Revealed: The Truth About Leonardo da Vinci’s Lost ‘Battle of Anghiari’ Painting

October 9, 2020 Updated: October 14, 2020

The enigma of Leonardo da Vinci’s lost painting “The Battle of Anghiari” has finally been resolved: The painting never existed. That’s the conclusion an interdisciplinary group of international scholars have recently reached.

For many years, experts believed Leonardo’s painting was concealed behind the wall of Giorgio Vasari’s paintings in the Great Hall of Florence’s Vecchio Palace. The hall, previously known as the Hall of the 500, was where 500 of Florence’s grand council members once met. 

Leonardo had been commissioned to paint the 1440 Battle of Anghiari on one of the council chamber walls. His rival, Michelangelo, was commissioned to paint the 1364 Battle of Cascina on one of the other walls. Florence won both battles—and lost both paintings. 

Leonardo
Studies for the “Battle of Anghiari,” by Leonardo da Vinci. (Uffizi Galleries, Florence.)

On Oct. 7, 2020, in the Vasari Room of Florence’s Uffizi Galleries in Italy, Renaissance art and culture experts reflected on the recent scientific volume “The Great Hall of Palazzo Vecchio and the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci, from the Architectural Configuration to the Decorative Apparatus.” The volume was published by Olschki on April 30, 2020, and is the result of years of research.

Back in 2016, initial research results were presented and discussed at a four-day conference in Vinci and Florence. The recently published volume presents the final detailed essays of the extensive research by specialists across many different fields including history, philology, geology, chemistry, conservation, the history of art, and the history of architecture, explained one of the volume’s editors Cecilia Frosinini, director of the wall painting and easel painting restoration department of Florence’s Opificio delle Pietre Dure, in an email.

Frosinini, along with another of the volume’s editors, Emanuela Ferretti, associate professor of the history architecture at the University of Florence, presented the research rationale, methodology, and conclusion.

The researchers’ starting point was to question if the painting ever existed. Instead of searching for the lost painting, they looked at what Leonardo actually painted in the Great Hall, explained one of the presentation’s experts, Francesca Fiorani, professor of modern art at the University of Virginia.  

Researchers also systematically studied the structure and history of the room where the painting was believed to bewhich had not been investigated in the past. Ferretti underscored the importance of such an approach in separating fact from fiction. 

The researchers meticulously studied historical research pertaining to “The Battle of Anghiari” painting. Ferretti noted that in the past, scientific research had sometimes not been rigorously carried out due to media fervor.

In 2011, Giorgio Vasari’s painting was pierced five times to obtain samples of what was believed to be Leonardo’s lost battle masterpiece hidden behind Vasari’s painting. The samples were sent to a private laboratory for testing. Researchers claimed that one of the samples was a black pigment that Leonardo used in particular. However, Frosinini discounted the claim because from the Middle Ages to the mid-18th century, all artists used the same pigments. Furthermore, Mauro Matteini, a preeminent chemical cultural heritage expert, clarified in the research that these chemicals were elements commonly found in masonry at the time. Ferritti added that the research team would have liked to reanalyze the 2011 samples, but they had disappeared.

Leonardo’s preparatory drawings for the battle painting do exist, that has been proven. Frosinini explained, the cartoon itself was probably displayed on the [Vecchio Palace] wall after Leonardo quit his involvement in the commission, but the cartoon didn’t survive.  Researchers now conclude that Leonardo never painted the painting on the wall of the Palace Vecchio’s Great Hall because of a problem in preparing the wall surface for painting. It was a challenge Leonardo couldn’t overcome, Frosinini said.