Images and Institutions in Fifteenth Century Art


Raichel Le Goff

Trinity College, Oxford

Can Antonio Pollaiuolo's print of the Battle of the Nudes be considered a manifesto? 

Antonio Pollaiuolo ( born circa 1432 - he worked as a goldsmith, sculptor and painter chiefly in Florence, but also in Rome where he died in 1498).

Battaglia dei Nudi engraving, circa. 1460-62(?)

41 x 61 centimetres, Cleveland Museum of Art, ( 

'The Heritage of Apelles', is the title of a study written by E.H. Gombrich, in which he does not mention Pollaiuolo at all. This may or may not be indicative of the difficulty writers have in identifying the role of the classical tradition in the work of Antonio di Benci, known as Pollaiuolo.

The fame of Apelles, the court painter of Alexander the Great, haunted many Renaissance artists. He was the painter 'par excellence', the "master who surpassed all painters who preceded and who followed" as Pliny the Elder described him. Pliny's account of his life and work helped to establish the ideal of an art that combined supreme skill in the imitation of nature with the realization of surpassing beauty. The tradition of this twin ideal formed the basis of an exemplar for artists to aspire to, from medieval times onwards.

It is largely due to this tradition of viewing Western Art against a background of our Mediterranean heritage, that leads us to look at a work of art from the Italian Renaissance and then try to match it to antique sources. We do this with Donatello, with Botticelli and with Raphael, but to name a few. Great attempts have also been made to uncover direct quotes from the antique, in the small group of works that survive to us from Pollaiuolo.

I have not been asked specifically to try and decipher the iconography of the 'Battle of the Nudes', but it is impossible to resist an attempt, if one spends any length of time looking at it.

The 'Battle of the Nudes', has to date, eluded everyone. Kenneth Clarke concluded that it was simply an example of "art for art's sake" and Vasari quite tersely describes it as "a sheet of patterns demonstrating the human figure in action."

The print presents a problem that scholars have returned to time and time again. It is engraved on one of the largest single plates of the 15th century; the scale of the figures is much larger than in any other monumental engravings of the 15th century and it is the earliest engraving in Italy to bear the full signature of an artist. It was also enormously influential on other artists, an influence that culminated in Michelangelo's and Leonardo's own battle designs.

Given its undoubted importance, scholars have a hard time accepting that "The Battle of the Nudes" may be nothing more than an exercise by the artist to show his virtuosity at representing the male figure, his celebrated "warrior model" as it has been labelled.

Suggestions proposed for the iconography, include, that it may form part of a Hercules series, or that it might illustrate an episode from the story of a Roman General; theories that remain unsatisfactory. Present day scholars seem to have reluctantly settled for an uneasy compromise, placing the engraving half way between the tradition of the artist's studio pattern-book, and a possible parallel to the poster of ancient Rome, which was pasted around city walls to advertise gladitorial contests usually held in honour of some prominent citizen. In this respect, it has been suggested that Pollaiuolo executed the 'Battle of the Nudes' to commemmorate the death of a great Florentine. This is quite likely, but as we do not know the date of the engraving, there is a question as to which great Florentine.

I personally disagree with the pattern book/Roman poster hypothesis for the following reasons :

If gladiators, called to take part in some funerary games of ancient Rome - why are they fighting in a field of corn?

And looking at the stylized vegetation more closely, we see that there is not only corn growing, but olive trees and grape vines - 3 pictorial elements heavy with symbolic connotations both pagan and christian. The artist has chosen the corn, the vine and the olive for a specific reason.

Further, I think the action occurring in the engraving has been mis-read. In my view, this is not a gladitorial fight to the death, with only one victor intended to remain standing. Although at first glance, it does seem like a completely chaotic orgy of random killing. I think there is rather more order to it than that; it appears to me like a well-choreographed ballet.

First of all, there are five figures wearing headbands and five without. This may seem a trifling observation, but not if you consider that as all figures are nude, the headband is the only distinguishing feature.

Then, if you draw an imaginary line down the centre, between the two dominant figures that grip a chain, you will find that the tribe of the headbands is in the majority to the right of the composition with only one dying enemy having made it across to their territory and the same applies to the left side, where you have 4 men without headbands and the fifth figure about to be stabbed with a dagger in the foreground, is the odd man out.

There is definite battle strategy here - two hostile sides have rushed onto the field of attack from opposite directions. If we look closely at the three figures in the background, it becomes apparent that the archer is not about to push his arrow into the back of the head of the man in front of him, but is aiming behind this man, at the swordsman in the centre, who is ont he verge of slashing the exposed torso of the man wielding the axe. A case here of two warriors against one; not gladitorial one-on-one combat.

I am convinced it represents a battle scene and is probably meant by the artist to either recall a specific scene described in a literary source belonging to antiquity. Or, it could well be that Pollaiuolo, who was an artist of a highly individualistic and innovative character, has contrived to make a battle scene in the style 'all'antica'; a sort of 'invenzione' that does not illustrate any particular text. Certainly, it seems clear that Pollaiuolo earnestly studied movement in ancient art and adapted motifs in an imaginative way. (cf. Five dancing figures, fresco, Villa Gallina). He selected figures with a clear axis and favouring rhythmic bends and twists; he varied the pattern of pose with reversals and pivots - as can be seen in the two central figures of "The Battle of the Nudes". (cf. also two central archers in S.Sebastian, NG).

