Forschungsstelle "Westfälischer Friede": Dokumentation

DOCUMENTATION | Exhibitions: 1648 - War and Peace in Europe

Essay Volumes > Tome II: Art and culture

The Thirty Years' War and its Influence on Battle Painting in Italy in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

In Italy, representation of battles stems from a long tradition rooted in the ancient world, of which the most famous example is the mosaic depicting the "Battle of Issus", the encounter in which Alexander the Great defeated Darius. This work, perhaps among the oldest battle scenes represented in art, is preserved within a Pompeian floor mosaic today found in the Museo Nazionale of Naples. The custom of transmitting both mythological and historical events of note is very ancient, evident in the Roman world on sarcophagi lids probably as a reflection of the Greek practice where the most popular recurring subjects are the "Battle of the Amazons" and the victorious exploits of Alexander the Great. Remarkable events are also found in the pictorial representations on the spiral relief (coclidi) columns of the Imperial era, which narrate the conquests of emperors such as Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.

This tradition was preserved in the Middle Ages, above all in miniatures. In this era, the deeds of Charles the Great and his paladins were commemorated, along with the events from the Crusades, which served as the principal source for this type of representation, repeated centuries later in the knightly poems of the 16th century beginning with Ariosto and Tasso. The Renaissance, following the classical example of the marble sarcophagi, utilises the frontal faces of cassoni (altar chests) for representations inspired by either the ancient and the medieval world or by texts that had divulged mythical or ancient subjects. Exceptions to this practice are represented by the frescoes of Spinello Aretino in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena in which the painter illustrated a naval battle, the frescoes of Agnolo Gaddi in the apse of Santa Croce and those of Piero della Francesca in the apse of San Francesco of Arezzo where we find, in the context of the illustration of the "Legend of the Holy Cross", the illustration of the victory of Heracles over Cosroe and of Constantine over Maxentius. But even in these cases the tone continues to glorify both the events almost as miraculous facts and the protagonist, who finds himself at the centre of attention as the deus ex machina in the event's determining role. This emphasis on glorification, of extreme importance in the evolution of battle painting, is evident in the "Battle of Constantine", painted and frescoed by Giulio Romano and based on the ideas of Raphael (who had already addressed themes of this type in the Vatican rooms) from the Constantine Room in the Vatican. The impressiveness of the narration, the use of historical costume and the captivating power of the composition established an example which would not be surpassed for at least a century, as we find constant reflections of this theme in the "biblical battles" of Nicolas Poussin, in the "Victory of Alexander over Darius" of Pietro da Cortona and in the innumerable representations of "Joshua Stopping the Sun" (that of Guglielmo Cortese in the "Galleria di Alessandro VII" in the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome is exemplary).

Upon these subjects were layered more "private" ones, to exalt familial events and splendours, such as the Farnese cycle in Caprarola and the Medici cycle in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (Salone del Cinquecento), in which the undertakings of Cosimo I are cloaked in classical vests, almost to the point of wrapping him in a mythical aura. Joining these cycles are minor episodes of local history represented nonetheless as fundamental facts in the affirmation of power at a European level (such as the "Battle of Cadore" painted by Titian in the Palazzo Ducale of Venice, today destroyed). [1]

In a like manner, the "Battle of Anghiari" (in which the Florentines defeat the troops from Arezzo) was narrated, or rather celebrated: thanks to the brush of Leonardo da Vinci, who painted it on a wall of Palazzo Vecchio, a small local event grew to be an extremely admired example fundamental in the development of battle painting from P. P. Rubens to E. Delacroix.

Though Rubens delayed in representing the victorious deeds of Henry IV according to these classical examples (1627-30, fig.1, Gallerie Uffizi, Florence) and the allegory of the "War Disasters" (Palazzo Pitti, Florence) with a heroic and unrealistic tone, a few years later a new trend was born in Rome and Naples, evidently influenced by the events of the Thirty Years' War. It demystified war episodes as events incarnated by the "hero" and replaced them with images projected on a realistic scale, signalling a completely new direction in battle representation. [2] It is probable that this trend was also inspired by the recent diffusion of art collecting, which had broken out of being the prerogative of the dominant and noble classes and expanded to include the bourgeois, who loved the more immediate and popular language affirmed in genre painting and who became more and more interested in historical and current events as chronicles for narration.

