Critical Analysis of Jonathan Jones' The LOST BATTLES

Jonathan Jones, in his book The Lost Battles, awards Michelangelo as the winner over Da Vinci in their famous yet transitory competition to each paint famous Florentine battle scenes: neither painting ever to survive.

Naturally, Leonardo and Michelangelo were both geniuses, which is beyond dispute.

However, in their famous Battle, what Jonathan Jones failed to observe was the extreme innovation of Leonardo’s battle scene. As the images below attest, artists of the time, such as Paolo Uccello, painted battle scenes in rigid and emotionless states, as if the soldiers and their steeds were cardboard characters or had posed for a photograph, in modern terms.

However, Da Vinci captured the heat of battle, men and their horses twisted in the ferocity of war, their very faces enraged with animus: death to their foes. As they say, seeing is believing, so peruse the comparisons of Leonardo’s spectacular facial sketch of a warrior and Uccello’s close up below.

Moreover, and more importantly, the influence of Leonardo’s avant-garde style and verismo composition not only spurred Rubens to salvage a section of that chaotic and savage scene with his sketch, but Leonardo’s influence here also inspired Caravaggio and others, who likewise emulated the verismo (real and true to life) direction the prophetic Renaissance master indicated, and thus bestowed upon future generations. Going a step further, Leonardo's twisted scene, captured by Rubens, is almost abstract, and mingles man with horse in a moving and symbolic fashion that amplifies the animalistic nature of war. It was radical, it was raw, it was the Renaissance.

Anyone familiar with Leonardo’s style, as I have been since childhood, knows that Leonardo perfected the art of what I call static vitality. Leonardo's Mona Lisa is simply posed and stationary, yet the background, with its swirling road and swirling river, let alone her enigmatic smile, bring vitality to an otherwise static portrait. Or Da Vinci’s Last Supper, which could have been a static frontal-view of men gathered at a table, is vitalized by the agitated figures upon hearing Jesus’ words, “One of you shall betray me.” The emotional intensity gives life, action, and profound meaning to the event.

Leonardo’s other paintings likewise are basically static compositions and portraits, yet with subtle and brilliant arrangements that capture the essence of their respective subjects, giving them a unique vitality.

However, Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari was something entirely new for Leonardo. It was bold, dramatic, and true to life. And especially true to Renaissance life, capturing the Strife of his times more fully and profoundly than Michelangelo’s nude bathers, set in a composition without a focal point and eschewing the horrors of war and the ferocity that made Florence the center of European life in its day and the bloody, yet extremely creative, heart of the Renaissance.

As such, judging from the remnants, Leonardo was clearly the winner in this competition, as Michelangelo's successes lie elsewhere. Da Vinci's only loss in this battle was that his experimental technique of using oils instead of tempera failed miserably: dripping into a muddy soup of colors as it was heated in a vain attempt to expedite the paint's drying process. Yet, that only sketches of each battle scene survive, we are left with grave disappointment and wonder: what the end results might have looked like?

Rich DiSilvio
September 8, 2018