Experiments of Vision

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) was a notable figure of the early Italian Renaissance. He worked between Venice and Padua, producing artworks through a variety of techniques: mosaic, fresco, oil, and tempera. He was an experimenter, who embraced with enthusiasm the introduction of linear perspective in Italian painting. He attempted several variations on the basic Brunelleschian perspective, using more than one vanishing point or mixing different planes of vision in the same image. For this reason, Vasari in his Vite accused him of whimsicality, saying he could have been a far greater painter if he only treated art with diligence.

The Battle of San Romano – Paolo Uccello – 1438-1440

In The Battle of San Romano, the artist placed the broken spears on the ground as if following some geometrical design. In fact, they are oriented so as to point toward the vanishing point. Paolo Uccello hints at the use of perspective by revealing some of its constructive elements. This said, the construction of the fictive space is all but perfect and it is possible to notice some mistakes in the definition of distances and proportions. The background looks extremely steep and the figures on the hillside look disproportionately tall as if they were very close to the observer. On the other hand, the corpse on the left in the first level looks quite small and does not match the size of the knights just above it.

Hunt in the Forest – Paolo Uccello – c. 1470

Other paintings such as the Hunt in the Forest present a more rigorous application of the rules of perspective. As in the Battle of San Romano, the trunks on the ground in the first level point at the perspective grid, revealing the carefully geometrical construction of the image. Repetition is a key feature of the work, with rows of trees vanishing toward the back of the painting.The figures are quite bi-dimensional, thanks to the vivid colours applied in vibrant patches. Paolo Uccello does not exploit modelling extensively and this produces an overall effect of flatness. Despite being painted in the second half of the fifteenth century, the Hunt in the Forest presents a vivid Late-Gothic style, visible in the detailed and colourful garments of the men, in the sinuous figures of the dogs, the delicate floral decorations.

Saint George and the Dragon – Paolo Uccello – 1456

Paolo Uccello is a peculiar presence in the context of the fifteenth century. The use of linear perspective connects him to the most recent technical innovations of the time. However, the bi-dimensionality of the figures and his prominent decorative mannerisms place demonstrate the continuity between his style and the Late-gothic style, which was still popular in Northern Europe but gradually disappeared from Italian art during the Quattrocento. The result is a puzzlingly conservative and innovative at the same time, making it difficult for the viewer to associate the painter to the monumental style of Masaccio as well as to the ethereal creations of Gentile da Fabriano. Paolo Uccello’s paintings prove that the development of Italian art from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance has not been linear. It was indeed the result of a gradual change in the style of artists as well as the taste of their patrons.

Hunt in the Forest

The Battle of San Romano

Saint George and the Dragon

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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