Equestrian Monument to Sir John Hawkwood. 1436. Fresco. Duomo, Florence.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
PAOLO UCCELLO would have been the most gracious and fanciful genius that was ever devoted to the art of painting, from Giotto's day to our own, if he had labored as much at figures and animals as he labored and lost time over the details of perspective; for although these are ingenious and beautiful, yet if a man pursues them beyond measure he does nothing but waste his time, exhausts his powers, fills his mind with difficulties, ad often transforms its fertility and readiness into sterility and constraint, and renders his manner, by attending more to these details than to figures, dry and angular, which all comes from a wish to examine things too minutely; not to mention that very often he becomes solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor, as did Paolo Uccello.
This man, endowed by nature with a penetrating and subtle mind, knew no other delight than to investigate certain difficult, nay, impossible problems of perspective, which, although they were fanciful and beautiful, yet hindered him so greatly in the painting of figures, that the older he grew the worse he did them. And there is no doubt that if a man does violence to his nature with too ardent studies, although he may sharpen one edge of his genius, yet nothing that he does appears done with that facility and grace which are natural to those who put each stroke in its proper place temperately and with a calm intelligence full of judgment, avoiding certain subtleties that rather burden a manUs work with a certain laboured, dry, constrained, and bad manner, which moves those who see it rather to compassion than to marvel; for the spirit of genius must be driven into action only when the intellect wishes to set itself to work and when the fire of inspiration is kindled, since it is then that excellent and divine qualities and marvellous conceptions are seen to issue forth.
Now Paolo was for ever investigating, without a moment's intermission, the most difficult problems of art, insomuch that he reduced to perfection the method of drawing perspectives from the ground plans of houses and from the profiles of buildings, carried right up to the summits of the cornices and the roofs, by means of intersecting lines, making them foreshortened and diminishing towards the centre, after having first fixed the eye level either high or low, according to his pleasure. So greatly, in short, did he occupy himself with these difficulties, that he introduced a way, method, and rule of placing figures firmly on the planes whereon their feet are planted, and foreshortening them bit by bit, and making them recede by a proportionate diminution; which hitherto had always been done by chance. He discovered, likewise, the method of turning the intersections and arches of vaulted roofs; the foreshortening of ceilings by means of the convergence of the beams; and the making of round columns at the salient angle of the walls of a house in a manner that they curve at the corner, and, being drawing in perspective, break the angle and cause it to appear level.
For the sake of these investigations he kept himself in seclusion and almost a hermit, having little contact with anyone, and staying weeks and months in his house without showing himself. And although these were difficult and beautiful problems, if he had spent that time in the study of figures, he would have brought them to absolute perfection; for even so he made them with passing good draughtsmanship. But, consuming his time in these researches, he remained throughout his whole life more poor than famous; wherefore the sculptor Donatello, who was very much his friend, said to him very often--when Paolo showed him mazzocchi with pointed ornaments, and squares drawn in perspective from diverse aspects; spheres with seventy-two diamond-shaped facts, with wood-shavings would round sticks on each fact; and other fantastic devices on which he spent and wasted his time--"Ah, Paolo, this perspective of yours makes you abandon the substance for the shadow; these are things that are only useful to men who work at the inlaying of wood, seeing that they fill their borders with chips and shavings, with spirals both round and square, and with other similar things."
The first pictures of Paolo were in fresco, in a oblong niche painted in perspective, at the Hospital of Lelmo--namely, a figure of St. Anthony the Abbot, with St. Cosimo on one side and St. Damiano on the other. In the Annalena, a convent of nuns, he made two figures; and within the church of Santa Trinita, over the left-hand door, he painted stories of St. Francis in fresco--namely, the receiving of the Stigmata; the supporting of the Church, which he is upholding with his shoulders; and his conference with St. Dominic. In Santa Maria Maggiore, also, in a chapel near the side door which leads to San Giovanni, where there are the panel and predella of Masaccio, he wrought an Annunciation in Fresco, wherein he made a building worthy of consideration, which was something new and difficult in those times, seeing that it was the first possessing any beauty of manner which was see by craftsmen, showing them with grace and proportion how to manage the receding of lines, and how to give so great an extent to a level space which is small and confined, that it appears far distant and large; and when to this, with judgment and grace, men can add shadows and lights by means of colours in their proper places, thee is no doubt that they cause an illusion to the eye, so that it appears that the painting is real and in relief. And not being satisfied with this, he wished to demonstrate even greater difficulties in some columns, which, foreshortened in perspective, curve round and break the salient angle of the vaulting wherein are the four Evangelists; which was held something beautiful and difficult, and, in truth, in that branch of his profession Paolo was ingenious and able.
