PAINTING DURING THE EARLY RENAISSANCE (1400-1495). THE TUSCAN PAINTERS. Paolo Uccello

Paolo di Dono, called Paolo Uccello, was born in Pratovecchio (now Province of Arezzo, Italy) in 1397 and died in Florence in December 10, 1475. His nickname Uccello (Italian for “bird”, “Paul of the birds”) came from his predilection for painting birds: he loved to paint animals and even kept a wide variety of images of animals, particularly birds, at his house. As painter and mathematician he was obsessed by the accurate depiction of perspective and other compositional problems, and hence was notable for his pioneering work on visual perspective in art.

Between 1412-1416, Paolo was one of Lorenzo Ghiberti‘s apprentices, and his master’s late-Gothic narrative style and sculptural composition had a profound impact in Paolo’s art. Uccello was also friends with Donatello, who facilitated his entry to the painters’ guild of Florence. By 1414, Paolo was part of the painter’s guild (Compagnia di San Luca) and the following year he joined the most prestigious painter’s guild of Florence (Arte dei Medici e degli Speziali). By 1424, it was documented that Paolo was making money as a painter, and from the period between 1432-1436 came the frescoes with the Creation and the Fall that he painted for the Green Cloister of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. In this fresco, Uccello succeeded in painting a large number of animals in a lively manner, as well as trees displaying their natural colors, a skill that proved to be difficult for many of his contemporaries, thus Paolo gained a reputation as a painter of landscapes. After this fresco, Paolo worked in another wall painting for the same Cloister with the Scenes from the Life of Noah (1436-1440), a work that brought him good reputation as a painter in Florence.

Creation of the Animals and Creation of Adam, fresco, by Paolo Uccello, 1432-1436, 244 x 478 cm (Green Cloister, Santa Maria Novella, Florence). The frescoes of the “Creation and Fall” include two frescoes: the upper one representing the Creation of the Animals and the Creation of Adam (pictured above), and the lower fresco depicting the Creation of Eve and the Original Sin (pictured below). Uccello painted these frescoes in “terra verde*“, a special kind of pigment made of iron oxide and silicic acid, which gives the cloister its name. In these frescoes we can see the influence of Ghiberti’s art in Uccello’s, apparent in the figure of God the Father, so similar to the characters portrayed by Ghiberti on his Gates of Paradise. We can also appreciate some details that appeared influenced by Masaccio‘s painting, such as the design of Adam’s naked body. As it will be typical of all Uccello’s body of work, the overall construction of the scenes was designed following very precise geometric plans but also blending elements that belong to the late Gothic tradition, such as the careful description of naturalistic details as seen in the sharp-edged rocks of the desert landscape in the Creation, or the trees charged with fruit and leaves in the Original Sin.
Creation of Eve and Original Sin, fresco, by Paolo Uccello, 1432-1436, 244 x 478 cm (Green Cloister, Santa Maria Novella, Florence). Below the fresco of the Creation of the Animals and the Creation of Adam (see picture before), we can see the Creation of Eve and Original Sin. In this fresco we can see the influence of Masolino‘s painting in the depiction of the serpent’s head which is very similar to the one he painted around the same time in the scene of Original Sin for the Brancacci Chapel.
Flood and Waters Subsiding (upper fresco of the “Scenes from the Life of Noah” fresco), fresco in verdeterra, by Paolo Uccello, 1436-1440, 215 x 510 cm (Green Cloister, Santa Maria Novella, Florence). This is one of two frescoes (the other being “Noah’s sacrifice and his Drunkenness”, located below this lunette fresco) that Uccello also painted for the Green Cloister in Santa Maria Novella. Since the times of Vasari all critics and art scholars have praised the complicated perspective composition Uccello designed for these scenes, particularly in the fresco depicting the Flood scene with the excellent foreshortening of the ark at both sides of the fresco. On the left of the fresco Uccello depicted the storms that caused the Flood as well as the damage and death caused by the rising waters. This is considered as one of the first realistic renderings of a storm in Western art.

