Battle of Cascina

The Battle of Cascina took place on July 28 1364 and celebrates the Florentine victory over it’s bitter rival, Pisa.  The Republic of Florence had decided to decorate it’s prestigious new hall of state, the Florentine Room of the Great Council of Palazzo Vecchio, with paintings on a grand scale (at the time of the commissions in 1504 Florence and Pisa were still locked in conflict and dispute).

Two of the most influential artists of the day, Leonardo da Vinci and a young Michelangelo Buonarroti received commissions to fresco battle scenes for the state hall. This was intended to extract the highest level of effort from Leonardo and Michelangelo by placing the two greatest artists of the Renaissance era in direct competition with each other.

The work was commissioned in 1504 by Piero Soderini, a leader of the Florentine republic, with a contract signed by Niccolò Machiavelli.  Soderini realised that talented native artists would promote the republic’s legitimacy.  Michelangelo’s cartoon depicted the Florentine army hurriedly preparing for battle after a dip in the river.

Michelangelo prepared his cartoons in his studio in a hospital room of the Sant’Onofrio Dyers which is now the Via Guelfa. The subject is the battle of 1364 and more precisely the moment when the Florentine soldiers, intent on swimming in the Arno river hear the trumpet, which warns of them of the imminent Pisan attack.

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Michelangelo’s naked courage in The Battle of Cascina – Jonathan Jones

A small sketch from Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina will go under the hammer in July. But why did he portray a scene of conflict with a drawing of nude men?

Ready for battle … an expert holds the sketch Male Nude Seen From Behind by Michelangelo

It is said that the last fragments of Michelangelo‘s great cartoon, or full-scale preparatory drawing, of The Battle of Cascina were treasured – in the 1560s – by a gentleman of Mantua, or that artists tore it to shreds scavenging for souvenirs, or that a malevolent vandal destroyed it on purpose. Whichever it was, within a few years of its creation, the cartoon was gone. Yet this vast drawing was regarded by some contemporaries as the greatest of all Michelangelo‘s works – greater even than theSistine ceiling, claimed one witness. He worked on The Battle of Cascina from 1504 to 1506, but never painted it on the wall it was planned for in the Great Council Hall of the Florentine Republic.

The cartoon is long gone, but, like a miracle, one of Michelangelo’s smaller sketches for his great battle picture has emerged from a private collection and is to be auctioned at Christie’s on 5 July. What a thing. It is a gnarled and sensually grasping study of a naked man’s back and buttocks. Michelangelo was about 30 when he drew these furrows of flesh, capturing the power of a man’s body with an eye and a hand that are so strong yet so tender.

Male Nude seen from behind (Battle of Cascina sketch)

How is this a drawing for a battle scene? Where’s the battle, where are the weapons, the armour, in The Battle of Cascina? Michelangelo, or someone who understood him extremely well, found in a Florentine chronicle one of the few episodes in medieval warfare that involved mass male nudity. In 1364 the Florentine army, at war with Pisa, camped at Cascina by the river Arno and, because it was a hot summer day, the men got undressed and went for a swim instead of constructing fortifications. When the alarm sounded they all had to rush out of the water and go to arms. It is this moment of intense drama, with nudes heaving themselves out of the river and rushing in all directions to grab clothes and weapons, that Michelangelo chose to depict. The nude to be sold at Christie’s is one of his ideas for what blossomed into a spectacle of contorted figures.

In my book The Lost Battles, I tell how Michelangelo designed The Battle of Cascina in direct competition with Leonardo da Vinci who had been commissioned in 1503 to represent The Battle of Anghiari in the same hall. Their competition is crucial to understanding why Michelangelo turned a battle scene into a bathing scene. He was fiercely competitive and needed to outdo Leonardo. It became a contest not of skill, in which they were both beyond compare, but imagination and originality. Leonardo, the older artist, was already famous not just as a gifted painter but a truly original mind: his ideas and fancies were valued. I believe that in drawings such as the one going under the hammer in July, the young Michelangelo set out his claim to a similar kind of personal, unique vision – and he does it by putting his private self on public display.

One male nude – Michelangelo’s David went on view for the first time in 1504 – may be considered an homage to classical Greco-Roman art. A vast drawing that glories in multiple male nudes in the unlikely context of a battle flaunts a blatant personal passion. In designing his army of nudes, Michelangelo made his homosexual desires visible to everyone in Florence. It was a staggering act of courage in a world that severely punished sodomy.

Michelangelo is famous for being brave – defying a Pope, working in arduous conditions under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. His heroism is not a myth. He was driven to be defiant, to assert and risk himself in a way utterly unlike most artists before the Romantic age behaved. This drawing is not just a treasure of art, but a document of courage.

Jonathan Jones writes on art for the Guardian and was on the jury for the 2009 Turner prize

Battle of Cascina – sketch
Study for the Battle of Cascina, c. 1504

study for Battle of Cascina c. 1504
study for Battle of Cascina c. 1504
study for Battle of Cascina c. 1504
Study for Battle of Cascina, c. 1504
Study for Battle of Cascina, c. 1504
Battle of Cascina – copy by Sangallo after Michelangelo

Both Michelangelo and Leonardo failed to finish their battle scenes. Leonardo had technical difficulties and Michelangelo was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II. It is clear from Sangallo’s copy that, even at this early stage of his career as a painter, Michelangelo was very drawn to the representation of the male, naked form.

The scene is the central part of Michelangelo’s fresco. The Florentine army went into the river Arno to bathe and escape the heat of the day. Fearing that the soldiers would be caught off-guard by the enemy, the Florentine captain raised a false alarm. The soldiers rush to dress and arm themselves in a  chaotic and un-gamely manner.

This is not the heroic Florentine army defeating the forces of its rival city of Pisa. It seems almost unsuitable as a statement of the power of the Florentine Republic. However it must be remembered that this is just one part of Michelangelo’s intended vision for a fresco that, had it been completed, would have been one of the greatest works of the Renaissance.

Study of a seated figure – Michelangelo

We can see, from this Michelangelo study, how faithfully Aristotile da Sangallo has drawn on Michelangelo’s vision of the battle. (compare the central figure in Sangallo’s copy with this study).

It was designed as the centrepiece for a never-executed fresco of the Battle of Cascina. The drawing relates to the pivotal seated figure at the centre of the work. A combination of pen and lead white describe the model’s glistening limbs in a highly effective way.

The figure is of crucial importance in the larger scene because his turning body directs attention to the bodies behind. Close inspection of the figure reveals that, despite the remarkably realistic three-dimensional rendering, his pose is unnatural. This is particularly true of the upper body, which has been twisted to impossible limits.

Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina and Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, although never completed, had a huge influence on successive generations of artists. The preliminary drawings and cartoons have been copied many times, what a pity that we can never see the works of these two Renaissance giants within the Florentine State Hall.

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