Now the sun’s gone to hell And the moon’s riding high Let me bid you farewell Every man has to die But it’s written in the starlight And every line in your palm We’re fools to make war On our brothers in arms
This scene from the Battle of Marciano, frescoed by Giorgio Vasari on the East wall of the Hall of Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, is said to cover an earlier fresco by Leonardo de Vinci depicting the Battle of Anghiari.
At that time Leonardo was battling with another artist, Michelangelo, who had been commissioned to paint the Battle of Cascina on the opposite West wall. The two artists did not see eye to eye. Both were critical of each other’s work and seemingly verbally aggressive to each other. And yet both were blessed with amazing artistic talents. Brothers in arms so to speak.
Vasari depicted both men in several ways in his Marciano fresco, even as brothers in arms, matching them to the brothers James and John, who Jesus referred to as “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3 : 17).
In the clip below, Vasari portrays Leonardo (left) and Michelangelo as musket men standing side by side – “Sons of Thunder”. Notice the plumes on their helmets continuing their personal battle. Leonardo’s plume is portrayed as an ape, a reference to his claim that monkeys and humans are close cousins; Michelangelo’s plume is portrayed as an aggressive cockerel, a subtle reference to the uncompromising display of genitalia on his famous statue of David (who battled against Goliath) and other works of nudity that were later covered over after Church authorities deemed them offensive.
This narrative of twinning and covering up extends to other parts of Vasari’s painting. More on this in a future post.
In Dan Brown’s Inferno novel the fictional character Robert Langdon, a Harvard University professor of history of art and “symbology”, is tasked with deciphering clues embedded in the works of Sandro Botticelli, Giorgio Vasari and the first part of Dante Alighieri’s poem Divine Comedy(Inferno).
The Vasari work is the Battle of Marciano, frescoed on the south wall of the Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of Five Hundred. The wall is believed to cover over the surface on which Leonardo da Vinci began to paint the Battle of Anghiari.
What caught Langdon’s attention in the fresco was a green flag blazoned with the words Cerca Trova (Seek and Find). But other than that the Harvard professor “failed to see how Vasari’s Battaglia di Marciano could possibly relate to Dante’s Inferno…”.
Langdon and his colleague Sienna then moved on to seek out Dante Alighieri’s death mask, located elsewhere in the building. But when they reached the room where it was kept they discovered the mask had been stolen.
Had Langdon made a closer inspection of Vasari’s Battaglia di Marciano he might have spotted not only a reference to the Dante mask but probably also recognised characters and scenes associated with the poet’s journey through Hell as described in Inferno.
The “Harvard professor” would likely have understood as well how Vasari adapted elements from Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari fresco to include in his “cover-up”.
The section of the battle scene shown below is where Dante and the Inferno references can be found. So let’s “seek and find” the man known as il Sommo Poeta – the Supreme Poet.
Many associate the words “Seek and Find” with those recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, and said: “Search and you will find…”. But there is an earlier biblical reference to this instruction in the Book of Jeremiah. It is this particular mention that Vasari has flagged as a pointer to Dante Alighieri, linking the poet’s exile from Florence with the Jewish people’s exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
The prophet Jeremiah was inspired by God to write a letter of encouragement and hope to the people carried off into exile by Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 29 : 4-23) in which was said: “When you seek me you shall find me, when you seek me with all your heart, I shall let you find me – it is the Lord who speaks” (29 : 13-14).
And when Jeremiah was first called to his vocation as a prophet he complained to God that he was still a child and did not know how to speak. But God told Jeremiah not to fear and to say whatever he was commanded to say to the people he was sent to. Jeremiah wrote: “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me: ‘There! I am putting my words into your mouth…’” (1 : 6, 9)
Along with the quotation from Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, Vasari also linked to the hand of God putting words into the prophet’s mouth to identify his portrayal of Dante.
Vasari made a third connection with Jeremiah and Dante’s identity in the Battle of Marciano. This time it referred to a verse by Dante in Canticle 20 when Dante wept with pity for the disfigured, weeping souls in the fourth trench of Hell.
Truly I wept, leaning upon a peak Of the hard crag, so that my Escort said To me: “Art thou, too, of the other fools?”
Jeremiah wept much throughout his ministry for the people of Judah who refused to listen to his call for repentance, so much so that he became known as “the weeping prophet”.
