Tag Archives: Renaissance.

Paolo Uccello 1397 – 1475. The Battle of San Romano 1432.



How does an artist represent three dimensional space and an illusion of depth on a flat surface? One early example of how this can be done would be to look at the work of Paolo Uccello who was born in Florence in 1397, his father was a barber-surgeon, his mother a high-born Florentine. Uccello is his nickname, Paul of the birds, so named because he liked to paint birds and other creatures. He was a mathematician and painter and is remembered for his development of perspective, a method of producing a sense of space and depth in a painting, there are other ways such as with the use of colour. The Egyptian and Byzantine artists had totally disregarded perspective, Giotto in Italy had made some strides to obtain this sense in his wonderful murals, now we do not find it difficult to achieve providing we learn a few basic rules. It was not until the early Renaissance era that perspective was used , these years between the 14th and early 17th. centuries were a time that heralded the end of the Middle Ages, it is thought to have began in Florence. New knowledge focused through the developing natural sciences was sought and collected by philosophers, scientists and artists, this new approach was thought to have been brought by Greek scholars who fled from Constantinople when the Ottoman Turks concquered the city, they brought their texts and knowledge with them, Greek and Roman mythology was studied once again and would be again by artists like Picasso.

Uccello was so interested in solving the problem of perspective that he would stay up at night attempting to find vanishing points, he was an idiosynchratic character who had no school of followers although he influenced artists such as Piero della Francesco, Albert Durer and Leonardo da Vinci, his tutor was Ghiberti who designed the magnificent doors of the Florence Baptistry. Uccello married in 1453.

The Battle of San Romano was depicted in three panels painted over several years with egg tempera on wood, the battle was between Florence and Sienna which lasted for eight hours, the forces of Florence were the victors – Italy was not unified then. These paintings were a secular commission, most artists then worked mainly for patrons in the church and so did Uccello, this tryptich was admired later by Lorenzo de Medici who did much to foster the Arts, the Medici family were a powerful dynasty who ruled in Florence. I have chosen the middle panel painted between 1435 and 1455, the three panels were intended to be hung high on three walls, they are now separated, one is in the National Gallery I think, another in the Louvre in Paris and the one I have chosen is held in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, each panel is about three metres long.

In this work we see a colourful pageant, a tournament rather than a real battle scene, Uccello was a mathematician with a purpose! In these paintings he exhibits his theories on perspective, he was not concerned with the feelings of the participants on the battlefield, the result is a rather wooden look to the characters, the horses could be rocking horses and the knights stuffed dummies, forms are foreshortened, we see a forest of lances and some are broken and lying on the ground as are two of the horses one with the knight still in the saddle, foot soldiers are bunched together in the middle distance, all methods used by Uccello to exhibit perspective as our eyes are led to the background, strangely there is a hunt also taking place across the fields. I like the use of the warm and rich colour, for the horse’s bridles he used gold leaf and for the armour silver leaf, which has tarnished over time. Uccello was a man of the Renaissance but as with many artists he also had  knowledge the past, in this case earlier gothic art. The work is more like a fairy tale  in pictures even though it depicts an historic violent event, I think that is why I like it.

Bernard Berenson, an art critic who wrote about Renaissance art in Italy was perhaps a little harsh when discussing Uccello’s work, he pointed out that art is not simply skill or a show of dexterity or to be used for scientific purposes, I would agree but Uccello did achieve what he set out to do, and as early example of perspective he was successful. Berenson worte ‘ Florentine art rushed to its end’ because of these failings, other schools of art in Italy prospered. Sadly Uccello went the same way, spending his latter years forgotten and lonely with a sick wife, he died in 1475.

Image from wikipedia,

Spring. ( La Primavera ) 1482, Sandro Botticelli.

