Paolo Uccello

Summary

Paolo di Dono, or Paolo Doni, known as Paolo Uccello (Pratovecchio, June 15, 1397 – Florence, December 10, 1475), was an Italian painter and mosaicist.He was among the leading figures on the Florentine art scene in the mid-15th century.

According to Vasari”s account in his Lives, Paolo Uccello “had no other delight than to investigate some difficult and impossible things of perspective,” underscoring his most immediately distinctive trait, namely his almost obsessive interest in perspective construction. This characteristic, combined with his adherence to the fairy-tale climate of international Gothic, makes Paolo Uccello a borderline figure between the two figurative worlds, according to one of the most autonomous artistic paths of the 15th century.

According to Vasari he was nicknamed “Paolo Uccelli” because he especially loved to paint animals, and birds in particular: he would have loved to paint them to decorate his home, as he could not afford real animals.

Training in the workshop of Ghiberti

He was the son of a surgeon and barber, Dono di Paolo di Pratovecchio, a Florentine citizen since 1373, and the noblewoman Antonia di Giovanni del Beccuto. His father belonged to a wealthy family, the Doni, who between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had given eight priors, while his mother was from a family of feudal nobles, who had their houses in the vicinity of Santa Maria Maggiore, a church in which the Del Beccuto family had and did decorate no less than three chapels (one of which was by Paolo himself). The reach to the land register of 1427 records him as 30 years old, so he must have been born in 1397.

At just ten years of age, from 1407 until 1414 he was, along with Donatello and others, in the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, engaged in the making of the north door of the Baptistery of Florence (1403-1424). Scanning the payroll of Ghiberti”s apprentices, we see that Paolo had to work for two distinct periods, one of three years and one of fifteen months, in which he had a gradual increase in pay, suggesting the young man”s professional growth. Despite his apprenticeship at a sculptor”s workshop, none of his statues or bas-reliefs are known; instead, it was common for later established painters to have been initiated into artistic practice at sculptors or goldsmiths, since there they could cultivate the art at the base of all artistic production, drawing. From Ghiberti he had to learn that taste for late Gothic art, which was one of the fundamental components of his language. These were stylistic features related to linear taste, the mundane appearance of sacred subjects, the refinement of forms and movements, and the attention to the minutest details, under the banner of a richly decorated naturalism.

This period gave rise to the use of the nickname “Uccello” due to his ability to fill perspective gaps with animals, particularly birds. Enrolled in the Company of St. Luke in 1414, he matriculated on October 15 of the following year in the Arte dei Medici e Speziali, the one that included professional painters.

The works of these years are rather obscure, either because they are lost or because they are marked by a traditional Gothic taste that is hard to match with the works of his maturity, with attributions still debated. Like their near contemporaries Masaccio and Beato Angelico, their first independent works must date to the 1920s. An exception, according to Ugo Procacci, would be a tabernacle in the Lippi and Macia area (Novoli, Florence) that an early inscription dated to 1416 in the hand of Paolo Uccello: a thoroughly late Gothic work, in which some affinities with Starnina can be discerned.

In some of the very first Madonnas with the most shared attribution (the one from the house of Beccuto, now in the Museo di San Marco, or the one in a private collection in Fiesole) there is a taste for the falcata line, typically Gothic, which is, however, matched by an innovative effort toward a more expressive rendering of the protagonists, with subtle humorous and ironic accents, almost unheard of in solemn Florentine sacred art.

It seems evident how his mother”s family must have played an active role in the boy”s entry into the local art scene. In addition to the aforementioned Madonna frescoed in their home, for the “opposite” Paolo Carnesecchi, who had his houses next to those of the Del Beccuto family, Paolo executed a lost Annunciation and Four Prophets in a chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore, a work that Vasari saw and described as foreshortened in a manner “new and difficult in those times.” Other works from those times, now lost, were a niche in the Spedale di Lelmo with St. Anthony Abbot between Saints Cosmas and Damian and two figures in the monastery of Annalena.

It is unclear whether he participated in the first fresco stories in the Green Cloister of Santa Maria Novella, where instead he worked with certainty in the following years. In these lunettes, now mostly attributed to anonymous artists, there is a certain “ghibertism,” with arched figures with flowing, mobile undulations, which some scholars indicate to be of a scope compatible with that of Paolo Uccello.

