Dating from late 1504 or early 1505, this rarely-seen drawing is a preparatory study for The Battle of Cascina, one of the most important commissions of Michelangelo's early career. The male nude, that most quintessential of Michelangelesque subjects, has been studied on both sides of the sheet as the artist developed his ideas for the fresco. One of only 24 surviving drawings for this ambitious but never-completed project, this is the sole sheet to remain in private hands.
The Battle of Cascina
In 1504, at the age of 29, Michelangelo had already established himself as one of the most visionary and talented artists of his generation. His reputation at this time rested primarily on two sculptures: his Pietà (1498-1500; Rome, Basilica of Saint Peter's), executed during his first Roman period; and the monumental David (1501-1504; Florence, Galleria dell' Accademia), which he began soon after his return to Florence, a magnificent symbol of the virtue and determination of the fledgling Florentine Republic. The David was unveiled in May 1504 in the Piazza della Signoria and, in September or October of that year, Michelangelo was commissioned to execute another work in honour of the city. Florence had proclaimed itself a republic after the flight of the Medici in 1494, and the government had been given into the hands of a 3,000-strong Great Council of citizens. Piero Soderini (1450-1522), the elected head of state, planned to inspire his compatriots by decorating their council chamber in the Palazzo della Signoria with two scenes of Florentine civic virtue from the days before Medici rule. One would represent the Battle of Cascina (1364), which had been Florence's last military triumph over neighbouring Pisa. In 1504 the two cities were again at war and Soderini hoped to motivate his colleagues by reminding them of the great deeds of their forefathers. The other fresco would show Florence's last victory on the field, against Milan, in the Battle of Anghiari (1440). That commission had already been awarded in October 1503 to the 52-year-old Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who had recently returned to Florence after serving as military engineer to Cesare Borgia during his campaigns in the Romagna. The project was conceived as a dazzling paragone, which would place the two most notable Florentine artists of the day in direct competition.
Michelangelo immediately began working on studies for his composition: on 31 October 1504 he bought fourteen quires of Bolognese paper in the reale size, roughly 44 x 61 cm. (C. Bambach, 'The Purchases of Cartoon Paper for Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina', I Tatti Studies: Essays in the Renaissance, 8, 1999, pp. 110-2). The present sheet, as can clearly be seen from the verso, has been trimmed and may originally have been in reale format, although its watermark of a single-headed eagle, close to Briquet 89 (Florence, 1501), suggests it may have been of Florentine rather than Bolognese manufacture.
The focal point of Michelangelo's fresco was to be a group of Florentine soldiers who, bathing in the Arno, had been surprised by an enemy attack. His only surviving compositional sketch (Uffizi, inv. 613E; Albertina, 2010, op. cit., no. 15; Fig. 1) shows that the key figures in this group, called The Bathers, were decided upon at a relatively early stage. By February 1505, he had passed from preparatory drawings to the cartoon itself and, by the time he was summoned back to Rome by Pope Julius II in March 1505, at least the central section of the cartoon was finished to a high standard (as recorded in Aristotile da Sangallo's painted copy at Holkham Hall, dating from around 1540; Fig. 2). However, the frescoes were never to be completed. Once in Rome, Michelangelo was commissioned to execute a series of sculptures for Julius's tomb, effectively forcing him to abandon The Battle of Cascina. Leonardo finished his cartoon and began to paint, but unwisely chose to experiment with wax-based pigments. These melted on the wall when he brought in braziers to speed up the drying process and eventually The Battle of Anghiari, too, was left unfinished.
All that remained were the two cartoons, displayed together in the Sala del Papa at S. Maria Novella, where they were studied by the younger generation of Florentine artists. One of the students was Benvenuto Cellini, who later recalled that 'So long as [the cartoons] remained intact, they were the school of the world' (B. Cellini, The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, trans. J.A. Symonds, Geneva, 1968, p. 19). Afterwards, Michelangelo's cartoon was removed to the Palazzo Medici, where it gradually deteriorated as admirers traced and copied sections of it. By the 1550s, it had fallen to pieces and, by the 17th Century, the fragments were all but lost: Michelangelo's preparatory drawings are the only surviving records of the composition from his hand.
Technique and relationship to other works
On the recto of the present drawing, a male nude is seen from behind in the act of turning, his right leg thrust forward to brace himself. First delineated with thin lines of black chalk, the figure was then developed with thicker strokes of chalk to suggest the hollows and ridges of muscle across the figure's back and to reinforce the firm, sinuous outlines. A pentimento shows the original position of the head, tipped to one side, which was then turned to the left to continue the dynamic twist of the body. The figural type, with its tapering waist, is close to that in a black chalk, pen and brown ink drawing for The Battle of Cascina in the Ashmolean (inv. WA 1846.42; P. Joannides, The Drawings of Michelangelo and his Followers in the Ashmolean Museum, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 83-7, no 7; Fig. 3), which is also technically similar in the parallel hatching, the close attention to the play of light on muscle, and the relative indifference to the figure's head and limbs, which are roughly-sketched at neck and shoulders but then fade away into the paper. Both figures are positioned dramatically as if in the midst of movement, in poses that a model would have found it difficult to maintain for long. It may be that, rather than drawing from life, Michelangelo studied them from his own wax bozzetti, similar to the Model of a nude torso dating from the 1520s, in the British Museum (inv. 1859-07-19-1; H. Chapman and M. Faietti, Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master, exhib. cat., London, British Museum, 2006, no. 44). If a similar model, representing only a torso without head or limbs, were used as a source for the present drawing, that could explain the more cursory treatment of the limbs when compared to the high finish of the body.