The transition from the courtly language of Raphael, still used by the Cavalier d'Arpino in the decoration of the Salone degli Orazi and by Curiazi in the Palazzo del Conservatori on the Campidoglio (1596), to a new, event-oriented and realistic sense of representation is affirmed in Rome by Michelangelo Cerquozzi, then known as "Michelangelo delle Battaglie" (1602-1660). Light has been shed only recently on his role as interpreter, in the style of the "Bamboccianti", of the genre which must have given him his nickname. [3] Inspired by the example of the "Bamboccianti" the Dutch and Flemish painters in Rome led by Pieter van Laer, known as "Il Bamboccio", who from the 1620's on affirmed a realistic style of painting which represented the inhabitants of Rome and their humble activities Cerquozzi utilises an immediate, almost brutal language which pushed battle painting toward a representation of the naked facts, which would later be practised above all by Borgognone. Among Cerquozzi's works, the least notable are those which appear to have been influenced by scenes of Salvator Rosa, such as the "Battle" in the Galleria Nazionale of Rome; instead to be studied are the small canvases such as those in Lucca, Grenoble and Salzburg, which feature a close-up viewpoint of a battle dominated by cavalry conflict, complete with horses and men unbridled in whirling movement, anticipating Borgognone's achievements.

Meanwhile in Naples, Aniello Falcone (1607-1656) was active, bringing an even barer language to battle representation, in which the "hero" as protagonist had finally disappeared completely. [4] In his painting it seemed as if the influence of the events which upset half of Europe from the Netherlands to France, Germany and Scandinavia, and also with repercussions in northern Italy encouraged an essential style which reflected reality down to the description of the arms and the dynamism of the troops, without worrying any longer about alignment with "classical" painting. Falcone, influenced by Velazquez and Cerquozzi, evidently drew inspiration from the direct observation of feats of arms and of the landscape surrounding Naples, whose morphology he reconstructs earlier than Borgognone. This inspiration is visible from his first work (1631, Louvre, Paris) and is affirmed by Saxl. Falcone's compositions are organised on parallel, horizontal planes with a static sense of shape which is not disturbed even when, as in a painting at the Pinacoteca di Capodimonte in Naples, it depicts a clash between cavalry. [5]

On the contrary Salvator Rosa (1615-1673), another battle painter who however reached greater fame in Naples, Rome and Florence, strayed from reality in his paintings, unable to resist the fascination of invented battles, admittedly establishing new rules of representation. A student of Falcone, he abandoned the harsh and bare, almost schematic, style of his teacher in favour of articulated compositions and a dynamism which revealed his adhesion to the Baroque aesthetic, exercised with an inventive capacity which is the most typical expression of this period. Though the artist did not love the war genre, he was forced to paint these scenes by his patrons, beginning with the Medici for whom he produced the large "Battle" (Palazzo Pitti, Florence), datable to the beginning of his sojourn in Florence, and a smaller canvas (Gallerie Uffizi, Florence) which were the artist's first experiments carried out in this field. The type of battle that the Neapolitan painter created in Florence with its dynamic charge as represented by the central node of a fight between cavalrymen and foot-soldiers which dissolves on the edges to vanish in a cloud of dust on the horizon lays the foundation for the renewal of this type of representation: Rosa moulds Falcone's static vision into a series of related episodes always pointing to the central scene which creates the dramatic climax of the episode. Rosa's battles, however, never refer to historical events and instead are pure exercises of the fervid imagination of the painter, who in any case must have been inspired by some possible episodes observed in reality. Rosa's activity, though limited, was most likely stimulated by the events of the Thirty Years' War and it became a fundamental example in the future dissemination of the war theme: the painter's ability to represent war episodes which in no way refer to actual fact in an immediate and convincing manner sparked a surge in realistic representation which found its culmination in Borgognone. It is probable that Rosa was familiar with the engravings of Callot, considering that the latter's "Cavalry Battle", included in "War Sufferings" (1633), appears to be the composition which inspired not only the Neapolitan painter, but the entire younger generation beginning with Borgognone. [6]

