Leonardo drilling - a waste of time?

March 13 2012

Yes, says Mark Hudson in the Telegraph, and sets out the history of Leonardo's original commission, and that of Michelangelo's on the wall opposite:


In fact, the whole thing was a fiasco from first to last. The two artists had as little to do with each other as possible. Leonardo, who had had problems with fresco – tempera on wet plaster – while working on the ‘Last Supper’, took the unprecedented step of applying oil paint directly onto the wall. A thunderstorm created excessive humidity, causing the colours to drip and merge into each other. Discouraged, he abandoned the project.

Michelangelo completed a cartoon, or full scale drawing, but had barely begun the painting itself when he was called to Rome to work on the tomb of Pope Julius II, whereupon his cartoon was destroyed by a jealous rival.

These unfinished, compromised works faced each other across the hall for half a century, before the Florentine authorities decided to get some proper frescoes painted over them in 1555 by Giorgio Vasari, author of ‘Lives of the Artists’, a brilliant chronicler of the artists of his age, but a mediocre painter.

Leonardo’s painting is known principally from a powerful drawing by Rubens, made from a later engraving. Michelangelo’s work, a supremely unrealistic catalogue of male nudity, is known from a copy of his cartoon made by a pupil.

Both of these works and the preparatory drawings produced for them, have been not only endlessly ‘quoted’ over the centuries by artists of the order of Titian, but have been talked and fantasised into a kind of cult-phenomenon.

While it would be wonderful to get further insights into either of them – and in the wake of the London Leonardo exhibition interest couldn’t be higher – I’m not going to get over excited on the strength of two holes bored into a wall and a few minute fragments of plaster.

Vasari may have been a self-serving opportunist, but he genuinely revered both artists and it’s impossible to believe he would have painted over a significant work by either of them. There is of course the currently much discussed possibility that he painted onto a false wall erected to save Leonardo’s painting.

Yet even if a substantial chunk of the Battle of Anghiari is unearthed I suspect the experience will be disappointing. Not only will it be in a deleterious condition, but rather like those lost and legendary albums you wait half a lifetime to hear, only to find your internal life somehow the poorer for the experience, the idea of Leonardo’s painting may prove to be far more potent and inspiring than the actuality.


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