Biographies & Memoirs

The Anghiari Fresco (I)

A summer spent dividing his time between excursions into the Pisan hills, conversations with Machiavelli, mathematical studies with Luca Pacioli, and portrait-sessions with Lisa del Giocondo (with or without musicians and comedians) sounds to me a pretty good summer for Leonardo da Vinci, but by the autumn he was considering a new commission, for a major public work equivalent in scale – and potential stress – to the Last Supper. The commission was for a fresco to decorate one of the walls of the enormous Council Hall (the Sala del Maggiore Consiglio, later the Sala del Cinquecento) on the first floor of the Palazzo Vecchio. The hall had been built in 1495, as part of the new republican dawn that followed the expulsion of the Medici.100

The original contract has not survived, but the commission can be dated around October 1503, for on the 24th of that month the Signoria issued instructions for Leonardo to be given the key to a large disused refectory known as the Sala del Papa (the Pope’s Hall) in the monastery of Santa Maria Novella.101 This official provision was doubtless to give him the space he needed for the huge cartoon which was to be the template of the fresco. A later contract, dated 4 May 1504, says that Leonardo had ‘agreed some months previously to paint a picture in the hall of the Great Council’, and had been paid an advance of 35 florins. The deadline for completing the work (‘without any exception or cavil whatsoever’) is given as the end of February 1505. Later documents show that he received a stipend of 15 florins a month while working on it.102

And so Leonardo takes up new quarters at Santa Maria Novella, with its magnificent Albertian façade which he had seen being built more than thirty years before, and its walls decorated with the luminous frescos of Domenico Ghirlandaio, with their portraits of Ficino and Luigi Pulci and Poliziano, and of the young Medici boys – faces from his youth, ghosts from another Florence. The Sala del Papa was in the ramble of buildings to the west of the church (now the Carabinieri headquarters, heavily sentried). The room was not in good condition – a further instruction from the Signoria orders that the roof should be repaired to make it rainproof. The windows were ‘rough’ and needed to be made secure. On 8 January 1504 a carpenter, Benedetto Buchi, was brought in with panels, runners, shutters and crossbars to close them up.103 These necessary building works perhaps pre-date Leonardo’s definitive arrival. A fragmentary sheet in the Codex Atlanticus has an inventory of his household goods – forty-four items: chairs and tables, towels and napkins, brooms and candlesticks, a feather mattress, a copper basin, a soup-ladle, a frying-pan, ‘lampstands, inkwell, ink, soap, colours’, ‘trivet, sphere, pen-holder, lectern, rod, sponge’: the clutter of small necessities.104

Throughout February the scene resembles a building-site – the carpenter is making the platform and ladder, ‘with all the necessary devices’. The main beam of the platform is a 5 braccia length of elm-wood; it is secured by a hawser or cable of hemp – in other words the platform is hanging rather than scaffolded, its height and position being adjustable by pulleys. A paper-merchant, Giandomenico di Filippo, arrives with a ream of paper which will be glued together for the cartoon. Another brings rougher, cheaper paper to cover the windows. Wax, turpentine and white lead are delivered from the apothecary’s. A consignment of sponges arrives. Also at work is a builder, Maestro Antonio di Giovanni. He is making a doorway from Leonardo’s private rooms which will ‘go directly to the said cartoon’ – we glimpse in this specification the punishing artistic labours to come: the blinkering, the solitude. Soon the work will take him over: soon he will be pacing from his room to the drawing and back again, wrapped up in concentration. One recalls Bandello’s reminiscence of work on the Last Supper – the bursts of galvanic activity, the longueurs of arms-folded contemplation.

On 27 April Leonardo drew out another 50 florins from his bank-account. It seems the advance he had received from the Signoria was already spent.

War has been Leonardo’s milieu over the past couple of years – as servant to the ruthless ambitions of the Borgia, as engineer to the Florentine war-effort against Pisa – and even here in his new studio in Santa Maria Novella he cannot quite shake off the connection, for war was precisely the subject of the work on which he was now embarking. The Signoria wished to decorate their great Council Hall with an emblematic scene from a famous Florentine victory. In 1440 – and thus still just about in living memory – an attack of Milanese troops under the condottiere Niccolò Piccinino had been beaten off by Florentine troops in an engagement outside the Tuscan village of Anghiari, in the hills not far from Arezzo. Leonardo may well have known the place: he would have passed that way en route to Urbino the previous year; it is marked on his map of the Val di Chiana.