A minor personage who nonetheless had an immediate influence on his medium, engraving, was the Florentine Stefano Della Bella (1610-1664). The artist was marginally involved in representing war events during his stay in Paris which began in 1639. In fact, during this period he realised three large plates describing the various wartime events which had occurred under the rule of the cardinal of Richelieu, who commissioned the artist to illustrate the "Siege on St. Omer" (1638), the "Siege on Arras" (1641) and the "Capture of the Rochelle" (also 1641), in which the artist makes use of the teachings of both the Florentine master Remigio Cantagallina and above all of Jacques Callot, from the Lorraine region of France, whose works Della Bella had studied in Florence. The artist delineates the tactics and movement of the French army with minute realism, setting the scene within a vista of the city of Arras whose spatial breadth anticipates that in Borgognone's depiction of the battlefield of Lützen in the large painting commissioned by Mattias de' Medici (see ahead). These were years in which Della Bella too was influenced by the war events throughout Europe, producing engravings of skirmishes or artillery movements such as the "Various Figures" series published in Paris at the beginning of the 1640's [7], as well as a few small works attributed to him and the exquisite drawing (Louvre, Paris), probably a study for a plate never executed, which was to commemorate the siege on Casale Monferrato in 1628 by Spanish troops and the town's subsequent liberation by the French army. [8]

Jacques Courtois, called Borgognone after the region where he was born in 1621 (he died in Rome in 1676), invigorated the battle genre not only in Italy but throughout Europe: his popularity is proven not only by the fact that every painting collection (quadreria) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries possessed paintings of this subject from his time on, but also by the baptising of every battle painting with his name after the memory of minor personalities specialised in the field had been lost. [9] The painter's success was due above all to his great ability in utilising painting techniques to depict events whether inspired by reality or by imagination in which as one of his biographers, Baldinucci, recalls he portrayed the realism of wartime combat better than anybody else, infusing the episodes with such spontaneity that they were convincing in spite of being completely created from imagination. This ability of the painter to re-enact battle scenes with a realism drawn from the events of the Thirty Years' War is understandable considering the fact that, once he reached Italy as a teenager, he enlisted with the Spanish troops stationed in Milan for three years, until 1639, and so discovered firsthand those wartime facts and techniques that would make his pictorial representations so extraordinarily "true". Even though the events which led the imperial troops to siege Mantova and the French troops to occupy Susa and Casale Monferrato (1629-30) were concluded in 1631 with a peace treaty, the young artist must have had an opportunity to not only hear stories of these events but also to vicariously experience the atmosphere, at a few years' distance, through the garrisons who rotated throughout the city-states of northern Italy, among which Milan was certainly the most important. This experience in Borgognone's youth indelibly marked his formation, so much so that, responding to the pressure of the requests from the most varied patrons, he dedicated himself completely to battle themes and so ignored religious and figurative painting. The artist defined by Count Algarotti in a letter to Count Brüni in 1743 [10] as "the Raphael of battles and the Prince Eugene of painters" was unanimously considered by his contemporaries from Bernini to Baldinucci to Pascoli as the greatest painter of European battles, the one who was able to instil the subject with a truthfulness of representation that is still striking today. Courtois, beginning with the "heroic" representation affirmed above all by Salvator Rosa, his initial model, and also considering Cerquozzi's more directly realistic type of representation, succeeds in involving the spectator in events which he represents in an entirely innovative manner, articulating the scene within a panoramic breadth allowed by a bird's eye view of Nordic origin whose use must have also been influenced by the prints of Callot and of Stefano Della Bella. The solid training of this artist who had seen wartime realities firsthand is documented by drawings, most of which are evidently of real life subjects, from the sketch-books of London (British Museum, London) and Florence (Gallerie Uffizi, Florence) which demonstrate Courtois's acute ability to capture the movements and the dynamics of troops with quick sketches, even while organising the composition according to schemes demonstrably inspired by the work of Jacques Callot. In 1647 Courtois participated in the illustration of the second volume of Famiano Strada's work, "De Bello Belgico", dedicated to the war displays of the Farnese family, providing drawings of four scenes in which the influence of Callot and of Della Bella is clear: he established a compositional plan in them which he would later develop in his paintings and which were greatly successful among his numerous followers. Though they were not always based on direct experience with feats of arms, Courtois's works emanate such an air of firsthand realism that they provoked Baldinucci to exclaim that "his imagined battles make, if not the ear hear, then the mind think with terror of the screams of scuffling soldiers, the cries of the wounded, the laments of the dying, the uproar of the mortar, the tremors from the mines, that is to say, as if they were true and not make-believe."

