were made was not much, so that the artist used much freedom, or at least one of these two copies was made from the cartoon. 

The Fight for the Standard – Tavola Doria – 16th century (private collection)

One cannot omit to mention the painting made by Rubens himself or his workshop, which obviously could not have been taken from the original but remains true to the copy which was used by Rubens for the drawing of the Louvre.

Let us come back to the copper-plate engraving by Edelinck, made in c. 1660. Edelinck was born in Antwerp, where he was trained most notably by Cornelius Galle the Younger, the third generation of a family of engravers, whose father had worked in the workshop of Rubens. He then went to Paris in 1666, where he studied with different masters, including Philippe de Champaigne, reaching a level of excellence which brought him to the attention of Le Brun, the court painter to king Louis XIV. In 1677, Edelinck became a member of the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. Indeed, and apart from portraits, among his better-known works are engravings after paintings by Le Brun, such as Alexander at the tent of Darius or St Louis Praying. Arguably though, his Battle of Anghiari, probably engraved before his departure to Paris, remains his masterpiece.

The Battle of Anghiari – Engraving by Gérard Edelinck, after P.P.Rubens

Because the origin of the engraving is the cartoon, not the painting itself, some details differ from the above-mentioned 16th century oil paintings, and in particular Scarampo’s helmet which features a dragon in the oil paintings and the ink drawing of the Ruccellai collection, while there is no such crest in any other 16th century drawing, and therefore on later copies made after those drawings, such as the Edelinck engraving.

One may follow the interpretation of Leonardo’s painting by Frank Zöllner (The Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo Da Vinci between Mythology and Politics, 18 April 1997), although some of his deductions, such as the identification of the god Mars with a ram, are based on thin evidence. Zöllner tells us that the figure of Francesco Piccinino is identifiable from the ram’s head on his chest, since the ram was the heraldic animal of the Piccinino family, as well as a symbol of brute force. The ram is associated traditionally with the Egyptian god Amun, who later “merged” with Ra to become Amun-Ra, king of the gods. As he eventually absorbed the attributes of the war god Montu of Thebes, he was invoked in battle. Francesco’s father, Niccolò, was unquestionably one of the most ruthless and successful condottieri of his time, celebrated by poets such as Lorenzo Spirito as “the other Mars”. Whether or not the association between Mars and the ram made much sense at the time, the faces of the two Piccinini express characteristics which were clearly associated with Mars in 15th century writings : wrath, scariness, and a form of excess bordering on the inhuman. If one looks closer at Francesco, one may get the impression that his chest is covered in wool, just as the ram itself, and that he is but one with the horse he mounts, as if a Centaur, since the horse’s head is not visible. This merging of animal and man, merely suggested by Leonardo’s composition, underlies the monstrosity of the resulting creature. More than that: Francesco’s face is closer to a mask than to a human face. It is an archetype of ruthless violence and fury.

On the right-hand side, on the contrary, we only see the profiles of the two captains, concentrated in their effort. The winged dragon on Scarampo’s helmet was associated with sagacity and prudence in the late Middle Ages; Domenico Ghirlandaio had painted a few years earlier Scipio Africanus, one of several Roman heroes, with an identical helmet in his fresco at Palazzo Vecchio meant to celebrate civil virtues; the association could not have escaped Leonardo’s sponsors. Prudence is the virtue of Minerva (Athena), the antithesis of Mars and her ultimate victor in the Iliad: Ares is on the side of Troy, Athena on the side of the Achaeans… The association of Florence, a Republic, with the ideals of Athens, and of Milan – under the rule of the ambitious Filippo Maria Visconti at the time of the battle, and under the rule of the Sforza at the time when the fresco was commissioned – could not be expressed more subtly.