In the late spring of 1967 I visited Florence in Italy, it was several months after the devastating flood that had engulfed Florence in November the previous year. I saw stains like plimsoll lines on the walls of buildings and in the churches I visited, huge dehumidifying machines were drying their interior walls. Life was slowly getting back to
Having greeted a copy of Michaelangelo’s sculpture of David outside of the Uffizzi Gallery, I went in to look at paintings. I came to Botticelli’s ‘ Spring’ it was exciting to see the original that had been painted nearly five hundred years earlier. Botticelli was a painter working in Florence during the era which has become known as the Renaissance; several schools of painting flourished, situated throughout much of Italy, the Northern and Venetian Schools, the Florentine and Central Schools being the most important, each put an emphasis on different aspects of painting.
The painting ‘Spring’ is an allegory. The work was painted with tempera on panel, tempera consists of ground pigments mixed with egg yolk, honey or glue and water, it is permanent and fast drying. I have experimented with egg tempera mixed with gouache paint, it is more suitable for painting on a panel rather than on canvas, because the paint tends to crack if not kept flat.
The setting for Spring is an orange grove, with plants scattered around, five hundred different varieties and one hundred and ninety different flowers, so I read, a botanical dictionary! Six mythological characters are situated across the space. The work is thought to resemble a Flemish tapestry, popular at the time.
The work was probably commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici for one of his cousins. Lorenzo Medici was an important patron of the Arts and left a lasting legacy of work. Much has been written about the Medici dynasty, mostly unfavourable, but the Arts did flourish during their time in power.
In the painting we see on the left hand side, a male pointing a wand towards the sky, three women are dancing in a circle next to him, in the centre is a female, dressed in a diaphanous white dress, around her is draped a red gown, her gaze is towards the viewer, her figure is framed by an archway of trees, a blind-folded putti is seen holding an arrow, hovering above her, next to her stands, almost floats, another female, her dress is decorated with plant designs and she wears a necklace of flowers. The wind we can see is blowing the flowing dresses from left to right. On the right of the painting we see another female character, also dressed in a diaphanous white gown with a garland of flowers flowing from her mouth and looking down intently at her is the second male figure, he has puffed up cheeks, he clasps her waist, the cold wind if March is now blowing in the opposite direction, I’m not sure what the significance of this change of direction signifies, perhaps the warming of the atmosphere as spring approaches?
There have been several interpretations of this painting, we know that Botticelli was interested in portraying Greek and Roman myths in addition to religious scenes and characters. If we think about the Roman myth, the male on the right would be the god Zephyrus, his cheeks full of wind, the god of wind, Zephyrus marries Chloris, she is shown in the painting with the flowers flowing from her mouth, after they marry Choris becomes the goddess Flora, goddess of flowers, she is next to Chloris. Venus the goddess of Love and Beauty is the central figure, an archetype who can be traced as far back as Paleolithic cave paintings and sculptures. In Helen Benigni’s book The Emergence of the Goddess, she writes ‘Venus appears to be part of what Carl Jung calls the transformative character of the primordial archetype where her image is seen as a regenerative force for change connected to the celestial order.’ To quote Robert Ellis in his book The Integration of Meaning he writes ‘the other way that art might relate more effectively to archetypes is in depicting them as symbolic forms rather than as objects in the world. In western art I find this particularly in the religious and mythological art of the Renaissance.’ To return to the painting, above Venus is Cupid who blindly points his arrow at Chastity, one of the three graces we see dancing in a circle, (the dance of time maybe?) the two other graces are Love and Pleasure. On the left hand side we see the god Mercury, he is pointing his wand to the sky, to brush away the wind, while Chastity looks at him.
Botticelli belonged to the Florentine School of painters, for them form and movement were their main objectives. Botticelli used a paint brush like a pen, his line work gave a feeling of movement, a linear rhythm. He was indifferent to representation, but was intent on presentation. Bernard Berenson wrote, ‘Botticelli was almost as if haunted by the idea of communicationg the unembodied values of touch and movement.’ He may have rivals in the East and Japan writes Berenson, but not in Europe, ‘his work possesses qualities that are life-enhancing and life- communicating, with quivering feeling containing values of touch and values of movement.’
Rober Ellis wites in the chapter The Integration of Meaning, when discussing the integration of visual art ‘ The central conflict within art reflects the tension within meaning in general – between representation and expression.’ Representation was not of primary importance to Botticelli, he was preoccupied with expressing the renewal of life and growth in this work, but he reaches a balance between the two. For Botticelli colour is less important than line, unlike the Venetian painters for example where the use of colour was very important. Berenson thinks that he is the greatest artist of linear design that Europe has ever had. His work went out of favour and was not appreciated again for a long time. He didn’t paint during the last ten years of his life, he died in 1510..Botticelli 002