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The Paolo Uccello - Artist's Life

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 5:22 AM

Introduction to Paolo Uccello


Paolo UccelloOne of the most original and inventive artists of the early Renaissance, Uccello initially trained as a sculptor with Lorenzo Ghiberti but turned swiftly to painting after his apprenticeship. Following a short period in Venice supervising repair work on the San Marco mosaics, Uccello settled in Florence where he quickly established himself as one of the leading artists of his day and remained for the rest of his life. 

He was commissioned by some of the most influential Families in Florence, including the powerful Medici, for whom he painted a series of extraordinary battle--pieces which remain Uccello's obsession perspective and his solitary nature removed him increasingly from the public eye.  Declined into eccentric old age, and his last recorded commission was unfinished at his death.

Lorenzo Ghiberti  Uccello served his apprenticeship in the busy workshop of Ghiberti, whose self-portrait is shown here in a detail from the 'Paradise' doors.
The Solitary Eccentric

Sparing little time for family and friends, Uccello devoted himself to his work. Although few of his paintings survive, he stands out as being one of the most captivating and ingenious artists of his time. 

Paolo Uccello was born in Florence, the son of Dono di Paolo, a barber surgeon, and his wife Antonia Maria. The exact date of Uccello's birth is unknown, but in June 1407 he joined the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, then the foremost sculptor in Florence. Since the usual age for boys to enter their apprenticeships was 10 or 11, it has generally been accepted that Uccello was born sometime in 1397, a date which is supported by two of the artist's early tax returns.


Uccello's birthplace  Uccello was born in Florence and, apart from working trips to Venice, Urbino and Padua, made it Ins lifelong home.
When Uccello joined Ghiberti's workshop it was one of the busiest and most exciting in Florence as, in 1403, Ghiberti had been awarded the coveted commission to make a pair of bronze doors for the city's Baptistry  a task which took twenty-one years to complete. Uccello stayed with Ghiberti until 1415. Initially, his duties in the workshop must have been fairly menial but by 1412, he had risen to the rank of assistant or journeyman, a position which allowed him to tackle more responsible tasks, such as preparing materials, or making small preliminary models after Ghiberti's designs.

It was probably in Ghiberti's workshop that Uccello first met Donatello, who worked for Ghiberti briefly in the summer of 1407. Donatello was then a rising young sculptor in his 20s and Baptistery, Florence
May have had little time for the young assistant. In later years, however, he was to become one of Uccello's closest friends.

When Uccello joined Ghiberti, his master was working on early panels for the first set of doors for florence’s  baptistry  In 1415 Uccello left Ghiberti's workshop and matriculated as a painter in the Arte dei Medici e Speziali (the Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries). It was not unusual at this time for artists to move between the different branches of their trade, acquiring and practising a range of different skills. Although he had trained with a sculptor, Uccello moved easily into painting, and as his career progressed he proved himself to be an artist of great versatility. Membership of the Guild would have given Uccello the right to set up shop independently and employ his own assistants, but Uccello was a solitary man and from this point onwards he seems to have worked on his own. The next 10 years of Uccello's life remain something of a mystery. No clear records of his activity exist, either in the form of written documents, or of surviving works. It seems fairly certain, however, that he stayed in Florence.

Gaining more experience as a painter and carrying out minor commissions for the Church. During these years he must also have gained some considerable experience of working in mosaic, for in 1425 he was summoned to Venice by the Venetian government to work on the mosaics in the great Basilica of San Marco, which had been devastated by fire. In the surviving documents he is described as a 'master mosaicist', and during his stay in Venice his job seems to have been largely that of an overseer, supervising and directing the restoration work. He also produced a mosaic figure of St Peter for the main facade of the church, and a series of superb decorative roundels for the roof and pavement of the interior.


Uccello's reputation as an artists of considerable note was frimly established after he painted two highly imaginative fresoces for the green cloister of the dominican chruch of santa maria novella.
By the beginning of 1431 Uccello was back in Florence, apparently looking for work. It was a time of great artistic activity in the city and Uccello must have been anxious to procure a major Commission. Early in 1432 he put himself forward to the Office of the Cathedral Works, no doubt hoping to share in the series of prestigious commissions that were coming the way of Ghiberti and Donatello. But although the Office wrote to the Florentine Ambassador in Venice to enquire about the quality of Uccello's work there, no immediate commissions seem to have resulted from the venture. Shortly afterwards, however, probably at the end of that year, Uccello began work on his earliest surviving painting commission - two frescoes of Old Testament scenes for the cloister of Santa Maria Novella, a large Dominican church in the north of Florence. These enchanting and imaginative frescoes seem to have Lonboliaawd reputation in Florence. In April 1434 he was able to buy a house in the city, in the quarter of Santa Lucia d'Ognissanti, and in 1436 he finally obtained a commission from the Office of the Cathedral Works. In May of that year he was asked to paint a fresco for the Cathedral, commemorating the great Military leader or 'condottiere' Sir John Hawk wood.
The fresco occupied Uccello until August and, although his patrons made him paint the figures twice, they were clearly pleased with the end result, for in 1443 he was again at work in the Cathedral. This time Uccello was asked to paint a clock-face, including the heads of four prophets, for the inside wall of the west end of the Cathedral. In the same year he was asked to design four cartoons for stained glass windows for the drum of Brunelleschi's dome, a commission which saw him working side by side with his old friend and master Ghiberti. 


