Antonio Pollaiuolo’s Battle of Nude Men in a Wood (c.1470-95) (1) is an epic print. Not only in its size, standing around 15 x 23 inches, but also in the sheer amount of detail it captures. In this blog post I am going to pay some attention to the prints’ context whilst using this as an opportunity to unpack my own longstanding interest with the piece.
Antonio Pollaiuolo was a Renaissance painter, sculptor, engraver and goldsmith who was based in Florence, Italy, around the 15th century.(2) This particular print is arguably one of Antonio’s most well-known works and has been subjected to a considerable amount of attention since it was first conceived. The exact subject and origins of the print itself still remain unclear to this day, by which I mean it is unknown whether Pollaiuolo was commissioned to produce this work or saw this as an independent commercial venture. Many have also disputed whether Pollaiuolo is depicting a particular moment in history, representing a philosophical idea or even attempting to showcase a certain event in mythology.(4) I suppose this debated mystery that hangs over the work is something I find particularly alluring. However, I am not here to assign any definitive answers or hypothesise its subject matter. My interest mainly lies in the manner in which Pollaiuolo is portraying the human anatomy.
On a quick self-indulgent tangent, my background is in Fine Art, specialising in contemporary sculptor. Part of this time saw me attempt, and dramatically fail, at capturing the human anatomy in its full three-dimensional form. I think it is this experience which elucidates my affliction with this particular piece, as the talent, skill and processes required to come as close as Pollaiuolo has at depicting the human anatomy continue to impress. That said, I am fully aware that Pollaiuolo’s print is indeed a print, and not a sculpture. But it contains so many sculptural qualities, for better or for worse, which I really want to sink my teeth into…
Not to go overly poetic but the pursuit to capturing the human form in its fullest, realist sense is a noble venture. But let’s be clear, it is one that is not found in Pollaiuolo’s print. Not to diminish the artist’s efforts but Pollaiuolo’s depiction of brazen male nudity and murderous aggression is held together by its strong woven emphasis on contouring. It is document by Giorgio Vasari, who has been described by some as the father of modern art history, that Pollaiuolo did in fact make other prints, however tragically none have survived. So again, the rarity of this particular work brings in another alluring element that conveniently helps to validate my own fascination with the print.
Focusing on the work itself, the design is reminiscent of a classical relief sculpture in that the forms are drawn from an intimacy conjured from the restrictiveness of space. For example, the figures mirroring one another in the centre of the work, clutching at a chain, their antagonism is communicated through their dynamic poses as well as their facial expressions. This is successfully conveyed due to Pollaiuolo’s technical ability to shape light and dark areas, bestowing a volume, a depth onto these men’s bodies. This is a quality that is amplified when concentrating on how the fighting warriors are outlined against a backdrop of what reads to be dense foliage, which varies much less in tonality than the subjects themselves in the foreground.
Paying particular attention to the men’s backs it becomes clear they have been over worked. There are indeed around 40 muscles in the back, but it is almost as though the artist has tried to drag them all to surface. This was rather common during this time period though. Often implemented to signify a heightened understanding of the human anatomy. Name dropping Giorgio Vasari again, he stipulated how it was common practice for many artists around this time to study directly from corpses, even dissecting the body themselves to assist their pursuit of imitation in its most correct and truest form. Vasari writes about Pollaiuolo…. “He had a more modern grasp of the nude than the masters who preceded him, and he dissected many bodies to study their anatomy; and he was the first to demonstrate the method of searching out the muscles, in order that they might have their due form and place in his figures.” The notion of dissecting bodies seems a rather damming and intense venture into developing one’s own draughtsmanship. Nevertheless, this print seems to hover between a conflicted state of what needs to be seen and what can remain unseen.
Movement and Expression
The emotions bestowed onto the print are also an impressive actualisation. The piece does lack a certain finality of perfection, in that the detail and propositions of the feet, hands, hair, beards fall short to standard Pollaiuolo has realised onto the men’s limbs and faces. Nonetheless the excruciation, pain, anger Pollaiuolo has significantly splashed across every man’s expression more than makes up for this. A tension also arises from the fact that there is little or nothing to distinguish these men in terms of heroes and villains. Why are they fighting? Who should we be routing for? The only recognisable feature dividing these men is that five are wearing a band in their hair and the other five are not. The passion and indignation Pollaiuolo captures was considered important feature in artworks at the time as questions surrounding morality and virtues were much debated.
The mood of the work is held together by its composition. The figures are arranged in strained and athletic positions, probably to showcase the muscles and relay an understanding of the human anatomy as mentioned earlier, but they have all also been harmoniously placed relaying a considered aesthetic. There is a delicacy and refinement in the manner Pollaiuolo has etched these figures. It is a moment in time. A fight unfolding in front of your eyes. Swords hanging in the air. A snapshot you’re waiting to resume. And surely proof of Pollaiuolo’s diligence and talent as an artist.
Whilst researching this work I did stumble across a rather humorous quote by Leonardo da Vinci himself, which I just couldn’t bring myself to omit. Da Vinci criticised the print saying that artists should not… ‘make their nudes wooden and without grace, so that they seem to look like a sack of nuts rather than the surface of a human being, or indeed a bundle of radishes rather than muscular nudes’ (3). Pollaiuolo’s nudes may have been overly muscular, but the fact remains that they were probably the most naturalistic human bodies captured in two dimensions created up until this point in time.
Battle of the Nudes is currently on display at The Whitworth. It is part of the Standardisation and Deviation: The Whitworth Story exhibition, and is displayed in case 12, ‘Instruction’. This exhibition runs until February 2022. Battle of the Nudes has also featured as part of our ongoing Queering the Whitworth project. An A5 postcard of the piece including a Queer reading of this piece, along with 9 others works from our collection can be purchased from our shop for £15.
1 – and other variants
6. Zucker, MJ, in KL Spangeberg (ed), Six Centuries of Master Prints, Cincinnati Art Museum, 1993, no 16, (ISBN 0-931537-15-0)
7. Rob Ward, Classic Art Memes, Studio Press, 2017 (ISBN 1787411885)