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Paolo di Dono (1397 –1475) was called Paolo Uccello, a nickname from his love of painting birds. He was a painter and mathematician notable for his pioneering work on visual perspective. Vasari wrote in Lives of the Painters that Uccello was obsessed and would stay up all night trying to grasp the exact vanishing point in a painting. In his lifetime, he was a busy artist, and the unfortunate aspect of his story is that much of his work has been lost.
Uccello was apprenticed to Ghiberti and was one of the assistants engaged in preparing the first of bronze gates (the so-called Golden Doors) made for the Baptistery of Florence. It was also around this time that Paolo began his lifelong friendship with Donatello. In 1415, he joined the official painter’s guild of Florence and by the mid-1420’s had left Ghiberti’s workshop.
It is not know why he left the studio of Ghiberti, but by 1424 he was earning his own living as a painter. In that year he painted episodes
from the Old Testament for the Green Cloister of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, in green and reddish colors. The frescoes were badly damaged due to the exposure to weather for centuries but have been restored. These frescoes illustrate his artistic maturity. He painted in a lively manner in natural colors, and he began to acquire a reputation for painting landscapes. He continued with scenes from the story of Noah and the Flood.
Ucello worked in the late Gothic, proto-Renaissance tradition, emphasizing color, pageantry and decorative effects. Some of his best surviving work, illustrating these characteristics, are paintings representing the battle of San Romano, fought on June 1st 1432, outside Florence, between the troops of Florence and those of Siena. These were painted in egg tempera with walnut and linseed oil on a poplar panel and depict
war as a bright, glorious game. The pattern of broken lances on the ground suggests a tournament rather than a battle, and the beauty of the Tuscan countryside, from the fruit and flowers to the bright livery of the horses and the seemingly empty armor make this battle a chivalrous exercise.
He also executed major fresco commissions, one of which is the colossal equestrian figure of Sir John Hawkwood, intended to imitate a stone statue seen aloft, but instead a relief standing out
from the wall of the Florence Cathedral. The fresco is an important example of art because it manipulates perspective for the sake of an illusion. There was considerable politics involved in its commission because of its honoring of a foreign soldier of fortune, albeit one with a long and distinguished military career, with its implication of the potential rewards of serving Florence to other such soldiers.
By 1469, he was old and ailing and related that he could no longer work, lonesome and largely forgotten. And yet he executed my favorite of his paintings, Saint George and the Dragon, which I find rather whimsical, around 1470. It shows a scene from the famous story of this Saint, in which George is spearing the beast, while on the left the princess is using her belt as a leash for the dragon.
In the sky, there is a gathering storm, the eye of which lines up with Saint George’s lance, suggesting the intervention of a divine power and emphasizing the angle to establish a three-dimensional space. The odd patches of grass are said to illustrate Uccello’s obsessive concern with linear perspective and his creation of decorative patterns.
His last known work is thought to be The Hunt, also painted around 1470. He died at the age of 78 in December of 1475 at the hospital of Florence, and was buried in his father’s tomb in the Florentine church of Santo Spirito.