Paolo Uccello (ca. 1396/ 7-1475). Following Masaccio there appears a group of artists whose interests are concentrated on the experimentation with specific problems of pictorial form. Unlike Masaccio or the Gothic painters, they do not deal with the reality of nature or of spiritual content, but more with the theoretical "reality" of pictorial structure and composition. In the beginning these experiments are concentrated on relatively isolated problems of perspective, form, and color; these, to be sure, are not new in themselves, since they appeared in many variations through the Trecento, but the renewed and specialized attention given to them in scientific laboratory fashion served to deepen and enrich the artistic expression of later generations.
There are many contemporary relationships which might be elaborated upon. The knowledge and use of a perfected mathematical perspective appears in the work of the engineer and architect, Filippo Brunelleschi ( 1377-1446), with whom the architectural perspective in the background of Masaccio's Holy Trinity fresco is associated. The science of perspective and optics receives considerable attention in the teachings and writings of the physicist, Paolo Toscanella, and the mathematician, Antonio Manetti (whom Vasari gives as a friend of Uccello). The interest in the human figure as a functioning organism which is capable of scientific analysis is further reflected in the contemporary sculpture of Donatello (also a friend of Uccello), whose realistic study of the physical skeleton and anatomy, as well as human character and expression, is revealed in the famous prophet figures on the Campanile. Thirdly, the compositional possibilities of color are further realized by the enrichment of the technique itself through the gradual introduction of oil as a medium (i.e., the combination of oil and tempera already suggested by Cennino Cennini and perfected by the Van Eycks in Flanders), and a closer observation of the effects of light and shade in nature. All of these factors are worked into an aesthetic system by Leon Battista Alberti in his Treatise on Painting ( 1435), which reflects both the influence of the classics (Plato, Euclid) and the general intellectual spirit of the time which is also seen in the contemporary establishment of the Platonic Academy (founded in 1439 by Cosimo de' Medici).
Uccello (Paolo di Doni) was born in Florence about 1396/7, served as an apprentice in Ghiberti's workshop from 1407 until about 1414, was entered in the Florentine arte dei medici e speziali in 1415, and in the guild of St. Luke in 1424. A testament of 1425 bequeathing his probably inherited property to the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova seems to have been written just before his departure for Venice, where he is said to have done a mosiac (now lost) of St. peter on th façade of San Marco. By 1434 he was back in Florence, when he executed cartoons for the stained glass window of the St. Zenobius Chapel of the cathedral. A number of records of tax payments and commissions indicate a continued activity in Florence except (from a note in the Anonimo Morelliano, as well as Vasari) for a trip to Padua during which he is said to have painted a series of Giants (lost) in the Casa Vitaliani, which are important for their possible influence on the young Mantegna. These, however, may have been executed during his first trip to and northern Italy (i.e., 1425-32); if done on a second trip, it is assumed to have been in 1444 or 45. In the early '50s he married Tomasa di Benedetto Malifici, some thirty-seven years his junior, who bore him two children. In 1451 he was asked to estimate the value of a tabernacle painted by Stefano d'Antonio for Santa Margherita a Montici, and the next year he is recorded as having painted a figure of Beato Andrea Corsini for the cathedral library. The payment of a small sum by the brotherhood of Corpus Domini in Urbino for work in 1467/8, together with a declaration of poverty before the tax magistrates recorded in 1469, are possibly indicative of reduced circumstances and a scarcity of important commissions available to him. He died in December 1475 and was buried in the family tomb in Santo Spirito.
The equestrian fresco portrait of the condottiere, John Hawkwood (Giovanni Acuto), is the first dated and fully documented work by Uccello (signed Pauli Uccelli opus on the pedestal). Various dealings and payments by the operai are mentioned from May until August 1436 in the cathedral records. Of particular note with regard to its style are the plastic character of the painting with the gray-green grisaille of the figure against a dark red background, and the apparent inconsistent use of perspective, whereby the sarcophagus is foreshortened as seen from below, while the mounted figure is seen in straight profile. This may possibly have been intended as a means of enhancing the monumental effect of the figure, as Masaccio had done in the Holy Trinity fresco. The plastic form of the group may have been influenced by the classical bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius as well as North-Italian equestrian tomb statues (i.e., that of Paolo Savello in Santa Maria dei Frari, Venice) certainly seen during his trip to Venice. The comparison with Simone Martini's Guido Riccio is interesting as important Sienese-Gothic and Early Renaissance interpretations of a similar theme and problem (note particularly the isolation of the Uccello figure from scenic background and landscape, its rigid and sculpturesque modeling and design).
The frescos of the Chiostro Verde in Santa Maria Novella were executed about ten years later (i.e., ca. 1446). The dating is based largely on stylistic evidence, which is substantiated somewhat by Vasari's statement that the figure of Ham was a portrait of the painter Dello Delli, who is known to have been in Florence in 1446/8. Represented are a series of scenes from the Old Testament of which the Deluge, Noah's Sacrifice and Drunkenness, and possibly the Creation of Adam are painted by Uccello, the others by pupils or followers.
