Paolo Uccello, ‘The Battle of San Romano’ | Talks for all | National Gallery

Paolo Uccello, ‘The Battle of San Romano’ | Talks for all | National Gallery


Hello, everybody. It’s really gratifying to see
such a lovely, loud crowd today. I’m Caroline Campbell. I’m the Director of Collections and
Research here at the National Gallery, and I’ve chosen, as part
of our series of lunchtime talks, to talk about Uccello’s
‘Battle of San Romano’. And this is a painting which in many ways,
I think, brings together the good, the bad and the ugly in whatever way you can work out
as I talk. What I find really interesting
about this picture is that it’s a great example in some ways of what makes
the National Gallery so special, above any other collection
of great paintings in the world. And that’s the fact
that at the National Gallery we’re very lucky to have
examples of paintings by many of the very greatest artists who’ve worked in painting
over the centuries, from the 13th century
to the early 20th century, but often in that case we have probably what is
their very greatest work. And this is certainly the case of
the picture that I’m talking about today. So, what I want to do is to take you through
various stories about this painting, and through them, I think,
also to really unpick some of the issues which seem to me
important, not just about this work, but about Italian Renaissance art
in general. And one, which I’m going to start with, is really the idea
that we think of the Italian Renaissance as a great moment of innovation, as indeed this picture most definitely is, but it’s also a painting that is made under a backdrop
of a lot of violence and trouble, some of which is manifested
in this picture and some of which I’ll talk about
as I go along. It’s also a painting that has been
enormously valued for all of its history and one of the most interesting moments
in its history was, when we discovered
about 20 years ago, not we at the National Gallery, but a great scholar
called Francesco Caglioti, that this picture had actually been stolen
by Lorenzo de’ Medici, who is a figure who we think about
as being key to the Italian Renaissance, a great power for the good, but he took this picture forcibly
from its owners. Why would that happen? So, I want to begin by telling you a bit about the artist
who painted this work. This is by Paolo Uccello,
who was active in Florence, but actually in many places
throughout Italy during the 15th century. Uccello was born to a family who come from just outside Florence. He seems to train mainly not actually with a painter but one of the greatest sculptors, Lorenzo Ghiberti, the great goldsmith, who’s responsible for the two doors
on the Baptistery in Florence, most famously, of course,
‘The Gates of Paradise’. But it’s likely that Uccello,
as a young man, as an apprentice, works with Ghiberti
on the first of those set of doors. That’s an important point to make because there’s much more fluidity between art forms in the 15th century
than we’ve often thought, and, indeed, it’s very much true
of artists today. But when you look at this work and you see the way in which the artist
has thought about form as a three-dimensional sense, even though he’s conveying it
on a two-dimensional panel, I think you can really see
how that early training had an awful lot of impact
on Uccello’s career. Uccello is an artist who’s thought
very much of as a Florentine, but he spends important parts
of his career working outside Florence. We know, for instance,
that he goes to Venice. He’s commissioned to work on mosaics
in the Basilica of San Marco. Sadly those are destroyed, but again it’s a very interesting example
of him working in a way that is not simply pictorial. He’s also active in Padua, he’s active in Bologna,
he’s active in Urbino, so he’s one of these
very typical Renaissance artists in that he travels a great deal,
he’s open to ideas, but the most important idea,
I think really, is ultimately this sense
of three-dimensionality and sculpturality. Not only does he train with Uccello, but one of his greatest friends
is the sculptor Donatello. And it’s fascinating to think,
although we don’t know, of the conversations
that they would have had as they’re both thinking
in their different ways of trying to create things which look three-dimensional,
which look natural, but also are very clear
that they’re made by these artists, they’re not reproductions of things, they’re things which have
real integrity in their own right. So, we know that this painting is made at quite an early point
in Uccello’s career, I would say his mid-career,
in the late 1430s, and Uccello goes on to work
until the 1470s. He’s an artist with a long career, he, interestingly, has two children, one of which is his daughter,
a Carmelite nun, who are also painters,
and he’s most known, I think, for paintings such as
‘The Battle of San Romano’ and the wonderful ‘Hunt in the Forest’, which some of you will know
in the Ashmolean, for the reason that he manages
to make things happen in a perspectival sense. We often read
in histories of the Renaissance that it’s the moment when perspectival
views are really introduced into painting. That’s not totally true. Artists could have done them before,
they somehow just chose not to, but Uccello was one of the people
who most obviously is using perspective in his paintings. And you can see this
very, very clearly in this work in the way in which
he’s constructed his narrative. Look particularly in the foreground at the lances that are lying,
apparently haphazardly, along the bottom of this battle scene, and you can see that they all go
to trying to give you a sense of the vanishing point
and of the perspective. This is a very carefully
constructed painting, but Uccello wears his learning
very, very lightly so that he also convinces you
