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Italian Great Artist Paolo Uccello - Experiments with Perspective

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 5:00 AM

Experiments with Perspective

The Creation, One of Uccello's earliest known works, this lunette, showing The Creation of the Animals and The Creation of Adam was commissioned for the cloister of Santa Maria Novella. It is painted largely in terra verde (green earth).
Uccello's innovative and decorative use of perspective, combined with his flair for colour, gives his pictures a unique charm that sets them apart from the other paintings of his time.

In 1481 Cristoforo Landino, a Florentine scholar and philosopher, described Uccello as a 'good and varied composer, a great master of animals and landscapes and skilful in foreshortening because he understood perspective well.' Landino was particularly well-equipped to judge Uccello's painting, for he was a friend and admirer of Leon Battista Alberti, whose treatise on painting, written in 1435, contained the earliest account of the principles of linear perspective.


Sir John Hawkwood, This commemorative fresco of the English condottiere was painted for the Duomo in 1436. Uccello probably based the horse on the antique horses of St Mark's. The decorative border was added in the 16th century.The principles which Alberti laid down in De Pictura were relatively simple. Alberti observed that, when we look at the outside world, objects which stand parallel to our line of vision appear to recede into the distance. Furthermore, he observed, these parallel lines, or objects, seem to converge towards a single point somewhere on the horizon. Accordingly, Alberti devised a new perspective system, known as the costruzione legittima, to show how artists could reproduce this effect on a flat surface. By constructing the painting around a grid of converging lines leading to a single 'vanishing point' the artist could achieve the effect of distance, or recession into space.

Uccello undoubtedly knew about Alberti's ideas, although he was unlikely to have read De Pictura. During the course of his career he became increasingly interested in the possibilities of perspective, and exploited it in a number of ingenious and imaginative ways.

Uccello's earlier works show little trace of his later fascination with perspective. The scenes of the Creation and the Fall of Man in the Chiostro Verde (the 'Green Cloister' in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence) are constructed in a shallow foreground space, marked out by the simple shapes of rocks and trees. Uccello has made no attempt to suggest a deep or dramatic space, but confines the action to the front of the picture. The frescoes show most clearly the continued influence on Uccello of his old master Ghiberti, and Uccello may have worked in part from drawings which Ghiberti was preparing for the second set of doors for the Baptistry in Florence.

By the time he came to paint the monument to Sir John Hawkwood however, Uccello had clearly begun to explore the possibilities of perspective. In this commemorative fresco he uses perspective to create the illusion of a solid sarcophagus projecting out from the surface of the wall. Although the horse and rider seem relatively flat, the sarcophagus itself, when seen in situ, appears to be three-dimensional.

A versatile talent, The Nativity is one of two surviving stained glass windows designed by Uccello for the cupola of the Duomo. The formulation of perspective gave artists an unprecedented freedom in depicting the external world. For Uccello, however, perspective was not simply a means of creating an apparently realistic space. He realised that it could also be used to great dramatic effect. This is the most evident in his late fresco The Flood in the Chiostro Verde (the 'Green Cloister'). This fresco contains two different but related episodes the Flood on the left and the Recession of the Waters on the right. Here, the diagonal lines, or orthogonal, in the picture do not meet at a single vanishing point as Alberti suggested. Instead, each side of the picture seems to have its own focal point, a device which divides the fresco clearly into two. At the same time these two slightly different systems or 'constructions' combine to suggest a dramatic plunge into depth, at the end of which we see a vivid bolt of lightning. By diverging from the strict rationality of Alberti's system, Uccello could create a slightly distorted illusion of space which adds to his terrifying vision of the Flood.



Exploring perspective, Alberti’s system involved dividing the lose line of the picture into equal sections and joining them to a central vanishing point which determined the horizon. A separate side elevation established the position of the horizontal lines. Uccello did not achieve these effects without careful preparation. For all his frescoes he used detailed sinopie or under drawings, and in addition it seems likely that he used cartoons which were pricked through on to the intonaco, the final layer of plaster. He also made detailed drawings of individual objects seen in perspective, a few of which have fortunately survived. Some of these may well have been made for Uccello's own pleasure and instruction but many would have served as models for use in his paintings.

These drawings show particularly clearly how Uccello reduced everything he saw to a series of geometric shapes. His perspective was not simply a way of constructing his works. By reducing them to a set of regular forms Uccello could accommodate figures and objects more easily within the geometric 'construction' and use them to emphasize the underlying grid. By working in this way, Uccello turned perspective into a kind of decorative scheme. It was no longer a means of achieving spatial realism, hut a way of creating complex geometric patterns. It is this imaginative and decorative use of perspective which makes Uccello's works unique. It sets him apart from the other artists of his time who were simply using perspective to create the illusion of depth and three-dimensional reality in a picture.


Perspective study of a chalice, This painstaking and detailed pen drawing shows Uccello's meticulous study of perspective and his concern with geometric forms.
In Uccello's later works this unusual technique is combined with a superbly original use of colour. In the battle-pieces which he painted for the Medici, for example, Uccello uses colour as a way of creating attractive patterns without aiming to be strictly realistic. Later critics found it hard to appreciate this aspect of Uccello's style. When describing Uccello's frescoes at San Miniato, Vasari complained that the artist had 'made the fields blue, the cities red and the buildings in various colours as he felt inclined.' For the 15th-century observer, however, this distinctive and witty use of colour clearly added to the gaiety and charm which gives Uccello's paintings their lasting appeal.

Writer – Marshall Cavendish

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