"Jacopo Borgognone remained for a long while in Florence, very grateful to Prince Mattias, depicting the latter's military actions in Germany and Italy, and the other places where they took place, in a lifelike manner almost as a historian would." Thus Lanzi remembers the activity of the painter who, having moved to Rome, was so affirmed as to be invited by Mattias de' Medici, general of the Tuscan army, to work for him. For Medici, Borgognone produced what may have been his masterpieces on canvas, the four works (referred to in the above citations of Baldinucci and Lanzi) representing two events from the war in Germany between the followers of the German emperor and the Swedish the battles of Lützen and Nördlingen in which the young Medici took part from 1632-34 (see the tables in this catalogue) and two decisive battles in the so-called "Castro War", fought from 1641-43 by Tuscany against the State of the Church for the possession of this small stronghold. In these paintings, it is possible to note a complete departure from the 'ideal' battles created for the same Medicis by Salvator Rosa. It is possible that the painter recreated the two battles of the Thirty Years' War with a description supplied by Mattias who, as Baldinucci remembers, never tired of describing his achievements with the mentality, as Lanzi says, of a 'historian' considering that the "Battle of Radicofani" (fig. 2) appears in a topographically exact landscape, providing us with proof of the painter's ability in painting landscapes as celebrated by Holt. [11] The two representations of the German battles testify to Borgognone's gift for narration: their conception from a bird's eye point of view after the examples of Callot and Stefano Della Bella and their rotatory sense, which creates a concentric, swirling motion and which places the troops in the endless panorama of the plains where the battles take place, are the fundamental points of reference for all successive representations of this genre, from Reschi to Brescianino, from Pinacci to "Monsù Leandro", from Simonini to Stom to Calza and many others who, as we shall see, attempted to recreate Borgognone's passion for narration. The painter draws the viewer into the described events without forsaking immediacy and expressive drama even in his small paintings, such as the works painted for Leopoldo de' Medici (fig. 3) and other patrons (fig. 4) as well as the pair from the Galleria Capitolina and the Galleria Doria in Rome, considered by Holt as being among his earliest works, which distinguish themselves for their descriptive clarity and compositional precision.

As Baldinucci affirms and Lanzi confirms, the Central European Pandolfo Reschi (Resch, 1630/40-1696), a native of Danzig (today in Poland) who moved to Italy, was perhaps Borgognone's best student. Having found success with the Medici family, he moved to Florence where he carried out most of his activity working for the most important local families (Riccardi, Gerini, Corsini, Ferroni) whose collections still feature the artist's works. The recent reconstruction of Reschi's work confirms Baldinucci's opinion that the artist had studied with Borgognone. [12] It is probable that the painter from Danzig was also influenced by Courtois in a decisive manner from the time the former was in Rome: his mature style from the Florentine period is proof. Not only in the compositions from a very close point of view which depict the principal episode of a conflict does the painter display the most typical motifs of his teacher; above all Reschi is inspired by Borgognone in the large panoramic canvases featuring real events such as the "Siege on Barcelona" and the "Great Battle in Barcelona" (fig. 5, Galleria Corsini, Florence) that Reschi painted for Bartolomeo Corsini around 1680, and which narrate incidents from the last phase, the French-Spanish one, of the Thirty Years' War. Like Borgognone's canvases for Mattias de' Medici, these large compositions are after-the-fact remembrances of events which had touched the imagination of society, also in Italy, at that time. If anything, Reschi's work differed from that of his teacher in being more episodic and in treating the representation's dramatic sense in a less accentuated manner: the scene of the undressing of cadavers after battle (fig. 6, Staatsgalerie, Kulmbach) which is attributed to Courtois demonstrates an illustrative manner and a narrative sense which are instead reminiscent of Reschi. The fact that the latter was also, or rather was prevalently, a landscape artist explains the unusual attention given to the description of the sweeping landscape which almost becomes the subject of the painting.

The Sienese Giuseppe Pinacci (1642-1718) may be considered a follower of Reschi. It seems that he was a student of Livio Mehus and thus of Borgognone, probably during the years when the latter worked for Mattias de' Medici when he was the governor of Siena: consequently, it is not surprising that the few works attributable to Pinacci also demonstrate Reschi's influence (fig.7) [13].

While the trend started by Courtois seems to end in central and southern Italy in the second half of the 17th century, it is northern Italy that pays particular attention to the genre through a series of specialists who helped popularise it into the18th century. Perhaps this depended on the successful activity of another student of Borgognone in his late years, Francesco Monti (1646-1712/13) from Brescia, called the "Brescianino of Battles" due to the fact that he specialised in the representation of war episodes in the wake of his master. [14] There is no doubt that Brescianino's painting style reflects that of Courtois, above all in the extremely dynamic style of his compositions dominated by cavalry conflicts which are generally seen from a close-up point of view which makes the description of the event more dramatic. In fact Brescianino's paintings feature such a sense of immediacy that, as Lanzi remembers, many of the works which had lost the painter's name were soon attributed to Borgognone (figs. 8-9). Lanzi also refers to the importance that Brescianino's example had in the founding of a battle-painting tradition in northern Italy after it had almost entirely died out in the southern part of the country.

