Storm clouds gathering on the Tuscan horizon presage one of the biggest fights the art world has seen. It relates to one of the world’s greatest artists no less, a towering genius of the Renaissance and one of his most audacious works which became a spectacular failure, that may now, five hundred years later, not even exist. It has already pitted conservators of the artistic patrimony of Italy and their worldwide supporters against modern science, the mercantile interests of sponsors, the ambitions of local politicians and the insatiable curiosity of today’s world that will allow no mystery to remain tantalisingly unresolved. It’s about the fetishism of celebrity masterworks. And it’s déjà vu for Florence—the Guelphs and Ghibellines all over again!
The news burst on a surprised public in March, but the moment had been approaching for nearly forty years. Maurizio Seracini, an Italian-American scientist-engineer, announced that he had located Leonardo da Vinci’s long-lost painting The Battle of Anghiari on the wall of the Salone dei Cinquecento, now part of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The world’s press went mad with unqualified excitement; Seracini’s principal sponsor, the National Geographic Society, was ready with a dramatic documentary film for the networks.
“A propaganda stunt,” replied Italia Nostra, Italy’s National Trust. “Where’s the proof?” asked the organisation’s president, Alessandra Mottola Molfino:
The idea of discovering Leonardo may appear romantic, but looked at more critically it’s anti-historical, over-zealous, dangerous and demagogic …
This is a wasted expense when we need every penny for restoring the art we have; instead of restoring the Vasari fresco we are drilling holes in it.
A petition to prevent the drilling backed by Italia Nostra quickly swelled with 300 signatures from angry art experts, historians and museum directors around the world. Some people asked how a scientist who had built his career on non-destructive examination of old masters could now be taking an electric drill to a work five centuries old.
Has the painting indeed been hiding there ever since Giorgio Vasari reconstructed the entire hall (previously known as the Sala del Gran Consiglio) for the Medici in 1563? The hall is huge, an odd trapezoidal shape, needed to fit behind the Palazzo Vecchio and between two medieval lanes, the Via de Gondi and the Via della Ninna. Johannes Wilde, who wrote the authoritative history of the hall, says Vasari deplored the old building as “bassa, scura, maliconica e fuori de squadra” (low, dark, depressing and out of square). He raised the ceiling from twelve to nineteen metres and therefore needed to strengthen the walls with stone pilasters and brick infill, thus creating the largest state room in the world. It is twenty-two metres wide; one wall is sixty-two metres long, the other fifty-two metres; he covered them with six monumental frescoes. The hall today is a stunning space with its gilded coffered ceiling, although most tourists probably find the art depicting long-forgotten wars a little suffocating. At the southern end of the longer east wall, Vasari painted The Battle of Marciano (sometimes known as The Battle of Scanagallo). Behind it, Seracini claims he has located the Leonardo.
The reported discovery woke memories of one of the most turbulent, dangerous yet exciting periods in Italian history. Charles VIII of France had invaded Italy to capture Naples. The Medici, the rulers of Florence, had made peace and facilitated his passage by ceding several key forts. The Florentines rose up in outrage at this appeasement, drove the Medici out of town and set up their own republic. The monk Savonarola, a Taliban-like figure who sought to make Florence a city of God, preached a new constitution with a democratic government based on a Great Council of 1500 members; in 1495 work started on a great hall to accommodate them. But there was no peace; Pisa was in revolt, the Pope excommunicated the city because of Savonarola’s excesses. Only when he was burned at the stake and Piero Soderini appointed Gonfaliere for life to manage affairs did stability return.
Despite these tempestuous times, art and artists were flourishing in Italy. Leonardo had just begun work on his Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan; Michelangelo, only twenty years of age and a quarter of a century his younger, was starting to make his name as a sculptor, but was three years from starting on his Pietà for St Peter’s and nearly ten years from finishing the David. The early Renaissance had already produced Veneziano, Piero della Francesca, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Brunelleschi and Massachio. The artist had become essential to noble patronage of the church, to lordly self-promotion, and to recording a patriotic view of history.