In 1425, Paolo traveled to Venice, where he worked on the mosaics for the façade of Saint Mark’s Basilica, which are now lost, and around the same time he painted some frescoes for the Prato Cathedral and some in Bologna. In 1431, he returned to Florence where he worked extensively for the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore where is his famous fresco of the Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood (1436), a seminal work in the development of perspective. This “monochromatic” fresco shows Paolo’s deep interests in the study of perspective, as he challenged himself painting the condottiero and his horse as an equestrian monument that is seen from below. Also for the Cathedral of Florence, he painted the clock of the Duomo (1443) and between 1443 and 1445 he worked on the cartoons for a few stained glass windows for the same cathedral. By 1445 he was in Padua at Donatello’s invitation.

Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood, fresco, by Paolo Uccello, 1436, 820 x 515 cm (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence). In 1436 the administrators of the Opera del Duomo in Florence commissioned Paolo Uccello to paint a fresco in the Cathedral to commemorate the English condottiero Sir John Hawkwood (Giovanni Acuto for the Italians) who died in 1394. Hawkwood led the Florentine troops to victory during the battle of Cascina in 1364. This fresco is a splendid example of Uccello’s mastery at representing perspective and quality (in this case of a bronze sculpture) in a then new way at the time; these characteristics along with the monochrome effect he obtained by using “terra verde” for the fresco, helped creating the illusion of a statue standing on a plinth. The base of the equestrian statue is shown in foreshortening, so as to be seen correctly from below, whereas the warrior riding his horse is drawn in full frontal perspective. This contradictory use of the laws of perspective is another evidence of the originality of Uccello’s artistic language. When the fresco was finished, the administrators of the Opera del Duomo were not content with the results, and ordered Uccello to paint it again, which he did. The Trompe-l’œil grotto-esque candelabra frame was added in 1524 by Lorenzo di Credi. The fresco seems to draw influences from Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco, like the trompe-l’œil perspective from the base, the strong chiaroscuro relief-effect of the horse and the rider, and the light source coming from the left of the painting. The Latin inscription on the pedestal was added on December 17, 1436 and represents the first such inscription on an antique sarcophagus in a Florentine painting. The inscription reads: “Ioannes Acutus eques brittanicus dux aetatis suae cautissimus et rei militaris peritissimus habitus est” (John Hawkwood, British knight, most prudent leader of his age and most expert in the art of war).
Clock with Heads of Prophets (pictured above and below), fresco, by Paolo Uccello, 1443, 470 x 470 cm (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence). After the Monument to Sir John Hawkwood (see picture before), the Opera del Duomo commissioned Paolo the designs for three stained-glass windows for the oculi of the drum of the dome, as well as the decoration for the clock face on the inner façade of the Cathedral above the main entrance. For the clock (one of the oldest functional mechanical clocks existing today), Uccello designed four male heads (usually called prophets), looking out from four roundels designed in perfect perspective and placed in the corners of the squared enclosing the clock. These heads of Prophets show clear influences from the art of Ghiberti and Donatello. The huge clock’s hand moves counter-clockwise according to the “hora italica”, which divides the day into 24 equal parts throughout the year and associates the beginning of the day with sunset. This system for measuring time was called “Julian” after Julius Caesar, who promulgated the calendar in 46 BC. It is also called The time of Ave Maria or The Italian time. On the clock’s dial each of this 24 “hours” are painted counterclockwise in Roman numerals. At the center of a blue disc is a golden star. The radius with the ball on its tip rotates counterclockwise throughout the white areas arranged radially.

Nativity (pictured above) and Resurrection of Christ (pictured below), stained glass windows, cartoons by Paolo Uccello, 1443-1445 (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence). The Opera del Duomo also commissioned from Paolo the designs for three stained-glass windows (the Resurrection, the Birth of Christ-Nativity and the Annunciation destroyed in 1828) for the oculi of the drum of the dome. The cartoons for the stained-glass windows are also clearly influenced by both Ghiberti and Donatello. Particularly, in the scene of the Resurrection (see picture below) much more so than in the Nativity (pictured above) which was constructed according to a basically old-fashioned pattern, Uccello showed his originality: the dramatic event of Christ’s resurrection is transformed into a fantastic vision and this feeling of unreality is accentuated by the pure colors of the glass.
In the Resurrection window, Uccello placed Christ in the middle of the composition with his arched body strongly three-dimensional; below him, the open tomb is shown in foreshortening, an element that all scholars have praised as the first experiment of this kind executed on glass. On either side of Christ are the soldiers, with their armor displaying elaborate geometric decorations; each one of them wears a mazzocchio*, the traditional round Florentine headdress, a detail that Uccello repeatedly used in his paintings, shown from different angles and drawn with the most complex perspective views.

