WHILE Fra Angelico was giving expression to the ideals of a departing age in his paintings, a little band of Florentines were slowly working out the development of art on very different lines. The aim of these artists is set forth by a contemporary writer, the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, in the following passage :” I have always followed the study of the arts with great diligence and order. From my earliest days I have always tried to discover how Nature reveals herself in Art, and how I may best draw near to her ; how forms really present themselves to the eye, and on what principles the arts of painting and sculpture should be practised.” Foremost among the painters who devoted themselves to the presentation of natural objects was Paolo Uccello, the great student and teacher of linear perspective. Paolo di Dono was born in 1397, and was the son of a barber-surgeon of Pratovecchio, in the Casentino, who afterwards came to live in the quarter of S. Spirito in Florence. At ten years old Paolo entered the shop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, and attached himself to the little group of earnest workers and seekers after knowledge who numbered Donatello, Brunellesco and Masaccio in their ranks. With Donatello he was especially intimate, and the portrait which he painted of the great sculptor, together with those of Giotto, Brunellesco, Giovanni Manetti the mathematician, and his own, were seen by Vasari in the house of Giuliano di Sangallo, and are now in the Louvre. Fired by the example of these men, Paolo devoted himself with ardour to the study of perspective, which absorbed his whole time and thoughts, and became the passion of his life. He would sit up half the night, studying rules of perspective and working out problems at his desk, and when his wife urged him to take a little rest, would only exclaim : ” Oh ! how sweet a thing is perspective ! ” Vasari describes him as a strange, eccentric being, who would live like a hermit for weeks and months without speaking to any one, and shrank from the sight of his fellow-creatures. Once when he was painting some frescoes for the Benedictines of San Miniato he disappeared altogether, and the more the monks tried to find him, the more persistently he eluded their search. At length, however, two of the monks, who were younger than the rest, caught sight of Paolo in the street, and, running after him, asked why he had left his work unfinished ; upon which the shy painter told them that their Abbot had given him nothing but dishes made of cheese to eat, and that he felt sure if he stayed in their convent any longer he should be turned into cheese himself ! The monks heard his story with peals of laughter, and left him with many assurances that he should be treated better in future, if he would only return and finish his frescoes. The result of this love of solitude and in-difference to gain, Vasari tells us, was that he remained poor and miserable all his life. But this statement is hardly correct, at least as regards the earlier part of his career ; for, in 1434, Paolo bought a house in the Via della Scala for loo florins, and six years later rented a shop and owned house-property and lands in Florence.
Paolo took great delight in painting animals of all kinds, especially birds, whose flight and movements he studied constantly, and drew so often, that he acquired the surname of Uccello. For the Medici he painted many animal subjects, amongst others, a battle of lions and serpents, which is mentioned as one of five large tempera pictures by his hand in the Magnificent Lorenzo’s inventory. Several battle-pieces, in which Paolo also excelled, were among the treasures of the Medici Palace, while for the villa of the Bartolini family at Gualfonda, he painted four similar works, of which three are still in existence. The finest and best preserved of these is the so-called Battle of S. Egidio in the National Gallery. This is a characteristic example of Paolo’s style, full of movement and clever foreshortenings, and not destitute of beauty. Malatesta da Rimini, mounted on a galloping white horse, and wearing a crimson gold-embroidered mantle, and his nephew, Galeazzo, a fair boy with bright locks and bare head, are conspicuous in the mêlée, and the ground is strewn with dead corpses and broken lances, while between gleaming helmets and flashing spears we see the blossoming roses and leaves which Paolo loved to paint. Two other of these battle-pieces are in the Louvre and Uffizi, while a painting of a Midnight Hunt full of weird and romantic charm has lately been discovered at Oxford. But in all of these pictures, we notice that want of actuality and lack of unity in composition, which made Donatello exclaim : ” Ah ! Paolo, in your passion for perspective, you are forsaking the substance for the shadow ! ”
In 1425, Paolo went to Venice, and spent seven years there. Among other works, he designed a mosaic on the façade of St. Mark’s, and the Signory of Florence hearing of the reputation which he had acquired, engaged him, on his return, to paint an equestrian portrait of the English Captain, John Hawkwood commonly known in Italy as Giovanni Acuto on the entrance wall of the Duomo. In May 1436, Paolo received the commission to paint this fresco in terra verde, with grisaille arabesques and sarcophagus below, to give the effect of a sepulchral monument in bronze. His first attempt failed to satisfy the Directors of the Duomo Works, but by August he produced the splendid fresco which has been of late years transferred to canvas, and still hangs on the entrance wall to the left of the cathedral door. The spirited figure of the warrior in his short cloak and broad hat, with his martial air and high stepping horse, is a masterpiece not unworthy to be compared with the famous equestrian statue of Galtamelata, which Donatello modelled a few years later.
