Paolo Uccello images and biography
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Paolo Uccello

See also: Renaissance Art


We can study the fascination of these problems and also their difficulty in the work of another Florentine, the painter Paolo Uccello, among whose best preserved works is the battle scene in the National Gallery. The picture was probably intended to be placed above the wainscoting (panelling covering the lower part of the wall) of a room in the Palazzo Medici, the city palace of the most powerful and wealthy of the Florentine merchant families. It represents an episode from Florentine history, still topical when the picture was painted, the rout of San Romano in 1432, when Florentine troops defeated their enemies in one of the many battles between the Italian factions. Superficially the picture may look medieval enough. These knights in armour with their long and heavy lances, riding as if to a tournament, may remind us of a medieval romance of chivalry; nor does the way in which the scene is represented strike us at first as very modern. Both horses and men look a little wooden, almost like toys, and the whole gay picture seems very remote from the reality of war. But if we ask ourselves why it is that these horses look somewhat like rocking horses and the whole scene reminds us a little of a puppet show, we shall make a curious discovery. It is precisely because the painter was so fascinated by the new possibilities of his art that he did everything to make his figures stand out in space as if they were carved and not painted.

It was said of Uccello that the discovery of perspective had so impressed him that he spent nights and days drawing objects in foreshortening, and setting himself ever new problems. His fellow artists used to tell that he was so engrossed in these studies that he would hardly look up when his wife called him to go to bed, and would exclaim: 'What a sweet thing perspective is!' We can see something of this fascination in the painting. Uccello obviously took great pains to represent the various' pieces of armour which litter the ground in correct foreshortening. His greatest pride was probably the figure of the fallen warrior lying on the ground, the foreshortened representation of which must have been most difficult. No such figure had been painted before and, though it looks rather too small in relation to the other figures, we can imagine what a stir it must have caused. We find traces all over the picture of the interest which Uccello took in perspective and of the spell it exerted over his mind. Even the broken lances lying on the ground are so arranged that they point towards their common 'vanishing point'. It is this near mathematical arrangement which is partly responsible for the artificial appearance of the stage on which the battle seems to take place.

If we turn back from this pageant of chivalry to Van Eyck's picture of knights, and the Limbourg miniature, with which we compared it, we may see more clearly what Uccello owed to the Gothic tradition, and how he transformed it. Van Eyck, in the north, had changed the forms of the International style by adding more and more details from observation and trying to copy the surfaces of things down to the minutest shade. Uccello rather chose the opposite approach. By means of his beloved art of perspective, he tried to construct a convincing stage on which his figures would appear solid and real. Solid they undoubtedly look, but the effect is a little reminiscent of the stereoscopic pictures which one looks at through a pair of lenses. Uccello had not yet learned how to use the effects of light and shade and air to mellow the harsh outlines of a strictly perspective rendering. But if we stand in front of the actual painting in the National Gallery, we do not feel that anything is amiss, for, despite his preoccupation with applied geometry, Uccello was a real artist.

- From "The Story of Art", by E.H. Gombrich

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Paolo Uccello Images

c. 1440 The Battle of San Romano: the Counter-Attack by Micheletto da Cotignola
c. 1456 The Battle of San Romano: The Rout of San Romano
c. 1455-60 Saint George and the Dragon
c. 1455-60 Saint George and the Dragon: DETAIL of St George

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