By 1446, Uccello was back in Florence and between 1446-1454 he painted some other frescoes again for the church of Santa Maria Novella (The Green Stations of the Cross, 1446) and for the church of San Miniato al Monte (Scenes of Monastic Life, 1447-1454). But the works that allow us to better appreciate Paolo Uccello’s talents as a painter are his three most famous paintings commissioned at the request of the Bartolini family and representing the Battle of San Romano (ca. 1450’s), originally for the Palazzo Medici in Florence, but now scattered between the Uffizi, the Louvre and the National Gallery in London. These panels commemorate the victory of the Florentine army under the command of the condottiero Niccolò da Tolentino (already honored by Andrea del Castagno in an eponymous mural painting in Santa Maria del Fiore) over the Sienese in 1432. Uccello, through his apprenticeship with Lorenzo Ghiberti, must have been familiar with a battle scene portrayed in the “Gates of Paradise” and this work probably influenced Paolo when he worked in his Battle of San Romano. “The Battle of San Romano” paintings are dynamic compositions structured on the basis of a complex and intricate set of vertical lines (represented by the upright spears), with other lines drawn horizontally or diagonally (represented by the spears thrown or received by hurt, fell or dead knights), all based on a wise and contrasted color pattern; its perspective includes a horizon line hidden or, as happens in certain oriental miniatures, situated much higher than what we consider to be natural. The extraordinary way in which Uccello foreshortened forms extending in many planes is a testimony on Paolo’s virtuosity as an artist, as well as his talent in providing a controlled visual structure for the chaos represented in this tumultuous battle scene.

Scenes from the Life of the Holy Hermits (also known as “The Thebaid”), tempera on canvas, by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1460s, 81 x 110 cm (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence). In a rocky landscape with forests and caves populated by animals and monks engaged in a variety of activities, Uccello depicted St. Benedict in a pulpit (to the right), St. Bernard and his vision (left), St. Jerome in penance (inside a cave, near the middle of the composition), and St. Francis receiving the stigmata (top, middle-center, under the rainbow). The painting has been referred as a “Thebaid”, that is, a portrayal of the lives of the holy hermits of the first centuries of the Christian era, who retreated as hermits into the Egyptian desert around Thebes, hence the name. However, in this painting Uccello shows the saints and monks belonging to the religious orders common in Florence at the time. This work was originally painted for the monastery of San Giorgio alla Costa in the Oltrarno area of Florence and later moved to the Uffizi, and now it is in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. This painting is comparable in subject to the fresco Uccello painted depicting the Scenes of Monastic Life in the cloister of San Miniato al Monte.
The “Battle of San Romano” series includes three paintings attributed to Paolo Uccello (pictured above and the next two pictures) and is considered as the painter’s most famous work. They commemorate the events that took place at the Battle of San Romano between Florentine and Sienese forces in 1432. The three panels interpret the battle scene as a chaotic ensemble of horsemen, lances and horses portrayed in a desperate struggle. The sequence of the paintings most widely agreed among art historians is: London panel, Uffizi panel, Louvre panel. Uccello managed to find order and composition by depicting an endless series of superimposed and intersecting planes. Attention to detail and naturalism are also key features of these works, noticeable, for example, in the elaborate armor, the leather saddles, the gilded studs, the horses’ shiny coats, and the “mazzocchi”, the huge multifaceted headgear that Uccello often included in his paintings due to the specific difficulty of painting it in proper perspective. Above, the panel with the scene “Niccolò da Tolentino Leads the Florentine Troops”, egg tempera on wood, 1450s, 182 x 320 cm (National Gallery, London). In this panel, the condottiero Niccolò da Tolentino, with his large gold and red patterned mazzocchio, occupies the center of the composition as he is shown leading the Florentine cavalry. He sent two messengers (top-center, knights ridding horses along a path) to ask for reinforces. Meanwhile, in the foreground, broken lances and a dead soldier are carefully aligned into orthogonals*, so as to create an impression of perspective. The landscape rises up in a picture plane as opposed to receding deeply into the distance. These particular contrasting perspectives were designed to account for the height at which the paintings were originally placed (hung high on three different walls of a room). Originally, many areas of the paintings were covered with gold and silver leaf.
Bernardino della Ciarda Thrown Off His Horse, egg tempera on wood, by Paolo Uccello, 1450s, 182 x 220 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This is probably the central panel of the three paintings of the Battle of San Romano series and is the only one signed by the artist. This panel represents the conclusive combat between the captains of the two armies: Niccolò da Tolentino unseating Bernardino della Ciarda. Uccello’s obsession with perspective is seen in details such as the long white and red lances, or the horses that have fallen on the ground. The panel showcases a dramatic encounter between the knights of both armies as well as it delivers an almost magical story telling. The detailed background landscapes, particularly noticeable in this panel, includes vineyards, scenes of grape harvesting and hunting.
Micheletto da Cotignola Engages in Battle, egg tempera on wood, by Paolo Uccello, 1450s, 180 x 316 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). As expected in Uccello’s work, foreshortening and perspective display heavily on this panel. Here, contrary to the Uffizi and London panels, the landscape has been sacrificed to represent horsemen and knights. There’s a heavy depiction of decorative elements and contrasting colors, combined with the arrangement of the lances, which form a series of patterns and movements that echo the horses and their riders, as if they were really moving. According to some art historians, these three panels may well represent different times of the day: dawn (London panel), mid-day (Uffizi panel) and dusk (Louvre panel), in fact, the battle lasted eight hours.

