Anghiari, a small medieval town in Tuscany, was the site of a famous battle on 29th June 1440 between Florentine troops, supported by the Pope, and the Duke of Milan’s invading army. Florence successfully defended her territory, securing their control over central Italy, as the Duke of Milan completely abandoned his expansionist plans.
Gerard Edelinck’s engraving depicts the only known section of an ambitious mural project commissioned from Leonardo to commemorate the Florentine victory, intended to decorate the Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of government in Florence. However, Leonardo’s experimental technique led to the work’s deterioration even before it was completed. The project was abandoned and later replaced with a new commission by Giorgio Vasari.
In 1503, the gonfaloniere of the Florentine Republic, (a prestigious position of government office in Medieval and Renaissance Florence), asked Leonardo to depict the Battle of Anghiari in the Sala del Consiglio Grande, the Council Hall, of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Leonardo wanted to experiment with a new technique of mural painting known as encaustic painting or hot wax painting. This involved a ground of heated beeswax to which coloured pigments were added. To quicken the drying time of the completed sections, Leonardo installed braziers under the fresco, to disastrous effect: as described by Vasari, the wax-based pigments could not sustain the heat and the fresco “began to drip, in such a way, that very quickly, Leonardo abandoned it.”
Despite the damage, the central area remaining visible revealed an incredible tangle of cavalry, struggling fiercely for claim of the standard. Other artists therefore were able to copy and reproduce the composition, and engravings such as Edelinck’s remain the only visual evidence of Leonardo’s grand scheme. Half a century later, the Duke Cosimo de’ Medici appointed Giorgio Vasari to transform this great room; what remained of Leonardo’s work was replaced by Vasari’s frescoes.
This particular scene, also known as The Fight for the Standard, is understood to be the focal point of the whole design which Leonardo intended for the mural. It is uncertain whether Leonardo completed a full cartoon for his mural, but a cartoon for this section, now untraced, is known to have existed.
The scene depicts the fierce struggle over possession of the Milanese standard, the possession of which would mark the battle’s victor. As an engraving, Edelinck’s copy is a reverse image of Leonardo’s composition. The figure to the left of the scene, on a rearing horse, is Pier Giampaolo Orsini, captain-general of the Florentine troops. He charges towards Niccolo Piccinino, the Milanese condottiere, or mercenary, in charge of the Duke of Milan’s army. Piccinino is identified by his distinctive cap, and wields his sword over his head while fiercely gripping the standard. The figure on the far right, who twists back to aid him in pulling the standard out of the grasp of the Florentines is Piccinino’s son, Francesco. Florence was supported by the papal army, commanded by Ludovico degli Scarampi and also aided by Venetian troops led by another condottiere, Michelotto Attendolo. The figure seen positioned behind Orsini wearing a turban and brandishing a sword may be either of these two men. This group of twisted bodies and contorted faces conveys the ferocious nature of the fighting which Leonardo termed pazzia bestialissima, most bestial madness.