- Museum number
Battle of the Nudes; against a backdrop of plants and vines are ten naked men fighting; they are holding swords, axes and daggers, two men in the centre are struggling over a chain and the man on the left is firing an arrow. c.1470-95
Engraving, on paper washed pink
- Production date
- 1470-1495 (circa)
Height: 416 millimetres (trimmed along l and r edges and along bottom)
Width: 594 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- Pollaiuolo's 'Battle of the Nudes' is in many respects unique, for it is engraved on one of the largest single plates executed during the fifteenth century and is the earliest Italian engraving inscribed by an artist with his full name.
Antonio Pollaiuolo was an exceptionally versatile Florentine painter, sculptor, goldsmith, draughtsman and engraver. The present engraving may, however, have been his only print, although - according to Vasari - he perhaps designed others. The subject, described by Vasari in his life of the artist (second edition 1568), had not been identified despite there being a number of interpretations. Donati proposed as a possible source Federigo Frazzi's 'Quadriregio', one of the latest works in the medieval eschatological tradition; Panofsky believed that the engraving depicts an episode of Roman history concerning the exploits of the consul Titus Manlius, while Phillips related the print to the legend of the Golden Fleece.
It seems more likely that the figures in the image are gladiators, as is apparent from their nudity and choice of weapons (especially the chain, shield and dagger), all described in ancient literature. One of the most important and recognizable visual sources of the engraving is classical sculpture: the restricted space, the positioning and overlapping of the figures reflect Etruscan and Greco-Roman sarcophagi reliefs - particularly battle scenes - such as those preserved in the Camposanto of Pisa and in Cortona, or that with the 'Triumph of Bacchus' in the Uffizi, Florence.
According to Alison Wright (exh. cat., London, National Gallery, 'Renaissance Florence. The Art of the 1470s', 1999-2000, no. 53), the lack of differentiation between the figures suggests that Pollaiuolo did not intend to portray a specific historical or mythological battle; he rather operated on a level of imaginative allegory, aligned more to poetry than to history.
The print also served as a didactic demonstration of the ability of the artist in the rendering of anatomy and nude male in movement. Pollaiuolo conceived his figures in the round and he posed them from a variety of angles, including paired opposites, to provide the viewer with multiple viewpoints of the human form in action. This technique, employed in the 'Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian' altarpiece as well (c.1475, National Gallery, London; NG 292), is called 'pivotal presentation' and reflects the general interaction between painting and sculpture at that time. Also innovative is the system he employed in the engraving to define the muscular bodies of the figures, by using V-shaped zigzag or 'return stroke' found in pen-and-ink or wash drawings. In the background he utilized continuous parallel lines and to indicate shadows on the trees he used the more conventional cross-hatching.
The 'Battle of the Nudes' exists in two states; although numerous impressions are known (approximately fifty), all but one are of the second state, printed after the plate had begun to wear out. The only example of the first state that has survived is in the Cleveland Museum of Art (formerly in the Liechtenstein Collection) and it shows the plate as it was originally engraved by the artist (see S.R. Langdale, exh. cat., The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 'Battle of the Nudes. Pollaiuolo's Renaissance Masterpiece', 2002). The earliest surviving example printed from the reworked plate is in the Fogg Art Museum (Harvard University). Most of the second-state impressions were trimmed, the edge of the sheets creased, abrased, soiled or torn and the areas that did not print well or suffered damage over the years often redrawn in pen and ink (a useful list of some of these is given by Langdale pp. 72-82) .
A number of changes occur between the first and the second state, almost certainly done by Pollaiuolo himself or an assistant in his workshop under his direction (which may explain the occasional variation in the finesse of the alterations). The most recognizable change is the addition of shading on the inner thigh of the man wielding an axe at the far r; a more destructive alteration is the darkening of the background, achieved through the re-engraving of areas between plant stalks and added shading in some foliage. As a result of this the uniform and silvery quality of the first state is lost (an effect that could also had been affected by the different type of ink untilized to print the further impressions). However, the shading and contours of the figures appear to be untouched (for more details about other minor changes see exh. cat., The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 2002, pp. 27-31).