Between 1465-1469, Paolo was in Urbino, where he worked for the Confraternity of the Corpus Domini church and for whom he painted the predella for their altarpiece with the theme of the Miracle of the Desecrated Host (1467-1469) and that is today in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche (Urbino, Italy). This predella is composed of 6 scenes, each with several figures placed within geometric though naturalistic environments that almost seem unreal, similar to certain modern surrealist paintings.

Miracle of the Desecrated Host, tempera on panel, by Paolo Uccello, 1467-1469, 43 x 361 cm, each scene 43 x 58 cm (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino). For this predella, Uccello told the story of the Miracle of the Desecrated Host through six episodes (from left to right) separated by painted half-balustrades: (1) a woman sells the Host to a Jewish merchant; (2) when the merchant tries to burn it, the Host begins to bleed; (3) religious procession to re-consecrate the Host; (4) the woman is punished and an angel descends from heaven; (5) the Jewish merchant and his family are burnt at the stake; (6) two angels and two devils fight over the woman’s body. Though a serious subject, Uccello’s used of lively colors and narrative ability, result in a charming fairytale mood approach to the subject. This predella was painted for the Confraternity of the Corpus Domini and their oratory in the Corpus Domini church in Urbino (Italy).

This “surrealism” mysteriously permeates three panels that Uccello painted on the theme of Saint George and the Dragon along different periods of his life (between 1430-1470’s), where a range of bright cold colors places us in an intermediate environment between a nightmare and a dream, with a nostalgia for Gothicism that seems directly derived from the work of Pisanello. But alongside this Gothicism, very evident in the sinuous figure of the princess placed in profile to accentuate her archaic air, there’s the undoubted mark of Uccello: the concern for perspective as a method to define and explore a real space. These panels, like most of Uccello’s work, show characteristics of a Late Gothic tradition, emphasizing color and pageantry, but that also aspire to express monumentality.

St. George and the Dragon, oil on canvas, by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1470, 57 x 73 cm (National Gallery, London). This canvas together with the other St. George from the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris (pictured below), confirm Paolo’s ability as a lively and imaginative storyteller. In both paintings the foreshortening and the perspective play a fundamental role in the composition, while details such as the graceful and elegant characters, the unreal lighting, the careful description of details are still in the style of the late Gothic. The canvas represents a familiar scene from the famous story of Saint George and the Dragon. On the right, George rides his horse while spearing the beast, while on the left, the princess uses her belt as a leash to take the dragon up to the town. The spiraling storm above Saint George is lined up with his spear as a means to show there was a divine intervention.
St. George and the Dragon, oil on canvas, by Paolo Uccello, 1458-1460, 52 x 90 cm (Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris). This painting is a less dramatic version on the same subject Paolo painted later, around 1470 (see picture above). Here the princess witness in awe as St. George spears the charging dragon through its mouth.
St. George Slaying the Dragon, oil, tempera and silver leaf on wood panel, by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1430, 62.2 x 38.8 mm (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia). Paolo possibly painted this panel while in Venice, where he was hired to restore the Byzantine mosaics of St. Mark’s Basilica. The popular subject of St. George and the dragon refers to an allegory about Christian conversion. According to Voragine’s Golden Legend (ca.1250), St. George rescued a pagan Libyan princess from being sacrificed to a dragon. According to the legend, George knocked the beast to the ground and with his spear broken, George killed the monster by stabbing it with his sword between its scales. Later, George converted the Libyan people to Christ.

