This autumn, the best pictures in Hungary are in London.
“Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele” at the Royal Academy contains the pick of the country’s public collections.
Those hunting through this big, packed exhibition will find fascinating and beautiful things, among them a couple of intriguing clues to a lost Leonardo da Vinci.
The two drawings by Leonardo are studies for one of the major missing items in Renaissance art: “The Battle of Anghiari.” In 1503, Leonardo was commissioned by the republican government of Florence to paint a huge mural on this subject. It was to decorate the Great Council Hall in the Palazzo Vecchio.
The following year, Michelangelo was commissioned to paint another patriotic battle scene on the opposite wall. If they had both delivered, it would have been one of the most spectacular artistic tussles in history. Unfortunately, neither did. Leonardo got furthest, painting part of his composition before losing interest and sneaking off to Milan.
There is speculation that this fragment still may exist behind a false wall. Until and unless that is rediscovered -- a long shot -- the best evidence for what would be Leonardo’s largest and most ambitious painting is the drawings. Some show a frantic melee of struggling horses and men; but the two from Budapest (c. 1504-5) are close-ups, powerfully naturalistic faces of fighters.
One shows the commander on the losing side. As Jonathan Jones wrote in his recent book, “The Lost Battles,” this veteran warrior “screaming with rage is Leonardo da Vinci’s sinister pendant to his smiling Mona Lisa.”
The drawing reveals an unexpected side of this mysterious artist. It’s possible that Leonardo had been traumatized by his service as military engineer to Cesare Borgia, reputedly the model for Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” He described the heat of battle as “the most bestial madness” and his “Battle of Anghiari” may have been an early example of anti-war art.
That and its companion drawing of a younger soldier are the outstanding exhibits, yet there’s a lot more to see. The Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest was founded by the powerful Esterhazy family, patrons of the composer Haydn, and largely consists of the Esterhazys’ paintings and sculptures.
It’s a rich pudding of a collection from Mitteleuropa, with a certain amount of visual stodge -- dullish works by second-rank artists and a dud by a Renaissance star, Raphael (the unfinished and raw looking “Esterhazy Madonna,” c. 1507-8). There are plenty of plums, too. Among those is a delicious female portrait by Goya and a couple of sturdy later figures “The Knife-Grinder” and “Water-Carrier” (both c. 1808-12), showing how modern-minded the stone-deaf Goya was in his 60s.
Venetian and Spanish painting are well represented, with nice examples of Tintoretto and Sebastiano del Piombo, and a lovely, uncharacteristic Canaletto, “Lock at Dolo” (c. 1756), a quiet suburban backwater rather than the tourist sites he usually turned out. The later art is weaker -- 19th- and 20th-century Hungarian painting being strictly for specialists -- though there are some finds, a Toulouse-Lautrec and a Gauguin included.
A personal favorite of mine is Constable’s 1814 sketch of a celebration on the village green at East Bergholt. Pictures have their own fates, sometimes strange ones. I can’t help wondering how this most English of scenes ended up in Budapest.
“Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele” is at the Royal Academy, London, through Dec. 12. The exhibition is sponsored by OTP Bank Nyrt. Information: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)