We must bear in mind, that there is no identifiable prototype belonging to any other artist that seems to have stimulated Pollaiuolo's invention of this composition. As for copying directly from primary antique sources, Laurie Fusco, who seems to be the most sensible of writers on the artist, mentions only three works that can be linked to antique models that Pollaiuolo would have had access to in Florence or Rome and none of these correspond to the design for the 'Battle of the Nudes'.

Such was its originality, that this print caused a sensation when shown to Pollaiuolo's contemporaries. Not only was the technique that he employed new and exciting but even today, this image of war, of man against man, disturbs us by the level of savage violence it contains. A modern parallel would be the unveiling of Picasso's 'Guernica' in Paris in 1937. People had simply never seen anything like it before.

As for 'The Battle of the Nudes' encapsulating images, theories and ideals associated with the 'Heritage of Apelles' - Pliny tells us that it was actually Aristeides of Thebes, not Apelles - who excelled best of all in representing the emotions of: 'the wrathful, unjust, inconstant, exorable, clement, the proud and the fierce.'

Pliny mentions Aristeides painted a large battle scene containing a hundred figures but he does not mention that Apelles painted any battle scenes. On the contrary, he points out that the work of Apelles was distinguished from that of all other artists by the quality known as "Charis" or Grace, with which his work was imbued. This quality meant that his forte, was in portraiture and we have glowing descriptions of him painting Alexander's beautiful mistress and the 'Anadyomene', his Venus rising from the foam. Alexander the Great had even issued an edict forbidding anyone else to paint his own portrait.

Grace and beauty, are not prevailing considerations in 'The Battle of the Nudes'. The athletic figures are agile and impress with their vitality, but graceful they are not.

The artistic achievement of the 'Battle of the Nudes' is not that Pollaiuolo has re-created a work of art that might recall the age of Apelles, but that he has skillfully represented the human figure in ever varied poses and in vigorous action.

There is no description of a similar battle scene of nude men in the works ascribed to Apelles or his contemporaries by Pliny or Lucianus. Nor is there mention of the representation of specifically nude figures fighting, in the writings of Philostratus, where are described eighty-two examples of Greek painting. Yet the naked warrior was an important part of antiquity's visual vocabularly, for he survives to us in several fifth century sculpted friezes and features strongly in Attic vase painting. Further, Pliny does say, that Apelles "painted a picture of a nude hero, a picture which challenges comparison with Nature".

Pliny also informs us that Apelles strove for absolute 'mimesis' a Greek word meaning to 'literally copy nature' and it was said that experts in physiognomy could tell how long a person had to live by just looking at his portraits; they were so true to life. It is here perhaps, that Pollaiuolo comes closest to manifesting the ideals associated with the Heritage of Apelles for he too, had a profound fascination with anatomy and physical features. He experimented with taking plaster masks from life and Vasari notes, that he was one of the first artists to undertake dissections in order to reveal the underlying structures that control the external appearance of the human form. In the 'Battle of the Nudes' the results of his investigations are loudly propounded, as the figures appear almost flayed of their skins, so vividly are the intrinsic workings of the body exposed.

So, even if Pollaiuolo had read Pliny and Lucianus, (and we do not know if he did), he does not seem to be moved to emulate the innate qualities of grace and sensuous beauty, so much a feature of the work of Apelles. His work has a hard graphic edge to it and, a pre-occupation with technique robs his creations of the sensuality found in nature.

One thing that Apelles prided himself on, was an ability "to know when to stop". 'The Battle of the Nudes' is in no way a restrained labour, Pollaiuolo has gone for excess, determined to exploit his skill as an engraver.

Apelles was also celebrated for his delicate draughtmanship as demonstrated by the famous story of his splitting one line into three and this is a standard of skill that Pollaiuolo desires to emulate, in his intricate handling of the shading in the 'Battle of the Nudes'. Antonio used very fine parallel lines connected by a return stroke , inventing the 'zig-zag' technique. He also employed cross-hatching in some places to give more substance to the modelling of the figures.

Perhaps, as demonstrated by the story of the three lines, Apelles was the inventor of the 'highlight' - what the Greeks called 'skiagraphia', or modelling through illumination. Certainly, this is one aim of the 'Battle of the Nudes' where the firm outline describing light figures against a dark ground, makes them stand out as if in relief and where the painstaking shading of each figure, is successful in conveying a rippling surface of muscle and tissue, sweat and reflected light.

Admirers of Pollaiuolo, have awarded him many achievements, going so far as to say that his drawing technique (and I quote) "marks the first time in human history that the potential of the single drawn exploited to the full".

That author may be forgetting the story of the line of Apelles, a simple demonstration of his unrivalled manual skill that was so highly prized, it was displayed in the palace of the Caesars in Rome until destroyed by fire. Surely that is exploiting the potential of the single drawn line to the full and almost two thousand years before Pollaiuolo lived.

But as this legendary panel does not survive nor any other Hellenistic paintings, we cannot seriously evaluate the skill of Apelles, we can only respect his enduring influence upon artists, (which I feel I should point out, was probably aided by a Treatise on Painting, a now lost manuscript, which Apelles wrote).

'The Battle of the Nudes' has been called 'the most influential print ever published'. It would appear then, that through this work of art, Pollaiuolo temporarily inherited the crown of Apelles, during his lifetime.

But can these tenuous links to Apelles mean that 'The Battle of the Nudes' be considered a manifesto?

I think not. Rather, it seems that Pollaiuolo, like other fifteenth century artists, took his starting point from a tradition, that may have been launched by the great Apelles.


 Pliny the Elder's "Historia naturalis" was known in the Latin from Medieval times, but was not translated into Italian until 1473. 

copyright © Raichel Le Goff
ISBN 960-85312-0-9
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