Antonio del Pollaiuolo. Teacher of Sandro Boticelli. Lived through the 15th century in the best place to live at the time, in Florence. Spent his later years in Rome, where – despite it was known he was gay, he was commissioned to sculpture the pope’s tomb. Those were relatively tolerant times. Only 10 of his paintings survive. And just one graphic work. Each of his works had dramatically influenced those who followed him immediately, and often those who lived centuries after.
This is his engraving of a fight of ten naked men, titled the Battle of the Nudes.
Art historians would talk at length about Pollaiuolo’s ambition to render the human body at the moment of its highest strain, or about the composition of this work making your eye roam in circles. Yet, the role of its work in the art history is different and much bigger.
Can men live in peace? Can men avoid war? Can men stay away from the battle of everyone vs. everyone else? Can different “personalities” live as peaceful and mutually respectful neighbours, and not try to dominate and subjugate each other? As soon as the Renaissance began putting forward the value of an individual human life, these questions popped up and keep popping up ever since. Pollaiuolo answers with the peremptory “Nay” to all these questions. No, the Man can’t.
Well, there was not much of peace in Italy at the time, nor there was much of Italy itself. It was a motley crew of small principalities loosely arrayed in unions that were constantly changing shape and allegiances. The cruelty of rulers and rulers themselves were paranoid by today’s standards. The fragility and uncertainty of human life was a constant. So, Pollaiuolo’s answer is not at all surprising. The fight between men is and would be as eternal as the endless circles your eye is bound to move in when looking at this engraving. There is no prize for which the men are fighting, but do men actually need a cause to fight for? It is fighting itself and winning over the closest opponent that become the top priorities with the cause soon forgotten even if there had been one at the start.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Man had moved a long way along the path of self-understanding.
Henry Matisse – who rarely reflected on specific artists of the past, but often on the importance of learning and appreciating the art of the past – seemed to be doing a bit of copypasting. Look at his Nymph and Satyr, and then at the Pollaiuolo’s lower right corner. The similarity of two figures is obvious, and I find it really strange I have not encountered this “parallel” in art literature before (Pollaiuolo is only mentioned in relation to Matisse in 1935-38, long past the works I am showing were painted).
Matisse obviously knew of Pollaiuolo’s engraving (there is a copy of it at the Louvre), and it seems that he gave a different answer to Pollaiuolo’s “Nay” in the work that immediately followed Nymph and Satir, in his Dance of 1909.
Look at Pollaiuolo’s engraving. Then look at Dance. You will notice that some of the figures are mirrored from the Battle to become Dancers.
This “mirroring” of figures makes me think Matisse wanted to say that men and women could live in harmony. They do not have to fight, they can join hands and enjoy the harmony. Alas, this humanistic review of Pollaiuolo’s answer got smashed to pieces by bloody blasts of the WWI just five years later. Pollaiuolo’s engraving could become a dark preface to the bright humanistic future of human society, but no, it has been and still is the perfect mirror of the Man’s world. And Matisse’s Dance is the perfect and unattainable dream of this world.
I can’t say I am fully behind either of them in this dialogue across five centuries. But I do enjoy their arguments.