In his Lives of the Artists, the sixteenth-century painter, commentator, and biographer Giorgio Vasari gives us a rather bleak portrayal of Paolo Uccello as a monomaniac, so obsessed with his studies of the finer points of linear perspective that, in Vasari’s opinion, other aspects of his art suffered. ‘Such details may be attractive and ingenious’ Vasari writes ‘but anyone who studies them excessively is… choking his mind with difficult problems… turning a fertile and spontaneous talent into something sterile.’ This is a little uncharitable but Uccello does betray an undeniable propensity to labour the point.
A good example of this tendency can be seen in this picture — the peculiar patches of vegetation conveniently forming regular mat-like structures (looking as if they have been laid on top of the bed rock rather than growing from it) the better to illustrate and reinforce the receding lines of perspective.
But there is much more to Uccello than this. His early training in the workshop of the great Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti grounded him in the mannered and refined tradition of the prevailing Late Gothic style and despite his later fascination with Alberti’s theories on perspective, his personal style remained a mix of Late Gothic charm and Early Renaissance rigour. This picture is a delightful evocation of the famous legend with Uccello conflating two incidents from the story of St George as told in the Golden Legend.
The three central characters inhabit a somewhat arid dreamworld. Behind the dragon and his erstwhile prey there is a gaping cave — presumably the monster’s lair — looking rather as if it has been constructed from papier-mâché. To the right, the saint, clad in the armour of a medieval knight and riding his white horse (which looks as if it might be more at home in the nursery) is seen at the moment when his exceptionally elongated and elegant lance has wounded the dragon in the head. Blood flows from the dragon’s maw, its head forced downwards as if in obeisance to its conqueror. It seems that this direct hit is as much the result of divine intervention as chivalric valour for an improbable confection of cloud resembling a stratospheric ammonite has aligned itself on the axis of the saintly lance, presumably to enhance the power and accuracy of its thrust.
However, placed to the left of the dragon (resplendent with RAF-style roundels decorating its wings) a young maiden already seems to have the fearsome beast under control, having it leashed with a chain. This part of the painting refers to one version of the legend which tells us that rather than killing the dragon, George merely subdues it. The woman, who is in fact a princess, hailing from a nearby town, the subject to a reign of terror by the beast, had experienced the extreme misfortune of having drawn a fatal lot dooming her to be the dragon’s next square meal. Thanks to George’s knightly charge she is now able to lead the pacified brute triumphantly into the town.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1459 Andrea Mantegna: San Zeno Altarpiece, Verona, San Veno
c1460 Rogier van der Weyden: Portrait of Francesco d’Este, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1465 Alesso Baldovinetti: Portrait of a Lady in Yellow, London, National Gallery