Antonio Pollaiuolo, (c. 1430-1498) whom we have studied in his magnificent bronze tomb for Pope Sixtus IV, was a multi-media artist of the 15th century. He not only worked in large-scale bronze, but in
small-scale bronze statues, painting, and copper engraving. His copper engraving of the Battle of Ten Naked Men is the largest extant copper engraving of the 15th century; it measures 15" X 22".
There are several impressions of this print in major museums: the Louvre, the Harvard Art Museums, the Met in New York, but the one I am most familiar with, and which I think is one of the best, is
the example in the Yale Art Gallery Department of Prints and Drawings in New Haven, Connecticut,
reproduced here. There are no folds in this engraving, as there are in the Met example, and the impression must be close to the original printing because the print lines are very clear.
A copper engraving is made by digging furrows into a copper plate with an instrument called a burin.
Once the lines are carved out using the tip of the burin and the tiny copper shavings cleared away, the printer pours ink over the plate and ink flows into the furrows. (No acid is used in engraving; acid is is used for etching.) The plate then is wiped and the plate is pressed down onto the paper to create the impression. The darker lines are deeper furrows, the lighter less indented. The final image is necessarily the reverse of the original copper carving.
Pollaiuolo's Battle of Ten Naked Men bears (no pun intended) looking at very closely. Since it was large, it must have been an important commission as the copper plate was expensive. The Pollaiuolo brothers certainly knew anatomy from dissection and the anatomy of these male figures is quite accurate, if in sections the muscles are slightly exaggerated with extension. Scholars have looked at the two central swordsmen who are connected by a chain and realized that they are the same figure seen from the front and the back, as though the swordsman had pivoted on his left foot around from facing position to back position or vice versa:
Since Pollaiuolo is a sculptor, he thinks in 3-dimensional images. He was used to making table sculptures that could be handled and turned in space so that all sides were visible. He wants the viewer here to see the figure from all sides and to imagine it turning in space. He is also reflecting here on the process of engraving itself, since that process requires that the engraver imagine, as he is carving, the reverse of the image when it is applied to the page.
Certainly all of these considerations, anatomy, figures in motion and turning in space, a desire to produce a sculptural turn and an echo of the engraving technique are all here in this engraving. But this picture of ten nude men fighting is more than just an exercise in a certain type of art.
The men fight on bare ground in front of a field of maize. Interwoven in the maize plants are
grape vines and clusters of grapes:
Below one of the grape clusters on the left is a plaque with the artist's name and citizenship:
"Opus Antonii Pollaioli Florentini" he announces (the work of Antonio Pollaiuolo, Florentine).
He does not date it, but the word Florentini suggests that the battle he is representing is Florentine
as well as the artist's identity.
What battle in Florence would have been so well known that it would not have needed a date?
And what kind of battle is this? It is a battle between brothers, between men who look very much like each other. What are the weapons they use?
Three men have swords drawn; the two in the center have taken their swords out of scabbards, which
lie on the ground below them with small rounded shields (which also are shown like their owners, once from the front, one from the bottom.)The third swordsman holds his sword (no scabbard visible) with his right arm and runs at two figures to the left.
The two pivoting central figures are connected by a metal chain which each holds, suggesting they are chained to each other in the pivoting swing of their swords and bodies; they cannot move beyond the length of the chain. They are mirror images (similar heights, similar headbands, both naked with similar swords lifted at similar angles) with a connecting link literally.
Ten men in total, in close combat, so close every figure touches another one in the fight. No figure stands alone.
4 SWORDS (2 with scabbards and shields)
3 raised up and 1 dropped by a man who is dying from a dagger wound:
2 BOWS with 2 QUIVERS (one bow is on the ground)
Two AXEMEN, one with a quiver (above) and one without (below):
If we follow the narrative of the battle, no figure is without the menace of imminent death.
From the left, the bowman is about to shoot an arrow and his aim could implicate any one of three men: the axeman whose head is near the arrow, the swordsman who holds onto the axeman's axe,
or, perhaps the bowman aims further away to the other edge of the print, towards the axeman to the far right.
The axeman right next to the bowman swings his axe at the swordsman in front of him, who, in turn, comes at the axeman, or perhaps at the bowman with his own sword. In the center of the picture the two men connected by the chain swing swords at each other.
From the left at the bottom, the left daggerman pulls the hair of his victim below him while aiming his dagger at the man, but his victim holds a dagger as well and aims it straight at the head of the upper daggerman while pushing on his right leg with his right leg and grabbing the upper man's dagger to redirect its thrust.In the battle at the far right, the axeman is about to bring down his axe full weight
The axeman seems unaware that he may be shortly shot by an arrow from the bowman over on the left.
It is a fight to the death in every case, a gripping scene of ultimate danger, where life itself hangs on an edge. In the next moment, every man in the scene may be dead. Every fighter is using his muscles to full extension and force, and the individual combats are serious and intense. One only has to look at the face of every single man to realize the fierceness of the fight.
