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 degliSpeziali). 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).