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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Battle of San Romano

It’s past midnight but sleep evades Bernardo. He turns on his back and looks up at the night sky, staring thoughtfully at the stars that look like tiny jewels. He thinks of home and how he celebrated his seventeenth birthday just a few days ago. Looking around at the small forested area he feels a sudden shudder as he realises there are just a few hours left before he  joins the other foot soldiers and goes into battle.

On the 1st of June 1430, Bernardo fought in the Battle of San Romano. This battle was fought between Florence and Sienna, about thirty miles outside Florence, it lasted the entire day and the outcome is generally considered favourable to the Florentines.

The events of that day from dawn to dusk, have been portrayed in a set of three paintings each over six feet high and ten feet wide in the famous painting known as the, ‘Battle of San Romano’. This masterpiece was created by the much respected artist of the early Italian Renaissance, Paolo Uccello. These panels were commissioned by the Bartolini Salimbeni family in Florence, who obviously had very deep pockets and a very large house. This set of paintings is considered very significant as it shows the development of linear perspective during this period. At a time when religious art was the most sought after subject matter, this was an unusual secular commission.

Painted in egg tempera on wooden panels, these paintings were much admired in the fifteenth century. Egg tempera is a permanent fast drying painting medium where coloured pigments are mixed with egg yolk which works as a binding agent. These paintings last very long and it was the primary method of painting until after the sixteenth century when oil painting replaced tempera.

These paintings were so coveted that Lorenzo de Medici popularly known as 'Lorenzo the Magnificent ' a powerful statesman and de facto ruler of Florence during this period, purchased one and had the other two forcibly removed to the Palazzo Medici  (Medici Palace) and had them put up in his room known as ‘Lorenzo’s Room’. Lorenzo the Magnificent was a great patron of the arts and commissioned a lot of paintings in his time.


This is the first painting in the series. Believed to be at the break of dawn, we see the Florentine mercenary general Niccolo  Mauruzi  da Tolentino on his white charger leading the cavalry, he can be identified by the motif of ‘Knot of Solomon’ on his banner.
He wears a large gold and velvet brocade patterned hat. He has a reputation for recklessness and doesn’t even wear a helmet. On the top towards the centre of the painting we can see that he has sent two messengers to his allied army led by Micheletto da Cotignola, to ask for reinforcements as he is badly outnumbered by the Siennese army.

 It’s interesting to notice that in none of the three paintings do we see the sky, we the viewers are seeing this battle close up. In all the three panels the battle scene is packed with action in a chaotic clash of horsemen, lances and debris shown through a series of superimposed intersecting perspective planes. Many areas of the painting are covered in gold and silver leaf and these would have shone when the paintings were viewed in candlelight, as they must have been at that time. The middle ground is occupied by a hedge bearing oranges and roses; one of Uccello’s several decorative and stylised details.


The central panel chronicles the events at midday; it shows the decisive combat between the two armies. Bernardino della Ciarda, leader of the Siennese mercenaries is the central figure on a white horse. He is wounded by an enemy spear.
The composition is very crowded; we can see young soldiers barely in their teens on the battlefield. Uccello understood that the young are usually the main casualties in any battle. This second panel is also special because it is the only one that Uccello signed. His signature appears on the lower left hand side on a shield. The colours are very unreal and the use of light gives the composition a feeling of a knight’s fairy tale. The figures tend to look a bit wooden and toy like, but the strong sense of narrative design and attention to decorative detail give the painting a beautiful visual appeal.

The third and final panel believed to be at dusk shows us that the reinforcements have arrived and the counterattack by Florence’s ally Micheletto da Cotignola. On the right side the stationary warriors wait for orders. In the centre Micheletto da Cotignola gives the signal for the attack, leading the Florentines to victory.

This painting features strong decorative elements the hosiery of different colours worn by the soldiers, the arrangement of the lances forming a series of patterns all set against the beauty of the Tuscan countryside.

Unfortunately Bernardo did not survive that day and neither did six hundred others. This battle was one of the many that were fought during those troubled times and there were many young soldiers like Bernardo who lost their lives. But it is this visual depiction of the’ Battle of San Romano’ by the great master Paolo Uccello that still holds us captive so many centuries later.

Today an art lover would have to travel to Florence, London and Paris to see the entire painting. Like three siblings living in three different cities, the first panel is displayed by the Uffizi Gallery, the second and third were sold by art dealers to the National Gallery and the Louvre and are displayed there.

