This imposing panel is an early, 16th-century record of Leonardo’s lost masterpiece, The Battle of Anghiari, commissioned of the artist by Gonfaloniere Piero Soderini in 1504 for the Sala del Gran Consiglio, the largest and most important room in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Leonardo's mural, along with one by Michelangelo depicting The Battle of Cascina, was painted over by Giorgio Vasari and his assistants following renovations to the room undertaken at the behest of Grand Duke Cosimo I between 1555 and 1572. This dynamic work, which commemorated the Florentine victory at Anghiari in 1440 over the forces of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, depicts the pivotal moment in the battle when the Milanese standard was wrested by the victorious Florentines. The central scene of Leonardo’s decoration, it was the only section of the commission the artist completed before he departed for Milan in 1506.
A number of copies after Leonardo’s composition survive, the most celebrated of which is Rubens’ drawing of circa 1612-15 (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Rubens, whose drawing postdates the mural's destruction by more than half a century, based his work on a 1558 engraving by Lorenzo Zacchia, known from a unique impression in the Albertina, Vienna. On the basis of its date, it is unclear whether Zacchia's engraving was taken from the painting itself or a cartoon by Leonardo. A further drawing, by an unidentified 16th-century Italian hand formerly in the collection of Sir Thomas Lawrence, where it was thought to be by Rubens, is also known (sold Sotheby’s, New York, 30 January 2019, lot 10 [$795,000]). The present panel is, however, an exceedingly rare early record of the composition in oil, of which further examples are today in the collections of the Galleria degli Uffizi and Museo Horne, both Florence.
There has been energetic debate among scholars as to which, or, indeed, any of the extant copies were done from the original. A recent x-radiograph of the painting confirms that it was executed on a panel in which a half-length portrait of a man turned to the right had previously been blocked in before the artist abandoned it (fig. 1). On the basis of the shape of the man's hat, the unfinished portrait would appear to date to the middle of the 16th century. Moreover, the present example includes several details unknown in any of the drawn or painted versions described above – a helmet, sword and shield resting resting in the foreground as well as two sparring men at upper left and riders atop rearing horses in the upper right background. Infrared reflectography indicates that each of these elements was already laid out in the painting's underdrawing (fig. 2), raising the possibility that it derives directly from Leonardo's original rather than an early copy after it.