The trip to Venice

Between 1425 and 1431 he sojourned in Venice: these were pivotal years, during which Masaccio frescoed the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, which was to exert so much influence on young Florentine painters, quickly eclipsing the recent late Gothic achievement of Gentile da Fabriano”s Pala Strozzi (1423). With the way cleared by the help of a wealthy relative, Deo di Deo del Beccuto, who acted as his proxy, by the alliance between the Florentine and Venetian republics, and, not least, by the recent presence in the lagoon of his master Ghiberti (winter 1424-1425), Paolo Uccello thus reached the Venetian capital, where he stayed for six or seven years. Before leaving, as usual, he made his will, on August 5, 1425.

What little is known about these years is related to the testimony of a letter to Pietro Beccanugi (Florentine ambassador accredited to the Serenissima) from the Florentine Opera del Duomo dated March 23, 1432, in which he asks for an account and reference on Paolo di Dono, “magistro musayci,” who had made a St. Peter for the facade of St. Mark”s basilica (a lost work, which is glimpsed, however, in Gentile Bellini”s canvas painting of the Procession in St. Mark”s Square, dated 1496). Some marble inlays for the basilica floor are conservatively attributed to him today . Longhi and Pudelko have also referred to him the design of the mosaics of the Visitation, Birth and Presentation in the Temple of the Virgin in the Mascoli Chapel in St. Mark”s, executed by Michele Giambono: the three scenes, attributed by most critics to the design of Andrea del Castagno, active a few years later in the city, present a perspective design of a certain complexity.

In 1427 he was certainly in Venice, while a few years later, in the summer of 1430, he may have visited Rome, along with two former students, like himself, of Ghiberti, Donatello and Masolino. With the latter he may have collaborated on the lost cycle of Illustrious Men in the Orsini Palace, now known through a miniature copy by Leonardo da Besozzo. However, the hypothesis is based only on conjecture, related to the attraction of artists at the time of the renewal of Rome promoted by Martin V.

The Venetian experience accentuated his penchant for depicting fantastical escapes, probably inspired by the lost frescoes of Pisanello and Gentile da Fabriano in the Doge”s Palace, but it distanced him from Florence during a crucial period for artistic developments.

Some refer the Oxford Annunciation and Melbourne”s St. George and the Dragon to this period.

The return to Florence

In 1431 he returned to his homeland, where he found his youthful colleagues in Ghiberti”s workshop now launched toward an established career, such as Donatello and Luca della Robbia, who were joined by two friars already fully aware of the scope of the Masaccio revolution, such as Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi.

Florentine patrons must have shown some mistrust of the repatriated artist, as evidenced by the letter of reference sent to Venice by the Operai del Duomo in 1432, mentioned above. The lunette with the Creation of the Animals and Creation of Adam and the underlying panel of the Creation of Eve and Original Sin in the Green Cloister of Santa Maria Novella is referred to 1431, in which the influence of Masolino can be discerned in some details (the serpent”s head in Original Sin), while the severe figure of the Eternal Father recalls Ghiberti. However, the work also demonstrates an early contact with the innovations, particularly of Masaccio, especially in the inspiration for Adam”s nude body, heavy and monumental as well as anatomically proportioned. In general, that geometrizing tendency of the artist, with the figures inscribed in circles and other geometric shapes, is already apparent, fused with late Gothic reminiscences such as the decorative insistence of naturalistic details. The artist then surely worked on a second, better-known lunette (Deluge and Recession of the Waters and Stories of Noah) in 1447-1448.

Perhaps a certain hostility at home led him briefly to Bologna, where he produced a grand Adoration of the Child in the church of San Martino, in the surviving fragments of which we can now read a rapid and unequivocal adaptation to the firm volumes and perspective research of the Masaccio style. On the basis of the scarcely legible inscribed date, however, there are those who refer this work to 1437.

In the early 1930s he worked on Franciscan Histories in the basilica of Santa Trinita in Florence, of which only a very dilapidated scene of the Stigmata of St. Francis above the left door in the counterfacade remains.

In 1434 he bought a house in Florence, testifying to his desire to work and establish himself on the city scene.

In 1435 Leon Battista Alberti published De pictura, a treatise that led, either directly or indirectly, Paolo Uccello and numerous other artists to a decisive leap forward in the field of more distinctively Renaissance experimentation, putting late Gothic taste and stylistic features on the back burner: painters were required to have coherence, verisimilitude and a sense of harmony, under the banner of an “ornate narrative” that soon became the dominant aesthetic norm. To these new instances Paolo Uccello nevertheless always juxtaposed his own elegant and abstract personal taste, derived from the example of Ghiberti.

