Florence art guide

Paolo di Dono known as Paolo Uccello

paolo uccello

Pratovecchio, Firenze 1397-1475

The son of Dono di Paolo, surgeon and barber, and Antonia di Giovanni del Beccuto, was not only a wonderful painter, rightly acclaimed over the centuries, but also an extremely original and rather "different" artist in the Florence that was awakening to the Renaissance: it is not at all surprising that his work, the result of the empiric and alternating directions of his continuous experimentation, contains many singular simularities that have been compared with the Cubist and Surrealist schools of this century.

St.George and the dragon
St.George and the dragon

In 1407, when he was only 10 years old, Paolo was already working alongside the young Donatello as an apprentice in Ghiberti's workshop on the finishing touches of the first of the Baptistery doors. He was almost immediately nicknamed "Uccello" (Bird) or "degli Uccelli" (of the Birds) and this was probably because he especially loved painting ornamental friezes with birds and other animals. There is also a strong probability that he was also one of Gherardo Starnina's students (a Florentine, who worked in Spain between the 14th and 15th centuries and is believed to have been one of the "importers" of the international Gothic style to Florence), as well as being the real author of the fascinating Thebaid in the Uffizi.
Whether this is true or not, his formation did take place during the first two decades of the fifteenth century when the Gothic style and figurative culture were being subjected to continuous experimentation in the attempt to find a form of perspective unity. Unfortunately Paolo Uccello, who became a member of the Company of Painters of St. Luke in 1424, had already left Florence by 1425, because he had been invited to Venice to carry out some mosaics (today lost) in St. Mark's. The only example that remains of this early creative period is his Annunciation (1425), containing some very complicated perspective, in the Carnesecchi Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore. He did not return for five years and was completely uninformed about what had, in the meantime, been Masaccio's revolution in the Carmine, while also knowing very little indeed about Brunelleschi's (highly secret) project for the Cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore, whose construction began in 1423.

John Hawkwood
Equestrian monument
of John Hawkwood

Therefore, when he came home in 1431, he was artistically rather behind the times as regards the marvellous new painting in Florence. He worked in Santa Maria Novella (the Stories of the Virgin in the Green Cloister, 1431 ca.) and in the Duomo, where, in 1436, in only three months, he carried out the fresco of the equestrian monument to the condottiere Sir John Hawkwood (or Giovanni Acuto as he was known in Italy), which brought him great fame: the horse's pose is similar to those in St. Mark's but the artist was more interested in the geometrical forms than a natural effect and, as a result, the entire fresco comes very close to the abstract painting of today. He also carried out the decorations on the great clock (1443) in Santa Maria del Fiore, placing four powerful heads of prophets at the corners, as well as preparing the cartoons of the Resurrection and the Nativity (1443-45) for two of the round stained-glass windows in the Cupola (the so-called "eyes"). In this period he also painted the frescoes in the Cathedral of Prato, in San Miniato al Monte (the Stories of Sainted Monks), as well as a privately commissioned series of small panels in what was still a Gothic and mythical style, like those of St. George and the Dragon in Paris and London (1456 ca.).
In 1445 he was invited by Donatello to Padua where he painted some Giants (now lost), which probably later influenced the young Mantegna, in the house of the Vitaliani family. By 1447 he was back in Florence again and had started work on the Stories of Noah in the Green Cloister in Santa Maria Novella: the lunette of the Flood (1446-48) in particular is a quite extraordinary piece of painting, for here the great artist seems to have wanted to try and use as many perspective projections as he could; the picture is constructed with a double vanishing point (only one is used in geometric perspective) and, as a result, many lines appear confused because they do not centre on the same point; the optic effects are increased and at times deform the figures, or otherwise create some really daring effects of foreshortening.

The battle of S.Romano
The battle of S.Romano

This fresco is a real masterpiece that breaks away from all the established rules.
The most important moment in Paolo Uccello's artistic career took place shortly afterwards, between 1456 and 1460, when he carried out the three paintings that celebrate the Battle of San Romano of 1432, where the Florentines, led by Niccolò da Tolentino, attacked and defeated the Sienese allies of the Visconti family from Milan. These three panels were carried out for a room in Palazzo Medici in Via Larga (only one of them is in the Uffizi today, the other two are respectively at the Louvre and the National Gallery in London) and summerize all the power and fascination of this genius of painting. Let us examine the panel in the Uffizi: an extremely crowded composition is placed in front of what is still a mediaeval type of background landscape, showing Bernardino della Ciarda being unhorsed and with warriors, armed with lances and crossbows, and horses painted in a variety of positions in the foreground. However the conflicting throngs of combatents are held together by the perspective, with the knights in armour almost looking like robots, the spears forming palisades and the crests on the helmets almost like bushes, while the atmosphere is rarified, with the brilliant colours creating an inlaid polychrome result: taken as a whole, the effect is that of an unreal game and, as such, will fascinate the Surrealists in this century.
Following this, the artist only carried out a few more predellas (the Miracle of the Host, 1469, Urbino), some small panels of profane subjects and a series of portraits, some in the style of Masaccio and others closer to the courtly elegance of Pisanello, but his good fortune was by now on the wane. After a period spent at the court of the Duke of Montefeltro at Urbino, he returned to Florence in 1469 where, "more poor than famous" and weighed down by suffering and economic worries, he was to die six years later.

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