It has been observed that the methodical parallel hatching on the present drawing moderates the contrast of the musculature and creates an impression of low relief. This is consistent with what is known of Michelangelo's artistic practice at the time: for instance, in The Doni Tondo (circa 1506; Florence, Uffizi), the foreground figures appear far more fully rounded than the figures placed at the back of the picture plane, who assume the character of a frieze in low relief. Although our understanding is limited by the scarcity of surviving drawings, it seems that Michelangelo was equally conscious of the different levels within The Battle of Cascina and varied his technique accordingly (Joannides, op. cit., p. 86). It is therefore likely that the figure on the recto of the present drawing was intended to be placed in the middle-ground, or background, of the fresco.
There are three different sketches on the verso, which were revealed only when the drawing was lifted from its backing in the 1980s (Oberhuber, op. cit.). On the left, the head, shoulders and right leg of a figure are suggested with curt curves of chalk. In the centre, a male nude is again seen from behind, studied from the waist down to the ankle, forcefully shaded with thick black-chalk strokes and bounded by a vigorous series of arcs to denote the muscles of thigh, knee and calf. Here the left leg drives forward, rather than the right. Energetic hatching suggests the shadows falling across the body and marks out the background. On the far right is a fragment of a figure, truncated by the trimming of the sheet, with only the hip and bent right leg now visible. More thoroughly worked-up than the other drawings on the verso, this figure was related by Oberhuber (op. cit.) to the soldier seated on the bank in the centre of The Bathers, twisting round in alarm. An economical first sketch for this figure, in pen and ink, appears on the verso of an architectural drawing at the British Museum (inv. 1895-9-15-496; Chapman and Faietti, op. cit., no. 15 and p. 84, fig. 23). In that sketch, the figure is still some way from the finished pose as it appears in the British Museum's highly-finished pen and ink study of A seated male nude twisted around (inv. 1887-5-2-116; Chapman and Faietti, op. cit., no. 11). The drawing on the present sheet could plausibly record an intermediate stage between the two, as Michelangelo increased the torsion of the pose by bending the right leg against the bank and tilting the figure's body to the side. Although the final position in the British Museum drawing is exaggerated to the point of physical impossibility, the pose on the present sheet evidently caught Michelangelo's imagination. He returned to it some fifty years later, in a drawing he executed for Daniele da Volterra of Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (circa 1555-6; Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, inv. WA 1846.84; Joannides, op. cit., pp. 221-4, no. 45; Fig. 4).
The recto and the main study on the verso of the present drawing seem to show successive stages in the development of the same figure. Oberhuber noted that both can be related to studies for a group of two soldiers supporting a third, known through a double-sided sheet at the British Museum (see below) and a drawing in the Louvre (inv. 718 recto) (Oberhuber, op. cit.; P. Joannides, Dessins Italiens du Musée du Louvre: Michel-Ange, Élèves et Copistes, Paris, 2003, p. 82, no. 9). The verso of the British Museum sheet shows a nude briskly sketched in black chalk, which is similar in pose and technique to the study on the verso of the present drawing (inv. 1859,0625.564; Chapman and Faietti, op. cit., no. 14; Fig. 5). As he drew the British Museum figure, Michelangelo adapted it so that the nude was no longer an isolated soldier, but part of a group, twisting to support the weight of a comrade. He then turned over the sheet and studied the group as a whole (Fig. 6). In the process, he once again shifted the figure's weight from the right leg to the left (returning to a stance similar to the lower torso of the figure on the recto of the present sheet). The group does not appear in Sangallo's painting at Holkham and may either have been an early idea for the group of The Bathers, or a design for a group in one of the lost sections to either side.
The significance of the drawing
The drawing was first published in 1969, when it formed part of the Prybram-Gladona collection and was thought to be from the Circle of Michelangelo. Konrad Oberhuber was the first to recognise that it was by the master himself, an attribution confirmed when the verso was revealed while the drawing was on loan to the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard. He published his findings in 1992 (op. cit.), but the drawing remained surprisingly understudied in subsequent scholarship, until its inclusion in the 2010 Albertina exhibition, when it was hailed as 'a welcome novelty' (Davis, op. cit.).
Oberhuber's identification of the drawing was of great significance because the corpus of surviving drawings for The Battle of Cascina is so small - Frederick Hartt listed 23 connected with the project, not including the present sheet, of which he was apparently unaware (F. Hartt, Michelangelo Drawings, New York, 1970, pp. 45-61) - and all except the present drawing are in public collections. This is evidence of not only the high regard in which Michelangelo's drawings have always been held by collectors, but also the enduring admiration for The Battle of Cascina itself. Few other compositions have exerted so powerful an influence on the canon of Western art, without having been completed. Its influence was largely due to the young men who came to study the cartoon, along with The Battle of Anghiari, at S. Maria Novella, many of whom later had an enormous influence on Italian art in their own right: Raphael, Baccio Bandinelli, Andrea del Sarto, Jacopo Sansovino, Rosso Fiorentino, Pontormo and Perino del Vaga, to name just a few. For Cellini, writing his autobiography half a century later, Michelangelo's drawings for The Battle of Cascina were the most important and accomplished of his career, eclipsing even the Sistine Chapel: 'Though the divine Michel Angelo in later life finished that great chapel of Pope Julius, he never rose half-way to the same pitch of power; his genius never afterwards attained to the force of those first studies' (Cellini, op. cit., p. 19).
We are grateful to Professor Paul Joannides for his assistance in cataloguing this drawing.