Meadow

On November 26, 1435, Sixty-four-year-old Prato wool worker and merchant Michele di Giovannino di Sandro dictated his will, arranging funds to found and decorate a chapel dedicated to the Assumption in Prato Cathedral, also paving the way for his brother priest to be its first rector.

Paolo Uccello was called to decorate the three walls of the chapel, and he had to begin the task between the winter of 1435 and the spring of 1436. Paolo Uccello is credited with part of the Stories of the Virgin (Nativity of Mary and Presentation of Mary in the Temple) and the Stories of St. Stephen (Dispute of St. Stephen and Martyrdom of St. Stephen, except for the lower half), as well as four saints within niches on the sides of the archway (St. Jerome, St. Dominic, St. Paul and St. Francis) and the touching Blessed Jacopone da Todi on the wall behind the altar, now detached and kept in the Civic Museum. It is a rare presence (his remains had been found as recently as 1433) and with a strong Franciscan connotation, probably due to the personal devotion of the commissioner, who in his life had been convicted and imprisoned several times for debts, which he said were through no fault of his own.

Particularly significant is the vertiginous staircase in the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, where we see the rapid maturation of the artist”s ability to represent complex elements in space, although the virtuosity of a few years later is not yet present. Already his contemporary Giovanni Manetti, in his biography of Brunelleschi, had included Paolo Uccello among the artists who had immediate knowledge of the great architect”s experiments in perspective. From then on, the reputation of Paolo as a master who “understood perspective well” took off in later literature, for example already in Cristoforo Landino”s writings of 1481.

In Prato”s frescoes a certain metaphysical isolation of the buildings, the cold and bright color palette, and above all the curious repertoire of oddball physiognomies scattered throughout the stories and ondes of the decorative parties bring out an extravagant, original and irregularity-loving nature.

The attribution of the Prato frescoes is not certain: Pudelko spoke more cautiously of a Master of Karlsruhe, Mario Salmi referred them to the Master of Quarate, while Pope-Hennessy spoke of a “Master of Prato.”

By 1437 the work in Prato is thought to have been completed, due to the presence of a triptych at the Accademia Gallery in Florence dated that year, which specifically mentions Paul”s St. Francis. It is unclear why the artist left the city before the cycle (later completed by Andrea di Giusto) was finished, perhaps because of a more attractive contract with the Opera del Duomo of Florence in 1436.

Stylistically close to the frescoes are the Saint Nun with Two Maidens from the Contini Bonacossi Collection, the Madonna and Child from the National Gallery of Ireland, and the Crucifixion from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.

Large commissions

The Prato cycle was suddenly left unfinished (it would later be Andrea di Giusto who brought it to completion), probably because far greater undertakings in prestige and earnings had meanwhile been offered to him. Returning in fact to Florence he was mainly engaged in the building site of Santa Maria del Fiore, very active in view of the inauguration of the dome and the solemn consecration in the presence of Pope Eugene IV.

In 1436 he frescoed there the equestrian monument to the leader John Acuto (John Hawkwood), executed in only three months and signed with his name on the base of the statue. The work is monochrome (or verdeterra), used to give the impression of a bronze statue. He employed two different perspective systems in it, one for the base and one frontal for the horse and rider. The figures appear well-groomed, courtly, and well treated volumetrically through skillful light and shadow drafting with chiaroscuro. To that same period must have dated the lost green earth cycle with the Stories of St. Benedict in Santa Maria degli Angeli.

In this work he signed himself, for the first time, as “Pavli Vgielli”: it is unclear under what circumstances he adopted what seems to be a simple nickname as his real name, not least in a public commission of great importance and visibility. Some have also related this choice to a poissible connection with the Bolognese Uccelli family.

Indeed, in 1437 he made a trip to Bologna, where the fresco of the Nativity in the first left chapel of the church of San Martino remains.

Between 1438 and 1440 (but some historians place the date in 1456) he made the three paintings celebrating the Battle of San Romano, in which the Florentines, led by Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino defeated the Sienese in 1432. The three panels, exhibited until 1784 in a room in the Medici Palace on Via Larga in Florence, are now dispersed separately in three of Europe”s most important museums: the National Gallery in London (Niccolò da Tolentino at the head of the Florentines), the Uffizi (De-escalation of Bernardino della Ciarda) and the Louvre in Paris (Decisive intervention on the side of the Florentines by Michele Attendolo), the latter possibly painted at a later date and signed by the artist. The work was carefully prepared, and several drawings remain with which the artist studied particularly complex geometric constructions in perspective: some remain today in both the Uffizi and the Louvre, and it is thought that he was probably aided in this study by the mathematician Paolo Toscanelli.

