Battle of the Nudes (engraving)

Battle of the Nudes (engraving)

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The Battle of the Nudes or Battle of the Naked Men, probably dating from 1465–1475, is an engraving
Engraving is the practice of incising a design on to a hard, usually flat surface, by cutting grooves into it. The result may be a decorated object in itself, as when silver, gold, steel, or glass are engraved, or may provide an intaglio printing plate, of copper or another metal, for printing...

 by the Florentine
Florence is the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany and of the province of Florence. It is the most populous city in Tuscany, with approximately 370,000 inhabitants, expanding to over 1.5 million in the metropolitan area....

A goldsmith is a metalworker who specializes in working with gold and other precious metals. Since ancient times the techniques of a goldsmith have evolved very little in order to produce items of jewelry of quality standards. In modern times actual goldsmiths are rare...

 and sculptor Antonio del Pollaiuolo which is one of the most significant old master print
Old master print
An old master print is a work of art produced by a printing process within the Western tradition . A date of about 1830 is usually taken as marking the end of the period whose prints are covered by this term. The main techniques concerned are woodcut, engraving and etching, although there are...

s of the Italian Renaissance
Italian Renaissance
The Italian Renaissance began the opening phase of the Renaissance, a period of great cultural change and achievement in Europe that spanned the period from the end of the 13th century to about 1600, marking the transition between Medieval and Early Modern Europe...

. The engraving is large at 42.4 x 60.9 cm, and depicts five men wearing headbands and five men without, fighting in pairs with weapons in front of a dense background of vegetation. All the figures are posed in different strained and athletic positions, and the print is advanced for the period in this respect. The style is classicizing, although they grimace fiercely, and their musculature is strongly emphasized. An effective and largely original return-stroke engraving technique was employed to model the bodies, with delicate and subtle effect.

Context and reception

Vasari, who praises the engraving highly, says that Pollaiuolo made other prints, but none have survived. Given the rarity of this one, Vasari may well be right, although he was writing many decades later. Alternatively he may have been referring to a number of prints after paintings or drawings of Pollaiuolo, but now universally seen as engraved by different artists to the battle, and now mostly attributed as "School of Pollaiuolo" or similar terms.
As with Andrea Mantegna
Andrea Mantegna
Andrea Mantegna was an Italian painter, a student of Roman archeology, and son in law of Jacopo Bellini. Like other artists of the time, Mantegna experimented with perspective, e.g., by lowering the horizon in order to create a sense of greater monumentality...

, the dominant Italian printmaker of the period, based mostly in Mantua
Mantua is a city and comune in Lombardy, Italy and capital of the province of the same name. Mantua's historic power and influence under the Gonzaga family, made it one of the main artistic, cultural and notably musical hubs of Northern Italy and the country as a whole...

, the suggestion has been made that Pollaiuolo may not have engraved the plate himself, but hired a specialist to work from his design. However this remains a minority view. Engraving was an essential skill of the goldsmith, and Pollaiuolo's workshop produced niello
Niello is a black mixture of copper, silver, and lead sulphides, used as an inlay on engraved or etched metal. It can be used for filling in designs cut from metal...

 engraved plaques. Estimates of the date of the engraving have varied from about 1465 to about 1489. As with most famous prints of the period, a number of direct copies were made in engraving and woodcut
Woodcut—occasionally known as xylography—is a relief printing artistic technique in printmaking in which an image is carved into the surface of a block of wood, with the printing parts remaining level with the surface while the non-printing parts are removed, typically with gouges...

, and it was often borrowed from and imitated, for example in a drawing
Drawing is a form of visual art that makes use of any number of drawing instruments to mark a two-dimensional medium. Common instruments include graphite pencils, pen and ink, inked brushes, wax color pencils, crayons, charcoal, chalk, pastels, markers, styluses, and various metals .An artist who...

 probably by Raphael
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino , better known simply as Raphael, was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. His work is admired for its clarity of form and ease of composition and for its visual achievement of the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur...

. It is the first print to be signed with the artist's full name (on the plaque at the left rear), as opposed to the initials or monogram
A monogram is a motif made by overlapping or combining two or more letters or other graphemes to form one symbol. Monograms are often made by combining the initials of an individual or a company, used as recognizable symbols or logos. A series of uncombined initials is properly referred to as a...

s used by many printmakers.

The print clearly relates to the work of Mantegna, although uncertainty about the dating of the works of both artists means that the direction of influence is unclear. Mantegna made two large engravings of the "Battle of the Sea-Gods", and he or his followers produced a number of others of male nudes fighting under various classical titles. Despite the usual attempts by art historians, including in this case Erwin Panofsky
Erwin Panofsky
Erwin Panofsky was a German art historian, whose academic career was pursued mostly in the U.S. after the rise of the Nazi regime. Panofsky's work remains highly influential in the modern academic study of iconography...

, to identify a specific subject for the engraving, it is likely none was intended. The two central figures grasp the ends of a large chain, which may suggest that the figures are to be seen as gladiator
A gladiator was an armed combatant who entertained audiences in the Roman Republic and Roman Empire in violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals, and condemned criminals. Some gladiators were volunteers who risked their legal and social standing and their lives by appearing in the...


Vasari wrote of 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; and of those ... he engraved a battle.

