Humanities Research and New Knowledge: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Battle Scenes in the Hall of the Great Council

A couple of years ago, I had a student who asked me if it was OK to base her general renaissance reading on a book she’d found in the local library – Heinrich Wölfflin’s Classic Art.  Now, I have a lot of time for Classic Art. It was a very important book when it was first published in 1899, and we’re still working out the ramifications of Wölfflin’s approach now. But , as I explained to her, research does move on in humanities subjects. It’s not just a matter of approach or methodology, but a matter of information too. Because of decades of archival research, we simply know more about the culture and history of the Renaissance than we did a hundred years ago. I can’t think that a student would ever ask if a book written in 1899 was a suitable textbook for science subject.

I have felt the speed at which humanities research can move at first hand. In 2005, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book on Florence in the Cambridge University Press Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance series.  Like a lot of edited books, this was was delayed for various reasons, and is only just being published this month.  I’d written most of my first draft by spring 2006, when my son was born, just after I’d started a new teaching post, which meant that research was on a back-burner for a while. Emerging from a haze of babies and course writing by about 2008, coupled with research leave, I had some time to see how the discipline had moved on.

I had to rewrite considerable sections of the text because of new discoveries. First of all, there was the great find by Armin Schlechter of a marginal note that discussed Leonardo da Vinci’s projects in 1503 (available via – the Mona Lisa, a painting of St Anne and the beginnings of the Great Council Hall Battle Scene (my English summary of the German text appeared in the May 2008 Leonardo da Vinci society newsletter). Secondly, Rab Hatfield and Maurizio Seracini had been busily considering if and how they were going to find Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari painting, which they argue has been hidden for almost five hundred years under Vasari’s paintings in the Sala dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  This project has been in and out of the news for the past few years, and, fingers crossed, it will now be possibly finally to secure enough funding to see if the Leonardo painting still exists.

Hatfield, in Finding Leonardo, a short book published in 2007,  argued that the widely held view that Leonardo and Michelangelo painted frescos on either side of the same wall was incorrect. By carefully reviewing the available evidence he (convincingly I think) suggested that they each painted their battle scenes on opposite walls.  Although this might seem a minor change to people who are not renaissance art specialists, it means that our perception of what the hall might have looked like, and the scale of the operation have to change entirely – hence many of the textbooks now used are almost certainly incorrect. More practically it meant that I had to quickly draw up a new plan of the room and write a new paragraph for the book. Unfortunately, Hatfield’s work is not available online, which is a real shame – I do wish this had been published in an accessible refereed journal, if only to give other scholars a chance to debate these ideas in a public forum. Because of this, what follows is a section of my text which (I hope) represents these new ideas. It’s accompanied by a plan, which more or less reconstructs how the hall may possibly have been intended to look. Of course, if they do manage to find Leonardo’s painting under Vasari’s fresco in the next couple of years, we’ll have to rewrite the textbooks all over again.

Extract from “Republican Florence and the Arts, 1494-1513”, in Francis Ames-Lewis (ed.), Florence, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, October 2011.

By the end of 1507, a council member entering the Sala di Gran Consiglio from the street would have gone up the new, elaborately decorated stone staircase leading from a courtyard of the old palace, and entered the hall on the south side of the west wall. To borrow Landucci’s phrase, he may have stood there “lost in admiration,” looking across the width of a huge room, trapezoidal in shape, with two east–west long walls (of about 61.9 meters and 52.56 meters , respectively) and shorter north–south walls. Around almost the entire length and width of the hall he would have noted an intricately carved and inlaid wooden gallery, about 1.75 meters high, where the magistrates of the commune sat on two rows of benches. Looking from the entrance to the center of the east wall, our council member would have seen the loggia of the Signoria, where the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia sat in the middle of the Priors, with the other two bodies of the Tre Maggiore – the sixteen Gonfalonieri di Compagnia and the Dodici Buonomini (Twelve Good Men) – ranged along the raised dais at either side. This loggia, finished in 1500, was a large arcaded structure that must have been an impressive sight. Seven meters wide, it was decorated with inlaid wood, and boasted an entablature that was entirely gilded. If everything had gone to plan, it would have been surmounted by a life-size marble Savior carved by Andrea Sansovino that was to be placed right in the center of the loggia, above the seat of the Gonfaloniere.

At either side of the loggia were two doors that led to small rooms where the votes of the council were counted and registers were kept. Flanking them, above the spaces for the sixteen Gonfalonieri and twelve Dodici Buonomini, was a large expanse of windowless wall that were to be given over to a wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci commemorating a previous Florentine military victory, the Battle of Anghiari. By late 1505, council members would have seen the early stages of this commission just to the right of the prior’s loggia – Leonardo da Vinci’s mural of the Battle of the Standard. This was to have been just one section of an enormous painting that would have covered almost the entire wall. The entrance wall opposite was to have boasted Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina. Although we have records of the cartoon for one section of this projected painting, Michelangelo never actually started painting in the hall.

This entrance wall of the chamber was also lined by a carved wooden gallery, with a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary at its center. One of the first commissions for the hall was for an altar and framed altarpiece for the chapel. Judging by the size of the unfinished altar panel by Fra Bartolommeo – 441 x 306 cm – and the fact that the woodworker Baccio d’Agnolo took four years to make the frame and was paid the massive amount of 280 gold florins for his work, it would have been a very impressive object indeed. The frame must have dwarfed the altarpiece that was placed in the chapel as an interim measure. This temporary altarpiece – Filippo Lippi’s Adoration of the Child with Saints Bernard and John the Baptist –was one of the objects taken from the Palazzo Medici. Because Bernard was a saint traditionally associated with the Signoria, this placement can be seen as another attempt by the new government to wrest communal iconography from the grip of the Medici family.

The chapel would have been the focus of attention of council members not only during Mass but also during the many sermons and political orations made from its pulpit. Somewhere near the centre of the room, between the chapel and the seat of the Signoria, were the richly-decorated benches for the magistracy of the Ten of Liberty and Peace, an office that was in charge of the conduct of war. Their central placement reflected their importance in the commune, and also would have underlined the many speeches made from the pulpit which attempted to persuade the council to raise taxes to fund the war against Pisa. While being harangued in this way, council members sat on rows of wooden benches with carved wooden barriers that packed the hall. This crowding was necessary to seat a large number of people – potentially up to 3000 men. In practice, rather less came to weekly council meetings, though there was still a great number: 1,755 in March 1496, according to Giovanni Cambi and it was necessary to have at least a thousand men present to make the council quorate.  Between, or around, these benches (the documentation is unclear) two passages gave access from one side of the hall to another – one from the doorway on the north side of the west wall to the chapel, and one leading from the chapel through the middle of the hall to the seat of the Signoria. The north doorway was the entrance from the Palazzo, and a passageway through the seats constructed in 1504 perhaps allowed magistrates to make a dignified ceremonial entrance at times when the council was in session, after the normal council members were seated.  The differences in roles and status between the magistrates and the council members were reinforced not only through the respective height of their seats but also through marble inscriptions. One inscription, in Latin (and thus presumably for educated members of the council), reminded them that the new government was inspired by God and that ruin would befall anyone who challenged it. The other contained a stern admonition in Italian not to summon a popular parliament, which would allow Florence to fall into the hands of tyrants.

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