Monti's relocation to Parma provoked an interest for the battle genre there which was carried on by Ilario Spolverini (1657-1734), an able composer of vast scenes which however veer towards a colloquial and decorative style, losing the bite still present in Brescianino's canvases. Brescianino's talents are instead mirrored more directly by another student of his, the same Giovanni Canti (1653-1716) who was later active above all in Mantova, a personality who has only recently been rediscovered. [15]

The reputation of another student of Brescianino, Francesco Simonini from Parma (1689?-after 1753) who was active in the Veneto region and in Florence, is undoubtedly established. His broad compositions (fig.10), whose development relies notably on drawing, reflect Monti's origins but feature persisting motifs derived directly from Borgognone which allow Simonini to personally interpret subjects which spring entirely from his imagination. As Pallucchini indicates, Simonini's colour, influenced by the painting from the Veneto region during that period, uses the atmospheric effects and quick strokes that prelude the rapid painting style of Zais, who in fact was his student. [16]

It appears that Antonio Calza (1653-1729) from Verona trained in Rome at Borgognone's school. The works attributable to him reflect the impetuous style and the brutality of hand-to-hand combat but without the objectivity and the realistic sense of his teacher, as may also be noted in the works of Matteo Stom (the dates are ignored, but it seems that he was active during the second half of the 17th century and the beginning of the next one), another artist who models himself after the example of Salvator Rosa. [17]

Meanwhile, in Rome the German Christian Reder (1656-1729) is active at the end of the 17th century. Probably thanks to the experiences he had heard about while in his native country, Reder seems to be familiar with "waged war" themes in the few works which may be attributed to him. These paintings demonstrate that he was also attentive to Borgognone's lesson in realism: it is characteristic of the painter to carefully describe a series of subjects which centre in on a central episode, such as the fight between two cavalry units or the commander who scours the field after a battle. In these paintings, in which sober colour is animated by a few vivacious touches, the minute description of the figures attempts to recreate the realistic, documentary intensity of Courtois's representations. [18]

The representations of Antonio Marini (1668-1725), from the Veneto region, and of Francesco Casanova (1727-1802) are oriented towards a fully decorative style which only distantly reflects the impact of European events such as the Thirty Years' War and the Turkish siege on Vienna (1683). Marini was until recently mistaken for Marco Ricci [19] and for the Grazianis (first half of the 18th century), Neapolitans whose artwork filled painting collections with works in likeable, small-format series. Casanova brilliantly asserted a style in the wake of Borgognone which was by then "international" [20], concluding the story of a genre whose popularisation mirrored the major historical events of Europe. [21]

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1. On the development of mural painting as the illustration of the heroic deeds of a city or of a family, see Kliemann 1993.

2. On this important point, see Saxl 1939/40.

3. Laureati 1993.

4. Saxl 1939/40; Naples 1984.

5. Falcone's painting earned the admiration of Lanzi, who wrote, "He had a singular talent in the representation of battles; he painted in small and large proportions, taking as subject matter holy books, or profane tales, or poems; varied was the clothing, the arms, the faces, just as the armies at battle were varied; lively in their expressions, deliberate and natural in the figures and in the horses' movements. He knew the military discipline, though he had not served in the army, and he had not seen war action."

6. On Salvator Rosa see Salerno 1963, Salerno 1975 and Scott 1996.

7. On Stefano Della Bella see Massar 1971 and Florence 1973.

8. Viatte 1974.

9. Salvagnini 1937 was the first to identity the paintings for Mattias de' Medici. See also Chiarini 1969, Chiarini 1989, Rudolph 1973.

10. Holt 1969.

11. Barbolani di Montauto 1996.

12. Chiarini 1989.

13. Arisi 1975.

14. For Spolverini see Arisi Riccardi 1979; for Canti Tellini Perina 1974 and Clerici Bagozzi 1977.

15. Pallucchini 1960.

16. For Stom see Donzelli/Pilo 1967; for Calza, Magagnato 1978.

17. Pascoli 1730/36, II.

18. Muti/De Sarno Prignano 1991.

19. Kuhn 1984.

20. On Graziani see Chiarini 1989.

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