No Battle of Anghiari in the Salone dei Cinquecento. New studies on Leonardo's lost painting

New studies on Leonardo da Vinci's Battle of Anghiari presented at the Uffizi Galleries.

The Uffizi Galleries presented this morning in a live streaming conference the new studies completed on Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari. "There is no Battle of Anghiari under Vasari’s painting in the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio," said Cecilia Frosinini, an expert on Leonardo da Vinci and director of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure’s Mural Painting Restoration Department. Supporting this statement that puts an end to one of the most debated researches in art history is, in addition to Frosinini, a group of scholars and experts who published the book La Sala Grande di Palazzo Vecchio e la Battaglia di Anghiari di Leonardo da Vinci. From the Architectural Configuration to the Decorative Apparatus, published by Olschki and edited by Roberta Barsanti, Gianluca Belli, Emanuela Ferretti and Cecilia Frosinini, following a conference the group attended on the subject of the decoration of the Sala Grande in Palazzo Vecchio.

It all began in June 2005, when Maurizio Seracini of the University of California at San Diego announced to the world that behind Giorgio Vasari ’s fresco depicting the Battle of Marciano della Chiana was a secret wall that might conceal the remains of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari. In 2007, a committee was set up to find Leonardo’s lost painting: among the members, in addition to Seracini, were then-Mayor of Florence Lorenzo Domenici, Superintendent Cristina Acidini, and scholars Antonio Paolucci and Carlo Pedretti. And Matteo Renzi, as president of the Province of Florence.

In October of that year, the hunt for the painting was kicked off in the presence of then Minister of Cultural Heritage Francesco Rutelli. The following year, Seracini’s search continued, and the City of Florence signed an agreement with the National Geographic Society, which guaranteed a contribution of fifty thousand euros a year for five years to promote the artistic heritage of the Tuscan capital with special attention to the Battle of Anghiari: the National Geographic Society ’s contribution kept the search going.

Despite the doubts of some that Vasari’s fresco could be damaged by these research operations, the operational phase began in August 2011: scaffolding was installed in the Salone dei Cinquecento and the team led by Seracini began probing the wall with radar to detect the cavity that the latter said would have hidden Leonardo’s painting. For further research, Seracini initiated the endoscopic search, which involves drilling directly through Vasari’s frescoed wall at seven different points. At the same time Cecilia Frosinini, who had been entrusted with the scientific supervision of the operations, gave up the task of supervising the endoscopic research, refusing to pierce the fresco.

In December 2011, Italia Nostra filed a complaint with the Florence prosecutor’s office to block the search, and a group of scholars launched a public appeal to express concern about the fate of the fresco and doubts about the search for Leonardo’s work; the research team, on the other hand, assured the seriousness and scientific nature of the operations, including Matteo Renzi. Following the complaint, the research stopped, but resumed the following year, with the announcement of the discovery of some traces of color in the cavity (a pigment would have had a chemical composition similar to that of a pigment used for the Mona Lisa). The Florence prosecutor’s office filed the file on the Vasari fresco since the work would not have been damaged. Meanwhile, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure complained that it had not received any material for analysis, and Matteo Renzi, mayor of Florence, tried to establish a dialogue with the Ministry of Cultural Heritage to obtain authorization for new investigations. The research was halted due to delays on the part of the Ministry.

Now the new developments on the Battle of Anghiari were the subject of this morning’s conference at the Uffizi (also broadcast live on Facebook on the Galleries’ profile), in the presence of Galleries director Eike Schmidt, Cinzia Maria Sicca, professor of modern art history at the University of Pisa, Francesca Fiorani, professor of modern art history at the University of Virginia, and Marcello Simonetta, historian and researcher at The Medici Archivi Project.

Among the new discoveries is the role of Pier Soderini as a very present figure: it was he who decided to celebrate the greatness of the Florentine Republic by choosing two subjects of battles: the Battle of Anghiari and the Battle of Cascina. The contract that is countersigned by Machiavelli is dated 1504, but actually from a manuscript belonging to Agostino Vespucci it was discovered that Leonardo was already involved in October 1503.

