Battle of the Centaurs by Michelangelo: The Classical Hero Reborn

Image of Battle of the Centaurs by Michelangelo
Battle of the Centaurs by Michelangelo (marble, c. 1492). On display at the Casa Buonarroti. Credit: Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0/wikicommons

In 1490, a young Michelangelo Buonarroti scrounged a three-foot slab of marble from a nearby building site.  On this rough slab, Michelangelo made his first attempt to carve what would become his signature subject, the classical male nude.  Inspired by tales from Ovid and Hygnisus, Michelangelo set to work carving a famous scene from Greek mythology – a battle between Hercules and centaurs over the princess Deianira.  The work that resulted shows a scene filled with writhing figures engaged in combat. Men and centaurs are locked in a perilous struggle for dominance, pounding and tearing at each other with rocks and fists.  It is a work that exhibits a precocious talent and which foreshadows many of Michelangelo’s later pieces, including David and The Last Judgement.  Decades later when showing Battle of the Centaurs to a friend, Michelangelo expressed regret that he had ever endeavored to do anything other than carve marble. 

Style

Battle of the Centaurs – the second oldest of Michelangelo’s surviving works – foreshadows much of the artist’s later style.  It is a tangle of nude male figures engaged in heroic physical exertion.  Little attention is paid to anything else – not the weapons (which are mostly rocks) or even the equine elements of the centaurs.

These heroic figures, twisted into a complex variety of poses, are a clear indication of where Michelangelo’s interest lie – the classical male nude.  First seen here, the male nude was to become Michelangelo’s signature subject, most famously depicted in David, the Last Judgement, and the Battle of Cascina.  In Battle of the Centaurs, we see what may very well be the genesis of Michelangelo’s fascination with this subject.

Detail of Hercules from Battle of the Centaurs by Michelangelo
Detail showing Hercules from Battle of the Centaurs. Credit: Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0/wikicommons

Also evident in this work is Michelangelo’s precocious talent.  The tangle of figures (among them 26 faces with over 20 bodies) create a striking sense of depth for a bas-relief.  Some figures only faintly emerge from the stone, while others – such as the hero Hercules on the left and Deianira at the bottom center – are almost miniature statues in themselves. This vivid composition and skillful execution offer an early taste of things to come.

Detail showing Deianira (or Hippodamea) from Battle of the Centaurs.
Detail showing Deianira (or Hippodamea) from Battle of the Centaurs. Credit: Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0/wikicommons

Also foreshadowing his later style is the unfinished state of the piece.  Many of the faces seem not quite fully sculpted and visible chisel marks remain in the spaces between many of the central figures.  Throughout his life, Michelangelo would often abandon pieces which no longer held his interest or in which he saw little opportunity for profit. Such may have been the case here following the untimely death of his benefactor, Lorenzo de’Medici.

History

Image of Portrait of Lorenzo de'Medici by Bronzino.
Portrait of Lorenzo de’Medici by Bronzino (oil on tin, 15th century). wikicommons

Battle of the Centaurs was carved shortly after Michelangelo entered the household of Florence’s defacto ruler, Lorenzo de’Medici, better known as Lorenzo the Magnificent.  Running out of trained sculptors, Lorenzo had asked Michelangelo’s then master (the famed painter Domenico Ghrilandaio) to recommend two of his students to be trained in sculpting.  Michelangelo was one of the pupils Ghirlandaio recommended and around 1490 (at the age of 14 or 15) the artist entered Lorenzo’s household to be trained in sculpture.

It was in the Medici household that Michelangelo first became acquainted with classical art.  Lorenzo, just like his father (Piero de’Medici) and grandfather (Cosimo de’Medici), was enthralled by all things antique.  His agents combed the Italian peninsula for recently unearthed sculptures or jewelry, paying handsomely for any worthy piece.  Much of what the Medici acquired was put on display in their sculpture garden, where Michelangelo and other artists could learn from them.