By all accounts Uccello was a solitary and eccentric man, absorbed in his experiments with perspective, and with little time for his family and friends. From Vasari's Life of Uccello, written in the 16th century, he emerges as an odd but endearing
This one of Uccello’s later frescoes of Old Testament scenes which decorate the green cloister of santa Maria novella.  Character, with a whimsical sense of humour. In the late 1440s Uccello was working on a series of frescoes showing Scenes from Monastic Life in the church of San Miniato al Monte on the outskirts of Florence. According to Vasari, Uccello soon became dissatisfied with his working conditions, since the abbot fed him exclusively on cheese. Uccello fled from the scene, hotly pursued by two friars, who asked him why he was leaving. Uccello repied: 'You've brought me to such a state that I not only run away from the sight of you, but I can't even go where there are carpenters working  your dim-witted abbot has filled me so full of cheese that I'm frightened they'll use me to make glue. If he carries on like this, I won't be Paolo Uccello any more, I'll be pure cheese.

This one of Uccello’s later frescoes of Old Testament scenes which decorate the green cloister of santa Maria novella.
Around 1445 Uccello made a second trip to northern Italy, this time to Padua, to join Donatello. Donatello was renowned for his generosity and gracious manner, and seems to have tolerated Uccello's eccentric ways. He shared with Uccello a consuming interest in perspective, although he often teased his friend about his extraordinarily detailed perspective drawings, saying that such things were 'only useful in marquetry'.
Shortly after Uccello arrived in Padua, Donatello began work on a series of bronze reliefs for the High Altar of Sant' Antonio. Despite his early experiences with Ghiberti, Uccello does not seem to have actively participated in the project. Nonetheless, the reliefs impressed him deeply, with their sophisticated use of perspective, and the two artists must have discussed the work on the altar at length.

This relief from the High Altar of Sant' Antonio, with its dramatic spatial construction, may have inspired the composition of Uccello's Flood, painted after his return from Padua.Uccello himself quickly found work in the city. According to later chroniclers he painted some figures of giants in chiaroscuro for a private house, the Casa Vitaliani, and an illusionistic ceiling for the Peruzzi family. Sadly, neither of these works has survived. Uccello probably returned to Florence in 1447. Almost immediately he began work again in the cloister at Santa Maria Novella, painting two more frescoes in the series of Old Testament scenes. These frescoes saw Uccello at the height of his creative power, and are his most spectacular works. Unfortunately, like many of his works, these frescoes are considerably damaged. Through a series of unhappy accidents, an unusually high proportion of Uccello's works have 
Been lost completely, or damaged almost beyond recognition. This makes it easy to forget that Uccello was one of the greatest painters of the 15th century, and was rarely short of employment.
Uccello's trip to Padua to visit his great friend, Dmiatello, lasted approximately two years. He found plenty of work in the city, while Dmiatello executed a series of bronze reliefs for the church of Sam' Antonio (shown here). Donatello's use of perspective in these reliefs was to have a great influence on Uccello's work.
Later chroniclers testify to a steady flow of commissions, both from the Church and from discerning private patrons. The influential merchant and collector Giovanni Rucellai proudly listed works by Uccello in an inventory of his possessions which includes 'objects of sculpture and painting by the hand of the best masters not only in Florence but in Italy as a whole'. During the 1450s Uccello was working for the Medici family, painting a series of battle-pieces which are now his best-known works. As part of a series of decorative schemes for their palace on the Via Larga, the Medici commissioned from Uccello three panels showing scenes from the battle of San Romano, together with a scene from the legend of Paris, and a battle of lions and dragons. It may also have been for the Medici, possibly Lorenzo, that Uccello painted his enchanting panel of a hunt.
In 1443, the same year as Uccello made his cartoons for the Duomo's windows, he also painted a clock-face for the interior using linear perspective to create the illusion of a three-dimensional space
In 1453 Uccello's wife Tommasa gave birth to a son, who was named Donato. It is not known when Uccello married, but Tommasa must have been considerably younger than her husband, for by this time Uccello was already 56 years old. Three years later the couple had a daughter, Antonia, who was to follow in her father's footsteps. In later life she became a Carmelite nun and worked as a painter within her order, one of the few women artists recorded in the 15th century. Beyond these few details we know nothing of Uccello's home life. According to Vasari, his wife complained that she could never tear Uccello away from his work. He would sit up late into the night working on his perspective studies, and when his wife called him to bed he would simply reply 'Oh, what a wonderful thing is perspective!'


A detail from one of six scenes of the Profanation of the Host probably Uccello's last work. The panel had been commissioned by the Confraternity of Corpus Domini for the predella of an altarpiece entitled the Institution of the Eucharist
In 1463 Uccello went to Urbino, accompanied by the young Donato. The project which took him to the city was a commission to paint an altarpiece showing the 'Institution of the Eucharist' for the Confraternity of Corpus Domini. By the time he returned to Florence three years later, he had only painted the predella of the altarpiece which was later completed by a Flemish artist working at the Urbinese Court. 
There is evidence to suggest that by this time Uccello felt his creativity drying up. He was now over 70 years old, and by his own account he had difficulty in working. In his tax return of August 1469, Uccello wrote: 'I am old and without means of livelihood, my wife is ill and I can no longer work.' Uccello lived for another six years. On 11 November 1475 he made his will, and died a month later, on 12 December, at the age of 78. The following day he was buried in his father's grave, in the church of Santo Spirit°. 
Writer-Marshall Cavendish

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