In the 1560s, Giorgio Vasari redecorated the Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. In doing so he replaced what survived of the most ambitious public art commission of the Renaissance. A battle of frescoes involving the two legends of art at the time – Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Since the 16th century, people have obsessed over the lost battle paintings of Michelangelo and Leonardo.
Leonardo was in his early 50s and renowned throughout Europe when he was commissioned in 1503. He had just painted the Mona Lisa. “His fame had so increased,” writes Vasari, “that all persons who took delight in art – nay, the whole city of Florence – desired that he should leave them some memorial work.”
Leonardo was commissioned to paint a vast wall painting of The Battle of Anghiari, from the 15th-century wars between Florence and Milan.
Michelangelo was just 29, and an art prodigy. He trained in the sculpture academy created by Lorenzo de’Medici in a garden in Florence. Aged just 24, he had created the Pieta in St Peter’s in Rome.
In May 1504, Leonardo revised his contract with the Signoria of Florence to put back the completion date of The Battle of Anghiari. At the same time, Michelangelo’s statue of David was installed outside the Palazzo Vecchio.
Later that year, Michelangelo received the commission to paint The Battle of Cascina, which took place between Florence and Pisa in the 14th century, on opposite walls of the Council Hall.
The two artists were going head-to-head in a battle of the Battle frescoes.
Definitely a contest between two artistic greats
Giorgio Vasari, who wrote The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1568), is explicit this was a contest. He said Michelangelo received the commission “in competition” with da Vinci.
But this was more than just a face-off between masters of art. The council hall was the centre of a new, more populist idea of the Florentine Republic. Following the expulsion of the Medici in 1494, the rebirth of the Florentine Republic was a moment of intense self-rediscovery for the city.
Leonardo and Michelangelo both had new hope for their city, having returned from working in Milan and Rome. They may have been republicans. After all, Michelangelo created the incredible political art work: David, hero of the weak against the strong.
And so the expectation was high these two legends would create patriotic pieces of artwork defining some of Florence’s great historical moments.
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What survives of the two Battle frescoes?
Preliminary drawings survive of men and horses by Leonardo. The horses are tense and confrontational whilst the men are snarling like animals. To take the artwork from the cartoon to the wall, Leonardo made a wooden elevator, so he could move up and down the wall easily.
However, Leonardo’s inventions, particularly when it came to paint, were not always successes. Leonardo used a method, apparently based on a recipe by Pliny the Elder, to enable him to paint the wall in oils. The mixture didn’t work. The upper part dried dark and the lower parts disintegrated.
Michelangelo never got past the drawing stage. The main visual source is a painting now in Holkham Hall, Norfolk, by Bastiano da Sangallo, a copy of his Battle of Cascina.
Michelangelo took over a room in the Hospital of the Dyers in Florence, and drew a full-sized cartoon in superb detail. He drew war’s ordinariness; when Florentine soldiers, bathing naked in the Arno, hear the enemy coming and rush to get out of the water and put on armour.
It never reached the wall.
Why was da Vinci’s artwork painted over?
In 1512, a Spanish army sent by the Holy League overthrew the Florentine Republic and the Medici were returned to power. When the Medici were chucked out and the Republic restored once more in 1527, Michelangelo created defences for the city. They failed and the Medici were back in power yet again.
After 1530, republicanism was finished in Florence, which became a conservative, princely city.
The Palazzo Vecchio became a Medici palace. However, it was not a case of Vasari painting over da Vinci’s work – the masterpiece had all but disintegrated. There is some debate as to whether there were/are any tiny remnants remaining under Vasari’s work. This is exacerbated by a flag in one of Vasari’s murals which states “cerca trova”, which means ‘look and find’.
It was also not a case of removing signs of republicanism, but demonstrating the power of the Medici’s under Cosimo I, and the history of Florence. Vasari was the ruler’s preferred artist and architect, hence the Vasari corridor which connects the different seats of power within the city (Palazzo Vecchio – Uffizi -Palazzo Pitti).
Vasari claimed an artistic triumph as great as Cosimo I’s military victories.