The exact name of the painting, which plays a key role in Dan Brown’s 2013 novel Inferno, is The victory of Cosimo I at Marciano in Val di Chiana (La vittoria di Cosimo I a Marciano in Val di Chiana).
The painting shows a very important battle in the history of the Medici family, which marked the conquest of the city of Siena.
The Battle of Marciano, also known as the Battle of Scannagallo, was fought August 2, 1554, between the French/Siena army under the command of Piero Strozzi against the Hispanic/Florentine army under the command of Gian Giacomo Medici , engaged by the Duke of Florence Cosimo I de’ Medici.
The Duke Cosimo wanted to control all of Tuscany, but among the remaining obstacles was the difficult task of subduing the Republic of Siena.
Like all wars, however, the battle between Florence and Siena was also a way to resolve other conflicts.
Specifically, the Battle of Marciano was a consequence of three different types of opposition.
The first conflict was internal to the city of Florence: The Strozzi family and the Medici family fought for hegemony over the city even more than over the Tuscany region.
The second opposition had a European dimension: France and Spain fought for hegemony over the continent.
Spain was interested in maintaining control of Tuscany, considered to be of strategic importance for marine landings, as well as for its mineral wealth and for the financial organization of the Siena and Florentine bankers who exercised a dominant role in the European banking system.
France was rather eager to have an important political role again in the Italian territory capable of countering the Spanish supremacy.
The third conflict was internal to the Medici family, involving the Queen Consort of France Catherine de’ Medici, a distant cousin of Cosimo I, and his bitter rival.
The armies faced each other in the hills beside the Scannagallo ditch, near the village of Marciano della Chiana.
The opposing armies were deployed and behaved according to strategies recommended by Machiavelli.
They were both a mixed militia, composed of local soldiers, united by the charisma of their commander and animated by patriotic and religious ideals, along with professional foreign mercenaries.
Piero Strozzi led an army of 14,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry.
The Florentine forces were virtually the same but had more artillery and greater compactness.
The enemy camps arranged themselves on the heights on either side of a valley crossed by the dry Scannagallo creek.
The commands of both sides were placed in an elevated position, while the infantry were deployed lower down.
After an overwhelming initial attack, the Siena forces found themselves pushed back across the ditch at a disadvantage.
The grueling battle continued for many hours.
The retreat of the Siena cavalry confused the war strategy and influenced the outcome of the battle.
Their actions place in difficult terrain, and the dreaded French cavalry was attacked by the mighty imperial Spanish army.
There were thousands of dead and wounded men and prisoners taken on the Siena side but very few on the other one.
As a trophy of war, the Florentine army seized more than 100 green flags that had been donated to the Siena by the King of France.
The victory of the Florentines signaled the decline of the Republic of Siena, which was finally forced to surrender to the enemy in 1559.
The Battle of Marciano was therefore very important to the success of Cosimo I and of the Medici family.
It is no surprise then that Duke Cosimo I asked Giorgio Vasari to depict the episode in an imposing fresco, placed in a prominent place within the Hall of the Five Hundred, the most important room in the Palazzo Vecchio.
In the top center of the picture, you can see the Siena troops with their green flags.
On a flag, you can read the mysterious inscription “cerca trova” (seek and ye shall find), which is almost impossible to see from below without binoculars.
Next week we will reveal the mystery…
In the meanwhile, if you want to take a look at the curiosities that took place in Florence, we suggest this book: It Happened in Florence by Nita Tucker, former editor-in-chief of The Florentine, the most important English language newspaper in Florence.