As for Orsini, he is another Alexander the Great if one considers the mask on the peak of his helmet, an association found in the conqueror’s iconography since the late 15th century, and which can be illustrated by Altdorfer’s Battle of Alexander or Andrea Fulvio’s Illustrium Imagines. Now, interestingly, in Altdorfer’s painting as well as in Verrocchio’s (or Francesco di Simone Ferrucci’s depending on attributions) bas-relief of Alexander the Great (c. 1480), Alexander’s helmet is also crowned with a winged dragon. Let us not forget that Leonardo was an apprentice to Verrocchio in the 1470s and must have learnt part of his iconographic repertoire from his master. This could lead us to think that the two victorious captains were made to share attributes of the great conqueror, an “Alexander in two bodies”, so to speak… 

To summarize the general meaning of the painting, we have a victory by Florence – the new Athens – led by wise but nonetheless brave captains over the uncontrolled, barbarian, hardly human forces of an autocracy. This victory was made possible by Florence having allies, namely Venice and the Pope; but since Venice was now an adversary, it disappeared from the fresco, leaving the Church as the only represented ally. This ally is given a prominent role in the composition: we barely note Lodovico Scarampo. Perhaps this was a way to insist both on the importance of the Church – in both its spiritual and temporal dimensions – for the protection of Florence, and on the importance of alliances in general for a Republic that could not match its larger rivals, Milan, Venice, and further away the much more powerful kingdoms of France and Spain.

We may also read in the opposition between fury verging on madnesson the left and steadfastness on the right an underlying critique of mercenary armies symbolized by the famous condottieri hired by the Duke of Milan, while the forces of Florence (and its allies), though made up of mercenary troops as well, were under the supervision of the city’s “commissars” representing on the field the civil interests and policy of their city. As mentioned, Machiavelli had long been a fierce opponent of mercenary forces, advocating instead a citizens’ militia that would be keener to hold its ground, would not blackmail the state threatening to change sides, and ultimately would be cheaper to maintain.

This was perhaps a little optimistic, given that the reason for the use of mercenaries lied in the dilemma of relatively small states relying on highly successful international commercial and financial activities. In such conditions, the human losses derived from war could have a tremendously negative impact on the well-being of the citizens, as had been the case for instance at the battle of Montaperti against Siena (1260) where Florence lost around 10% of its male population over of total population of roughly 75,000, a tremendous social impact that could easily cause the ruin of the state or trigger a regime change. Pisa itself basically disappeared as an independent polity with its defeat of Meloria in 1282. But wealth allowed to buy protection, and the large number of professional soldiers made available by the treaty of Brétigny in 1360, or coming from German statelets that had specialized in that trade, made for a vast pool of looters turned soldiers, or soldiers turned looters, depending on whether they were contracted or not, meaning paid to ravage the neighbours or left free to ravage anyone they chose.

An additional level of reading can be found in the question of how to represent violence, and in particular violence in battle. When Leonardo set to work, there had been hitherto relatively few examples of battles taken as a subject of painting. One can refer to the obvious Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello (1456), or the Battle between Heraclius and Chrosoes by Piero Della Francesca painted sometime between 1452 and 1466. Both are highly ritualized, partly esoteric in meaning, with no intent whatsoever to show the reality of a battle, which they had no experience of anyway.

Paolo Uccello – Battle of San Romano (1456) – Galleria degli Uffizi (Florence)
Piero Della Francesca – Battle between Heraclius and Chrosoes (1452 – 1466) – San Francesco (Arezzo)

Earlier examples are few; an interesting case is provided by the illuminations in the Chronicles of Jean Froissart, a history of the Hundred Years War written in the late 14th century, with several lively illustrations of battles such as Crécy (pictured on the left) or Neville Cross. One may also refer to the tapestry of Bayeux, embroidered in the 11th century and which includes a few scenes of battle. Although war is as old as states, here was new territory for the art of painting, at least since the end of Antiquity.

The Battle of Alexander, a mosaic found in Pompei which probably represents the battle of Gaugamela, is to all effects a painting in stone ; it was discovered in 1831, so that it could not inspire the artists of the Renaissance, and it is the only testimony of that magnitude and quality which has reached our times.

