The Battle of Marciano (La battaglia di Marciano) is a huge, impressive fresco painted by the Italian architect, historian, painter, and writer Giorgio Vasari in 1565 for Cosimo I de’ Medici in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Palazzo Vecchio.
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 (which was a creek near the village of Marciano della Chiana), 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.
In 1554, Cosimo I de’ Medici, supported by Emperor Charles V, launched a large campaign to conquer Florence’s last remaining rival in Tuscany, the Republic of Siena. His army was under the command of Gian Giacomo Medici, Marquess of Marignano, better known as “Medeghino.”
The Florentine imperial troops were divided into three corps: Federico Barbolani di Montauto, who with 800 men landed in southern Tuscany to conquer the area of Grosseto; Rodolfo Baglioni, who with 3,000 men invaded the Val di Chiana to conquer Chiusi, Pienza, and Montalcino; and the main corps under Medeghino himself, which, consisting of 4,500 infantry, 20 cannons, and 1,200 sappers, was deployed at Poggibonsi for the main attack against Siena.
The Sienese entrusted the defence to Piero Strozzi, a fierce rival of the Medici family and a general in the French service.
French troops and Florentines exiled by the Medici took part in the war under the Sienese aegis.
The Florentine troops approached Siena on the night of January 26, 1554.
After an initial failed assault, the Marquess of Marignano laid siege to the city, although his men were not numerous enough to totally cut it off from the countryside. Both Baglioni and Montauto failed to capture Pienza and Grosseto.
French ships harassed the Florentine supply lines at Piombino. Cosimo replied to the initial setbacks by hiring Ascanio della Cornia with 6,000 infantry and 300 cavalry, and waiting for further Imperial reinforcements.
On June 11, Strozzi attempted a sally to relieve the pressure on Siena, leaving some French units in the city. He moved towards Pontedera, forcing Medeghino to raise the siege to follow him. This did not prevent Strozzi from joining a French contingent with 3,500 infantry, 700 horse, and 4 cannons in the territory of Lucca. On June 21, Strozzi conquered Montecatini, but did not feel confident enough to join a pitched battle against Medeghino, waiting instead for further French reinforcements, which were to arrive at Viareggio. He had, in total, 9,500 infantry and perhaps 1,200 cavalry. On the other hand, Medici had 2,000 Spanish, 3,000 German, and 6,000 Italian infantry, as well as 600 cavalry, not to mention further troops from Spain and Corsica that had recently landed at Bocca d’Arno.
As a result, Strozzi marched back to Siena, where the supply situation had become desperate. In July, he failed to capture Piombino, in southern Tuscany, the only port from which the French supplies could reach Siena. On July 17, conscious that only victory in a pitched battle could save the city, he tried a third sally in the Val di Chiana, in the direction of Arezzo, leaving 1,000 infantry and 200 cavalry as a garrison under Blaise de Montluc.
His field army included 14,000 infantry, about 1,000 cavalry, and five guns.
His force easily overwhelmed the small Florentine garrisons on his way, although the attempt on July 20 to conquer Arezzo failed. He managed to capture Lucignano, Marciano della Chiana, Foiano, and other centres in the following days.
After a few days of inactivity, Medeghino raised the siege of Siena and moved to meet Strozzi.
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.
Medeghino easily subdued the neighbouring castles in the days following the battle and was subsequently able to lay a tighter siege to Siena. Cruel measures were adopted to prevent the peasants taking supplies into the city. In March 1555, he destroyed a corps of 1,300 mercenaries trying to escape to collect food.
Unable to receive substantial supplies and reinforcements from the French, the city surrendered on April 17, 1555, while the remaining Sienese forces withdrew to Montalcino.
The Republic of Siena finally disappeared in 1559 and was thenceforth incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. The Grand Duke ordered that a large fortress be constructed as a precaution against the risk of further rebellion by the Sienese. The fortress has presided over the city, from its north (Florentine) side, since its completion in 1563.
Seek and ye shall find
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 thenPalazzo Vecchio.
On a green flag, in the upper middle part of the fresco, the words “cerca trova”are written, signifying seek and ye shall find.’ It is almost impossible to see this without binoculars.
The green flags belonged to the Sienese army and used to include various verses of Dante for inspiration. Duke Cosimo I wanted the sentence ‘cerca trova’ to be included in the painting as an ironic reference to the ‘defeat’ that the Siena army found.
It has long been believed by many that below the fresco of Vasari, a famous fresco of Leonardo da Vinci can be found.
In 1505, Leonardo da Vinci worked on a fresco called The Battle of Anghiari, fought on July 29, 1440, between Florence and Milano.
Leonardo painted a beautiful fresco, but it was very delicate due to his use of the experimental technique called encausto.
After a few months, the artist stopped the work, frustrated by his failure. Despite this severe damage, The Battle of Anghiari was displayed for several years in the Palazzo Vecchio, allowing many artists to see and reproduce it.
There are three reasons to believe that the lost Leonardo may indeed still be hidden here. First, historical sources indicate that the fresco existed at this location. Second, Vasari has a history of working on top of other artwork, all the while preserving the original artwork. Third, the ‘cerca trova’ reference of Vasari may be a hint that the lost Leonardo can still be found.
Over the years, various scientific methods have been used, but none have gathered enough evidence to confirm the presence of the lost Leonardo. The only evidence that remains of the masterpiece by Leonardo is the preparatory drawings and stories of the time.
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.
This post was originally published in July 4, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on July 16, 2017.