Two prominent families of Renaissance Florence, the Salimbeni and the Medici, fought for years over this painting by Paolo Uccello. It is one of three large painted panels that recount the Florentine victory over the Sienese at San Romano, near Lucca, on 1 June, 1432; a victory that helped Cosimo de’ Medici consolidate his power in Florence. However it was not the Medici but Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni, a member of the governing council of Florence, who probably commissioned the work for his Florence townhouse around 1435. After his death, Lorenzo de’ Medici tried to purchase the paintings. The Salimbeni family refused, so Lorenzo took them by force, leading the Salimbeni to file a lawsuit. But to no avail as the three huge panels are listed in Lorenzo’s bedroom in a 1491 inventory. Covered with a mass of soldiers, horses and lances all painted with sumptuous detail using real gold and silver (all of the armour has since tarnished), brilliantly coloured banners and ‘mazzochi’ (distinctive Florentine hats), it must have been a dazzling bedroom.
This panel, second in the cycle, (the first is today located in the National Gallery, London and the third in the Uffizi, Florence), depicts the counterattack by Florence’s ally, the condottiere (leader of mercenary soldiers) Micheletto da Cotignola. Uccello imparts the narrative by dividing the mass of figures and lances into three sections. To the right a group of armour-clad soldiers sit astride their horses preparing for assault. In the centre Cotignola, distinguished by his fabulous hat and rearing black steed, gives the signal for attack. To the left the attack begins as soldier charge with lances down. The narrative movement is spurred on by the varying positions of the lances and the horses’s hooves. Yet the battle action feels more staged or ceremonial that violent; the image has a curiously frozen quality as if someone had pressed the pause button at these glorious moments.
The splendid surface recalls the work of Gentile da Fabriano and the International Gothic style in its lavish materials and splashes of naturalism. To this Uccello adds his own unique take on perspective: in his attempts at three dimensional representation, Uccello uses startling foreshortening, intersperses vanishing lines that converge to a central point (behind Cotignola) and alternates close and distant objects (note the soldiers to the right). Unlike other contemporary artists, Uccello does not use perspective to place the scene in a realistic landscape but instead uses an obscure background that gives the figures a fantastic, almost surreal, appearance.
This unique sensibility reflects Uccello’s reputed obsession with the new mathematical formulation of perspective. He had first studied sculpture with one of the greatest sculptors of the day, Lorenzo Ghiberti, but is said to have switched to painting to better explore perspective. Vasari wrote that Uccello (born Paolo di Bono but nicknamed Uccello, ‘bird’ in Italian, supposedly for his love of them) could have been the most captivating and imaginative painter since Giotto if he had spent more time on human figures and animals and less on perspective. Nevertheless Uccello’s individuality as an artist made him sought after in his own day and his influence reaches into the modern world: in the early 20th-century Uccello was a favourite of the Cubists and other Modernist painters who loved his play of forms and quest for movement.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1441–42 Jan van Eyck: Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor, New York, Frick Collection
1445 Giovanni di Paolo: The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art