Soderini saw the bare walls of the new hall, modelled on the Great Hall in the Doge’s Palace in Venice, as an ideal vast canvas to promote the republic by extolling the glorious history of Florence through depiction of two of its military victories. In 1503, Leonardo, a popular son of the city, had just returned after an absence of eighteen years in Milan. At the age of fifty-three and at the height of his powers, he was allotted a huge space, 17.5 metres long and 7 metres high, to fill at the southern end of the eastern wall; his assignment, the Battle of Anghiari. A year later, Michelangelo was called from Rome to fill the adjoining similar space with a depiction of the defeat of the Pisans, the Battle of Cascina.
The encounter at Anghiari in the valley of the Upper Tiber in June 1440 saw the end of Milan’s ambitions in Tuscany as the Lombardy Wars dragged into their sixteenth year. We have the specification for Leonardo’s commission, possibly written by Machiavelli, who was then campaigning for the establishment of a militia to carry on the war against Pisa, and was keen to extol military virtue. It is a florid and fanciful account, including a vision of St Peter who appeared “in a cloud” to the Florentine commander as he prayed before the battle. It does however describe the decisive moment:
Here at this bridge, there is a severe struggle, our men conquer and the enemy is repulsed … Niccolò [Piccinino, the Milanese commander] began to call back his son and all his men, and they took flight towards Borgo [San Sepolcro]. And then began a great slaughter of men; none escaped but the foremost of those who had fled or who hid themselves.
No mention of Florentine casualties, but in his History of Florence Machiavelli says only one man lost his life, when he was trampled after falling from his horse.
Nothing at all remains of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, but we do know that he discarded the purple prose of the commission. He plucked from it one incident—that clash of arms at the bridge—and flung together just a few men and horses in a tight tortured heaving mass. It has come to be known as the Fight for the Standard. Sir Kenneth Clark called the group “almost unbearably close-knit and dense”. Everyone who saw it recognised it as the most brilliant depiction of a cavalry action in microcosm, a snapshot of the critical instant a Florentine cavalryman seized the Milanese standard. Forty-five years after it was painted, when it might not have been in its best condition, Anton Doni wrote: “And having climbed the stairs of the Great Hall, diligently take a look at a group of horses and men (a battle piece by Leonardo da Vinci) which will strike you as a miraculous thing.”
To us, it’s like outstanding sixteenth-century photo-journalism. But we judge by reproductions of copies, which abound in various forms, differing significantly. The best known is Rubens’s copy in the Louvre, but this is greatly reworked and enlarged in his own baroque style from the 1558 engraving by Lorenzo Zacchia, a print of which is in the Albertina Museum, Vienna. The earliest known copy (rarely reproduced) is in the archives of the Uffizi, Florence; the Queen Wilhelmina Collection in the Hague Palace has a pencil, pen and brush version; a Raphael sketch copy in silver point with white is in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford; and the Horne collection, Florence has a coloured copy by an anonymous Italian painter. Perhaps the most important, for reasons which emerge below, is the representation in oils on canvas, known as the Tavola Doria, 115 by 86 centimetres, in full colour made not long after the original. It was looted by the Nazis in Naples in 1940, in a private collection in Munich as late as 1988, and was last reported (by Professor Martin Kemp of Oxford University) in Japan. Reproductions are a popular offering by art galleries.