In 1442 we have the first record of his workshop.

Between 1443 and 1445 he executed for Florence Cathedral the quadrant of the large clock on the counterfacade and the cartoons for two of the stained glass windows in the dome (Resurrection, executed by the glassmaker Bernardo di Francesco, and Nativity, made by Angelo Lippi).

Padua and return

In 1445 he was called to Padua by Donatello, and here he painted frescoes in the Vitaliani palace with Giants in green earth that are now lost; they were esteemed in “very high regard” by Andrea Mantegna, who may have been inspired by them for the Stories of St. Christopher in the Ovetari Chapel. He returned to Florence the following year.

Around 1447-1448 Paolo Uccello was again engaged in the frescoes in the Green Cloister of Santa Maria Novella, particularly in the lunette with the Flood and Recession of the Waters, in which Noah is seen coming out of the ark, and below the panel with the Sacrifice and Drunkenness of Noah. In the lunette, he adopted a double cross vanishing point that accentuated, along with the unreality of the colors, the dramatic nature of the episode: on the left we see the ark at the beginning of the Flood, on the right after the Flood; Noah is present both in the act of taking the olive branch and on the dry land. The figures become smaller as they move away, and the ark seems to reach to infinity. The influence of Masaccio”s figures could be felt in the nudes, while the richness of the details was still influenced by late Gothic taste.

In those same years, for the cloister of the Spedale di San Martino della Scala he frescoed a lunette with the Nativity, now much ruined and in the Uffizi storerooms together with the related sinopia: especially in the latter we note the attention given by the artist to perspective construction, with instead a very sketchy definition of the figures, which are later found in other positions in the final version.

In about 1447-1454 he waited for frescoes with Stories of Hermit Saints in the cloister of San Miniato, only partly preserved. A tabernacle in San Giovanni is documented in 1450 and a painting with Blessed Andrea Corsini in Florence Cathedral in 1452, both works lost.

Dated between 1450 and 1475 is the panel with the Thebaid, a theme widely popular in those years, and housed in the Galleria dell”Accademia in Florence. Also attributed to around 1450 is the small triptych with the Crucifixion, housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, probably made for a cell in the convent of Santa Maria del Paradiso in Florence.

He married Tommasa Malifici in 1452, by whom he had two daughters, one of whom was Antonia, a Carmelite nun who is remembered for her painting skills but of whose works no trace remains. Antonia is perhaps the first Florentine painter recorded in the chronicles. From that year is the panel with an Annunciation now lost, of which the predella with Christ in piety between the Madonna and St. John the Evangelist is preserved in the Museo di San Marco in Florence. To about 1455 dates the panel with Saint George and the Dragon in the National Gallery in London.

Between 1455 and 1465 he made for the altarpiece for the church of St. Bartholomew (formerly known as St. Michael the Archangel) in Quarate, of which only the predella composed of three scenes with the Vision of St. John in Patmos, the Adoration of the Magi, and Saints James the Greater and Ansanus remains, kept in the Diocesan Museum of Santo Stefano al Ponte in Florence.

In 1465 he executed for Lorenzo di Matteo Morelli, a panel painting with St. George and the Dragon (Paris, Jacquemart André Museum) and the fresco with the Incredulity of St. Thomas on the facade of the church of St. Thomas in the Mercato Vecchio (lost).

The portraits

Widely debated is the origin of a nucleus of profile portraits from the Florentine area, datable to the early Renaissance. In these works, in which different hands are noted, attempts have been made to recognize the hand now of Masaccio, now of Paolo Uccello, and now of others. Although these are probably the oldest independent portraits of the Italian school, the total absence of documentary evidence prevents a precise attribution. Paolo Uccello in particular is sometimes referred to the delicate Portrait of a Woman in the Metropolitan Museum, whose features would resemble those of the princesses rescued from the dragon in Uccello”s panels (but today they lean toward a follower of the artist), or the Portrait of a Young Man in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Chambéry, with its reduced coloring in shades of red and brown, as in other panels by the artist.

Urbino and recent years

In his old age Paolo Uccello was invited by Federico da Montefeltro to Urbino, where he stayed from 1465 to 1468, becoming involved in the decoration of the Ducal Palace. Here remains the predella with the Miracle of the Profaned Host, commissioned from him by the Compagnia del Corpus Domini, which was later completed by a large altarpiece by Giusto di Gand.

Probably to these years belongs the panel with the Night Hunt in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

In late October and early November 1468 Paul was back in Florence. Old and now unable to work, his reach to the land register of 1469 remains, in which he wrote, “truovomi vecchio e sanza usamento e non mi può esercitare e la mia donna è infma.”

