Walls of remembrance

This detail is taken from the bottom right corner of the Giorgio Vasari fresco that depicts the Battle of Marciano displayed on the East wall of the Hall of Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio.

Detail from the Battle of Marciano by Giorgio Vasari, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Vasari erected a wall in front of Leonardo’s commission so as not to paint directly onto the earlier battle scene, but in doing so, and in order to preserve and pay tribute to the polymath’s abandoned fresco, he embedded cryptic references to the Battle of Anghiari on this corner section of his own own fresco.

The scene also makes reference to Michelangelo who was also commissioned to paint a battle fresco on the opposite wall in the Hall of Five Hundred around the same time Leonardo started working on the Battle Anghiari. The two artists were seen to be competing against each other – there was no love lost between the pair – and so, in a sense, it can be said they were also engaged in battle with each other and themselves.

Detail from the Last Judgment by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

As it was, Michelangelo never actually put paint on the wall, although he did complete cartoons in preparation, as he was summoned by Pope Julius II to come to Rome and paint the Last Judgement. Leonardo did start to paint but encountered technical difficulties with the materials he used. It is said that because the paint or wall coating was mixed with a wax substance parts of the fresco eventually started to slide down the wall. Leonardo abandoned the project and returned to Milan.

Michelangelo was more than aware of Leonardo’s misfortune and continued the feud by referencing in a most unusual and abiding way in the Last Judgment fresco what had happened to his adversary.

Seated on a cloud at the feet of Christ is the bulky figure of St Bartholomew. He is one of many muscular men in the scene. Leonardo didn’t have a good word to say about Michelangelo’s figures. He once described them as looking like sacks of walnuts. Hence Bartholomew holding his flayed carcass, devoid of body parts and looking like an empty sack of walnuts. Michelangelo even went to the extent of painting his own face on the carcass, distorted and seemingly slipping downwards. An obvious reference to Leonardo’s failed fresco sliding down the wall and a retort to the cutting remark made two decades before about muscles and walnuts!.

In Vasari’s corner scene the figure on its knees represents both Michelangelo and Leonardo.

Leonardo is also represented in the figures of the two men cowering beneath the horse. A second identity Vasari applied to the bearded man with his hand outstretched Is Tommaso Cavalieri, a friend of Michelangelo. The second identity of the man looking up at the horseshoe was also a friend of Michelangelo – Daniele da Volterra.

I shall explain how Vasari pieced these identities together in a future post.