The frescos, badly damaged and painted in green grisaille (terra verde), show a more forceful use of architectural perspective, which can be readily seen by comparing the spread-out architectural "wings" of the (Masaccio-) Masolino Raising of Tabitha fresco, and which may have been first experimented with in the damaged fresco fragments of St. Benedict done by Uccello only shortly before this in San Miniato al Monte. A similar construction is to be found in the damaged Nativity lunette fresco in the cloister of the hospital of San Martino in Florence. Other experiments may be found in the double scene of Noah's Sacrifice and his Drunkenness whereby the two separate groups are connected by an arbor of parallel horizontal lines whose illusionary effect of convergence when seen from the side of the room tends to compose the two scenes in a fore- and background sequence. The excited movement of both nude and draped figures (the Deluge, the Creation of Adam, and the downward-moving figure of God the Father in Noah's Sacrifice) is another pronounced characteristic.
Along with these experimental innovations appear many Gothic motifs and characteristics which might be related to Ghiberti and his shop. Examples may be seen in the stylized landscapes and narrative grouping of scenes (i.e., in the stories of Adam and Eve) which, however, are the inferior works ascribed to Uccello's school. The group of God the Father and Adam (in the Creation of Adam) is a common motif used by Ghiberti in his second set of bronze doors and continued through Piero della Francesca and Michelangelo. The active movement and gesture of Uccello's God-Father in contrast to the same pose by Ghiberti is significant.
Ghiberti's influence might also be seen in Uccello's designs (for which payments are listed between 1443 and 1444) for windows in the drum of the cupola in the Cathedral of Florence, representing the Nativity, executed by Angelo Lippi, and the Resurrection, done by Bernardo di Francesco. The composition of the Resurrection is related to that of the same theme in Ghiberti's Paradise doors; its superior quality in comparison to the other window is due as much to better craftsmanship in execution as it is to Uccello's own possibly later and more perfected style. The four heads of prophets on the clock face of the entrance wall in the Cathedral of Florence are done about this same time and are remarkable for their strength in form and character (cf. Donatello's campanile heads and those of Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel).
The famous Battle Scenes were done before 1457 as decorations for the Palazzo Medici. Three of them are still extant (i.e., in the Uffizi, the Louvre, and the National Gallery of London). An inventory of 1492 lists the pictures of the Palazzo Medici and includes these three and a fourth (now lost) of the same series, which was painted by Pesellino. Since that artist died in 1457 and must have collaborated with Uccello on the series, the execution was probably during the period immediately before that year.
A number of less important (and less certain) works are of interest in tracing Uccello's development as well as his handling of different problems. To the early period before the Hawkwood portrait are ascribed the St. George panels in Paris (Musée André) and Vienna (Lanckoronski Collection) as well as the Crucifixion in the Thyssen Collection, Lugano; their Gothic pattern is related possibly to the style of Don Lorenzo Monaco as well as Ghiberti. The group of five portraits in the Louvre, if painted by Uccello, is related to the Masaccio-like prophet heads of the Florentine Cathedral. To the late period belong the panel of The Hunt in the Oxford Ashmolean Museum with its frieze of running figures related to the battle scenes, and the predella panels in the Palazzo Ducale of Urbino, which are assumed to have belonged to the altar that Uccello painted for the Corpus Domini brotherhood in Urbino, 1467/8.
Paolo Uccello would have been the most delightful and inventive genius in the history of painting from Giotto's day to the present, if he had spent as much time working on human figures and animals as he lost on problems of perspective; for although these things are ingenious and beautiful, anyone whose pursuit of them is excessive wastes hour after hour, exhausts his native abilities, and fills his mind with difficulties, quite often turning a fertile and effortless talent into one that is sterile and overworked; and anyone who pays more attention to perspective than to human figures achieves an arid style full of profiles, produced by the desire to examine things in minute detail. Besides this, such a person frequently becomes solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and impoverished like Paolo Uccello who, endowed by Nature with a meticulous and subtle mind, took pleasure only in the investigation of certain problems of perspective which were difficult or impossible, and which, however original and vexing, nevertheless hindered him so much in painting figures that as he grew older, he grew even worse. There is no doubt that anyone who does violence to his nature with fanatical study may well sharpen one corner of his mind, but nothing that he creates will ever appear to have been done with the natural ease and grace of those who place each brush-stroke in its proper place and, with moderation, considerable intelligence, and good judgement, avoid certain subtleties which soon encumber their works with an overworked, difficult, arid, and ill-conceived style which more readily moves those who observe them to compassion than to wonder. Since an artist's talent can be exercised only when his intelligence has this desire to operate and his artistic inspiration is aroused, only then can his splendid, divine powers and marvellous conceptions issue forth.