On November 11, 1475, probably ill, he made his will and died on December 10, 1475, being buried in Santo Spirito on December 12.

He left many drawings, including three in the Uffizi with perspective studies. In this study the artist was probably assisted by the mathematician Paolo Toscanelli.

The most striking feature of the works of Paolo Uccello”s maturity is the bold perspective construction, which, however, unlike Masaccio, does not serve to give logical order to the composition, within a finite and measurable space, but rather to create fantastic and visionary scenes in undefined spaces. His cultural horizon always remained linked to late Gothic culture, although interpreted with originality.

The works of his maturity are contained in a logical and geometric perspective cage, where figures are considered volumes, placed according to mathematical and rational correspondences, where the natural horizon and that of feelings are excluded. The effect, clearly discernible in works such as the Battle of San Romano is that of a series of mannequins impersonating a scene with frozen and suspended actions, but it is precisely from this inscrutable fixity that the emblematic and dreamlike character of his painting arises.

The fantastic effect is also accentuated by the use of dark skies and backgrounds, against which the figures, stuck in unnatural positions, stand out brightly.

Vasari in the Lives praised the perfection to which Paolo Uccello had led the art of perspective, but reproached him for devoting himself to it “out of measure,” neglecting the study of the rendering of human figures and animals: “Paulo Uccello would have been the most graceful and capricious genius that had had, from Giotto onward, the art of painting if he had labored as much in figures and animals as he labored and lost time in the things of perspective.”

This limited critical view was in fact taken up by all later scholars until Cavalcaselle, who, by emphasizing how the scientific study of perspective does not impoverish artistic expression, initiated a more comprehensive and reasoned understanding of Paolo Uccello”s art.

Among later studies an issue often addressed has been that of the interpretation of the fragmentary perspective of some works, according to some, such as Parrochi, related to a “non-acceptance of the reductive system of construction with points of distance applied exemplarily by the architect in his experimental tablets.” Perhaps, however, it is more correct to speak of a personal interpretation of such principles, rather than a real opposition, under the banner of a greater sense of “abstract and fantastic” (Mario Salmi). For Paul, perspective always remained a tool for placing things in space and not for making things real, as is especially evident in works such as The Great Flood. Keeping halfway between the late Gothic world and Renaissance novelties, Paolo Uccello fused “ancient ideals and new means of investigation” (Parronchi).

The Master of Karlsruhe, Prato or Quarate

Early twentieth-century critics, finding a certain stylistic discontinuity in the group of works referred or referable to Paolo Uccello, often assumed the existence of pupils, to whom they gave various conventional names, referring them small groups of works, now generally all referred, again, to the master. They are the “Master of Karlsruhe,” taking as an eponymous work the Adoration of the Child with Saints Jerome, Magdalene and Eustace (Pudelko), the “Master of Prato” (frescoes of the Chapel of the Assumption, per Pope-Hennessy) or the “Master of Quarate” (for the predella of Quarate, according to Mario Salmi). Although differences can be found among the various works, they appear to be linked by homogeneous characteristics.

It would, after all, be quite improbable, as Luciano Berti pointed out, that of a master of the weight and fame of Paolo Uccello only the major works have come down to us, and that all the minor works are by a fortunate schoolboy whose major works, on the other hand, have not been preserved. Moreover, each work, even the most passing, shows its own distinct originality, which is the prerogative of the master, and not of an imitator. For all these reasons, there is a tendency to trace all these alter egos to the single figure of the master, perhaps dislocating the various works in different phases and periods.

Paolo Uccello, along with Gioachino Rossini and Lev Tolstoy, is the subject of one of the three poems that form Giovanni Pascoli”s Poemi italici, published a year before the poet”s death in 1911. The poem Paulo Ucello, a ten-chapter scene where Paolo paints the nightingale he cannot buy, is a celebration of the escapist power of art and a challenge to reproduce in poetry the flowery, descriptive style of the Florentine painter.

Marcel Schwob dedicates a chapter of his book “Imaginary Lives” (1896) to him in which he imagines Paolo Uccello immersed in contemplating and breaking down the world into simple lines and circles so much so as to detach himself completely from all perception from the earthly phenomena of life and death.

Also previously attributed to him was the panel with Five Masters of the Florentine Renaissance (Louvre Museum, Paris) by an unknown Florentine painter, dated to the late 15th century or early 16th century.

Sources

  1. Paolo Uccello
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