Book Review: The Day the Renaissance Was Saved
by Niccolo Capponi
Melville House, 2015
The centerpiece of the new book by Niccolo Capponi (author of the first-rate Machiavelli biography An Unlikely Prince) at first seems unlikely: the Battle of Anghiari, fought in the summer of 1440 between the forces of Milan and a temporary league consisting of the Papal States, Venice, and Florence. The battle ended in a victory for the league and a check to Milanese power, but it traditionally it hasn’t been rated much more pitched or significant an encounter than an afternoon’s match of lawn croquet.
That impression first took root in 1525, when Niccolo Machiavelli completed his massive Florentine Histories, in which he gently scoffs at the significance of the Battle of Anghiari and famously maintains that only one soldier actually died there – from falling off his horse.
Niccolo Capponi’s The Day the Renaissance Was Saved is a peeling onion of hidden motives, however, and he goes straight after Machiavelli’s own motive for writing up Anghiari in such a way. “Machiavelli had very peculiar ideas as to what constituted historical truth,” Capponi writes:
Describing Anghiari as a battle that only cause a single casualty was an instance of him using his quill to wage a personal vendetta against professional soldiers, the very same people who’d inflicted a stinging defeat on his militia at Prato. Given that Machiavelli was surely well acquainted with the works of Flavius Blondus and Bartolomeo Platina, both of whom cited far higher casualties, it’s not wrong to assume that the Florentine Histories was a fraudulent piece of literature.
Machiavelli had been an outspoken champion of Italian city-states raising and training their own companies of soldiers rather than hiring the professional armies and professional mercenary captains so popular in the era, you see, so when he had a chance, in his lifetime magnum opus, to puncture the vanity of just such a hired force, he exercised a little drollery and took that chance.
And what about the famous fresco by Leonardo Da Vinci, mentioned in the subtitle of Capponi’s book? In 1505 Leonardo was the most famous artist in the world, the darling of Milan, the creator of The Last Supper, which even the most stolid onlookers claimed was nothing short of a miracle – why would he agree to return to Florence in order to pain a large wall-fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of Five Hundred?
Could one reason have been … to experiment? According to the famed artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo prepared his fresco with a new technique, applying his colors directly to the wall and affixing them with an experimental new (or old? Did Leonardo copy it from an ancient Greek manuscript?) wax as a bonding agent. Vasari’s account of the failure of this technique is heartbreaking: the paint oozing down the walls as Leonardo’s assistants frantically raised braziers to dry the wall before the whole scene was lost. Parts of the fresco were salvaged, but the painter’s enthusiasm was fatally broken, and The Battle of Anghiari joined the long list of Leonardo’s unfinished works – and was allowed to disintegrate.
Or was it? Capponi describes a triumphant moment very much at odds with Vasari:
The artist savoured the long-awaited moment as he gave his assistants their orders. Large braziers were brought into the hall and placed below the fresco. The burning coal began to produce an intense heat that climbed up the wall. More and more fuel was added to the flames and the growing artificial haze made the large painted figures look at though they’d sprung to life, almost as if they were trying to step off the wall. Everyone in the hall anxiously awaited the results, keeping their eyes firmly fixed on the fresco. Soon enough, a triumphant smile formed on the bearded man’s lips: the colours had started to dry, exactly as he’d predicted they would.
But if true, why would Vasari have lied? Could it have been, perhaps, because he himself was later commissioned to re-do the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio and didn’t want word to spread that he had simply destroyed work by the great Leonardo? Better instead to publish a story that the work had fallen apart on its own?
And whichever the case, why would Niccolo Capponi try to make a case in this book that the battle commemorated by Leonardo was a hinge of fate, “the day the Renaissance was saved”? He contends that Western history would have taken a dark turn if the brutish Milanese had won the day, and the reason is simple: The Italian Renaissance was in fact the Florentine Renaissance:
These days it’s difficult to accept that up until the second half of the fifteenth century, what we call the Renaissance had barely gotten on its feet and wasn’t the mass artistic, cultural and intellectual movement we like to think it was. In fact, the Renaissance only truly got underway in Florence after 1434, due to internal factors; and even then, given the sudden political changes that were so common in fifteenth-century Italy, there was no certainty that the Renaissance would last. Whether we like it or not (and my friends from Siena certainly don’t like this notion) the Renaissance was an exclusively Florentine phenomenon at its very start …
(It’s not just those friends in Siena … if the author checks with his friends in Rome, Ferrara, and especially Venice, he’ll get a similar earful)
And why might Niccolo Capponi, an Italian count of the Capponi family, hold such an opinion? About a battle in which one of the victorious Florentine leaders was named – what was it, again? I have it right here – ah yes, Neri Capponi?
We peel and peel the onion.