The BM possesses two signed woodcut copies, created around 1490-1500, that are the same scale and in the same direction as Pollaiuolo's image and clearly reproduce the first state of the print, without the changes showed in the second: one by Johannes de Francfordia, a German master who probably worked in Florence, and the other (the figures only against a white background) by Lucantonio degli Uberti, a Florentine engraver and printmaker who worked especially in Venice (see respectively P&D 1845-8-25-587 and 1927-6-14-96).
The dating of the engraving is problematic, since dates suggested have ranged from 1465 to about 1495, with c. 1470-75 often given as a compromise. Some stylistic similarities are indeed found in works dated to the 1470s, such as the 'Five Dancers' frescoes at Villa la Gallina in Arcetri and several figures in the so-called 'Florentine Picture Chronicle', an album of pen-and-ink drawings from the workshop of Baccio Baldini now in the BM. Nevertheless, the arguments for a later date are compelling. An antique marble group, model for the reclining figure in the lower l corner of the engraving, was discovered only in 1489; and in one of the several dramatic changes in the third state of Francesco Rosselli's 'Flagellation' scene (executed in the 1490s, see Hind B.I.7.III, P&D 1870-6-25-1049), the soldier on the r has been completely transformed to correspond with the pose of the nude warrior with the chain seen from the back in the 'Battle' engraving. This suggests a response to an idea from a new source unavailable when Rosselli made the first state of the 'Flagellation' (around 1485). Moreover, it could surmised that the two woodcut copies of the first state of the print were created soon after the appearance of the engraving in Florence in response to demand for the image. Finally, in a dated drawing study 'Abduction of a Woman' of 1495 (in the Musée Bonnat, Bayonne), Dürer adapted the pose and figure type of the archer to portray one of the men carrying off a Sabine and he borrowed the idea of 'pivotal presentation' in his depiction of two male figures in mirrored poses. The dated Dürer copy after the engraving may suggest a terminus ante quem of 1495, just three years before Pollaiuolo's death.
The BM impression has been tinted pink, probably in the18th or early 19th century, to simulate the colour of prepared papers used for drawing during the Renaissance; it is also noticeable the attempt to cover the genitals of the figures with pen and ink. A scratch is visible on the back of the r chain man's thigh. The sheet was separated at the bottom of a vertical crease at the centre and slightly misaligned when it was repaired.
For the print and the subject see A.M. Hind, 'Early Italian Engraving', I, London, 1938, pp. 189-192; L.S. Richards, 'Antonio Pollaiuolo, Battle of Naked Men', "The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art', 55, 1968, pp. 63-70; L.Smith Fusco, "Battle of the Nudes", in J. Levenson, K.Oberhuber, J.Sheehan, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 'Early Italian Engravings from the National Gallery of Art', 1973, pp. 66-80; M.J. Zucker, 'The Illustrated Bartsch, Commentary', vol. 25, part 2, 1984, pp.11-17; A.Wright, in exh. cat., London, National Gallery, 'Renaissance Florence. The Art of the 1470s', 1999-2000, no. 53; G.Lambert, 'Les Premières Gravures Italiennes quattrocento-début de cinquecento, Inventaire de la collection du department des Estampes et de la Photographie', Paris, 1999, pp.120-122; S.R. Langdale, in exh. cat., The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 'Battle of the Nudes. Pollaiuolo's Renaissance Masterpiece', 2002.
See also Jay A. Levinson, Konrad Oberhuber, and Jacquelyn Sheehan, Early Italian Engravings from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1973, no. 13.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2000/1 Oct-Jan, London, Hayward Gallery, 'Spectacular Bodies'
2004 Jun-July, Madrid, 'LaCaixa', Ferdinand Columbus
2004 Oct-Dec, Seville, Salon Alto del Apeadero, Ferdinand Columbus
2009 Canada Tour, BM Treasures
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- This impression was already in the BM in 1810, and so cannot (as was formerly thought) have been the impression from the Thomas Lloyd (Sotheby's, 10.iv.1817/738) and Masterman Sykes (Sotheby's 1.vi.1824/887) sales. Joseph Strutt gaves a full description of the print, including its measurements, in his 'Dictionary of Engravers' of 1786, p.239, and although the Monro collection is not mentioned, he probably had access to it there as he knew the Monro collection well. Hence the likely provenance is from Dr John Monro. (AVG)
No indication of provenance visible on the verso
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number