Battle of Alexander – Mosaic, late 2nd century B.C. – Museum of Archeology of Naples

Battle as represented was a ritual, a show of force, a mighty event, but not really a human affair involving individual passions. Leonardo had approached the subject from an entirely different perspective: nothing was to be shown of the theatre of the battle, the positioning of the troops, the sheer masses involved, the power of artillery, a newcomer to the practice of war. He merely extracted one episode as a metonymy of the whole battle, and insisted on the violence of the individual fight. Not the outcome of violence which could easily be depicted by horrible wounds, severed limbs and the like, but the engine of violence which is wrath, hatred, will to prevail, unleashed interior demons. This, nobody had done before, and few will after him. The Battle of Anghiari is an anatomy of violence under the cover of a particular historical event, and it is for this particular reason that, although it physically disappeared, it remains so vivid as an image to this day. Since the Renaissance, the inhibitions that prevented artists from representing all kinds of horrors have progressively vanished, to the point where violence has become a must for the success of many a film or video game. Despite this, it is usually its effects that are shown, with the spilling of blood a favourite – though not very imaginative – index of violence. Leonardo’s perspective remains a rare image of violence itself, rather than an image of its damages (when a “close-up”) or an image of its stakes, such as the glory of a ruler or the conquest of a land (when a “wide shot”), both being usually combined with a foreground meant to give a feeling of the nastiness of the affair, against a background of moving troops and distant cannonades.

A few years after Leonardo’s commissioning, in 1517, Giulio Romano would start painting the Battle of Ponte Milvio in the Vatican, which is among the first of the warring melees seen in this particular genre. And when asked to paint (1570-71) the Battle of Marciano on the very same walls on which Leonardo started to, and Michelangelo should have, painted their giant battles of Anghiari and Cascina, he painted a vast panorama with a multitude of unidentifiable, neatly aligned soldiers marching ahead, machine-like, with a couple of enemies being slain on the foreground. The long season of glorification of the state and its rulers through the representation of battles had started, and would not end until the late 19th century.

Giulio Romano – Battle of the Milvian Bridge (1520 – 1524) – Apostolic Palace (Vatican)

The seven tapestries, each eight to nine meters long, offered by the city of Brussels (1525 – 1531) after a cartoon by Bernard van Orley to Emperor Charles V to celebrate his victory at Pavia is perhaps one of the greatest examples ever of battle scenes on a grand scale, with a narrative on the forefront to stress the most remarkable event such as the capture of king Francis 1st  of France. The true iconographic exempla of battle scenes for the Renaissance painters must have come from sculpture rather than painting.

Battle of Pavia (tapestry) – After Bernard van Orley (1525 – 1531) – Museo di Capodimonte (Naples)

The representation of mass fights was particularly in vogue during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180) who kept fighting against the Parthians and German tribes; we know of approximately twenty five sarcophagi showing battles opposing the Romans to a multitude of Barbarians; the tangle of horses and soldiers was a way to represent the intensity and violence of the fight. The sarcophagus of Portonaccio, dated around 200, is perhaps the most impressive, together with the Ludovisi sarcophagus which, although dating from the middle of the third century, is of a similar composition. These scenes were sculpted on the sarcophagi of Roman generals who had perhaps died in battle, relating directly the representation to what what was stake for the individual in a fight, and that was – since the times of the Iliad – the inseparable duo of death and glory. The corpse inside the sarcophagus is an inescapable comment on the sculpture, which gives it an intensity of meaning lost in subsequent representations of battles.

uring the Renaissance, sculpture had already started imitating Antiquity in this respect, as demonstrated by the bronze bas-relief called Battle (c. 1475-1480) by Bertoldo di Giovanni (1440 -1491), a pupil of Donatello, directly inspired by a 2nd century sarcophagus; the purpose is however to display virtuosity, nothing is at stake.

Bertoldo di Giovanni – Battle (1480 – 1485) – Frick Collection (New York)

The scenes on the Alexander Sarcophagus (end of 4th century BC), today in the Museum of Archeology in Istanbul, are probably closer to how Leonardo saw the matter: action is circumscribed, the interlocking of horses and soldiers is complex without virtuosity actually drowning the narrative as it would later do. Alexander is singled out, his opponent, wearing the Phrygian bonnet and with fear on his face, is trying in vain to escape the hero’s might. Soldiers lie dead beneath the horses. There is a narrative, and there is a human relationship in that representation, not the mere idea of a battle.