Again Machiavelli is involved. Among Leonardo’s papers is a long description of the battle, translated from a Latin account by Leonardo Dati.105 The handwriting is that of Machiavelli’s assistant Agostino di Vespucci; it was no doubt written at Machiavelli’s suggestion, to give Leonardo information and ideas about the subject. It seems that a narrative fresco was envisaged, showing various scenes over a period of time. ‘Begin with the address of Niccolò Piccinino to the soldiers… Then let it be shown how he first mounted on horseback in armour and the whole army came after him, 40 squadrons of cavalry and 2,000 foot-soldiers’, and so on. Dati’s account of the battle includes a visionary scene where St Peter appears ‘in a cloud’ to the Florentine commander (the battle was fought on St Peter and St Paul’s day, 29 June), and is in general rousing and rhetorical – as the Signoria doubtless hoped Leonardo’s fresco would be. A very different account was later written by Machiavelli himself in his Istorie fiorentine, where the battle is described as a brief skirmish, during which only one man was killed – and he only by accident, when his horse fell on him.106 But now, for the painter, here was the propaganda version.

The commission is clear: a stirring scene of Florentine military valour, a giant trionfo to bolster the republic’s resolve in these days of uncertainty. But from the outset – as one can see from the many preparatory drawings – Leonardo’s treatment caught also a powerful sense of the horror and brutality of war.107 We see in those drawings the snarling mouths of the fighters, the terrified rearing of the horses, the stretched muscles, the hacking weapons. There is in them an element of catharsis: a confrontation of his own complicity in the warmongering of the day. In these drawings are distilled certain grisly scenes he had witnessed during his months with Borgia. And he also knew the kind of things to focus on to catch the lurid drama of the battlefield, for more than a decade earlier in Milan he had penned a long text entitled ‘How to represent a battle’:

First you must show the smoke of the artillery, mingling in the air with the dust thrown up by the movement of horses and soldiers… The air must be filled with arrows in every direction, and the cannon-balls must have a train of smoke following their flight… If you show one who has fallen you must show the place where his body has slithered in the blood-stained dust and mud… Others must be represented in the agonies of death, grinding their teeth, rolling their eyes, with their fists clenched against their bodies and their legs contorted… There might be seen a number of men fallen in a heap over a dead horse.108

This quality of scrimmage, of formless mêlée, of contortion and commotion, is precisely seen in his preparatory sketches. Thus, between Florentine spin and eyewitness truth, Leonardo gropes towards the composition.


Anghiari studies. Top: preparatory drawing of the heads of two soldiers, and a mêlée of horsemen in combat, c. 1503–4. Bottom: a copy of Leonardo’s lost Battle of Anghiari, attributed to Peter Paul Rubens.

News that Leonardo is at work on a major new project has reached the ears of the ever-hopeful Isabella d’Este in Mantua, but has not deterred her. In a letter dated 14 May 1504 she instructs Angelo del Tovaglia to ask Leonardo to paint her a small religious painting – ‘and if he gives an excuse that he has no time, because of the work he has begun for the most excellent Signoria, you can tell him that it will be a recreation and relaxation when the fresco grows wearisome, and that he can paint it whenever it seems pleasant to do so.’ On the same date she writes a letter to Leonardo himself, to be delivered by Tovaglia. It reads:

Maestro Leonardo –

Understanding that you are settled in Florence, we are hopeful that we can get from you what we have so much desired, which is to have something from your hand. When you were in these parts, and did my portrait in charcoal, you promised me that sometime you would do one in colour for me. As this is now almost impossible, since it is not convenient for you to travel here, we hope you will want to satisfy the obligations of our agreement by converting our portrait into another figure even more gracious, that of a Youthful Christ, of about twelve years old, at the age when he disputed in the Temple, done with that air of sweetness and comeliness [suavita] in which your art so especially excels…

She winds up in a tone of steely courtesy: ‘In expectation of your devoted reply, we offer you our best wishes…’

Tovaglia duly delivered the letter to the artist at Santa Maria Novella, but received the familiar polite brush-off: ‘He has promised me he will do it at certain hours, when he can spare the time from the work he has undertaken for the Signoria.’ Tovaglia has also been asked to chase up Pietro Perugino, who is supposed to be producing a painting for Isabella’s studiolo. He concludes wryly:

I will continue to encourage Leonardo in this, and also Perugino in the other. Both of them are full of promises, and seem very desirous to serve Your Ladyship, however I fear there will be a competition in lateness [gara de tarditate] between them. Who knows which of them will win this – my money is on Leonardo!109

Isabella did not give up, and a couple of years later she found a more promising emissary, someone with family connections with Leonardo – Alessandro Amadori, canon of Fiesole, the brother of Leonardo’s first stepmother, Albiera. But, as we gather from Amadori’s letter to her, this new tack proved equally fruitless.110

By the early summer of 1504 Leonardo is ready to synthesize his small sketches and clay models into the single full-scale image of the cartoon, drawn and painted on to the huge patchwork of paper held in a framework in the refectory of Santa Maria Novella. In June a baker named Giovanni di Landino brings ‘88 lb of sifted flour… for coating the cartoon’. From the apothecary come 28 pounds of Alexandrian white lead and 36 pounds of baking soda and 2 pounds of gesso, ‘required by Leonardo for painting’. And a blacksmith is paid for iron pins and rings and wheels for ‘Leonardo’s carriage’ – ‘il carro di Leonardo’: another platform, this time on wheels, enabling him to move around the large area of the cartoon.

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