Curating and adding to the Medici collection was Bertoldo di Giovanni – a former student of Donatello’s.  Bertoldo was the resident expert on sculpture when Michelangelo joined the Medici household and likely provided the young artist with instructions on the rudiments of sculpting. His bronze relief of a Roman battle scene (modeled after a carving on a Roman sarcophagus) was likely one of the main inspirations for Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs.

Image of Roman Battle by Bertoldo di Giovanni.
Roman Battle by Bertoldo di Giovanni (bronze, c. 1480). Credit: Sailko/CC BY-SA 4.0/wikicommons

Bertoldo, however, wasn’t the only one to influence the teenage Michelangelo’s thinking.  Living in the Medici household, Michelangelo would also have had frequent contact with some of Italy’s (and Europe’s) leading artists, poets, and philosophers.  Decades later, Michelangelo still remembered fondly the dinners hosted by Lorenzo, in which he would convene this eclectic group of intellectuals to discuss the finer points of religion and philosophy late into the night.

Michelangelo would remain a member of the Medici household until Lorenzo’s death in 1492. This brief period had a profound influence on Michelangelo’s artistic tastes and world view. In addition to getting his start as a sculptor, Michelangelo also established relationships with the broader Medici clan, members of which would patronize his work for decades to come.

Symbolism/Significance

Among the many great intellectuals who sat at Lorenzo’s table, the poet and scholar Angelo Poliziano made a particularly deep impression on Michelangelo.  Poliziano was a leading scholar of classical literature and helped round out Michelangelo’s understanding of the mythology that inspired the antique sculptures he saw in the Medici gardens.  Unsurprisingly, it was to Poliziano that Michelangelo turned when he needed a subject to depict on the slab of marble that would become Battle of the Centaurs.

The precise subject Poliazino recommended was “Hercules Battling the Centaurs” from Hygnisus Fabulae.  In this story, Hercules seduces Deianira, the daughter of his host, King Dexamenus.  An honorable hero, Hercules promises the King he will marry Deianira when he next returns.  However, while Hercules is away, the centaur Eurytion requests that he be allowed to marry Deianira.  The King, fearful of Eurytion’s strength, agrees to the marriage.  Unfortunately for Euryition, Hercules returns just as he and his brothers gather for the wedding.  Hercules kills the centaurs and then weds Deianira on the spot.

Image of Hercules and Nessus by Giambalogna.
Hercules and Nessus by Giambalogna (marble, 1599) on display under the Loggia in Florence. This piece depicts another scene in which Hercules battles a centaur (who also made the mistake of kidnapping Deianira). Photo Credit: Artifacts

In addition to its solid classical bona fides, the subject also would have carried a certain patriotic tinge.  Hercules, the slayer of tyrants, had become a symbol of the Florentine Republic.  Michelangelo may have calculated this patriotic echo would have increased the appeal of his work to his powerful patron.

Hygnisus’ story, however, wasn’t the only source of inspiration for Michelangelo.  The sculpture also contains clear echoes of a similar tale of a battle between men and centaurs told by Ovid.  In Ovid’s tale, the battle occurs during the wedding feast of King Pirithous.  According to Ovid, Pirithous invited the centaurs as friends.  Being rough folk, however, they soon become inebriated by the free flowing wine.  When the King’s bride to be (Hippodamea) is presented at the feast, the drunken centaur Eurytion attempts to abduct her.  In the battle that ensues, Eurytion is killed (again) and the other centaurs beaten back and defeated.

Detail showing Deianira (or Hippodamea) from Battle of the Centaurs. Credit: Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0/wikicommons

Michelangelo embellished his work with several elements from Ovid’s telling, which is far more vivid than the story told by Hygnisus.  Among the most notable elements is the depiction of Hippodamea being pulled away by her hair, which does not occur in Hygnisus’ version.  In drawing on multiple sources, Michelangelo gave himself more space to channel the antique ethos of the subject into a work more relevant for his own historical period.