Alexander Sarcophagus (4th century B.C.) – Museum of Archeology of Istanbul

We reach here at the crossroads of esthetics and ethics : is it enough for an artist to merely fantasize an experience, or should he have been part of it in order to be both able and allowed to express it ? Raimon Panikkar recalls a situation where a mother asked Gandhi to talk her young daughter out of eating candies. Gandhi wouldn’t say anything. It is only after having deprived himself of food he craved for that he felt empowered and legitimate to give that advice to the young girl. That is indeed an ethically justified act. But at this point, ethics and freedom of expression collide: such a radical injunction would merely stifle any form or expression. In other words, does the authenticity of the experience enhance the quality, impact and universality of the work?

In the visual arts, the choice to separate the realms of ethics and esthetics has made it easier for artists to experience new figurative territories, and one could argue that such a distance has been instrumental throughout the history of “western” civilization since the Middle Ages in facilitating a projection into new worlds, which would thereafter be created in actuality as if their image alone could bring about their birth. This distance is apparently maximum with fantasy, where nothing real is at stake today; but fantasy holds the power to shape things to come, thereby displacing rather than abolishing any ethical responsibility.

The point is one of distance between image and experience. The further the image from the experience, beliefs and values of the individuals who were involved in such experience, therefore the more abstract the image, the less it is likely to resonate with the viewer beyond the fields of esthetics and symbolic intellection. At a time when images were rare, that distance made it easier to conceive of war as a rational necessity, a collective adventure, or indeed a spectacle, and for those who had experienced war, it made for symbolic compensation. In a sense, it is the opposite of “cultures of the mask”, where the mask is charged with the energy of the ritual, and transforms the individual who wears it, or “cultures of the icon”, where images are infused with the divine and must therefore be properly controlled. We are reminded of the thought of Confucius : “If names are not right then speech does not accord with things; if speech is not in accord with things, then affairs cannot be successful; when affairs are not successful, li (i.e. proper conduct, general order of life) and music do not flourish” (Analecta XIII,3). What Confucius said about the language deserves to be explored about the image.

This can perhaps be connected with the thesis of Victor Davis Hanson in Carnage and Culture (2001), where he argues that the western way of making war is so lethal, the Europeans have been so successful for so long at dominating other civilizations through war, because it is “amoral”, meaning unhindered by ritual, traditional, ethical or other considerations beyond the pure concern of effectiveness, and because its cultural traits – individualism, citizenship, (relative) freedom of expression – make it a more adaptable and cohesive force. In other words, might is a product of culture. He quotes the harangue of Brasidas to his soldiers, as reported by Thucydides (Peloponnesian War, IV, 126): “Did I not suspect, men of Peloponnesus, that you may be terrified because you have been deserted by your companions and are assailed by a host of barbarians […] But now that we are left alone in the face of numerous enemies, […] you ought to fight like men not merely when you happen to have allies present, but because courage is native to you; nor should you fear any number of foreign troops. Remember that in the cities from which you come, not the many govern the few, but the few govern the many, and have acquired their supremacy simply by successful fighting.” 

In the face of Florence’s numerous military defeats, and intrinsic strategic weakness, it is clear that Machiavelli, or whoever ultimately decided to commission the frescoes by Leonardo and Michelangelo for the room of the Great Council, had in mind something along the lines of what Brasidas had to say to his soldiers nineteen centuries earlier, educated as they were in the history of Antiquity. There is an element of “cultural Darwinism” in the fate of polities and civilizations, with representation both a forge and a mirror of culture lato sensu. If “culture” is today one of the most underestimated factors in geopolitics and international affairs, it was no doubt well present to the mind of the author of The Prince. The Battle of Anghiari is a rare example in the visual arts of an attempt to expose violence in its nudity as well as in its relationship with personal and political virtue, as understood in its 15th century meaning. A solution also to the “ethics versus esthetics” dilemma of representation.

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