Just why did Giorgio Vasari embed so many bearded look-a-likes in his Battle of Marciano fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio? A clue can be found in a similar motif, the rows of round-helmeted soldiers lined up as peas in a pod, appearing to be cast from the same mould. Musket balls, maybe?
The musket-ball motif can link to the two men firing muskets in the section of the painting I pointed out in my previous post, the “Sons of Thunder”, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Leonardo is depicted as one of the many bearded look-a-likes.
That Leonardo is placed shoulder-to-shoulder with Michelangelo is for a reason. Vasari has utilised a similar motif from one of the most famous fresco scenes in the world – The Creation of Adam – that forms part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo.
In making this connection Vasari revealed, quite intentionally, and confirmed in another section of the Marciano fresco, that Michelangelo’s portrayal of God is, in fact, Leonardo da Vinci!
The angel portrayed behind God’s right shoulder is Michelangelo. Another artist portrayed in the “pod” is Sandro Botticelli. Here, Michelangelo, like Vasari, referenced paintings by Botticelli and Leonardo to create this scene, and I shall explain more about this in a future post.
“God created Man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.…” (Genesis 1 : 27), which explains the bearded men motif in the Vasari fresco, all made in the image of God.
But was Vasari pointing to another scenario, and two more famous paintings associated with Leonardo: the Mona Lisa, and the portrait of Christ known as Salvatore Mundi?
Some art researchers have hypothesised that Leonardo is the model for both paintings – “male and female he created them.”
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 a post made last month, I pointed out the Dante death mask feature on the peak of a cavalryman’s helmet. A similar feature appears on another rider’s helmet and is meant to represent the head of a faun, the sculpture that Michelangelo is said to have made as his first piece of work in the garden of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Head of a Faun is a lost sculpture by Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo, dating from c. 1489. His first known work of sculpture in marble, it was sculpted when he was 15 or 16 as a copy of an antique work with some minor alterations. According to Giorgio Vasari’s biography of the artist, it was the creation of this work that secured the young Michelangelo the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
“[Michelangelo] set himself to counterfeit from a piece of marble an antique head of a Faun that was there, old and wrinkled, which had the nose injured and the mouth laughing. Michelagnolo, who had never yet touched marble or chisels, succeeded so well in counterfeiting it, that the Magnificent Lorenzo was astonished; and then, perceiving that, departing from the form of the antique head, he had opened out the mouth after his own fancy and had made a tongue, with all the teeth showing, that lord, jesting pleasantly, as was his wont, said to him, “Surely you should have known that old folks never have all their teeth, and that some are always wanting.” It appeared to Michelagnolo, in his simplicity, both fearing and loving that lord, that he had spoken the truth; and no sooner had Lorenzo departed than he straightway broke one of the teeth and hollowed out the gum, in such a manner, that it seemed as if the tooth had dropped out. And then he awaited with eagerness the return of the Magnificent Lorenzo, who, when he had come and had seen the simplicity and excellence of Michelagnolo, laughed at it more than once, relating it as a miracle to his friends.”
Can it be a coincidence that both cavalrymen are almost identical in facial features? Other riders in Vasari’s painting of the Battle of Marciano are also closely matched with these men as if they are made from the same mould? What could be the reason for this? Was Vasari insinuating that Dante’s death mask and the faun mask, were replicated at times? Certainly the Dante mask displayed in the Palazzo Vecchio and pictured above is a plaster copy. The Head of the Faun was the property of the Bargello Museum in Florence, but looted in August 1944 by Nazi troops.
“Counterfeiting” or emulating, or copying, is a theme that appears throughout the Marciano battle scene. Take, for instance, the repetition of files of soldiers in the painting, and Vasari’s mention of Bandinelli copying Michelanglo’s cartoon, and Daniele Volterra adapting some of Michelangelo’s drawings for his own use. Vasari, himself, also relied on portraits painted by other artists as references in his work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This post presents more details about Vasari’s marriage scene between Henry, Duke of Orleans, and Catherine de’ Medici, and how it was inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera painting.
The male and female mythology figures, Saturn and his consort sister Ops, placed at the right edge of Vasari’s picture, simulate the pairing of Zephyr and Chloris in Primavera, with one head turned and another looking down, except the male and female roles are reversed. Their disguised identities in both paintings are Leonardo da Vinci and Fioretta Gorini. Yes, Fioretta appears more than once in each work, and there are several references to Leonardo embedded in both, too.
A third level of identities given to the pair is Adam and Eve. This introduces another painter into the scenario, Michelangelo, and is a pointer to one of the ceiling scenes he painted in the Sistine Chapel. I shall post about this connection at another time.
Michelangelo appears in Vasari’s marriage scene and is placed at the extreme left of the painting, depicted as the Archangel Michael – hence the arch shape of the frame next to the figure. Note also the frame’s arch connected to Saturn and Ops, and how it corresponds with the arched trees and figures of Zephyr and Chloris in Primavera.
That representations of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are placed at opposite walls of the frame is also a pointer to the occasion when both artists were commissioned to paint battle scenes on opposite walls in the Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of Five Hundred which was later extended and decorated by Giorgio Vasari.
It is said that “Every picture tells a story”. Some may want to qualify the idiom and add, “but it’s not always clear what story is being told.”
