Battaglia dei Centauri (The Battle of the Centaurs)
Battaglia dei Centauri (Battle of the Centaurs, ca. 1490-92; 31 x 35 inches)
This is another of the earliest known sculptures by Michelangelo, created when he was only a teenager. According to Condivi (1553), who called this sculptural relief “The Rape of Deianita and the Battle of the Centaurs,” the subject had been suggested to Michelangelo by Angelo Poliziano, a poet and humanist attached to the Medici court.
At first glance, this composition seems almost abstract in its tangle of bodies. Only on closer inspection does one come to discern the half-man, half-horse Centaurs and the Lapith warriors. Some scholars have even identified Theseus, Hercules, and Eurytion as the main actors. Dr. Spike has observed that Michelangelo purposely carved on the bottom and side frames, leaving the top open for visual relief — because never before had the tumult of battle been presented in sculpture with such energy and activity of forms in such a restricted space.
Provenance of Michelangelo’s Battaglia dei Centauri
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni
(Florence 1475 – 1564 Rome)
Battaglia dei Centauri (The Battle of the Centaurs)Selected Reference Literature:
Condivi, Vita di Michelangelo Buonarroti…1553; Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1550; Georgia Illetschko, I Michelangelo, 2004; Nathaniel Harris, The Art of Michelangelo, 1983; Charles de Tolnay, Michelangelo: Sculptor, Painter, Architect, 1975; Robert Coughlan, The World of Michelangelo 1475-1564, 1972.
The carving of the Battle of the Centaurs was done under the patronage of Lorenzo de Medici in the school ran by Bertoldo, a student of Donatello. Lorenzo de Medici saw Michelangelo as his most talented artists and even brought Michelangelo into his home, gave him a room, and treated him as a son. Lorenzo would often show Michelangelo all of the treasures and works from antiquity that he had in his collection because of his love and appreciation for the apparent gift that Michelangelo had been given by God.
With the carving of the Battle of Centaurs, we can see one of Michelangelo’s first attempts at recreating the body and his early mastery of the human form. According to Vasari, Michelangelo was permitted to dissect human bodies to learn human anatomy. His access at the church of Santo Spirito was granted to him by the clergy because of his work on a crucifix he was commissioned to create for the church. This relief was suggested by Poliziano, a humanist poet that spent time with the artists and scholars under the patronage of Lorenzo de Medici. This relief shows:
“Athletic male nudes linked in close embrace, with set faces and sensually expressive bodies…and is a virtuoso exercise in the portrayal of the lineaments and facets of the human body.”
The Battle of the Centaurs is “rooted in the tradition of the classical sarcophagus reliefs and in the battle scenes of the school of Donatello.” But as Michelangelo always had a distinctive way of doing things he deviated from the techniques he borrowed, giving the figures realistic elements that give them a physical presence.
Michelangelo was known for his approach in all of his works to use the concetto method based on the Neoplatonic notion that the “artist chisels the idea out of the stone, rather than imposing his own preformed idea on the material by chiseling it into the stone.”
Michelangelo believed that the soul of the work was already inside the stone, and it was his responsibility to let the figures to break free rather than trying to create them.
In his own words, Michelangelo says:
“Painting appears more noble the closer it comes to relief, and relief less noble the closer it comes to painting.”
He goes on to say that, “sculpture is the guiding lamp of painting.” But his artistic development evolved in the opposite direction from drawing and painting in Ghirlandaio’s studio to the sculptural reliefs done under Bertoldo.
The subject of the work is taken from a Greek myth. The centaurs were half-men and half horses that became embroiled in a battle with a human people called the Lapiths. The story was told to Michelangelo by Polizano, one of the poets living under the patronage of Lorenzo de Medici at the same time Michelangelo was also working in the workshop with Bertoldo. Polizano was the tutor of Lorenzo’s children and encouraged Michelangelo to translate the story into sculpture.
According to Condivi:
“[Polizano] loved Michelangelo very much and, although there was no need, he continually urged him on his studies, always explaining things to him and providing him with subjects.”
It is interesting to note that although the story describes men that are half horse that those parts are left out of the sculpture and we see only human forms. The battle unlike to story, takes place between two groups of naked men. The male nude is a subject matter that will be used over and over again by Michelangelo, showing his divine gift to express an innumerable range of human emotion and mastery of the human form.
Condivi explains that:
“Michelangelo succeeded so well that I recall hearing him say that, when ever he sees it again, he realizes what a great wrong he committed against nature by not promptly pursuing the art of sculpture, judging by that work how well he could succeed. Nor does he say this in order to boast, being a most modest man, but because he truly bewails having been so unfortunate that, through the fault of others, he sometimes spent ten or twelve years doing nothing.”
The concept of covering the entire surface of the marble with figures is taken from the classical reliefs of antiquity depicting battles between Romans and barbarians. Michelangelo, as always, takes the examples of antiquity and makes them his own by leaving less space between figures, making the figures nude, and keeping the figures a part of the marble instead of completely detaching them from the background.
Charles de Tolnay describes the composition:
“From each of the figures in the bottom corners, two diagonal lines rise to a point corresponding with the head of the central figure; diagonals drawn from the two figures in the top corners join at the head of the dead Lapith in the center; where these two triangles intersect each other, two figures act as lateral axis.”
The carving of the Battle of the Centaurs shows the unmistakable genius of Michelangelo, and for the first time “he used the plasticity of the human body to express conflict in dramatically compelling terms.
“In its pulse and thrust and in the very way in which he attacked the marble, the Battle of the Centaurs is a preview of the great works to come. Apparently Michelangelo regarded this early essay in stone with special fondness; he kept it all his life.”