Several portraits are attributed to Uccello, between them the Portrait of a Man (1430’s, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.), Portrait of a Young Man (1440-1442, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Chambéry, France), Portrait of a Woman (1440’s) and the Portrait of a Lady (1450’s) both in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York). His last known work, the Hunt in the Forest (ca. 1470) is now kept at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Portrait of a Man, tempera on poplar panel, by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1430s, 42 x 33 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). During the early 15th century, the favored type of portrait was the depiction of the sitters in profile. This can be explained because prominent features of the portrayed can be delineated with more precision in the side view, even at the expense of accurately portraying expression or mood.
Portrait of a Young Man, oil on canvas, by Paolo Uccello, 1440-1442, 47 x 36 cm (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Chambéry, France).
Portrait of a Woman, tempera on wood, attributed to Paolo Uccello, ca. 1440s, 41 x 31 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). This portrait is unusual in that it shows a peculiar interest in depicting uningratiating, homely female types of distinctly middle-class status.
Portrait of a Lady, oil on canvas, by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1450s, 39 x 26 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The identity of the sitter has been determined as Elisabetta di Montefeltro, wife of Roberto Malatesta. This beautiful woman shows a close resemblance to the two princesses in the St. George and the Dragon paintings (see pictures before). However, some art scholars attribute this painting to Domenico Veneziano.
The Hunt in the Forest, tempera on wood, by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1470, 65 x 165 cm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England). One of Uccello’s last works, this hunting scene probably was painted as the decoration for a linen chest. The hunting scene has been traditionally called “The Nocturnal Hunt”, because of the strange kind of moonlight that falls on the figures of the hunters scattered through the dark dense forest. Because of its great attention to detail and general aspect, this painting could be taken as a late Gothic painting, but the complex perspective composition that broadens the horizon and make the figures appear as if they were disappearing into the distance instantly point to the trade mark of Uccello’s works. Pictured below are two details of the same painting.

Paolo Uccello’s urgency for understanding perspective and for applying a scientific method to give tri-dimensionality to painting led him to the meticulous study of foreshortening which allowed him to produce some of the most extraordinary drawings on study of perspective we know today, like the Perspective study of a torus* (ca. 1430-1440) or Perspective study of a vase (ca. 1430’s). Uccello’s mathematical (almost “scientific”) method to approach the depiction of perspective in painting influenced many famous painters such as Piero della Francesca, Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci, to name a few.

Perspective Study of a Mazzocchio, pen on white paper, by Paolo Uccello, 15th century, 10 x 27 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).
Perspective Study of a Mazzocchio, pen and brown ink and black wash, by Paolo Uccello, 15th century, 16 x 23.3 cm (Louvre, Paris).
Perspective Study of a Vase, pen and ink, by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1430s, 29 x 24.1 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).

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Mazzocchio: A wooden or wicker headdress, a common article of male attire in Florence in the second and third quarters of the 15th century. Painted representations of the mazzocchio as a means for the study of perspective are seen in many of Paolo Uccello’s paintings.

Orthogonals: In a linear perspective drawing or painting, orthogonal lines are the diagonal lines that can be drawn along receding parallel lines (or rows of objects) to the vanishing point. These imaginary lines help the artist maintain perspective in their drawings and paintings to ensure a realistic view of the object.

Terra Verde: (Alson known as “verdeterra“, meaning “green earth”). A pigment based on silica and iron oxide used in the elaboration of monochrome style frescoes during the 15th century in Italy.

Torus: A surface or solid formed by rotating a closed curve, especially a circle, around a line that lies in the same plane but does not intersect it (e.g., like a ring-shaped doughnut).

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