David

Classical sculpture would be an ongoing source of inspiration for Michelangelo.  Nowhere is this more evident than in his famous statue of the biblical hero, David.  David is carved in the mold of an archetypal classical hero.  A muscular nude man gazes confidently forward, completely at ease despite the danger that approaches.  He is the embodiment of the mythical heroes of Ovid and Homer.

Image of David by Michelangelo
David by Michelangelo (marble, 1501-04). On display at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. Photo Credit: Artifacts

In Battle of the Centaurs, we already see elements which anticipate this work.  Most obvious is the figure of Hercules, which protrudes further from the relief than any other figure.  Like David, Hercules holds the contrapposto stance so popular in classical sculpture.  Michelangelo firmly believed that a sculpture must convey a sense of physical tension. One way he did this was by depicting his figures leaning to one side with shoulders askance. 

Despite the pronounced echoes between Battle of the Centaurs and David, the latter work shows further evolution in Michelangelo’s style – most notably the departure from a strict form of naturalism.  David’s hands and head are far larger in relation to his body than human physiology generally allows.  Similar distortions in physiology can be seen in the figure of the young Mary in Michelangelo’s Pieta’, completed just a few years before.  This shows that Michelangelo’s pursuit of beauty would not be constrained by a rigid faithfulness to nature.

Battle of Cascina

Copy of the central portion of Michelangelo's Cartoon for the never-completed fresco Battle of Cascina
Copy of the central portion of Michelangelo’s Cartoon for the never-completed fresco Battle of Cascina. Copy by Bastiano da Sangallo (oil on wood, c.1542). wikicommons

Some years after finishing David, Michelangelo was commissioned to paint a fresco in the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio – the seat of the Florentine government.  The subject was to be the Battle of Cascina, a 14th century battle in which the Florentine army was ambushed by the forces of Pisa while bathing in the river Arno.  As many have noted, it is one of the few battles in history in which an artist could justifiably depict some of the combatants nude.  This, of course, made it perfect for Michelangelo.

While Michelangelo never got around to painting it, he did make a detailed plan for the fresco, which he captured in a famous drawing.  Unfortunately, this drawing was so highly regarded that it was torn into a number of pieces, all of which disappeared across collections and workshops throughout Italy.  What we are left with today are only smaller preparatory drawings by Michelangelo and copies by other artists, some of who saw it whole.

From these limited remnants, we see that had it been painted, it would have been a masterpiece.  Again, we see the mass of twisting bodies which first appeared in Battle of the Centaurs.  The Florentine soldiers struggle to climb out of the river and put on their armor.  Others just pick up weapons and fight. 

Study for a figure to be used in Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina.
Study for a figure to be used in Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina (pen and chalk, 1504). wikicommons

In Michelangelo’s preparatory drawings, we see his elegant cross-hatching, which bring out the form with a plasticity reminiscent of his sculptures.  From the force and dynamism of the soldiers, so natural and fluid in their motion, one can infer the power of the artistic imagination which created them.

Sources/Further Reading on Battle of the Centaurs by Michelangelo

  1. Gayford, Martin. Michelangelo: His Epic Life. Penguin, 2013
  2. Moffitt, John F. “ANOTHER LOOK AT MICHELANGELO’S ‘CENTAUROMACHIA.’” Source: Notes in the History of Art, vol. 25, no. 4, [Ars Brevis Foundation Inc., University of Chicago Press], 2006, pp. 16–26.
  3. Dempsey, Charles. “ANGELO POLIZIANO AND MICHELANGELO’S BATTLE OF THE CENTAURS.” Mitteilungen Des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, vol. 62, no. 2/3, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut, 2020, pp. 158–79.
  4. Barolsky, Paul. “As in Ovid, So in Renaissance Art.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 2, [The University of Chicago Press, Renaissance Society of America], 1998, pp. 451–74.