In a cloister of San Miniato outside of Florence, also, he wrought the lives of the Holy Fathers, chiefly in terra verde, and partly in colour; wherein he paid little regard to effecting harmony by painting with one colour, as should be done in painting stories, for he made the fields blue, the cities red, and the buildings varied according to his pleasure; and in this he was at fault, for something which is meant to represent stone cannot and should not be tinted with another colour. It is said that while Paolo was labouring at this work, the Abbot who was then head of that place gave him scarcely anything to eat but cheese. Wherefore Paolo, having grown weary of this, determined, like the shy fellow that he was, to go more to work there; whereupon the Abbot sent to look for him, and Paolo, when he heard friars asking for him, would never be at home, and if by chance he met any couples of that Order in the streets of Florence, he would start running and flying from them with all his might.
Now two of them, more curious than the rest and younger than Paolo, caught him up one day and asked him for what reason he did not return to finish the work that he had begun, and why he fled at the sight of a friar; and Paolo answered: "You have murdered me in a manner that I not only fly from you, but cannot show myself near any carpenter's shop or pass by one, and all because of the thoughtlessness of your Abbot, who, what with pies and and with soups always made of cheese, has crammed so much cheese into me that I am in terror lest, being nothing but cheese, they may use me for making glue. And if it were to go on any longer, I would probably be no more Paolo, but cheese." The friars, leaving him with peals of laughter, told everything to the Abbot, who made him return to his work, and ordered him some other fare than cheese.
After this, he painted the dossal of St. Cosimo and St. Damiano in the Carmine, in the Chapel of St. Girolamo (of the Pugliesi). In the house of the Medici he painted some scenes on canvas and in distemper, representing animals; in these he eve took delight, and in order to paint them well he gave them very great attention, and, what is more, he kept ever in his house pictures of birds, cats, dogs and every sort of strange animal whereof he could get the likeness, being unable to have them alive by reason of his poverty; and because he delighted in birds more than in any other kind, he was given the name of "Paolo of the Birds" (Paolo Uccelli).
In the said house, among other pictures of animals, he made some lions, which were fighting together with movements and a ferocity so terrible that they appeared alive. But the rarest scene among them all was one wherein a serpent, combating with a lion, was showing its ferocity with violent movements, with the venom spurting from its mount and eyes, while a country girl who is present is looking after an ox made with most beautiful foreshortening. The actual drawing for this ox, by the hand of Paolo, is in my book of drawings, and likewise that of the peasant girl, all full of ear, and in the act of running away from those animals. Thee are likewise certain very lifelike shepherds, and a landscape which was held something very beautiful in his time. In the other canvases he made some studies of men-at-arms of those times, on horseback, with not a few portraits from the life.
Afterwards he was commissioned to paint some scenes in the cloister of Santa Maria Novella; and the first, which are at the entrance from the church into the cloister, represent the Creation of the animals, with an infinite number and variety of kinds belonging to water, earth, and air. And since he was very fanciful and took great delight, as it has been said, in painting animals to perfection, he showed in certain lions, who are seeking to bite each other, the great ferocity that is in them, and swiftness and fear in some stags and fallow-deer; not to mention that the birds and fishes, with their feathers and scales, are most lifelike. He made there the Creation of man and of woman, and their Fall, with a beautiful manner and with good and careful execution. And in this work he took delight in making the trees with colours, which the painters of those times were not wont to do very well; and in the landscapes, likewise, he was the first among the old painters to make a name for himself by his work, executing them well and with greater perfection than the painters before him had done; although afterwards there came men who made them more perfect, for with all his labour he was never able to give them that softness and harmony which have been given to them in our ow day by painting them in oil-colours.
