My Favourite Painting: Virginia Wade

'It is an inspiring three-act play or an unforgettable movie.'

The Battle of Anghiari, 1603, 21in by 25in, copy after Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), completed by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Louvre, Paris, France. Bridgeman Images.

Virginia Wade says:

‘One wonders what could possibly have possessed the generally analytical, temperate Leonardo da Vinci to envision the scene of unrestrained, haemorrhagic fervour visible in this picture. To me, it is not only a spectacular masterpiece of visual movement, it activates the tumultuous thunder of hooves and raises the dust that stings the nose and eyes in a Lucullan feast for the senses. It is an inspiring three-act play or an unforgettable movie. All I have to do is supply the popcorn.’

Virginia Wade won the Ladies Singles title at Wimbledon in 1977. She is part of the BBC commentary team at this year’s championships, which end on July 3.

Art critic John McEwen comments:

‘On the very date of this issue, 571 years ago, June 29, 1440, an Italian League army led by the Republic of Florence defeated a Milanese army at the Battle of Anghiari. When the Florentine Republic was reinstated in 1603 after a period of Medici autocracy, two monumental battle frescos were commissioned for opposite walls of the recently rebuilt Hall of the Five Hundred at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence to commemorate famous republican victories. The artists were Leonardo and Michelangelo.

Leonardo was assigned the Battle of Anghiari. The unique meeting of the artistic titans didn’t work out. Leonardo abandoned the project due to technical difficulties. Michelangelo was recalled to Rome. Many of Leonardo’s preparatory sketches survive, but what remained of the mural was deliberately expunged in alterations made by Giorgio Vasari when the Medicis returned to power. The Battle of Anghiari thus passed intolegend as ‘The Lost Leonardo’.

Recommended videos for you

This drawing is the most reliable witness to the climactic middle section of the mural, the battle for the standard. It features what Vasari described as the ‘rage, fury, and vindictiveness… displayed both by the men and by the horses’, whose ‘boldness, muscles and graceful beauty’ Leonardo captured ‘better than any other master’. Rubens extended the edges of an anonymous copy of an engraving after the original and also completed the sword of the fourth horseman. Recent research has revealed that Vasari’s later mural is painted on a new wall built in front of Leonardo’s, suggesting the abandoned original may still be intact.’

This article was first published in Country Life, June 29, 2011