What excites art historians about rediscovering the work is not only the ability to study its composition but also the possibility of determining the experimental technique Leonardo used to paint it—a technique that seems to have failed, leading to the abandonment of the whole project. Professor Claire Farago of the University of Colorado, a leading Leonardian scholar, has pointed out that Leonardo was striving to achieve a luminosity of colour not possible with traditional fresco technique: “His aim must have been to achieve illusionistic effects like those possible on panel with pigments suspended in oil-based glazes.” A scientist as well as a painter, Leonardo had already written a treatise on painting. His theories treated colour in Aristotelian terms, Farago says, differently from our modern distinctions between hue and value. Italian colore encompasses the treatment of colour, light, shadow, finish and the handling of paint. Leonardo was seeking to impart chroma to the plaster—the purity, intensity and saturation of colour—together with his characteristic sfumato. Above all, he wanted to give his fresco the sheen of oil paintings. In 1492, this is how he had envisaged depiction of a battle scene:
First you must represent the smoke of artillery mingling in the air with the dust tossed up by the movement of horses and the combatants. You will show the dust enveloping … the rictus of men and horses. This mixture of air, smoke and dust will look much lighter on the side where the light comes from than on the opposite side. The more the combatants are in this turmoil the less they will be seen, and the less contrast there will be in their lights and shadows. Their faces and figures and their appearance, and the musketeers as well as those near them you must redden. The figures which are between you and the light, if they be at a distance, will appear dark on a light background, and the lower part of their legs near the ground will be least visible, because there the dust is coarsest and densest.
Of the copies surviving, only the Tavola Doria captures this intensity and complexity in colour.
One of the first Leonardo experts to investigate the application of these theories to The Battle of Anghiari had been Professor Carlo Pedretti of the University of California, Los Angeles. As it happened, a young Italian studying bio-engineering in San Diego named Maurizio Seracini dropped in on some of his lectures on Renaissance art. Seracini was a native Florentine who had always wanted to be a doctor, but believed the future of medicine lay in applying new technology. After graduating in California he returned to Italy to earn a BA then a PhD in electrical engineering at Padua before beginning his medical course there. Fate intervened when he met Carlo Pedretti one day by chance in a street in Florence; his old professor persuaded him to apply his expertise in medical scanning techniques to the world of art.
Already these experiments were under way. In 1974 “The Leonardo Project”, sponsored by the Armand Hammer Foundation, the Kress Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution, began scanning the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento with an infra-red device, and followed with ultrasound testing of the most interesting areas. This was revolutionary—ultrasound had then scarcely been applied to the human body. The work was led by a young conservator, H. Travers Newton, and an art historian, John R. Spenser. Seracini was a junior technical assistant. They effectively identified the architectural features of the old hall before Vasari’s remodelling and located an “anomalous layer” on the west wall. They found nothing on the east wall. Newton wrote: “We are convinced that … The Battle of Anghiari is on the west wall and enough of it exists to warrant temporary removal of the Vasari frescoes.” He believed that Vasari had over-painted Leonardo’s work, but he was wrong. Sections of the fresco Presa della torre di San Vincenzo were removed by the strappo technique, but Anghiari was not there.
In 1976 Maurizio Seracini collaborated with Newton in a major paper for the Smithsonian Institution: “Development of Non-Destructive Techniques to Search for a Lost Mural by Leonardo da Vinci.” It was this paper which first published the discovery of those two words in the imperative tense: cerca trova (seek and ye shall find) on a battle pennant in the sea of infantry contesting the Battle of Marciano. Fourteen metres above the floor, it was invisible without a scaffold. Art historians have learned not to rely too heavily on Vasari’s stories; he was a Medici sycophant—something of a gossip columnist, one said—but it is this message, supposedly a hint by Vasari, that has been lazily ascribed in the popular media as the impetus for the current investigations.
The following year, Seracini set up his own firm in Florence, Editech, to provide diagnostics of Italy’s cultural heritage. He was soon commissioned by the Italian government to search for the lost Leonardo, but abandoned the project because the equipment then available could not penetrate the brick walls Vasari had built. Instead, he went on to study hundreds of works of art, by Raphael, Caravaggio and Botticelli. His most spectacular application of modern technology was his finding that all the paint on another Leonardo work, The Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi Gallery, had been applied by other artists. Only the sketch underneath was the master’s.
What are the grounds for believing that Leonardo’s Battle exists, can be located, and even recovered? Apart from the cerca trova clue, they centre exclusively on an intercapedine, an air gap two to three centimetres wide behind a false wall on which The Battle of Marciano is painted. Seracini’s team discovered the space using radar and other tools of multi-spectral imaging provided by the University of Florence. It is the only such space in that vast hall. Vasari greatly respected Leonardo, idolised him in his Life of Leonardo and might well have decided to save the work for posterity. He had done it before, elsewhere. Renovating the church of Santa Maria Novella, he painted a Madonna of the Rosary on a new brick wall. In 1861 when the church authorities decided to remove this Renaissance excrescence in the Gothic church, they found Masaccio’s Holy Trinity of 1427.