On the other hand, it has been suggested that Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

 may have had Pollaiuolo partly in mind when he wrote 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

Like all successful Renaissance prints, the Battle was copied by other printmakers, including "Johannes of Frankfurt" in about 1490.


Like most 15th century prints, the Battle is very rare. The unique first-state impression in the print room
Print room
A print room is either a room or industrial building where printing takes place, or a room in an art gallery or museum, where a collection of old master and modern prints, usually together with drawings, watercolours and photographs, are held and viewed. The latter meaning is the subject of this...

 of the Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland Museum of Art
The Cleveland Museum of Art is an art museum situated in the Wade Park District, in the University Circle neighborhood on Cleveland's east side. Internationally renowned for its substantial holdings of Asian and Egyptian art, the museum houses a diverse permanent collection of more than 43,000...

 is generally accepted as much the finest, and about forty-nine impressions (single examples) survive of the second state
State (printmaking)
A state, in printmaking, is a different form of a print, caused by a deliberate and permanent change to a matrix such as a copper plate or woodblock ....

, which is actually a high number for a 15th-century print. For the period, the print is very large, which has probably contributed to the small number of surviving impressions - it is clear from the worn state of the plate in many impressions that large numbers, probably running into the hundreds, were printed of the second state. There are no significant differences between the two states, so the plate was probably reworked just because it had worn out from the printing of now lost first-state impressions.

The existence of the first state was only realized in 1967, after Cleveland bought their print from the Liechtenstein
Princely Family of Liechtenstein
The Liechtenstein dynasty, from which the principality takes its name, is the family which reigns by constitutional, hereditary right over the nation of Liechtenstein...

 collection. The best impression of the second state is in the Fogg Art Museum
Fogg Art Museum
The Fogg Museum, opened to the public in 1896, is the oldest of Harvard University's art museums. The Fogg joins the Busch-Reisinger Museum and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum as part of the Harvard Art Museums....

 at Harvard; it appears to be the only one printed before the plate received a scratch, and from the paper and watermark would appear to have been printed close in time to the Cleveland impression. The two woodcut copies can be shown to have been copied from the first state.


Although most art historians have dated the work to the period 1465-75, in 1984 the suggestion was made that the print draws directly from a Roman sculpture known to have been excavated in Rome in 1489, Three Satyrs strangled by a Serpent (now Graz
The more recent population figures do not give the whole picture as only people with principal residence status are counted and people with secondary residence status are not. Most of the people with secondary residence status in Graz are students...

 in Austria). Pollaiuolo was in Rome from 1484, and this would mean the print was executed there. This suggestion remains the subject of debate.

Surviving impressions

There are fifty impressions known to have survived to 1939; their distribution gives an interesting insight into the spread of top-class old master prints. As at the census in Langdale in 2002, there are sixteen in the United States, all apparently arrived since 1890, and mostly in the period 1930-1960. Italy has nine impressions, England five, and Paris three. There were five in Germany in 1939, of which one seems definitely to have been destroyed during World War II, one other "lost" from Bremen
The City Municipality of Bremen is a Hanseatic city in northwestern Germany. A commercial and industrial city with a major port on the river Weser, Bremen is part of the Bremen-Oldenburg metropolitan area . Bremen is the second most populous city in North Germany and tenth in Germany.Bremen is...

, and one lost sight of after the war. The other impressions outside Europe are in Melbourne
Melbourne is the capital and most populous city in the state of Victoria, and the second most populous city in Australia. The Melbourne City Centre is the hub of the greater metropolitan area and the Census statistical division—of which "Melbourne" is the common name. As of June 2009, the greater...

 and Ottawa
Ottawa is the capital of Canada, the second largest city in the Province of Ontario, and the fourth largest city in the country. The city is located on the south bank of the Ottawa River in the eastern portion of Southern Ontario...

; in Europe the Albertina
Albertina, Vienna
The Albertina is a museum in the Innere Stadt of Vienna, Austria. It houses one of the largest and most important print rooms in the world with approximately 65,000 drawings and approximately 1 million old master prints, as well as more modern graphic works, photographs and architectural drawings...

 in Vienna
Vienna is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Austria and one of the nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria's primary city, with a population of about 1.723 million , and is by far the largest city in Austria, as well as its cultural, economic, and political centre...

, the Netherlands
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...

 (3), Strasbourg
Cabinet des estampes et des dessins (Strasbourg)
The Cabinet des estampes et des dessins is a museum in Strasbourg in the Bas-Rhin department of France. It is dedicated to engravings and drawings , but also woodcuts and lithographies, covering a period of five centuries from the 14th to the 19th. Graphic art since 1870 is displayed in the Musée...

 (1) and Budapest
Budapest is the capital of Hungary. As the largest city of Hungary, it is the country's principal political, cultural, commercial, industrial, and transportation centre. In 2011, Budapest had 1,733,685 inhabitants, down from its 1989 peak of 2,113,645 due to suburbanization. The Budapest Commuter...

 have impressions. Two of the three impressions in Switzerland
Switzerland name of one of the Swiss cantons. ; ; ; or ), in its full name the Swiss Confederation , is a federal republic consisting of 26 cantons, with Bern as the seat of the federal authorities. The country is situated in Western Europe,Or Central Europe depending on the definition....

are the only ones in the world still in private collections.

External links