The reason Vasari made three connections between Jeremiah and Dante was to correspond with the Divine Comedy’s structure based on the number 3 which threads throughout the poem as an acknowledgement to the Trinitarian nature of God.
Pictured above is detail from Vasari’s fresco and shows two cavalry men, similar in appearance, placed side by side. The head on the right side represents Dante Alighieri; the head on the left, Cante dei Gabrielli di Gubbio, the man who exiled Dante from Florence.
The face of each man does not reveal their identity, but their helmet does. The head shape on the peak of Dante’s helmet refers to the poet’s death mask. Its mouth is covered or ‘masked’ by a scroll. The scroll refers to both Dante as a writer and the prophet Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish people in exile. The scroll also invokes the time when God touched Jeremiah’s mouth with his hand and said: ‘There! I am putting my words into your mouth…”
The scene also represents when Dante entered the fourth trench of hell and wept, while ‘leaning upon a peak’ when he saw the people there with their heads reversed on their bodies, unable to look forward and walking backwards.
And people saw I through the circular valley, Silent and weeping, coming at the pace Which in this world the Litanies assume. As lower down my sight descended on them, Wondrously each one seemed to be distorted From chin to the beginning of the chest; For tow’rds the reins the countenance was turned, And backward it behoved them to advance, As to look forward had been taken from them. Perchance indeed by violence of palsy Some one has been thus wholly turned awry; But I ne’er saw it. nor believe it can be. As God may let thee, Reader, gather fruit From this thy reading, think now for thyself How I could ever keep my face unmoistened, When our own image near me I beheld Distorted so, the weeping of the eyes Along the fissure bathed the hinder parts. Truly I wept, leaning upon a peak Of the hard crag, so that my Escort said To me: Art thou, too, of the other fools?
Notice the Dante mask feature placed on the helmet’s peak, and then observe the shape and placement of the red plume on Cante dei Gabrielli’s helmet. The lion-head shape and colour represents Rubicante, one of the twelve Malebranche demons who guard Borgia Five of the Eighth Circle in Inferno. Rubicante represents Cante dei Gabrielli who cast Dante out of Florence, and so, in turn, the poet casts his accuser into Hell.
The lion also represents the symbol of Judah and its people who refused to listen to Jeremiah and the words God put into his mouth. The helmet’s peak is also an identifier as its crescent shape forms part of the Gabrielli coat of arms.
While Dante’s ‘Escort’ at this stage in his poem is the Roman poet Virgil, Vasari infers Cante is also an ‘Escort’ accusing Dante of being “of the other fools”, those other Florentines who found themselves on the wrong side of Cante’s position of power and judgement as mayor of Florence.
Dante’s tears – another connection to Jeremiah who was known as the “weeping prophet” – can be understood as the three long streams which descend from the top of the sculpted head on the helmet’s peak. This is a pointer to the plume on the silver helmet and its embedded facial feature depicting a “man of sorrow”.
• More on this section of Vasari’s Battle of Marciano in a future post.
While still attempting to turn up a high-resolution image of the marriage scene located in the Palazzo Vecchio’s room dedicated to Pope Clement VII, I’ve switched my attention to another Vasari fresco in the same building (in the Hall of the Five Hundred); the Battle of Marciano, also known as the Battle of Scannagallo.
The fresco is probably more famous in recent times for its mention in the Dan Brown novel Inferno and the research carried out by a team led by Maurizio Seracini to discover a fresco painted by Leonardo said to be covered and protected by a wall on which Vasari painted the Battle of Marciano. Seracini’s research proved inconclusive and was halted by local authorities to avoid any damage to the Vasari fresco.
Seracini based his theory and investigation on a small detail in the Vasari fresco, a green flag bearing the words Cerca Trova, generally translated as “seek and you will find”. This led him to believe that Vasari had not painted directly over Leonardo’s fresco that depicted the battle of Anghiari, but had instead built a wall in front with a cavity behind. A cavity was discovered by Seracini but no proof of any lasting image of Leonardo’s fresco other that some residue fragments of white paint. Had Seracini been allowed to continue his research he may have indeed discovered more evidence.
My take on the green flag inscription is that it does refer to Leonardo’s fresco of the Battle of Anghiari. However, the flag’s cryptic message was also designed to alert observers to another conflict, an ongoing antagonism between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti.
My next few posts will deal with how Giorgio Vasari embedded references in his Marciano painting to the conflict between Leonardo and Michelangelo by recycling elements from the Battle of Anghiari ‘lost’ fresco.
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