it’s a realistic scene. We do know incidentally
that Uccello was somebody who did have a lot of learning. Like Piero della Francesca, like Leonardo, he was an artist who transcended
simply the art form that he worked in, he was very interested in mathematics, and there’s a wonderful story,
which sadly I think is untrue but I wish it was,
of him saying to his wife, ‘What a wonderful thing
is this perspective’, in bed at the end of the day. One can only imagine
her possible reaction, but there’s this sense of joy
in the invention that he’s undertaking that very much comes through
in the creativity of his work. He did, unfortunately, not have
such a brilliant end to his life and one of the most melancholy documents
I know about a 15th-century painter is the tax return that Uccello puts in
to the Florentine state as an old man. In essence, he says,
in very, very brief Italian, ‘I’m old, I can’t work, I’m sick,
I have a wife.’ That’s it. And you can sort of conjure a sense of bleakness, really,
around those bare words. But, back to the painting. I’ve told you a little bit
about the artist. I want now to tell you a little bit about
different aspects of this great work. Firstly, what are we seeing
represented here? Well, very obviously, if you look at this,
this is a battle scene. If you look at the part
of the painting near me, you can see that there are cavalry
who are charging in behind a man who is holding
a great banner and is wearing a most extraordinary hat. I’ve never seen anyone wear a hat quite
like that, certainly not on a battlefield, and I think we can be
absolutely confident that the ‘condottiere’, or the
military leader, we see represented here, was not wearing this
when he charged into action. What Uccello is doing is taking
an actual event that happened and making it into something
which is a history painting, so bringing the best parts of that story and creating it as a visual whole. It’s an incredible theatrical work. It’s also a very chivalric work
and that’s important because chivalry, or an interest
in knights and armour and tournaments, was one of the things that absolutely
obsessed 15th-century Florentines. As much as the Classical world
that we often hear about, really wanting to be like
the Knights of Burgundy or, indeed, of the medieval romances
they read about was very, very important
to the commissioners and patrons of paintings such as this. So, the scene that Paolo Uccello
is representing here was a fairly brutal,
very, very unpleasant skirmish that happened in a part
of a long and very protracted war between the Florentines
and some of their enemies, the Genoese, the people of Lucca
and the people of Milan, in the early 1430s. This was particularly, this battle,
the Battle of San Romano, was part of a desire
to take control of Pisa. Now, Pisa, which of course today is most famous for its Scuola Normale
and its leaning tower, was in the 15th century the main port
that Tuscany had out onto the world, and who controlled Pisa would control
access to all sorts of important markets. So, the Florentines desperately wanted it,
but so did everybody else. This picture, this episode,
became an episode that was proper
for depiction in a painting because the Florentines won. I don’t know if any of you
have been to San Romano. The train actually stops at it
between Pisa and Florence on that long, very difficult,
very, sort of, protracted journey across the Tuscan plain, and it’s a perfectly nice place
but it’s not an exceptional place at all. And it’s rather strange,
next time you go through it, to see it, semi-industrial buildings, and to imagine what Uccello shows us here. So, what he shows us
is an idealisation of a battle. And the most important thing
I would say about that, and you’ve probably already noticed, is that there is no blood,
this is a bloodless conflict. You feel that the knights who are fighting
very, very dramatically, with their lances over here, are actually as if they’re in a game. There’s something
very, very unreal about it. And that’s enhanced, of course, by the fact that not all of them
are wearing armour, and those that are seem to be wearing a mixture of the sorts of armour
that you might have worn into battle but combined with parade armour, so there’s always an element of fantasy
in what he’s representing here. The most fantastical element, of course,
is the hat that I mentioned, and that’s being worn by the military
leader of the Florentine forces, a figure called Niccolò da Tolentino,
who was actually killed, who died very unfortunately,
or very ignominiously, three years after this painting
in prison in Milan. But the year after this, the episode
that’s represented in this painting, the battle that took place in 1432, in 1433 he’s recognised basically
as a hero by the Florentine state. And those of you who have visited Florence
will probably know the great monument
that’s been put up to him, the painted monument in the cathedral
by Castagno of him on horseback, looking every bit like a sort of
Roman soldier, a great Roman dignitary. We see another great version
of the idealised commander here too, going into battle as he never
would have done, with his hat and also with his ‘bastone’,
or his marshal’s symbol of authority. Interestingly, in a combination of history
and making things up, Uccello gives him the ‘bastone’,
or the baton, to hold here, but he wasn’t actually,
if I recall correctly, allowed to do this until about a year after the event
which is represented here took place. So, what painters always do
is they play with what you see. Another remarkable way in which
Uccello makes this seem in fantasy is the fact that this is a battle scene
that is surrounded by fruit and by flowers. I’ve fortunately never had
to go into battle, but I’m sure that most people who have have not really seen oranges,
