Copies can help us see Leonardo da Vinci's original

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Many historical exhibitions tend to be collections of whatever the museum in question can get their hands on, loosely united around a period, a theme, or the name of a famous artist. The exhibition that has just finished at the Bunkamura “Money and Beauty: Botticelli and the Renaissance in Florence” was rather like that. If done well, this approach can still provide an entertaining and interesting show, but much more satisfying is a concept like that behind the show at the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum.

Titled “Leonardo da Vinci and The Battle of Anghiari: The Mystery of Tavola Doria,” it is both an exhibition of Renaissance art and something of a detective mystery that brings together the two biggest artistic names of that period — Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

The “detective” part of the show is an attempt to reconstruct two expansive battle paintings that Leonardo and Michelangelo are known to have worked on, using a number of suggestive fragments, sketches and copies by other artists.

In 1504, the two artistic giants were each commissioned to paint a mural battle scene to adorn opposite walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred) in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Leonardo’s subject was the Battle of Anghiari (1440), a victory of the Florentines over the Milanese; Michelangelo was to paint the Battle of Cascina (1364), a Florentine victory over their local rivals, the Pisans.

While, Michelangelo’s work only reached the sketch stage, Leonardo’s commission made it onto the walls of the hall, only to be later painted over by Giorgio Vasari, an artist who is nowadays best known for his biographies of Renaissance artists, rather than his own works.

With Leonardo’s work no longer extant, the exhibition showcases materials to build up an image of how the painting would have looked. This includes the “Tavola Doria,” a 400-year-old copy of the central scene of the painting that turned up in Japan and was purchased by the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum in 1992, after it had disappeared from its former Italian owners in 1940. An agreement was reached in 2012 to return the painting to Italy.

Although incomplete and with some of the background filled in with gold paint, the “Tavola Doria” captures an intense moment in the battle when an enemy flag was captured. This is supplemented by sketches, prints, and other copies by several anonymous artists who saw the original.

Related works, such as Santi di Tito’s famous portrait of the Florentine statesman Niccolo Machiavelli, are also included, along with several other examples of Renaissance battle scenes.

As for Michelangelo’s work, it was never painted as a mural, but the artist managed to finish a large detailed sketch that is represented here by a painted copy by Aristotile de Sangallo, a contemporary of Michelangelo.

“Leonardo da Vinci and the Battle of Anghiari: The Mystery of Tavola Doria” at Tokyo Fuji Art Museum runs until Aug. 9; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,300. Closed Mon.