It was enough for Paolo to go on, according to the rules of perspective, drawing and foreshortening them exactly as they are, making in them all that he saw--namely, ploughed fields, ditches, and other minutenesses of nature--with that dry and hard manner of his; whereas, if he had picked out the best from everything and had made use of those parts only that come out well in painting, they would have been absolutely perfect. This labour finished, he worked in the same cloister below two stories by the had of others; and lower down he painted the Flood, with Noah's Ark, into which he put so great pains and so great art and diligence into the painting of the dead bodies, the tempest, the fury of the winds, the flashes of the lightning, the shattering of trees, and the terror of men, that it is beyond all description. And he made, foreshortened in perspective, a corpse from which a raven is picking out the eyes, and a drowned boy, whose body, being full of water, is swollen out into the shape of a very great arch. He also represented various human emotions, such as the little fear of the water shown by the two men who are fighting on horseback, and the extreme terror of death seen in a woman and a man who are mounted on a buffalo, which is filling with water from behind, so that they are losing all hope of being able to save themselves; and the whole work is so good and so excellent, that it brought him very great fame.
He diminished the figures, moreover, by means of lines in perspective, and made mazzocchi and other things, truly very beautiful in such a work. Below this story, likewise, he painted the drunkenness of Noah, with the contemptuous action of his son Hamm--in whom he portrayed Dello, the Florentine painter and sculptor, his friend--with Shem and Japhet, his other sons, who are covering him up as he lies showing his nakedness. Here, likewise, he made in perspective a cask that curves on every side, which was held something very beautiful, and also a pergola covered with grapes, the wood-work of which, composed of squared planks, goes on diminishing to a point; but here he was in error, since the diminishing of the plane below, on which the figures are standing, follows the lines of the pergola, and the cask does not follow these same receding lines; wherefore I marvel greatly that a man so accurate and diligent could make an error so notable. He made there also the Sacrifice, with the Ark open and drawn in perspective, with the rows of perches in the upper part, distributed row by row; these were the resting-places of the birds, many kinds of which are seen issuing and flying forth in foreshortening, while in the sky there is seen God the Father, who is appearing over the sacrifice that Noah and his sons are making; and this figure, of all those that Paolo made in this work, is the most difficult, for it is flying, with the head foreshortened, towards the wall, and has such force and relief that it seems to be piercing and breaking through it. Besides this, Noah has round him an infinite number of diverse animals, all most beautiful. In short, he gave to all this work so great softness and grace, that it is beyond comparison superior to all his others; wherefore it has been greatly praised from that time up to our own.
In Santa Maria del Fiore, in memory of Giovanni Acuto, an Englishman, Captain of the Florentines, who had died in the year 1393, he made in terra verde a horse of extraordinary grandeur, which was held very beautiful, and on it the image of the Captain himself, in chiaroscuro and coloured with terra verde, in a picture ten braccia high on the middle of one wall of the church; where Paolo drew in perspective a large sarcophagus, supposed to contain the corpse, and over this he placed the image of him in his Captain's armour, on horseback. 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.
At the same time, and in the same church, he painted in colours the hour-dial above the principal door within the church, with four heads coloured in fresco at the corners. He wrought in terra verde, also, the loggia that faces towards the west above the garden of the Monastery of the Angeli, painting below each arch a story of the acts of St. Benedict the Abbot, and of the most notable events of his life, up to his death. Here, among many most beautiful scenes, there is one in which a monastery is destroyed by the agency of the Devil, while a friar is left dead below the stones and beams. No less notable is the terror of another monk, whose draperies, as he flies, cling round his nude form and flutter with most beautiful grace; whereby Paolo awakened the minds of the craftsmen so greatly, that they have ever afterwards followed that method. Very beautiful, also, is the figure of St. Benedict, the while that with dignity and devoutness, in the presence of his monks, he restores the dead friar to life. Finally, in all these stories there are features worthy of consideration, and above all in certain places where the very tiles of the roof, whether flat or round, are drawn in perspective. And in the death of St. Benedict, while his monks are performing his obsequies and bewailing him, there are some sick men and cripples, all most beautiful, who stand gazing on him; and it is noticeable, also, that among many loving and devout followers of that Saint there is an old monk with crutches under his arms, in whom there is seen a marvellous expression, with even a hope of being made whole. In this work there are no landscapes in colour, nor many buildings, nor difficult perspectives, but there is truly great design, with no little of the good.