pomegranates, and roses arranged around
the participants in the battle, as if it’s some
sort of lovely backdrop to it. And something I did want to emphasise is that the decorative elements
of Uccello’s painting are really important and considerable. You will see that there is
quite a lot of gold in this picture, for instance, in the stuff
that the horses are wearing. And also, if you look closely
at the end of the talk, you’ll see that the gold
has been very carefully worked. It’s been treated in the same way
that painters of Uccello’s time would treat halos in religious paintings. So, it’s been punched
with a particular tool and then it’s been burnished. And the idea of this is that the painting
looks three-dimensional, and when you would have seen it
in different light conditions you would have possibly got the illusion
in that the figures are almost moving, and that you’re not seeing
a representation of a battle but something which is actually happening
in the room in which you were. There are some ways in which
this is much less evident today than it was in the 15th century. The first, of course, is that you’re
seeing it on the walls of the Gallery and the second is that
some of the materials that are used have really faded and changed, and that’s what happens
in paintings of this date. What I particularly want
to point out to you is the silver. Now, silver is this material
which would have dominated how this picture would have looked
visually in the 15th century. Silver tarnishes incredibly quickly. Even within Uccello’s lifetime,
it might have changed. And so all the metal,
all the armour of the soldiers, which would have been silver
now looks grey. So, we’ve got a very different
colouristic sense of this picture than we would have done. Something else that’s happened
is that a lot of the red was painted with a pigment
called vermilion. And vermilion also tarnishes
and darkens in ways when it’s exposed to pollution
of any description. If you wander around
the Sainsbury Wing afterwards, you will see lots and lots of examples
of blackened vermilion. You see them
in every museum across the world. It happens everywhere. So, all the areas of red would have been much, much brighter
than they are today. So, we are seeing in some ways
a very different painting. Something else that we’re seeing
about this painting that’s different to the way
Uccello originally made it is that if you look very carefully at the top left-hand
and the top right-hand corners, you will probably be able to see that they look rather different
to the rest of the painting. And that’s been something
which has really troubled art historians, conservators and scientists looking at this work
for about the last 100 years, because why are these different? And there’s a complicated story
which I’m now going to tell, which is a combination of intrigue, of physical examination,
of documentary study, and of really bad behaviour
that you couldn’t quite believe. The first record we have
of these pictures, the first record that people
have known for a long time, is in a Medici family inventory
taken in 1492 after the death
of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Now, as often happens
still today in grand houses, when somebody dies, somebody goes
round and records where everything is and sometimes, if you’re lucky, who the artist was
and what they were actually worth. And in the Medici inventory, it says that in the ‘camera terrena’, in the ground-floor ‘camera’ or chamber,
which was Lorenzo’s, there were three paintings
of the Battle of San Romano. One of them was this painting, one of them was a painting in the Louvre, and one of them was a painting
that’s in the Uffizi. And the three paintings were made together
as a set by Uccello in the 1430s. Now, it’s been very, very odd to get to,
stylistically, the fact that these pictures date
to the late 1430s and why we first then knew of them
in the Medici Palace in 1492, and all sorts of complicated theories
were brought up as to why this might have been possible and which could explain the fact
that significant changes were made to the top of this picture
and, indeed, of the two others at some point in its early history
in the 15th century. So, as I said,
if you look carefully at the top, you’ll see that there are
additions to the panel and if you look very carefully
in raking light, which is if you stand
and look at it from the side, you might be able to see that
originally this painting had an arched top and it was cut very dramatically. We’ve estimated that all three
of the pictures probably lost about 64 centimetres in height
at some point in the 15th century, so they were intended to be
in a much bigger space than the space in which they’re recorded
in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s ‘camera’. And when they’re recorded
in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s ‘camera’, they’re clearly very valuable paintings, not so much by their monetary value but more from the fact
that this is the place they were. The ‘camera’, or the chamber, was the
most important room in a patrician palace for the man who was responsible for it. It was the place where he would bring
his privileged guests. It was the place
where he would go himself, so the things that were in there
were obviously significant. So, what was really fascinating
was that 20 years ago a great Italian art historian
called Francesco Caglioti found some fascinating documents
in an archive in Florence, and this demonstrated that the paintings
had not been made for the Medicis at all, and this was difficult for many people who had interpreted, for instance,
the oranges that you see in this work as being a Medici symbol. If you know Florence
and you know the Medicis, you’ll know that the ‘palle’, or balls,
are their emblem. And there was a feeling
