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Paolo Uccello's Battle of San Romano, probably c. 1438-40 in the National Gallery, London Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(piano playing) Dr. Steven Zucker: Niccolo da Tolentino the Florentine commander rises up on his charger. He wears no helmet. This is a painting about the Florentine victory over the Sienese that was part of a broader conflict with the city of Lucca. Dr. Beth Harris: And, of course, the Italian city states were always at war with one another and this painting of the Battle of San Romano is actually one of three panels of this subject that were meant as a set. One of the others is in Uffizi and the other is in the Louvre in Paris. Dr. Zucker: And they're large paintings, so you really feel as if the battle is in front of you. Dr. Harris: So, imagine the three together and they were all together in the Medici Palace. These paintings were a favorite of Lorenzo de'Medici who actually had them forceably removed from the home of the family that had commissioned them in Florence and brought to the Medici Palace, which you could do if you were Lorenzo de'Medici, basically the ruler of Florence. It is the scene of a battle, but the painting to me, it's about two competing elements of painting in Florence in the first half of the 15th Century. Dr. Zucker: Paolo Uccello, the artist, was very much a product of international Gothic of this late strain of Gothic style that really emphasized pattern and the decorative. On the other hand, he also lived in Florence when Berlesci lived there and had developed the near perspective. This radically modern approach to representing space in painting and so you have a painting that is about another kind of conflict. I think that is exactly right, the conflict between the idea of surface decoration and the ability to render deep space. Dr. Harris: So, you have many, many decorative elements here that are in line with that international Gothic style from the pattern on the commanders fabulous turban, the gold decorations that we see on the bridles and the saddles of the horses or even those decorative curving shapes of the armor. At the same time, we have a mathematical illusion of space created with linear perspective being applied in the oddest way with the orthogonals created by the lances that have fallen to the ground. Dr. Zucker: So, on the one hand, all that decorative metal work, for instance, in the bridles really pushes up against the surface of the painting and denies depth. On the other hand, you have exactly the opposite thing happening with all of the debris of the battle that's fallen below the horses. Look at the way those fragments of lances, for instance, create almost a kind of chess board. Dr. Harris: And that conflicts also with the background where we see vegetation. That create a flat tapestry like pattern behind them that also denies an illusion into space. Dr. Zucker: Look at the specific information that the artist has given us. Look at the bridle gear or even the straps at the back of the armor. One of my favorite areas, is if you look in the background and you look at some of the smaller figures that play against that monochromatic field, you can see archers with crossbows who are reloading their weapons by pulling on them at their feet. Dr. Harris: So, these two tendencies that we see in Florentine painting of the decorative and the scientific, come together in Uccello's Battle of San Romano. (piano playing)