Through the studies, research was redirected, so from the question of the location of the Battle of Anghiari, we moved on to ask whether the latter really exists in the Great Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. The question has been asked what Leonardo did in this room. The latest studies have led to the conclusion that Leonardo never painted the Battle on that wall. Moreover, the publication points out that the Sala Grande is different from how Leonardo had known it.

“From the question ’where is the Battle of Anghiari?’ we moved on to ’but was there ever a Battle of Anghiari?” explains Fiorani. “We wondered what Leonardo had really done in what was then the Sala Grande’ in Palazzo Vecchio. The power of historical research is to create new questions, which of course are based on a rigorous reading of data, both new and already acquired. And our conclusion was that Leonardo never painted the battle on the wall of the room where it was sought for so long. The existence of the preparatory cartoons is proven and documented. That of the painting, which we know only from copies of others that have come down to the present day, is not. The materials that were provided to Leonardo were only functional for the cartoon and the preparation of the wall on which it was to be made. But the preparation of the wall itself went wrong; and therefore the Battle was never painted.”

“In practice, there has been a decades-long hunt for a ghost,” Simonetta added, “even based on the idea, the fault of a Dan Brown book, that the phrase ’He who seeks finds, finds,’ penned by Vasari in a banner of his fresco on the Victory of Cosimo I at Marciano in Val di Chiana, was a kind of puzzle game, a clue to tracing Leonardo’s lost masterpiece on the wall below. This idea turned out to be totally unfounded: The phrase in fact has nothing to do with Leonardo, but is a very heavy mockery, made by Vasari on behalf of Cosimo, against the outcasts, his opponents, as a retort to the motto ’Libertà vo cercando’: a vain search, because, this was the message, the Medici would never leave. That is, ’you have sought freedom, behold, you have found it.’ As we can see, historiographical ignorance breeds monsters.”

“It is necessary to completely refound the studies on the Battle of Anghiari,” Ferretti stressed, “it is necessary to set a perspective of method that often, in studies on Leonardo, also because of media exposure, has pushed to take paths that are not the master ones of rigor and scientific research. In the past, people have looked for the Battle without even bothering to study the structure and history of the room that, according to the project, was supposed to house it; instead, this is precisely what we have done, the reason why we started the interdisciplinary group that has completed this study.”

Frosinini then spoke about aspects of the investigation regarding the search for the painting carried out in 2011, including through holes drilled in Giorgio Vasari’s large painting, under which it was believed that traces of Leonardo’s lost masterpiece might be found. “One of those three famous retrievals, pulled out by drilling holes in Vasari’s work,” Frosinini said, “was magnified as the finding of the Black of the Mona Lisa. But there is no typical Leonardo black: at the time all artists used the same pigments, from the Middle Ages until the mid-18th century, with the introduction of artificial synthetic pigments. The point is that these three famous samplings then disappeared: the Opificio wanted to analyze them thoroughly, but they were never ’given to us. In any case, based on the descriptions of the chemical analysis of the materials found, Mauro Matteini, the most famous chemical expert in the field of Cultural Heritage, clarified in his essay in the volume that these were not pictorial materials at all but simply elements common to be found in masonry of the time.”

“After decades of research on the Battle of Anghiari, we can say that the Uffizi, while not having been an active part of this investigation, is without a shadow of a doubt the best place to present the results of such an authoritative study,” commented museum director Eike Schmidt. “And one of the most valuable lessons we can learn from the great work that has been done is this very strong reminder of the rigor of scientific methodology: an indispensable tool for dealing with research on such important and sensitive issues.”

At this link the lecture that took place at the Uffizi


No Battle of Anghiari in the Salone dei Cinquecento. New studies on Leonardo's lost painting
No Battle of Anghiari in the Salone dei Cinquecento. New studies on Leonardo's lost painting

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