In the choice of poses and in the final composition, Leonardo was much influenced by Bertoldo's bronze relief of a battle now in the Bargello. Bertoldo had been keeper of Lorenzo de' Medici's collection of antiques and the greatest authority on classical art of his time; and for almost a generation he had watched over the youth of Florence drawing antiques in Lorenzo's garden.
Now to our notions nothing could seem further from classical art than the Battle of Anghiari: but that is because we still see the antique through the eyes of Winckelmann and nineteenth-century classicism as something cold, restrained and static. To the Renaissance it was the exact reverse. They admired in the antique the power of conveying passion and violence, as opposed to the dry and timid movements of their own early painters. Bertoldo's bronze, which is largely taken from a famous antique sarcophagus at Pisa, was considered a model of the classical style, and in his cartoon Leonardo no doubt believed that he was approaching the famous battle pieces of Philoxenos.
Our reconstruction of Leonardo's cartoon is conjectural. We have several copies of the central motive, the struggle for the standard, taken from the wreck of the original painting on the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio; and a number of drawings which show that though the struggle for the Standard was the chief, it was not the only motive of his cartoon. We can guess at the existence of one other group, which included the motive of a wild, galloping horse, known in several studies and in a drawing by Michelangelo, which seems to be a copy of Leonardo's cartoon, and there are hints of a second group, a cavalcade of horsemen in a drawing at Windsor. Perhaps the struggle for the Standard was to have been the central panel, and the two others were to have been separated from it by windows.
The copy with which we usually illustrate the Battle of the Standard, the grisaille by Rubens, was not made at first hand, for the original painting was obliterated fifty years before Rubens could have seen it, and he may have had no more to go on than Lorenzo Zacchia's meagre engraving. In consequence, his version is inaccurate in many details, and the intention of the figures is better shown in the direct copy. Yet we are right to study the composition in Rubens' version, because it is by a great artist, and one who has felt so deep a sympathy for Leonardo's design that he has been able to recreate the rhythmic force of the original and to make some appreciation of it possible.
We see that the subject gave Leonardo an opportunity of returning to the patterns and problems which had occupied his mind over twenty years earlier in the background of the Adoration. His sense of form had not changed, and for the central group of his new composition he chose the same general design: two prancing horses confronting each other, their haunches and bellies and necks, with tossed-back heads, making the same pattern of energetic curves. But, following the general trend of his development, the composition became far more compact. The free and centrifugal movement of the earlier group was given up for a design almost unbearably close knit and dense. The central group could have been realised in bronze. The small pen and ink sketches for the Battle of Anghiari with their tiny, irresponsible figures, have been developed, by some intellectual process of which we have no record, into the massive complexity of the Standard group.
These battle cartoons of Leonardo and Michelangelo are the turning point of the Renaissance, and a whole book could be written on them-their origins, their purpose, their influence. It is not too fanciful to say that they initiate the two roads which high Renaissance art was to follow, the Baroque and the Classical. For the Baroque elements in Leonardo which I have already stressed, were more forcibly present in the Anghiari cartoon than in any other of his works; and Michelangelo, who was himself to become a prophet of the Baroque, showed in his Cascina cartoon the sort of classicism which formed the mature style of Raphael and Giulio Romano.
If, as is inevitable, we compare the work of the two great rivals we must agree that this Baroque element has made Leonardo's design much superior in unity. I believe that even Michelangelo felt this; and he seems actually to have copied a part of Leonardo's cartoon--one of the parts not painted on to the wall, and so not shown in later copies, but traceable in Leonardo's drawings. We must also admit, as all contemporaries agreed, that Leonardo excelled in richness of dramatic invention, giving a greater passion to the whole scene and to individual heads. Of this we can still judge, since several of his studies of the heads survive, and show the fury of slaughter which is so vividly described in his notes on how to paint a battle.
Here again we notice one of the apparent contradictions of his nature. The famous military engineer, the inventor of monstrous war-machines, the friend of Cesare Borgia, was by all accounts a man of unusual tenderness, to whom the destruction of any living organism was repulsive. War he referred to as a pazzia bestialissima, most beastly madness. We can imagine how these feelings, conflicting with his intellectual interest in war as an art, gave to the Anghiari cartoon an added intensity in the expression of horror.
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