June 29, 1440. The Battle of Anghiari. You’ve probably never heard of this decisive battle around a small village in Tuscany, but it was quite important in determining the boundaries of present day Tuscany. Sounds like a footnote in a chapter from a moldy Western Civ textbook, huh? Well, it’s much more intriguing than that and is celebrated to this day in Anghiari, with most of Tuscany joining in the festivities. This year, we were part of it.
Italy in 1440 wasn’t Italy. It was a conglomeration of city-states battling it out for domination. The biggies in Northern Italy were the Papal States, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Florence, and Duchy of Milan. Alliances shifted back and forth depending on what was more advantageous at the time. The battle of Anghiari was fought between a League consisting mainly of the Papal States, Florence, and Venice all rallied against the powerful Milan. On the afternoon of June 29, the Milan force decided it would be a good idea to attack the League, who was centered around Anghiari.
If you’ve ever been to Anghiari, you know that there is a long, straight road that slices through Anghiari, goes down the hill and through the valley to Sansepolcro, which is about five miles away. This road was built in the 1300s so it had been around 100 years or so when the battle ocurred. Milan attacked from Sansepolcro and the battle took place in the Tiber Valley just down the hill from Anghiari.
Now I’m no expert in war games or military strategy, but I don’t understand how the Milanese army thought they could surprise anyone coming across a vast valley in broad daylight. You could see them coming almost the entire way. But that’s what they did and the League was ready for them. The battle lasted into the night and it was said that there was only one casualty. Reports differ as to what happened – some say he died of influenza, some that he fell off his horse and was trampled, some that he fell into the river and drowned. Some also say that this one casualty was from the mounted brigade, not the foot soldiers and that there were many of them who were killed. Regardless, it doesn’t sound like the bloodiest of battles.
After the dust settled, the League was victorious and Florence’s dominance in central Italy was cemented by this battle. This set the stage for the boundaries of what we know today as Tuscany. I don’t know what would have happened had Milan been victorious, but it’s hard to imagine a world without Tuscany. So, every year on June 29, most of Tuscany comes together and celebrates this historic event in the main piazza in Anghiari.
The Lost Painting
In the early 1500s, the Medici family in Florence commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to do a painting of the Battle of Anghiari for the Hall of 500 in the Palazzo Vecchio. Leonardo used an experimental technique for this painting which involved mixing dry paint pigments with hot wax. The experiment proved to be less than a success and the painting was never finished. Some argue that it was never started, that he only did a sketch, but there seems to be some evidence that part of it was indeed in the Hall of 500. There have been many copies – the most famous being by Rubens which is now in the Louvre.
There has been much speculation about what happened to this painting. The Hall of 500 was renovated in the late 1500s and the painting disappeared then. There is a common belief that it was somehow covered over by a false wall onto which another painting was done. Giorgio Vasari managed the renovation and also did the painting which may or not be covering the lost da Vinci. Apparently Vasari had done other renovations in which he created these new walls inches from the existing walls so as not to destroy other works of art.
The greatest evidence that the da Vinci may be covered over comes from a cryptic phase that Vasari included in his painting. It says “Cerca Trova”, or he who seeks finds. This phrase has nothing to do with the painting, so it’s believed that he was somehow leaving a note for future generations about what lies beneath his painting. Some believe this is a message from Vasari that he couldn’t destroy this masterpiece by da Vinci, but merely covered it. But how do you go about finding what’s behind a possible false wall without destroying that painting, too? A healthy debate in the art world still rages about this and no answers have been found. Technology has offered some evidence that there is indeed a gap behind the Vasari painting, but the options for taking it to the next step are not good ones. So it remains a mystery.
A parade of Renaissance clad people filled the piazza as the celebration kicked off. There were ladies in finery, peasants, trumpeters, drummers, flag throwers, cross-bow wielders, soldiers, and horses. They marched in and promenaded around the piazza, taking their places on the perimeter and soon the entire piazza was filled with characters from the Renaissance. The horse brigade even had their own pooper scoopers who dutifully trailed behind cleaning up the inevitable litter left from horses. Good thing, too, because it would have been quite nasty if everyone had had to walk through horse dung in their specially made Renaissance footwear.
Looking around the piazza at the glorious costumes and festive flags and banners, I could almost imagine life in the 1400s. Almost. It was quite magical to see this ancient village host such a spectacle. I will say that one thing we’ve definitely improved on is the clothing. While beautiful, they were quite fussy and looked dreadfully hot in the summer heat. I was more in sync with the peasants costumes of loose, gauzy, light-colored cotton than the ladies with their velvets and complicated head wear.
At the end of the parade, the runners participating in the Palio were introduced. A palio is a race all mixed in with a celebration. In this case, it’s a foot race that starts at the site of the Battle and continues uphill to the piazza. It’s about a 13% grade up that hill. This is not a race for wimps. It’s also not a race for those who like to play fair. Everything goes as these runners make their way across the valley and up the hill. Think the guy in front of you may outrun you? Fine, just go up to him and push him off the road. Someone coming around you from behind? Just rip his shirt off and wrestle him to the ground. It’s not just running and stamina, it’s survival.
Runners represent all the cities in this part of Tuscany. Teams of runners have strategies. If you have a big team, you might pick one person to go out ahead while the rest of the team wreaks havoc on the other teams. Italians are a bit diabolical and seem to love the art of sabotage. Remember Scampanata? Nothing is as simple as it seems here. It makes things much more interesting – at least from the spectator’s standpoint. Here’s a little sample of the shenanigans that go on when the race starts.
Eventually they all made up the steep hill that is Anghiari, some a little worse for wear than others.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Italians know how to throw a celebration. Whether it’s a party in the back yard or the 582nd commemoration of a battle, they do it right. I guess they’ve had a lot of practice and those traditions run deep. Whatever the reason, I’m so glad that I’m here to witness these special things and take part in the festivities. Next month begins a music festival that runs through the summer. I can’t wait to see what that brings.