Carlo Pedretti’s return to his old hobby-horse in 2000 sparked the current investigation. At a conference on Leonardo, he theorised that Vasari had saved Leonardo’s work, as he had Masaccio’s. Seracini took up the challenge with new equipment—laser scanners, radar, X-ray and thermographic recorders. The financing came largely from Loel Guinness’s brewing and banking money through his Swiss foundation, the Kalpa Group. Then a photographer, David Yoder, introduced the National Geographic Society, which made Seracini a Fellow and pledged US$250,000 to the City of Florence in return for exclusive rights to film and photograph the research. Yoder also launched a “Kickstart” appeal to raise funds to build a special camera that could detect pigments through plaster or stone. Adapted from a device being developed for tumour research in the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, it would fire neutrons and measure the gamma rays returned by metals in paint pigments. The idea came to nought when the appeal failed, and the Italian authorities refused to allow neutrons and gamma rays to be let loose in the Salone.
When Leonardo returned to Florence, he had just finished The Last Supper, a fresco which despite huge acclaim had not gone well. When he was commissioned to paint the great battle scene, he had his mind on other things. Perhaps uppermost was his ambitious proposal to divert the Arno to cut off the maritime trade of the fractious rival Pisa. Jill Burke, senior lecturer in Italian Renaissance art at Edinburgh University, says Leonardo was ambitious to advance his career as a military engineer and was courting Florence’s “Ten of Liberty”, the committee responsible for its defence and diplomacy.
But he also had other commissions and demanding clients. Claire Farago points out that in those first years of the sixteenth century, Leonardo had never been busier. She listed his commissions: four Madonnas; a portrait of Isabella d’Este; the Mona Lisa; a Young Christ; the Angel of the Annunciation; a Salvator Mundi; Neptune; Bacchus; Hercules; two Leda compositions and a Magdalene. He had no sooner started drafting The Battle of Anghiari than the Grand Council approved his Arno canal and demanded an instant start. In the two and a half years on the Anghiari commission he was constantly interrupted, to supervise the Arno work and to advise on the defences of Piombino. The pressures were enormous—the Magnificent and Noble Lords Priors of Liberty and Gonfaliere of Justice gave him just nine months to complete the cartoon—the overall design on cartone (cardboard)—or make restitution of his fee.
Leonardo was beset with problems. The new hall was gloomy—he asked for four new windows to be cut in the opposite wall, which made it draughty. He then had to ask for oiled linen to cover them. Vasari says the roof leaked. But Leonardo brought his usual creativity to the task, inventing an adjustable mobile platform like a modern scissor-lift to reach the higher levels. By mid-1505 (four months late) he had completed the cartoon for the central panel, and began to transfer the design to the wall. On June 6 a great storm broke:
On the stroke of the thirteenth hour, I began painting in the Palazzo. At the moment of taking up the brush, the weather broke, the bell rang out to warn the people, the cartoon tore, water spilled out and the basin which held the water broke. The weather suddenly became bad and heavy rain fell until nightfall, and the day became like night.
Experts do not doubt that Leonardo was attempting an experimental technique to present an appearance dramatically superior to fresco, but they do not have his formula. Some believe he was toying with variations of a technique described by Pliny known as encaustic. In ancient times pigments were mixed with wax, sometimes heated, to give an effect similar to oil paintings, lustrous and durable, but it would have been risky to apply this to plaster. If he could paint in oils it would free him from the haste needed to work in fresco. It is known that when Leonardo ordered 663 pounds of plaster for the wall, he also ordered 223 pounds of linseed oil and eighty-nine pounds of “Greek pitch”, colourless resin from which the turpentine had been distilled. Professor Farago told me she thought it unlikely that Leonardo had tried to use the encaustic technique. Whatever happened (either because the linseed oil was of poor quality as some claimed, or because the weather was damp), Leonardo lit braziers to raise the temperature to dry his work, but the colours ran. Just how badly damaged the painting was, we will never know, but that central panel was regarded as a marvel by all who saw it over the next fifty years.