that these orange balls in here was really an emblification
of how this was a Medici commission. But, rather, these paintings were recorded
in an inventory of another family the Bartolini Salimbeni, and we got to discover this because,
after Lorenzo de’ Medici died, two years later his son Piero
was chased from Florence, and the Medicis,
who had been the de facto rulers of Florence for quite a long time,
were no longer in control, and various people who felt
they’d been hard done by the Medicis tried to claim things
that really belonged to them or complained about things
that had been done during the time of Lorenzo’s lifetime. And one of the people who came in 1495 was a member
of the Bartolini Salimbeni family. And he said that this painting and
the two other paintings of the subject, now in the Uffizi and now in the Louvre,
had belonged to his father. They had been in his father’s palace. He had inherited them
with some of his brothers and then they had been forcibly removed
from his townhouse by Lorenzo de’ Medici’s carpenter and taken to the Palazzo Medici, which is an extraordinary story. And what seems to have happened is that when Leonardo Bartolini Salimbeni
died in 1476 he left six sons, and there was a great disagreement
about the estate. He had left all his possessions
to his three younger sons because he felt
they hadn’t been well looked after, but the three older sons, of course,
complained and said this wasn’t right. So, there was a process of arbitration, and guess who was asked
to arbitrate to the discussion? None other than Lorenzo de’ Medici, who was at that point
really the ruler of Florence, in deed, if not in name. And what seems very likely to Francesco Caglioti
and to myself and others is that Lorenzo saw the pictures
at that time and he really coveted them. And because of the authority that he had, he was able to essentially get
the pictures out of the family house and bring them into
his own chamber in his palace, which is a fairly astonishing story and shows not just the chutzpah of Lorenzo but actually the real authority
that he did have in Florence at that time, that he could basically
force people to do that. But there was a sense
of huge animosity from the family and the minute they had the opportunity to get the pictures back,
they did, they tried. The pictures didn’t stay
with them forever, though, because later on in the 16th century they’re recorded
in the Medici Palace again. So, they seem to have made journeys, depending on how the politics of Florence
was going at that time. But I tell you that story not just because
I think it’s a fascinating example of how pictures
can really mean things to people who aren’t the people
they’re originally made for, but also because it really gives
a more complex dimension to our understanding
of the Florentine Renaissance and the people involved in it. It reminds us, I think,
that paintings are things that inspire really passionate
emotions among us and among the people
who have looked at them in the past, so much so that on occasion they’re prepared to do things
that really are illegal in order to get them
into their possession. But I think it also reminds us, and this is a salient fact
given the subject of Uccello’s painting, the subject of battle and turning a really quite horrible
military conflict into something
which really looks very dignified, is that beyond all the things
that we hugely value, that have immense cultural merit and do huge things to enrich our lives,
such as this painting and the other paintings
in the National Gallery, there is a nasty undercurrent
often going on underneath them. And that’s not simply something
that’s bad per se, it’s also something, it’s like that
infinite conflict between good and evil, which really ends up
in the production of works like this and the stories that they tell. And the stories that this picture tells, of course, doesn’t just end in
reconstructing its 15th-century context and its wonderful and complicated story, but in the resonance that
it continues to make in our lives today. And I’m very aware that there are
many significant art forms and artists working in various
different means of production who find this
a truly inspirational painting. And I don’t know if any of you
had the great joy to go to the proms a few years ago and see that wonderful pair
of French pianists, the Labèque sisters, perform a piece of music
composed in America in the 1950s, which is based on this
and the other pictures in this series. And I really recommend you try
and find a copy of their recording because you get a great sense from music
of the battle taking place, of the ceremonial nature of it,
of the clash, and ultimately the good resolution
that we don’t see in Uccello’s painting. But there’s another resonance
which is even more immediate, and actually in London at this time, if you cross town
and go to a private gallery, you can see the responses to this painting by an Afro-American artist
called Robert Reed who came to London in 1979 and was absolutely blown away
by this painting. He is a figure who is really
being discovered again by art historians, by curators,
by collectors. His work was more or less lost,
it was all in one place, and so if you’re interested in thinking that the resonances
of a work of art could have long beyond the time
that it was created, I really recommend
that you go and see these paintings. But I think that’s really all
I have to say to you today. I just want to remind you to really
think about Uccello’s great painting not just as a representation of battle but about the battle that acquiring
and keeping onto a painting like this can really have for collectors, and aren’t we lucky
that the battle is over and that the picture is here
in the National Gallery, never to go anywhere else
for the rest of its history. Thank you.

