Documentary sources tell us that the young Paolo worked with Ghiberti from 1407 to 1412 while the sculpture was making the first door of the baptistery in Florence. Perhaps his apprenticeship lasted until 1416, but it is possible that his training was also influenced by the late-Gothic art of Gherardo Starnina. He became a member of the Guild of Physicians and Herbalists, to which painters belonged, sometime between 1414 and 1415, and in 1424 joined the Compagnia di San Luca. The following year he journeyed to Venice where he stayed for five years and did the mosaic of St. Peter on the façade of St. Mark’s Basilica. In 1431 – but there is no consensus as to the date – he painted Scenes from Genesis in the Green Cloister of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Between 1434 and 1435 he frescoed Scenes from the Life of the Virgin and Scenes from the Life of St. Stephen in the Prato cathedral. In 1436 he signed and dated the fresco of an Equestrian Monument to Sir John Hawkwood in Santa Maria del Fiore. In the mid-eighties Paolo Uccello was a highly successful painter on the Florentine artistic scene and was called to the cathedral (1443-1445) to draw the cartoons of the Resurrection and the Nativity stained glass windows. Perhaps it was Donatello who summoned him to Padua in 1445 where he painted a lost cycle with Illustrious Men or Giants in Palazzo Vitaliani. Upon his return to Florence he worked on Scenes from Monastic Legends in the cloister of San Miniato al Monte, and again in the Green Cloister of Santa Maria Novella, with “The Flood”. The chronology of the three panels with the Battle of San Romano that were originally in the Palazzo Medici is uncertain, while his St. George and the Dragon (now in Paris) is documented as having been painted in 1465. Between 1465 and 1468 he went to Urbino several times where he painted six panels with The Profanation of the Host, the predella of the Communion of the Apostles for Giusto di Gand. In 1469 he reported to the registry office that he was living with his invalid wife in a state of dire poverty. In Paolo Uccello’s works the late-gothic and courtly taste for the fantastic combine with the modern research on perspective, with results that range from the monumental to the powerfully dramatic to the fabulous and sometimes even surreal.
The Birth of the Virgin
The scene is frescoed in the lunette of the right wall of the chapel of the Assumption. It is the first in chronological order of the Scenes from the Life of the Virgin that, along with the Scenes from the Life of St. Stephen decorate the chapel. The attribution to Paolo Uccello is not unanimous and some believe that it was done by one of his later followers known only as the Maestro di Prato. Andrea di Giusto completed the cycle. The birth of the Virgin Mary in the lunette is depicted with great narrative liveliness and late-Gothic elegance. The three women witnessing the event on the right can probably be considered female member’s of the family that ordered the fresco.Iconography
Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple
The Presentation in the Temple is the second, in chronological order, of the three scenes of the life of the Virgin. This one that can be entirely ascribed to Paolo Uccello is characterized by its perspective rigor. Restorations have revealed that the spatial construction was achieved with a tight grid that was traced with threads stretched on nails that had been planted in the joints. As in The Birth of the Virgin in the lunette, members of the patron’s family who stand at the right also watch this episode. Some believe that the figure facing the viewer is the artist himself. The painting is characterized by a very refined and anti-naturalistic use of color that gives it the particularly intellectual look that is typical of Paolo’s works.
Disputa di santo Stefano
Battle of San Romano. Micheletto da Cotignola Comes into the Fray
This was the right hand panel of a series of three commemorating the Battle of San Romano, in which the Florentines defeated the Sienese in 1432. The panel shows the condottiere Micheletto Attendolo da Cotignola enlisted by the Florentines helping the group led by Niccolò da Tolentino. The three paintings, ordered by the Medici, were in the palace in Via Larga until the eighteenth century when two were sold and only one – the central panel – remained in Florence (it is now in the Uffizi Gallery). In this painting, too, the artist rigorously interprets space that is measured through a careful arrangement of the horses from the rearing animal in the center to the one seen from the rear on the right. The silver leaf he used on the armor is still well conserved. This metal, that beautifully refracts light contributed to enhancing the unreal dimension of the scene.
Battle of San Romano. Niccolò da Tolentino Leading the Florentines
The painting was the left panel of a series of three commemorating the Battle of San Romano. In 1432 the Florentines led by Niccolò da Tolentino and Micheletto Attendolo da Cotignola defeated the Sienese troops of Bernardino della Ciarda. The three paintings were in the Palazzo Medici in Florence and perhaps were done for Cosimo de’Medici. They are united by a rigorous interpretation of space and in this scene the broken lances and the bodies laying in the foreground geometrically measure space. The artist’s rendering is still linked to the Gothic influence as we can see from the material richness: the painting is enhanced with gold and silver leaf. Even the attention to the vegetation, the narrative arrangement of the background landscape animated by lively figures in colorful clothes and the decorative aspects of some details such as the fluttering banner come from Paolo Uccello’s essentially Gothic and Medieval heritage.
From documentary sources we know that Paolo Uccello painted the clock face on the counter-façade of the cathedral in 1446. The twenty-four hours are in Roman numerals and counterclockwise according to the position of the hours on sundials. The face of the clock is decorated with four perspective oculi in the corners with male heads that have been interpreted as evangelists or prophets. They would represent a meditation on the rules of time and the universe. These faces have been stylistically compared to the contemporary Prophets that Donatello – a friend of Paolo - carved for the bell tower. A recent restoration has brought to light an earlier version of the clock that was also done by Paolo Uccello.
The Profanation of the Host
This predella, which is divided into six sections by painted balustrades depicts six episodes related to the miracle of the profanation of the host that occurred in Paris in 1290. In the first scene on the left, a woman sells the host to a Jewish merchant to redeem a cloak; in the second the host is burned and starts to bleed while armed men try to break down the door. In the third scene a procession takes the host to church to reconsecrate it; in the fourth the woman is taken to punishment while an angel descends from heaven; in the fifth the Jewish merchant and his family are condemned to the stake; in the final scene two demons and two angels fight over the woman before an altar. Paolo Uccello did this painting for the Compagnia del Corpus Domini of Urbino and was paid between 1467 and 1468. Since the painter returned to Florence the following year, the altar piece with the Communion of the Apostles that was to be above the predella was done a few years later (between 1473 and 1474) by the Flemish painter Justus de Gand. The predella develops Paolo Uccello’s experiments with space as he was increasingly fascinated by matters of perspective. It is also characterized by a fresh narrative tone and a highly naturalistic description of interiors that probably come from his late-Gothic training and the “modern” influence of Flemish painting.
A Hunt in the Forest
The size and shape of the panel lead us to believe that it may have been part of the furnishings of a room, perhaps a “headboard” as was typical in the fifteenth century. Lettering on the back has led to the hypothesis that it portrays Lorenzo the Magnificent on a deer hunt in the pine groves near Pisa. Although the episode is set outdoors, the artist did not renounce a rigorous perspective construction and articulated the depth of the forest as if it were architectural space. With curving lines and lively colors he rendered the life, the nervousness of the animals and hunters all facing the central vanishing point of the composition with great immediacy. The technique is also extremely refined: the trees are painted on a black ground and the sparkle of the leaves was achieved by applying tiny and very thin gold leaf.