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.
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.
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!
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