Maurizio Seracini makes no secret of his ambition—to gather enough evidence from behind the wall to pressure authorities to let him remove The Battle of Marciano, demolish the wall and reveal the full glory of Anghiari to the world. But it’s not art restoration. It’s a celebrity treasure hunt by the self-promoting “da Vinci Detective” on behalf of a world audience corrupted by Dan Brown. The work has broken all the rules of careful professional management of such investigations. External funding and political patronage by Matteo Renzi, the excitable young mayor of Florence whom Seracini had courted, have ridden roughshod over expert concerns in the city. Renzi calls it “the greatest mystery in art”, as if that justifies disregarding careful supervision by art historians and conservators, and subjection to professional evaluation, as are all other major projects.
Last December the photograph of a technician with a red Hilti drill—a tool seen on any building site—boring the first hole in Vasari’s Marciano unleashed a huge pent-up protest from the art community. Cecilia Frosinini, in charge of wall paintings in the official conservation institute in Florence, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, objected on ethical grounds to supervising the work and was replaced. (Frosinini was the expert who supervised the recent restoration of Leonardo’s St Anne, Virgin and Child in the Louvre.) A leading art historian, Tomaso Montanari, launched a petition against the drilling program. It quickly attracted more than 300 signatures from historians, museum directors and conservators around the world. Keith Christiansen, Curator of Italian Paintings in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, described Seracini’s search as “a bad idea at the wrong time”. Italia Nostra backed the petition; Alessandra Mottola Molfino also lodged a formal complaint with the Florence public prosecutor, making criminal allegations. Carabinieri arrived in the Salone to begin their investigation; the next day the Minister of Culture ordered work to stop. But two days later it resumed—a victory for commercial, international and political pressures.
Seracini’s team had asked to drill fourteen holes. Seven were approved, but after six holes and the rising tide of criticism, the seventh was denied because it would have damaged the Vasari. In any case he had run out of the allotted time. He claimed all holes were drilled in approved locations—either lesions in the painting or where previous restorations had patched it. And although on the edges of where he thought the centre of the Battle of Anghiari might be, he still hoped for a miracle, he said, “to see an eye, a finger, a tuft of hair, a horse’s mane”. There was no miracle. The first two holes revealed only blank plaster. Holes three, five and six didn’t even find the intercapedine space, but got stuck in supporting brickwork between the two walls. Only hole number four reached the cavity. Maurizio Seracini carefully inserted a surgical endoscope, and eagerly watched its images on a screen. He saw the mysterious long-sought wall. But as La Repubblica’s Florence edition reported: “Alas, no eyes, no horsehair.” Michael Miller, editor and publisher of the New York art journal the Berkshire Review put it a little less kindly: “no more interesting than what a proctologist observes with the same instrument”.
Three samples scraped from the hidden wall were analysed in two private laboratories, Seracini’s Editech in Florence, and Pontlab in Pontedera near Pisa (a sponsor). The results led to the sensational claim that traces of a black organic pigment contained manganese and iron, the same as in the paint Leonardo used in the Mona Lisa and the St John the Baptist portrait. There was also some red, possibly lacquer or varnish, and a bit of beige, displaying what might be brushstrokes. A new outcry erupted. Why had the testing not been done by independent laboratories? The response was to agree to submit them to analysis by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure but this has not satisfied everyone because of its less than disinterested supervision. The Opificio agrees the samples—one of them only one-third of a millimetre in size—could be significant, but has counselled caution.
Friends of Florence is a non-profit organisation supported by individuals from around the world. In promoting Florence, it helps finance restoration laboratories to preserve the city’s art treasures, and has endorsed the search for Anghiari. By e-mail, I interviewed the President, Contessa Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda, to find what might happen next.
