Monday, December 19, 2011

Artistic Antagonisms, Anghiari And a Sweet Room in Hell.

The battle of Anghiari is now more famous because of a lost masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci than any perception of the historic significance of the battle itself which took place between the competing forces of the city states of Milan and Florence in mid 1440. The actual painting has being lost for centuries due both to its method of execution and indeed political changes affecting Florence itself over the intervening centuries. However, the sketches which remain and the copy executed by Pieter Paul Rubens depict in stunning graphic detail the ferocity of the struggle between men and horses which characterised the battle and the visceral energy expounded by the participants. To a modern sensibility this may seem like a profound comment of the horrific intensity of human warfare but it was in fact commissioned in the 16th century to actually celebrate it from the perspective of the supposed glory of Florence.

I visited the pretty hillside town of Anghiari some years ago while on holiday in Arezzo and had seen the Leonardo sketches of the battle in a small local museum. However, I had no idea at that time that this work was the subject of a major competition in Florence pitting the then perceived greatest artists of the time directly against each other in producing paintings to adorn the Great Council Hall of the city until I read the wonderful book ‘The Lost Battles’ by Jonathan Jones. In this book he expertly analyses and explains the forces, both artistic, social and political that shaped the work of both Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti in approaching their respective commissions within not only Florence but other key city states such as Milan and Rome at that time. It also introduces us to the personalities and political intrigues of key medieval figures such as Savonarola, Lorenzo de Medici, Machiavelli and Pope Julius among others who not only influenced but sometimes dictated the scope of the work being undertaken by both artists. In fact the Great Council of Florence deliberately encouraged and fostered the competitive ‘duel’ between these artists not only to encourage them to try harder to achieve artistic excellence but also as a symbolic expression of their power base and control of the local populace. Indeed, such was the intensity of the bitterness and rivalry actually forged between these two famous artists that Michelangelo himself wrote a verse in the margin of one of his drawings for the competition referring to the ‘dolce stanza nell’ inferno’-‘a sweet room in hell’.

The Lost Battles book captures in a realistic and profound way the level of intrigue and rivalry which gave rise to the social milieu within which both Leonardo and Michelangelo had to curry favour in order to work at all and the acute strains which developed between each artist as they sought to outmanoeuvre the other. In fact, it is interesting to note despite our own expressed ‘level field’ attitude to modern competitive commissions that such forces are all too evidently at work in the Arts today.

A final interesting aside to this historic perspective is the row, reported in the Irish Times of 4/12/2011, which has broken out among Italian Art experts over the decision to drill a hole through the great painting by Vasari which currently adorns the Great Hall of Florence but which it is thought may hide the lost painting of the Battle of Anghiari behind it. Once again in a small illustration that history repeats itself, the social, political and artist forces within and without the artistic establishment are at ‘war’ over this painting. For my own part, I feel that the artistic vision encapsulated within the sketches and reproductions should encourage us to reflect on the intensity of Leonardo’s vision rather than attempt to uncover small parts of a painting which even at the time of its execution was quickly falling into disrepair.

I would highly recommend Jonathan Jones fine book to anyone with a shred of interest in the forces which mould artistic endeavour and those great artists who give it tangible expression for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

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