Because of his interests, he was reduced to living alone inside his home with few conveniences, as if in the wild, for weeks and months without allowing himself to be seen. And although these matters were challenging and vexing, if he had spent that time in studying figures, which he drew with a rather good sense of design, he would eventually have brought them to perfection. But by wasting all his time on these notions, he found himself during the course of his life more impoverished than renowned. Thus, when Paolo showed his close friend, Donatello the sculptor, the mazzocchi with their points and sides drawn in perspective from a variety of viewpoints, and spheres with seventy-two facets in the shape of diamonds with wood chips twisted around the rods in each facet, as well as other oddities that consumed and wasted his time, Donatello would often say: 'Ah Paolo, this perspective of yours makes you abandon the certain for the uncertain: these things are of no use except to artists who work in intarsio,* where they fill their decorations with wood chips and round or square spirals and other such details.'
Paolo also worked in a cloister at San Miniato, outside of Florence, painting the lives of the Church Fathers partly in terra verde and partly in colour. In these works Paolo did not consistently follow the practice of employing a single colour as must be done in painting scenes, for he painted the fields blue, the cities a red colour, and the buildings whatever colour struck his fancy, and in doing so he committed an error, because things that appear to be made from stone cannot and should not be tinted with another colour. It is said that while Paolo was working upon this painting, an abbot who was then living in that cloister gave him nothing but cheese to eat.
And when this began to annoy him, since he was a timid man, Paolo resolved not to return to work there; thus, whenever the abbot sent someone to look for him, and Paolo heard that the monks were asking for him, he avoided being at home, and if he happened to meet any of the members of this order around Florence, Paolo would run away from them as fast as he could. One day, two of them who were more curious and younger than Paolo caught up with him and asked why he had not returned to complete the work he had begun and why he ran away whenever he caught sight of a monk. To this Paolo responded: 'You have ruined me so that not only do I run away from you, but I can't associate with the carpenters or even pass by where they are at work, and all of this is the result of your abbot's lack of discretion, for between his pies and soups that are always made with cheese, he's stuffed me with so much cheese that since I am already made of nothing but cheese, I'm afraid they'll use me for putty; and if I go on like this, I won't any longer be Paolo but Cheese!' After the monks left Paolo, roaring with laughter, they explained all this to the abbot, who had Paolo brought back to work and ordered something else for his meals besides cheese.
Paolo was then commissioned to paint some scenes in the cloister of Santa Maria Novella. The first of these is located at the entrance from the church into the cloister: the Creation of the Animals, with a varied and infinite number of creatures from the earth, the waters, and the skies. And because Paolo was extremely creative and, as we have mentioned, he greatly delighted in drawing animals well, he represented in several lions about to attack each other the degree of pride they possess, as well as the swiftness and the fear of a number of stags and deer; in addition, he also painted birds and fish with very realistic feathers and scales. He painted the Creation of Man and Woman and their sin with a beautiful style, carefully wrought and well executed. And in this same work, he took great delight in the colouring of the trees, which at that time was not normally done very well; he was thus the first painter who won renown among the older painters for his landscapes, which he worked on and brought to greater perfection than had any other painter before him. None the less, there were those who came afterwards who produced more perfect ones, because despite all his efforts, Paolo was never able to give his works that softness or harmony which has been bestowed upon works in our own times by colouring them with oil. But it is notable that Paolo used the rules of perspective to foreshorten and draw things exactly as they were, painting everything that he saw--that is, ploughed fields, ditches, and other details from Nature in that dry, sharp style of his--and if he had selected the best of these details and had placed in his work only those parts which come out well in painting, they would have been completely perfect.
Under this scene he then painted the Drunkenness of Noah along with the scorn of Ham, his son (for whom he used the portrait of his friend Dello, a Florentine painter and sculptor), and he showed Noah's other two sons, Shem and Japheth, who cover him up, revealing to him his shame. Similarly, he painted in perspective a wine-cask curving around on every side, which was considered very beautiful, as well as a trellis full of grapes, whose lattice-work of squared timbers diminishes towards a vanishing point. But here Paolo made a mistake, for the diminishing lines on the lower plane, where the feet of the figures are placed, go along the lines of the trellis, and those of the wine-cask do not follow the same receding lines. I am truly astonished that such an accurate and careful painter could make such an obvious mistake. He also painted the Sacrifice of Noah, with the open ark drawn in perspective with the groups of perches in the upper part divided in regular rows where the birds who were accommodated there are flying away in flocks more properly foreshortened. In the air above the sacrifice which Noah and his sons offer appears God the Father; and of all the figures Paolo drew in this work this one is the most difficult, for God is flying towards the wall with His head foreshortened, and He possesses such force that His figure in relief seems to be bursting it open and forcing its way through. Besides this, Noah is surrounded by countless types of beautiful animals. In short, Paolo imparted to this work such softness and grace that it is without question superior to and better than all his other works, and as a result he won great praise for it not only then but in the present day.