Paolo Uccello: (1397- 1475) Paolo Uccello’s real name was Paolo di Dono. He was born in Pratovecchio in Italy. His father was a barber surgeon and his mother was a high born aristocrat. Paolo Uccello is known for his pioneering work on visual perspective in art, which he used to create a feeling of depth in his paintings. His nickname ‘Uccello’ came from his fondness for painting birds.

References: Private life of a Masterpiece, Uffizi Gallery, National Gallery, Louvre

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Woven Paintings

The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries on display
 Two noblemen on horseback accompanied by their servant and hunting dogs move towards the female bear. She has been flushed out of her cave with her cubs. As the cubs escape, one of the noblemen puts a spear into her chest, while she grapples with the hunting dogs the other nobleman gets ready to deal a deathly blow with his sword. It is hunting season in the fifteenth century and the Dukes of Devonshire are out hunting.

Hunting in the middle ages was more than a mere pastime. The elaborate rituals were an integral part of court etiquette, and being skilled in hunting was the peacetime equivalent of being masterful on the battlefield. This passionate love of hunting is reflected in the scenes woven into tapestries known as the ‘Devonshire Hunting Tapestries’. These tapestries from the estates of the Dukes of Devonshire, woven in Arras in modern France are over a hundred and thirty three feet long. Tapestries were very expensive and prized by the nobility. They hung in their halls and provided a means for insulating and decorating the coldest and gloomiest castle. These enormous works of art would have hung from floor to ceiling and then placed edge to edge like wallpaper in a modern room. They were easily transportable, and during wartime they decorated the tents with recreational scenes, providing some respite from the horror around them.

Tapestries were woven by hand on a loom. The design was invariably copied from a full scale coloured pattern known as the ‘cartoon’ a practice that continues till today. Before starting work the weaver traces the pattern from the cartoon onto the bare warps (threads). Most tapestries were wool or cotton but they may have included silk, gold or silver threads. Weaving consists of warp threads (threads which run parallel to the length) and weft threads (threads which run parallel to the width).Tapestries have weft faced weaving, which means all the warp threads are hidden in the completed work.

Although the Devonshire Tapestries depict hunting scenes, all is not blood and gore. There are forest glades, bounded by trees on the high horizon with glimpses of toy like castles, hilly pastures and ships on a distant sea. The foreground is filled with tiny trees, bushes and flowers, rocky caves for bears and turbulent streams flushed with water fowl. In this delightful setting the huntsmen and their prey, crowd across the tapestry in two great tiers subtly linked by intermediate figures, which lead the eye from group to group. The scenes are of perpetual spring even though boar and bear were hunted in winter. These tapestries depict scenes of ‘Boar and Bear Hunt’, ‘Swan and Otter Hunt’, ‘Falconry’ and ‘Deer Hunt’.

Boar and Bear Hunt
Boar and Bear Hunt: This tapestry features a number of elegant couples. Towards the centre a lady wears a sumptuous blue gown decorated with back to front letters that spell ‘much desire’. The man’s sleeve is decorated with silver shapes that resemble teardrops and probably also relate to the pursuit of love. The rich red gown of the lady to the right is lined with miniver, a very expensive fur. On the top right corner of this tapestry two castles are visible, they are meant to be seen by all levels of society, potent symbols of power, status and wealth.

Swan and Otter Hunt
Swan and Otter Hunt: In this tapestry we can see the fashions of the early fifteenth century, the women in high waisted gowns with collars wider than their shoulders, wearing heart shaped headdresses.



Falconry: This is the only tapestry in the set to confine itself to a single hunt. We see the couple on horseback dressed beautifully, the man has his arm around the woman. We can see another elegant lady on a white horse. The attention to detail down to the patterns on the gowns is a visual treat.

Deer Hunt

Deer Hunt: In this tapestry we see a group of men in bulky garments with large drooping sleeves and low slung belts. Deer hunting was known as the sport of kings and was confined to the courtiers and other favoured individuals.

 As night falls the hunting party returns to their castle with their kill which will be served later for dinner, followed by a night of drinking, merry making and talking about the events of the day.  It has been a long day, the tired horses return to their stables and the ravenous dogs are fed. While  the main activity may have been hunting it has also been a day full of endless gossip,frivolous flirtations and a show of fine clothes and expensive jewels by the nobility of Devonshire.

The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries can be viewed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

References: Victoria and Albert Museum and Wikipedia