The marriage scene above presents several narratives and characters. It was painted by Giorgio Vasari sometime between 1559 and 1562 for the room in the Palazzo Vecchio dedicated to Pope Clement VII.
Notice that the picture is generally divided into two areas – men on the left, women on the right – except for the kneeling male figure at the right edge of the frame and for the man with the heavy moustache and hook nose behind the Pope’s shoulder and looking towards the group of women.
The latter is Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan until his assassination on December 26 1476. From this it can be clearly understood that he was not present at the marriage of Henri and Catherine fifty-five years later. So why has he been given such an important place at the Pope’s shoulder in Vasari’s painting?
It is the first of many clues and links to the work that was the source of inspiration for Vasari, the painting by Botticelli known as Primavera.
Botticelli gave more than one identity to the figures he painted in Primavera. The figure referred to as Mars, has several identities, one of which is Giuliano de’ Medici who, like Galeazzo Sforza, was assassinated in a cathedral some sixteen months later.
Notice the Mars-Giuliano figure in Primavera stands in a contrapposto pose with his back to the women in the painting and facing the edge of the frame. Vasari places Galeazzo Sforza in an opposite direction facing the group of women. Unlike the Giuliano figure, only the head of Galeazzo is shown and is covered by a cloth cap similar to the one worn by the woman next to him, Fioretta Gorini, the mother of Pope Clement VII.
Galeazzo was the son of Francesco I Sforza, a condottiere who founded the Sforza dynasty in the duchy of Milan, hence the name given to Galeazzo (meaning ‘helmet’) and the helmet shape of the cloth. But there are other reasons why the head of Galeazzo is depicted in this way.
When he was assassinated at the entrance to Milan Cathedral, three men took part in the attack, led by Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani who attempted to escape by crossing over to the seating in the cathedral reserved for women where he was caught and killed (see the red-handed figure fleeing towards the group of women in the illustration above). His head was cut off and with those of the other assassins displayed on the cathedral bell tower.
So now it can be understood why the Duke of Milan is partly disguised wearing a woman’s headdress, and why Vasari gave him a moustache to also identify him as a male with his head turned to the women’s side of the painting. The head placed on the Pope’s shoulder is also a pointer to the severed head of Lampugnani – a double-head feature borrowed from Primavera and located on the shoulder of the Flora figure.
The bell-shaped headdress refers to the bell-tower. Galeazzo is depicted in shade which indicates the dark side of his sadistic personality and the biblical reference to not hiding one’s light – or Lamp(pugnani) – under a bushel. That Galeazzo is portrayed as both a man and a woman refers to the claims of him being bisexual and who raped both women and men.
Galeazzo’s features are modelled on his portrait painted by Piero Benci which is now housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Vasari has also referenced and connected the portrait in another part of his painting which I will explain in future post.
My last post of 2022 compared two images of Fioretta Gorini, although one of the portraits is mistakingly identified as Ginevra de Benci by the National Gallery in London where the painting is housed. No matter.
The source of this latest discovery is a painting displayed in the room dedicated to Pope Clement VII in the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence. Clement was the name taken by Guilio de’ Medici when he was elected Pope in November 1523. He is said to be the son of Giuliano de’ Medici and his mistress Fioretta Gorini who gave birth a month after Giuliano was assassinated on April 26, 1474.
The painting is attributed to Giorgio Vasari but likely assisted by Giovanni Stradano. It depicts the marriage of Henry, the second son of the French king Francis I, and Catherine, the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino. The wedding took place at Marseille on October 28, 1533, when the couple were just 14 years old. Pope Clement VII, the central figure in the painting, conducted the marriage ceremony.
Just a minute walk from the Palazzo Vecchio is the famous Uffizi Gallery, originally designed by Giorgio Vasari as offices and constructed over two decades between 1560 and 1580. The two buildings are connected by a walkway known as the Vasari Corridor.
Although the Uffizi houses several paintings by Giorgio Vasari, there is one famous painting in the Gallery that connects him in a way that has never come to light in modern times. For all that has been researched and known over the centuries about Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera painting, I don’t know of any study that has revealed its connection to Vasari’s painting of Pope Clement VII marrying Henry II and Catherine de Medici. Botticelli’s Primavera is a primary source of inspiration for the Vasari composition.
Vasari mentioned the Primavera painting in his two-volume work of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects:
“For various houses throughout the city he [Botticelli] painted round pictures, and many female nudes, of which there are still two at Castello, a villa of Duke Cosimo’s; one representing the birth of Venus, with those Winds and Zephyrs that bring her to the earth, with the Cupids; and likewise another Venus, whom the Graces are covering with flowers as a symbol of spring; and all this he is seen to have expressed very gracefully.”
Vasari’s brief description gives no indication of any disguised narratives in the Primavera painting, so who was the source that later provided him or Stradano with an explanation to enable them to recycle various elements of the painting and present a new version of Springtime? Could it have been Michelangelo who was 35 years old when Botticelli died in 1510. Vasari was born a year later and Stradano first saw the light of day in Flanders in 1523.
I’m trying to source a high resolution of the Vasari painting to access more detail. The online versions are small, low resolution images and most of the detail is unclear.
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