Monday, January 29, 2007

An Englishman in Florence

Paolo Uccello (born Paolo di Dono, 1397 – 1475)
Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood 1436
Fresco, 820 x 515 cm Duomo, Florence

In 1436 the administrators of the Opera del Duomo in Florence commissioned Paolo Uccello to paint a fresco in the Cathedral, a monument commemorating Sir John Hawkwood (Giovanni Acuto). The fresco is still there in its prominent place. Hawkwood was an English mercenary who had commanded Florentine troops at the end of the 14th century and had led the Florentine troops to victory in the Battle of Cascina (1364). Hawkwood died in 1393.

Uccello used perspective and sculptural quality as well as the monochrome effect of "terra verde". He succeeded in creating the illusion of a statue, standing on a plinth. The base is shown in foreshortening, so as to be seen correctly from below, whereas the warrior in on his horse is drawn in full frontal perspective.

The administrators of the Opera del Duomo did not appreciate the fresco at all, and ordered Uccello to paint it again, which the artist did. We do not know exactly what Uccello changed.

In his Lives, Vasari tempers his praise by pointing out an important error in the painting:

"This work was and still is held to be something very beautiful for a painting of that kind, and if Paolo had not made that horse move its legs on one side only, which naturally horses do not do, or they would fall--and this perchance came about because he was not accustomed to ride, nor used to horses as he was to other animals--this work would be absolutely perfect, since the proportion of that horse, which is colossal, is very beautiful; and on the base there are these letters: PAULI UCCELLI OPUS"