If the Opificio confirms the relevance of the samples, she said, the next step would be to map the Vasari fresco, to determine what other areas could be explored without damaging the original surfaces. This could happen quite soon. It seems that beyond that, the dramatic actions envisaged by Seracini are highly problematical.
“Is there support for removing the present painting?” I asked.
“Personally I think that it would take quite some time to convince all of the authorities to remove the present painting. There is quite an amount of dissent in the art world to this proposal.”
“If it did go ahead, would it involve strappo or stacco?”
“If this proposal should ever be confirmed then a strappo would be necessary. Again I personally think that it will take a long period of time to determine if this would ever happen … even with additional information that the Leonardo still exists.”
Stacco is the technique of removing from the wall an entire painting, complete with the plaster—the base layer, arriccio and the intonaco, the top layer carrying the paint. It is only possible if the paint is attached firmly enough. Strappo, in contrast, is the spectacular, highly risky process of—as the name implies—literally “tearing” the painting from the wall, lifting it off the intonaco. The painting is cleaned, then coated with an animal glue, binding strips of gauze are stuck on to stabilise it, and then layers of canvas are glued on. After a few days to dry, the whole painting is then ripped dramatically off the wall. The technique was used in the emergency to save Florence’s paintings in the great flood of 1966. As Contessa d’Adda implies, there would be some reluctance to try it on the large Battle of Marciano, especially in pursuit of a chimera.
Meantime, if the Fight for the Standard was to be the centrepiece, what did Leonardo envisage as the whole battle scene? It’s quite possible that he was aware of representations of the battle made not long after it took place. Such a scene, painted in 1470, still exists today, one of a pair on poplar wood panels in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. It was once thought that it had been the front of a cassone, the wooden dowry chest popular in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and a favourite of British collectors in the eighteenth and nineteenth. Cassoni most commonly displayed Petrarch’s Six Triumphs—Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity, but triumphal pageants including battle scenes were also popular.
The gallery now believes its panel, two metres long, came not from a chest, but from the wainscoting of a room, therefore a spalliera. It portrays a number of incidents of the battle, in a sweep from the Borgo San Sepolcro to the walls and towers of Anghiari. Most importantly, it depicts both the bridge over the Tiber close to the Borgo and the much smaller bridge near Anghiari where the action took place. That single-arch bridge features in the top right-hand corner of one of Leonardo’s compositional drawings for the painting, now in the Royal Library, Windsor.
Dublin’s companion panel to Anghiari is titled The Taking of Pisa. Both scenes of Florentine victories were painted in 1470 by Biagio di Antonio, of the school of Paolo Uccello. They are the same two subjects assigned to Leonardo and Michelangelo. Both panels were painted in tribute to the noble Capponi family, whose silk fortune helped support Florence in both contests. As spalliere they might have decorated the Palazzo Capponi on the banks of the Arno, and could even have been seen there by Leonardo. (The Palazzo Capponi was the setting for Thomas Harris’s Hannibal; the film was shot there.)
Baron Henri de Geymuller of Paris seems to have been the first to have thought about how Leonardo envisaged the complete painting, and in 1885 constructed a montage from Leonardo’s drawings. Carlo Pedretti roughed out his conception, with scenes in three circles. However the most persuasive conjectural reconstructions were offered by Gunther Neufeld in 1949 and Cecil Gould of Britain’s National Gallery in 1954. Both used the surviving compositional sketches for the painting—three in the Accademia, Venice, and that one in Windsor, of galloping cavalrymen known as “The Cavalcade”.
Neufeld’s and Gould’s essays and montages in the Art Bulletin both reflected exceptional research and scholarship. Yet I wonder that with all their erudition, they have not missed a simple fact, perhaps more obvious to a lay observer. Leonardo’s compositional studies confirm an historical fact—that despite the trumpeting of the new Florentine republic, the Battle of Anghiari was not much of a battle, more a cavalry skirmish—and not even one of which Florence could have been proud.