In many houses of Florence there are many pictures in perspective by the had of the same man, for the adornment of couches, beds, and other little things; and in Gualfonda, in particular, on a terrace in the garden which once belonged to the Bartolini, there are four battle-scenes painted on wood by his hand, full of horses and armed men, with very beautiful costumes of those days; and among the men are portraits of Paolo Orsino, Ottobuono da Parma, Luca da Canale, and Carlo Malatesti, Lord of Rimini, all captains-general of those times. And these pictures, since they were spoilt and had suffered injury, were restored in our own day by the agency of Giuliano Bugiardini, who did them more harm than good.
Paolo was summoned to Padua by Donatello, when the latter was working there, and at the entrance of the house of the Vitali he painted some giants in terra verde, which, as I have found in a Latin letter written by Girolamo Campagnola to Messer Leonico Tomeo, the philosopher, are so beautiful that Andrea Mantegna held them in very great account. Paolo wrought in fresco the Volta de'Peruzzi, with triangular sections in perspective, and in the angles of the corners he painted the four elements, making for each an appropriate animal--for the earth a mole, for the water a fish, for the fire a salamander, and for the air a chameleon, which lives on it and assumes any colour. And because he had never seen a chameleon, he painted a camel, which is opening its mouth and swallwing air, and therewith filling its belly; and great, indeed, was his simplicity in making allusion by means of the name of the camel to an animal that is like a little dry lizard, and in representing it by a great uncouth beast.
Truly great were the labours of Paolo in painting, for he drew so much that he left to his relatives, as I have learnt from their own lips, whole chests of drawings. But, although it is a good thing to draw, it is nevertheless better to make complete pictures, seeing that pictures have longer life than drawings. In our book of drawings there are many figures, studies in perspective, birds, and animals, beautiful to a marvel, but the best of all is a mazzocchio drawn only with lines, so beautiful that nothing save the patience of Paolo could have executed it. Paolo, although he was an eccentric person, loved talent in his fellow craftsmen, and in order that some memory of them might go down to posterity, he painted five distinguished men with his own hand on a long panel, which he kept in his house in memory of them. One was Giotto, the painter, standing for the light and origin of art; the second was Filippo di Ser Brunellesco, for the architecture; Donatello, for sculpture; himself, for perspective and animals; and, for mathematics, Giovanni Manetti, his friend, with whom he often conferred and discoursed on the problems of Euclid.
It is said that having been commissioned to paint, over the door of San Tommaso in the Mercato Vecchio, that Saint feeling for the would in the side of Christ, Paolo put into that work all the effort that he could, saying that he wished to show the full extent of his worth and knowledge; and so he caused a screen of planks to be made, to the end that no one might be able to see his work until it was finished. Donatello, meeting him one day all alone, said to him: "And what sort of work may this be of yours, that you keep it screened so closely?" And Paolo said in answer: "You will see it. Let that satisfy you." Donatello would not constrain him to say more, thinking to see some miracle, as usual, when the time came. Afterwards, chancing one morning to be in the Mercato Vecchio buying fruit, Donatello saw Paolo uncovering his work, whereupon he saluted him courteously, and was asked by Paolo himself, who was curious and anxious to hear his judgment on it, what he thought of that picture. Donatello, having studied the work long and well, exclaimed: "Ah, Paolo, you should be covering it up, and here you are uncovering it!" At this Paolo was much aggrieved, feeling that he was receiving much more by way of blame than he expected to receive by way of praise for this last labour of his; and not having courage, lowered as he was, to go out any more, he shut himself up in his house, devoting himself to perspective, which kept him ever poor and depressed up to his death. And so, growing very old, and having but little contentment in his old age, he died in the eighty-third year of his life, in 1432 [sic; ca. 1472], and was buried in Santa Maria Novella.
He left a daughter, who had knowledge of drawing, and a wife, who was wont to say that Paolo would stay in his study all night, seeking to solve the problems of perspective, and that when she called him to come to bed, he would say "Oh, what a sweet thing is this perspective!" And in truth, if it was sweet to him, it was not otherwise than dear and useful, thanks to him, to those who exercised themselves therein after his time.