These men fight to the death on bare ground in front of a landscape that symbolizes the Eucharist: the maize is used to make the bread and the grapes to make the wine, the two parts of the
celebration of Christ's body and blood that is reenacted in every Catholic mass. They fight in front of
an altar, a Florentine sacred altar. They are naked and unprotected, not what you'd expect in church.
But that is the point. This engraving is reenacting not only the performance of the mass but what happened in a certain mass, the mass on Easter Sunday in 1478 in the Duomo in Florence.
That is the day of the Pazzi Conspiracy, a conspiracy to kill the brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici, carried out by members of the Pazzi family, a family related to the Medici by marriage, along with assassins. The assassination of Giuliano took place to the left side of the altar in the center of the Florentine Cathedral. The Medici brothers were unarmed, and came to church as most people,
without weapons. As Poliziano, Lorenzo's tutor, tells the horrific story in his account after the fact, the Pazzi and their cronies came to the Medici Palace to get the brothers to make sure they would be at the Easter Sunday service. Giuliano was sick and wanted to beg off coming with them, but they insisted. It's not hard to imagine, as Christopher Hibbert does, that on that walk they put their arms around Giuliano's shoulders to check for chain mail. Once inside the Duomo and near the North Sacristy to the left of the altar, the assassins waited for the raising of the host and the bell ringing that accompanied that event in the mass; that was the signal for the attack. They pounced, stabbing Giuliano more than eighteen times. They approached Lorenzo, who, sensing a dagger at his neck, swiftly turned around and defended himself. Poliziano and some of Lorenzo's followers helped him to escape into the North Sacristy where they shut the heavy doors and locked them to be safe.
After the crowds ran from the Cathedral shouting "Palle" (balls, symbols of the Medici) to the assassins shouts of "Popolo"(people), one of Lorenzo's companions climbed the stairs from the sacristy into the Cantoria of Luca della Robbia to assess the situation.
From that Cantoria he saw Giuliano lying in a pool of his own blood. The assassins had left the church, so Lorenzo's friends swiftly brought him back to the Palace. There he barricaded himself, only appearing at a balcony later to assure his supporters that he was still alive.
The assassination day threw the political stability of the Italian city-states. Florence was excommunicated by Sixtus IV, who had known beforehand about the conspiracy. That meant the entire city was prevented from saying Mass and giving the sacraments. It took until 1481 for all the conspirators to be dealt with, since Baroncelli had fled to Constantinople and had to be extradited by the Sultan. Lorenzo eventually sought help from Naples and was able to solidify his political power in Florence, but his sister, Bianca, who was married to Guglielmo Pazzi, had to endure the vilification of the Pazzi name and insignia. All of the Pazzi conspirators were rounded up or hunted down in horrific fashion, dragged through the streets, and hung, some from Palazzo Vecchio. Even in a century of much violence, this violation of the sacred peaceful space of the Cathedral was particularly brutal and intense, an event that shook the Medici family and Florentine serenity. (One could see parallels in the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the shooting of Oswald afterwards in the 20th century.)
It was considered such a pivotal event that medals commemorating it were commissioned by Lorenzo.
What in the engraving speaks of the Pazzi conspiracy attack?
1) THE MEN ARE NAKED; the Medici were unarmed and unsuspicious when attending Easter mass in the cathedral, NAKED because caught unaware and without armor, unprotected.
2) THE MEN LOOK ALIKE, THEY ARE BROTHERS; the Medici and Pazzi were related to each other, they were, in essence, Florentine relatives, and not supposed to turn on each other. The "Florentini" of the plaque is the identity of the fighters as well as the artist.
3) THEY FIGHT IN FRONT OF THE SYMBOLS of the EUCHARIST; the attack took place near the altar of the major church site in Florence, in sacred space.
4) IT IS A FIGHT TO THE DEATH; the Medici's lives were at risk, and Giuliano died in the attack. At risk, too, is the family life of both sets of families, Medici and Pazzi.
5) THE CHAIN in the center is the LINK between the families; they are relatives inexorably connected in the family chain.
6) ONE of the PROTAGONISTS is being KILLED here, the others are about to lose their lives, except perhaps the bowman. Giuliano is killed in the Cathedral, the conspirators all lose their lives
eventually. Lorenzo survives but has lost his brother.
7) THE FIGHT IS TUMULTUOUS and EMOTIONALLY UPSETTING; noone in the print is
happy or relaxed; it is a catastrophic scene of shouting, yelling, and weeping (the dying figure.)
Pollaiuolo has taken the horror of the actual attack on one family and the wiping out of the other family and has made a moment in which humans war on other humans and no one wins.
The universal sadness of his BATTLE OF THE TEN NAKED MEN is that human beings are capable of this kind of violence against each other, and the viewer who looks at his engraving feels a sense of mourning, without knowing the particulars. The artist announces that this is his, another Florentine's,
version of the event. That he conjures up the ferocity of a mythical army by showing us five men fighting five men speaks of the eloquence of his voice in print and the force of his ability to make us face our own naked hatreds with a new view.
to Rome is as a peace-offering from Lorenzo to the Della Rovere family; surely Lorenzo sensed
who was behind the jealous rampage in the Cathedral and presented his best sculptor to the papacy
as a way of assuaging the rage.