The Milanese commander, Niccolò Piccinino, was close to exhaustion after fighting for fifteen years in a war that saw a kaleidoscope of shifting allegiances. He had just been recalled to Lombardy to save his Duke; the Florentines, having discovered this, were forearmed. At most, a couple of thousand men took part on each side, Niccolò’s force almost entirely raw recruits from the Borgo who joined him in hope of booty. Machiavelli’s History of Florence is completely dismissive of the action. He confirms that the constriction of the bridge limited the area of conflict to the cavalry, thus saving an undisciplined Florentine rabble, mostly condottieri. After the battle, they refused to pursue the enemy and seize the Borgo. Instead they took off to Arezzo to sell the booty captured from the fleeing enemy. Machiavelli’s view has often wrongly been taken as a non-combatant’s cynicism. But he concluded his account of the Anghiari scrap—“this example of the wretched state of military discipline”—with these words:
With such safety did men then fight, for all being mounted on horseback, and sheathed in mail, and assured against death should they surrender, there was no reason why they should die, their armour protecting them while they fought, and surrender saving them when they could fight no longer.
Contrast that with the Battle of Marciano, 114 years later, commemorated in the picture that replaced Leonardo’s. Thirty-one thousand men took to the field, resulting in a two-hour slaughter in which the Sienese army lost 4000 dead and another 4000 wounded. It was a decisive battle that ended Siena’s independence, a victory worth celebrating.
The real problem for Leonardo then, must have been how to make a triumphal statement out of a military non-event. That view is reinforced by a closer look at the scene of battle. For a long time art historians never seriously challenged the assumption that the bridge which featured in the battle was the bridge over the Tiber. But the Tiber is a broad stream close to Borgo San Sepolcro, whereas it’s known the Milanese army had advanced several miles down the road towards Anghiari before the alarm was given. The dust the horses raised betrayed the surprise attack.
In 1984 Barbara Hochstetler Meyer wrote a carefully considered article for the Art Bulletin: “Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari: Proposals for Some Sources and a Reflection”. She had taken the trouble to visit Anghiari; she located and photographed the little stone bridge over what we’d call a creek—any horse could easily jump it but it would have been enough to deter an infantry charge. Leonardo’s preliminary sketches depict soldiers jumping into it and scrambling out. I have been able to confirm that documents in the archives of the Museo delle Memorie e del Paesaggio nella Terra di Anghiari—the town museum—prove that in 1228, an irrigation canal was dug to drain the area into the Sovara torrente, a tributary of the Tiber. The plain between Anghiari and San Sepolcro had been marshy ground, but the drainage canal turned it into productive agricultural land.
The bridge Meyer recorded was tiny—just three metres long and two metres wide! When I searched on Google Earth, the bridge is no longer visible, and the creek has disappeared. The drainage ditch (fosso)—for that was all it was—has probably been ducted and covered over. So much for the heroic battleground! Now Anghiari commemorates this minor event every June as a tourist attraction with a Palio della Vittoria. For three hundred years it was a thrilling horse race, like Siena’s, from the battlefield up the hill to the cobbled streets of the Piazza Baldaccio, but in 1827 it was banned after a jockey was killed. Today it’s been revived, as a footrace.
So it might seem that Leonardo resolved the problem of how to glorify a minor conflict with a technique that every war photographer uses today—he caught a dramatic moment and enlarged it—and planned to allow it to dominate surrounding scenes of skirmishing. Art historians have rightly described the Anghiari commission as the most important Leonardo ever received, but the execution did not match the expectation. The experimental technique failed and we will never know if the rest of the panel could or would have lived up to the promise of The Fight for the Standard. Rather too enthusiastically, Cecil Gould described the failure to complete the painting, the destruction of the cartoon and the obliteration of the relatively small portion Leonardo did carry out as “a disaster comparable in magnitude with the blowing up of the Parthenon in 1687 or the Alcázar fire of 1734”.
Until Maurizio Seracini can come up with technology that can see through The Battle of Marciano and show us what we are missing in The Battle of Anghiari, we will have to retain our considerable scepticism about Gould’s opinion.
Geoffrey Luck wrote on the Italian economy in the January-February issue.