Famous Paintings: The Battle of San Romano

The Battle of San Romano is one of the most famous paintings in Renaissance art. Paolo Uccello, born Paolo di Dono, was nicknamed Uccello (Italian for “bird”) because he frequently sketched them. His Battle of San Romano was painted on three panels now located in three different art museums, the National Gallery, Uffizi, and Louvre.  Together, they depict the legendary (but bloodless) battle of 1432 between Florence and Siena.

Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano. Tempera on wood panel, approx. 6′ x 10’7″.  National Gallery, London.

National Gallery Panel

The onset of the skirmish is depicted on the London panel (right). Here, the Sienese have ambushed the Florentine commander, Niccolo da Tolentino, and his force of twenty horsemen. Greatly outnumbered, the Florentines held their enemy at bay for eight hours until reinforcements arrived and vanquished the Sienese.

This panel is renowned as a tour de force of pageantry, of battle imagery, and of Uccello’s introduction of one point (linear) perspective into Renaissance art.

Detail. Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano. Tempera on wood panel, approx. 6′ x 10’7″.  National Gallery, London.

The broken lances on the ground form receding lines, or orthogonals, which converge on a fixed vanishing point.  Note that the prone soldier is conveniently aligned on an orthogonal (and that no blood sullies the scene, in spite of the gaping hole piercing his armor!)  The vanishing point, located by the horse’s head, creates an illusion of depth; along with Niccolo’s red and gold headdress and rearing white horse, they compel the viewer to focus on the pivotal and heroic figure.

Niccolo was a condottiere, or professional mercenary, and a confidant of the Medici, the leading Renaissance arts patrons.  One can identify Niccolo immediately by his personal insignia, the knot of Solomon; this “knot of eternity” is shown on the banner held aloft by the bare-headed standard bearer. The battle is waged in the foreground space, with the middle ground blanketed by hedges of roses, oranges and pomegranates, all fertility symbols. In the distant cultivated fields, other warriors prepare crossbows.

The raised gold decorations on the harnesses are embossed in gold; their sculptural effect reminds you that Paolo Uccello apprenticed with Lorenzo Ghiberti. More significantly, Uccello designed these works to be hung above eye level, or approximately 7 feet from the ground.  In person, it is apparent that Niccolo’s arm and horse were intended to be viewed from below rather than at eye level, making him all the more imposing.

Uffizi Panel

In the center panel housed in the Uffizi (below), Bernadino della Ciarda, the leader of the Sienese mercenaries, is struck by a lance and knocked from his horse. The crux of the battle shows Bernadino sprawled on the ground to the right of the painting’s central axis.

Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano. Tempera on wood panel, approx. 6′ x 10’9″.  Uffizi.

Louvre Panel

The final panel at the Louvre – and the last temporally – depicts Niccolo aiding the Florentine mercenary, Michelotto da Cotignola, as they counterattack the Sienese across the Arno river.

Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano. Tempera on wood panel, approx. 6′ x 10′ 7″.  Musee National du Louvre.

There is now disagreement about who commissioned these paintings.

Art historians had long agreed they were commissioned by Piero de Medici for the newly constructed Medici Palace.  However, Marilyn Stokstad suggests these famous paintings were actually commissioned by Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni (1404-1479). His heir and son, Damiano, filed a complaint stating that Lorenzo de’ Medici “forcibly removed” these Renaissance paintings from his family.  Whether true or not, an “in palace” inventory of 1492 records that all three Paolo Uccello paintings hung in the Medici Palace on the walls of Lorenzo’s private quarters.

Imagine the thrill (and the crowds!) if The Battle of San Romano were once again shown as a triptych!

Like Renaissance art? Explore the incomporable Ghent Altarpiece and its best known panel, Adoration of the Lambs.

Curious about the most famous painters in the history of painting?

We were, too. Masterpiece Cards researched which famous paintings are most often cited in leading art history books, some 17,000 pages.

Results are on a set of 250 art history flashcards, with an art analysis of, and facts about, each work. Line them up to study, compare, and contrast famous paintings and different art movements. Teach or learn art appreciation.  Preview visits to art museums by learning about the artworks.

Take a look at sample art history flashcards — we know seeing IS believing!



By |2018-03-25T17:07:19-04:00November 5th, 2009|Renaissance paintings|2 Comments

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  1. beth April 28, 2010 at 11:53 pm - Reply

    Does anyone know when The Battle of San Romano at the Uffizi will be back on dosplay???

  2. Lenore Sarasan July 4, 2010 at 11:54 pm - Reply

    The life dates for Tolentino in all the sources I could find are about 1350-1435. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that someone in his 80s or mid-70s was still an active mercenary going into battle? And while the rationale for a Medici commissioning such a massive work to commemorate such a minor skirmish (particularly one that both sides claimed victory in) sounds like a real stretch (Cosimo de Medici was friends with Tolentino — but Tolentino was hardly the primary mercenary employed by the Medicis), why in the world would Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni (per Marilyn Stokstad’s theory) commission it? Further, when you line up the 3 paintings in the order in which they are said to go, they appear really unbalanced. And if you set them up in some other order, then you have the 2 Medici mercenaries fighting each other.

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