In 1444, Paolo accompanied his friend Donatello to Padua, where he spent two years, and painted some giants, in grisaille, in the hall of the Vitiliani Palace, which were greatly admired by Mantegna. After his return to Florence, in 1446, he painted his most famous works, the frescoes of the Deluge and the Sacrifice of Noah, in the Chiostro Verde of Santa Maria Novella. Here Paolo shows himself to be a great and original master. This representation of the Flood is a striking dramatic composition, remark-able not only for the knowledge of anatomy and foreshortening displayed in the nude figures, but for the vivid realisation of the scene and of the different emotions which it arouses. The desperate struggles of the drowning men and women in the water, the youth with his soaked garments and wind-blown hair, clinging to the side of the ark, and the man trying to keep himself up by the help of a tub, are all wonder-fully represented ; while the dove flying home across the waters with the olive-leaf in her beak, brings an element of peace and hope into the scene of desolation. Equally impressive in its way is the patriarchal group of Noah’s sons and daughters, kneeling round the altar, in flowing draperies that recall Masaccio’s designs, and the foreshortened figure of God the Father brooding like a cloud over the scene, with a mystic grandeur not unworthy of Michel Angelo himself. These works of Paolo Uccello made the Chiostro Verde a school of drawing little inferior in fame to the Brancacci Chapel, and there can be no doubt that both Signorelli and Buonarroti were among the artists who came to study in the cloisters of Santa Maria Novella during the next fifty years.
Another admirable work by this artist which has fortunately been preserved, is the Miracle of the Host, which Paolo painted for the Confraternity of Corpus Domini at Urbino, in 1468. He was seventy-two years of age, but the picture shows no sign of failing powers. The dramatic tale of the wealthy Jew’s wife who threw the Host into the fire, and the swift vengeance that overtook the family which had been guilty of this act of sacrilege, is told with start-ling vividness. All the different actors in the story, the frightened children, the horses and soldiers who force open the doors of the house, the solemn pro-cession of priests and magistrates, are represented in the most life-like manner ; while the skilfully lighted interior, and the pleasant landscape with its orchards and gardens along the mountain-side, are reproduced with a truth and fidelity that make us realise the marvellous advance which had been effected during the lifetime of this one master. The presence of Paolo at Urbino is commemorated by Raphael’s father Giovanni Santi, who gives Uccello a place among the illustrious painters in his rhyming Chronicle. By the following year he was back in Florence, where he describes himself in his income-tax return as old and destitute and quite unable to work, while his wife, Mona Tommasa, is also ill. Paolo had married late in life, after his return from Padua, and had a son of sixteen, named after his friend Donatello, and a daughter Antonia, who is described as being herself an artist, and who became a Carmelite nun after her father’s death. Six years later, on the 11th of December, 1475, Paolo Uccello died, and was buried in his father’s sepulchre in San Spirito.
Frorence.Duomo : FrescoesEquestrian Portrait of Sir John Hawkwood, Four Heads of Prophets.
S. Maria NovellaChiostro Verde:
” FrescoesThe Deluge, Sacrifice of Noah.
Uffizi : 52. Battle.
UrbinoGallery : 23. The Miracle of the Host, 1468.
London.National Gallery: 583. Battle of S. Egidio.
Oxford.–University Galleries: 28. Midnight Hunt.
Paris.Louvre: 1272. Portraits of Giotto, Paolo Uccello, Donatello, Brunellesco and Giovanni Manetti ; 1273. Battle.
Vienna : Count Lanckoronski: St. George and the Dragon.