The Battle of Anghiari (1440): "This Most Bestial Madness"
The Walled City of Anghiari
The Florentine League
The Milanese Alliance
Leonardo's "Lost" Painting
Is the Painting Really 'Lost'?
Five Centuries of Inspiration
Once again, the greatest genius of the age – perhaps, of all time – had left an important and well-publicized commission unfulfilled. For the second time in a decade, the leading merchants, bankers, and church leaders of Florence – art patrons, or pretenders, all - had been disappointed by her most illustrious son. The western wall of the Gran Sala de Consigliere (Great Chamber Hall) of the Palazzo Vecchio had been abandoned, incomplete. Leonardo da Vinci had abruptly departed from his city, never to return. One result is that for many the works remain unknown, instead of the kind of image that would appear on photo Christmas cards.
The preliminary cartoon (from the Italian cartone, or ‘drawing’) for the “Battle of Anghiari”, however, would remain for more than fifty years until 16th century painter and art historian Georgio Vasari replaced it with a lesser work by his own hand. Until then, Leonardo’s masterpiece - along with Michelangelo’s companion cartoon for the “Battle of Cascina” - would spark debate, inspire other great masters, and change forever the way artists portray the fury of battle and the anatomy and motion of warriors and horses in combat. In fact, the lost Leonardo has achieved a kind of immortality in the art world that continues to do this day. The latest controversy concerns the possibility that Leonardo’s fresco survives in a recessed space behind the Vasari.
If the painting continues to generate debate, however, the Florentine victory over Milan below the walled city of Anghiari in late June 1440 has receded into historical obscurity. In fact, if it is mentioned at all, it is in connection with the biography of the great artist and very rarely in the context of military history. This is remarkable, if for no other reason than the leaders of Florence deliberately selected this battle - and the most celebrated artist of the day – to commemorate a victory they associated closely with their newly restored republic in the very heart of its power.
Why? What made this battle so worthy of celebration at such a critical moment in that fabled city’s history, and why did it disappear from military history so soon afterwards?
By the mid fifteenth century, Florence had been reduced to financial and political weakness as a result of incessant factional strife, fueled by the ambitions of a few powerful oligarchic families, especially the Albizzi and Peruzzi. The most consistently successful of all the dynasties, however, was the Medici, whose patriarch, Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) was for several decades the nominal ruler of the city.
Guided as much by political expediency as conviction Cosimo emerged as spokesman for the city’s working people who felt exploited by the ruling families. Frequent meddling by the other Italian city-states exacerbated the local instability, as did the centuries-old struggle between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor for dominance in Italy. The factions supporting each side of the conflict – the Papal Guelphs and the Imperial Ghibellines - frequently turned the streets into a bloody brawling arena with the innocent, mostly uninvolved citizens, invariably the principal losers.
Known as the “Padre della Patria”, ‘father of the family’, Cosimo was the son of Giovanni di Averardo de’ Medici, a banker and wool merchant and the richest man in Italy. During the long struggle with the Visconti family of Milan, Cosimo was largely responsible for the Medici’s rise to undisputed political power in Florence. He assumed leadership of the city in 1434 after the overthrow and expulsion of his main rivals, the Albizzi faction. Cosimo was a generous and sophisticated art patron and in his later years, turned to religious devotion, especially support of the Dominican monastery of San Marco.
One of the leading condottieri of the 15th century, Francesco was the illegitimate son of renowned mercenary commander Muzio Attendolo Sforza. He grew up at the court of Ferrara, following his father to Naples when Muzio entered the employ of King Ladislas. When his father was killed by old rival Raccio da Montone, in 1424, Francesco assumed command, slaying Montone in battle. He then entered the service of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, and fought for and against him in the succeeding decades. In 1433, during a period of truce he was betrothed to the duke’s daughter, Bianca Maria, and married her after the victory at Anghiari. He took power in Milan in 1447, establishing a dynasty that ruled Milan for more than half a century.
During the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Florence fought a series of costly wars with Pisa, but by 1406, that city had been vanquished, giving Florence direct access to the sea. More important was the struggle with Milan, ruled by the Visconti family since their victory in July 1322 at the Battle of Bassignana. A principal competitor in the lucrative silk trade, Milan continually challenged Florence for greater economic and political dominance in Tuscany and the surrounding territories. Punctuated by periods of open warfare throughout the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, in 1424 the Visconti defeated Florence at the Battle of Zagonara. In the years that followed, the struggle continued at a low level of intensity, but curbing Milan's territorial and economic ambitions remained the major preoccupation of Florentine foreign policy.
Son of a butcher, Niccolò Piccinino began his military career in service to his uncle, famous condottiere, Braccio da Montone. He became leader when his uncle was killed by Francesco Sforza. Briefly serving the Florentine Republic, he switched sides in 1425 and fought for Milan. After the defeat at Anghiari (1440), the war shifted back to Lombardy, where Piccinino defeated Sforza at Martinengo, and was in turn defeated by him at Montelauro. Recalled to Milan in 1444, he died soon after of his wounds. Short, lame, sickly, he was also personally brave, resourceful, and indifferent to defeat. Cruel and treacherous, his only true conviction was his own aggrandizement.