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Raphael, A battle of nude warriors with captives, c.1506-7, pen and brown ink over black chalk, 27.2 x 41.9 cm. Presented by a Body of Subscribers in 1846, Ashmolean Museum WA1846.179.

The competing visions of conflict presented in the battle scenes devised by Leonardo and Michelangelo for the new hall of the Grand Council in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence had an immense and formative impact on a whole generation of artists. Raphael was no exception in studying their designs for what they taught about expressive energy and multi-figural composition. He also looked at the antique sources that inspired both Leonardo and Michelangelo, such as battles on sarcophagi or reliefs from temple friezes, or drawings after such scenes that circulated in artists’ studios.

Raphael used black chalk here to sketch in the basics of the composition before picking up the pen to confirm the outlines of the figures with swift energetic strokes, and to provide broad indications of the fall of light with bluntly hatched passages of shading. Bleeding through from the other side of the sheet are the outlines from a similar pen and ink drawing of nude soldiers advancing towards fallen bodies, while securing captives with ropes.

A heroic nude straining to hold up a fallen companion appears to the right, recalling an antique sculptural type (Menelaus and Patroclus) which Raphael knew. Yet this idea may also have freely emerged as the artist developed the complementary rhythms in a composition based around three groups of two men struggling together. In the other two groups prisoners are being subdued and bound, with the central kneeling figure’s torsion acting as the pivot for the rotatory movement of the composition. The passive bodies of the fallen have a leftwards orientation, while the active figures of the victors tend towards the right – an inclination emphasised by the ‘infill’ figures in the background whose gestures and expressive faces underline this thrust. A screaming head that directs our attention beyond the group recalls Leonardo’s horsemen in his Battle of Anghiari, and prefigures Raphael’s later design for a Medusa’s head for the shield of Minerva in the School of Athens.

Ben Thomas, art historian

Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


Date: Da Thursday, May 14, 2020 a Monday, May 25, 2020

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