Here we will talk about the paint composition and the paint and techniques Leonardo used, specifically in the Battle of Anghiari.

Facts about the Battle of Anghiari:

  • Leonardo da Vinci commissioned on October 24, 1503
  • Officially excused from commission on May 30, 1506
  • Goals of the project: represent the battle in which the Florentine and Papal army were victorious against Filipo Maria Visconti, the Duke of Milan, over the Tuscany region in June, 1440.
  • Known fragment represented as The Fight for the Standard through copies (by Richter and Popp).
  • Madrid Codex II, written by Leonardo, contains sketches that may have been used for the execution of the painting. Single reference dated June 6, 1505
  • Unknowns: exact location of painting, size of painting, and how much was finished.
  • While Leonardo was working on the Battle of Anghiari, he was also working on four Madonna's, a portrait of Isabella d'Este, the Mona Lisa, a Young Christ, a Salvatore Mundi, the Angel of Annunciation, the Neptune drawing, a Bacchus, two Leda compositions, a Hercules, and a Magdalene. (Most of which remain mysteriously unfinished).

Farago, Claire J. "Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari" A Study in the exchange between theory and practice". Ed. Farago, Claire J. Leonardo da Vinci: Selected Scholarship. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York, 1999.

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Paint found in the Battle of Anghiari:

  • Complex copper carbonate - rare in paintings, but also found in The Last Supper and a recipe is in the Treatise on Painitng.
  • Blue smalt - powdered glass colored by blue cobalt. Same composition in Madonna of the Rocks (Louvre).
  • Azurite - not generally used in fresco, suggest different paint technologies used.
  • Charcoal

Newton, Travers H., and Spencer, John R., "On the Location of Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari". Ed. Farago, Claire J. Leonardo da Vinci: Selected Scholarship. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York, 1999.

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About Greek Pitch:

Leonardo's receipt for materials include eighty-nine pounds and eight ounces of Greek pitch, dated April 30, 1505. May have been used as a base for painting on plaster, three different theories abound:

  • Use of Greek pitch to seal the plaster from dampness. Modern painters use similar substances, such as resin, and paint on a thin clear layer to protect the surface from acid.
  • The Greek pitch can be mixed with other substances, such as linseed oil and gesso, and used as preparation for oil painting.
  • For painting surfaces, when Greek pitch is mixed into plaster, the mixture provides support on the wall. The result is similar to encaustic materials.

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Where Leonardo may have failed:

1. Antonion Billi, 1518, suggests that Leonardo had used an oil medium, whereas

2. Paolo Giovio (1527) relates an unsuccessful combination of walnut oil and colors on plaster.

3. Anomino Gaddiano, 1540, proposes that Leonardo attempted to bring back an ancient encaustic method of coloring stucco .

4. Vasari ascribes Leonardo's experimentation on wall preparation beneath the pigment layer .

And, lastly, heating the vicinity of the painting with a brazier made the paint drip, due to general dampness of the paint. According to Kemp, "the rawness of the linseed oil in Leonardo's painting medium caused him to dry an experimental panel by lighting a fire and thus spoiling his final effort on the wall" .

2 Farago. Anomino is quoted with "and from Pliny he discovered how to color with stucco, but he did not understand it well".
3 Farago. Discussed in Vasari.
4 Farago, Claire J. "Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari" A Study in the exchange between theory and practice". Ed. Farago, Claire J. Leonardo da Vinci: Selected Scholarship. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York, 1999.

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Paint composition in the Renaissance, according to Cennini's The Craftsman's Handbook:

The Craftman's Handbook is an excellent manual for painter during the Renaissance. There are clear and detailed explanations from the first step in drawing to making paint to how to paint. The following are excerpts from the manual to provide a model in how Renaissance painters made their paint, what they looked for, and to show the amount of work which went into each color and painting.
The chosen colors are either colors that we used in our project, or remnants of colors which were found on Leonardo's paintings (azurite). Orpiment was especially dear to our hearts, since we were ever fearful of the toxicity of our yellow pigments.

"On the Character of a Red Called Hematite. Chapter XLII.
A color known as hematite is red. This color is natural, and it is a very strong and solid stone. And it is so solid and perfect tat stones and crooks are made of it for burnishing gold on panel; and they acquire a black and perfect color, dark as a diamond. The pure stone is the color of purple or turnsole, and has a structure like vermilion. Pound this stone in a bronze mortar at first, because if you broke it upon your porphyry slab you might crack it [the slab]. And when you have got it pounded, put on the slab as much of it as you want to work up, and grind it with clear water; and the more you work it up, the better and more perfect color it becomes. This color is good on the wall, for working in fresco; and makes a color for you like a cardinal's, or a purple, or lac color. It is not good to try to use it for other things, or with temperas."

"On the Character of a Yellow Called Orpiment. Chapter XLVII.
A color known as orpiment is yellow. This color is an artificial one. It is made by alchemy, and is really poisonous. And in color it is a handsome yellow more closely resembling gold than any other color. It is not good for use on a wall, either in fresco or with temperas, because it turns black on exposure to the air. It is very good for painting on shields and lances. A mixture of some of this color with Bagdad indigo gives it a green color for grasses and foliage. Its tempera calls for nothing but size. Sparrowhawks are physicked [sic] with this color against a certain illness which affects them. And this color is, to start with, the most refractory color to work up that there is in our profession. And so, when you want to work it up, put the amount you want on to your stone; and, with the one which you hold in your hand, proceed to coax it, little by little, so as to squeeze it from one stone to the other, mixing in a little of the glass of a broken goblet, because the powder of the glass attracts the orpiment to the roughness of the stone. When you have got it powdered, put some clear water on it, and work it up as much as you can; for if you were to work it for ten years, it would constantly become more perfect. Be careful of soiling your mouth with it, lest you suffer personal injury."

"On the Character of Azurite. Chapter LX.
Natural blue is a natural color which exists in and around the vein of silver. It occurs extensively in Germany, and also in that…of Siena. It is quite true…or plastic, it wants to be brought to perfection. When you have to lay it in, you must work up some of this blue with water, very moderately and lightly, because it is very scornful of the stone. If you want it for working on draperies, or for making greens with it as I have told you above, it ought to be worked up more. This is good on the wall in secco, and on panel. It is compatible with a tempera of egg yolk, and of size, and of whatever you wish."

"On the Character of Ultramarine Blue, and How to Make It. Chapter LXII.
Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that is quality would not still surpass. And, because of its excellence, I want to discuss it at length, and to show you in detail how it is made. And pay close attention to this, for you will gain great honor and service from it. And let some of that color, combined with gold, which adorns all the works of our profession, whether on wall or on panel, shine forth in every object…"

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Paint techniques learned from the Getty docent:

Linseed oil was first used in Holland, and was popular because it was an oil that was tacky and would dry well. Linseed oil did remain tacky, so it was not used in manuscripts. Tobacco oil is similar to Linseed oil, and is used in paint today as well. Olive oil, on the other hand, would drip after paint (after 100 years) because it never completely dries.

Before Linseed oil, artists would have to paint each color separately. Gold was always applied first, because it was pressed on as gold leaf. A thin layer of gesso was applied, and the leaf was cut into the desired shape by a knife. Neat, huh?

See the Getty docent, Sheila Harris, discuss where to find pigments today!


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