The Lost Battles

By Jonathan Jones

There’s a line of thinking that has it that what made Florence such a cauldron of genius in the Renaissance, indeed what made the Italian Renaissance, was the fury of artistic competition. Competition, and this is a related point that’s rarely remarked on, which was often very public in nature, and judged to the highest standards.

If competition was this important, the contest between the two titans of the day, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, who were commissioned in 1504 to paint battle frescos in the Great Council Hall of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, might have been the defining event of the age.

It might have been, but neither of the frescos was painted. All we have are designs and reconstructions, most notably Raphael’s of the Battle of Anghiari and Aristotele de Sangallo’s of the Battle of Cascina (a reproduction of the latter strangely missing from this otherwise well-illustrated book). And yet, the imagination can dwell just as much on a painting lost. At least that’s what Jonathan Jones concludes at the end of his captivating account of the great duel:

The lost Battles of Leonardo and Michelangelo are as available to us, as real, as any work of art, for all art requires imagination and thought to truly enjoy it. Almost because the originals are not visible, the process of reconstructing these great works in our minds can gives us a stronger feeling for them than we might have for many a well-preserved painting. Their first audience responded to the concepts and images that were in them, not to details of execution. So can we. There are enough preparatory drawings, copies, written descriptions, and allusions in later works to make these vanished pictures astonishingly real. In the end this is simply the immediacy of the greatest art.

There’s something to this, though I think contemporary viewers responded to details of execution as well. Leonardo’s Last Supper, for example, is only a blur even after restoration, but the concept makes it iconic. And it’s possible Leonardo was aware of this, as he did have trouble finishing things.

Review first published online September 27, 2022.

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