Battle of the Centaurs (marble, 90,5 x 90,5 cm) 1490-92
Buonarroti House, Florence
This is Michelangelo’s first and only high relief. What is it about?
Why, the famous battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs at the wedding feast of Hippodamia and Pirithous, as told in Book 12 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Vasari calls it “The Battle of Hercules with the Centaurs”).
Never heard of that battle?
Michelangelo himself wasn’t too clear on it. It was Politian, a learned Humanist at Lorenzo de Medici’s palace, who told him about it and fired his imagination. Michelangelo was about 17 years old.
“Igitur, Domine?” Politian asked him after telling the story. Bits of Latin kept coming out when Politian spoke. The Humanists were all Latin scholars. “ What do you think?—could you illustrate THAT in stone—in petra, in marmore? You could put in lots of men in different postures and give them a classical touch.”
He pointed to one of the Roman sarcophaguses in Lorenzo the Magnificent’s garden, with beautiful scenes of mythical battles in high relief. “Can you do as well as that?” he asked the boy. Politian could think of nothing deeper or more “artistic” than sculpture like that. And Michelangelo picked up his admiration. That’s what teachers hand down.
And when the relief was far along, Michelangelo showed it to Politian, who sighed with joy. “That’s almost as good as the old craftsmen would have done it,” he told Michelangelo, who may have beamed or burned, depending on how much of the praise he felt was being given to him. He was proud of the relief and treasured it all his life. Geniuses often find themselves early. Here already was Michelangelo’s subject—the male nude—carved with wonderful precision and knowledge.
Politian told him to keep working: he thought he saw in the lad’s relief a touch of an old Muse. Or an angel—he thought they were probably the same thing with different names; though he preferred to call the being a Muse.
The Michelangelo scholar Ludwig Goldscheider says this about the relief: “The details…are not very clear; it has neither been agreed which of the figures are Centaurs and which are human; nor which are the men and which the women. Wöfflin maintained that there was not a single female figure in the relief, whereas Symonds believed that the central figure was female. According to Justi, however, this central figure is the Centaur Eurytion, while Knapp thinks it is either Hercules or Theseus.”