Dereck Turner

22 thoughts on “Paolo Uccello, ‘The Battle of San Romano’ | Talks for all | National Gallery

  1. Wanda Katz says:

    So pleased the NG continues to make these lectures accessible to all.

  2. Jane Tisell says:

    Thank you so much! Those Medici 🙀.

  3. vallisdero says:

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. Samuel Pontes says:

    Really enjoy all of these talks, thanks for posting them

  5. JM Forment says:

    It is always great to listen to Mrs. Campbell. It is obvious she knows a lot, but the best is the way she makes you love the work she is talking about. Many thanks!

  6. George French says:

    Brilliant. Thank you.

  7. BIZEB says:

    What I don't get is why won't these artists, who specifically worked in a very geometrical fashion and were keenly interested in mathematics, get a specialized discussion, when people talk about their paintings, on their use of geometry in composition. Even the hat she mentions, which is an obvious geometrical solid based hat, like the mazzochio he commonly portrayed, was completely ignored as a mathematical object.

    These stories are all fascinating, but isn't it time to get closer to what the painters themselves were actually thinking about, by really looking at the painting itself, and not just what it might represent?

  8. Susie G. says:

    Enjoy these videos so much. Thank you for making them available to everyone.

  9. Johann Brandstatter says:

    You could be a bit more specific, like : The National Gallery, London. Other countries have national galleries too.

  10. Teresa Ferreira says:

    I,also,have been quite enhanced by this painting. Very grateful to the NG for posting these wonderful lectures!

  11. Divertedflight says:

    I've seen the Louvre painting and the armour seems less tarnished (or at least less matt grey, as the painting appeared to be quite dirty). Apparently with the Louvre picture, the metal is done with tin leaf not silver leaf.

  12. Merce LLoveras says:

    Thank you National Gallery to share with us your very interesting conferences!

  13. JONATHAN SUTCLIFFE says:

    TALKS FOR ALL? I THINK YOU AND/OR MYSELF WOULD HAVE COME ACROSS N.T'S LECTURING IRRESPECTIVE… THAT JOURNEY OFTEN SPOKEN OF…
    IMPOSING ART OR HISTORY OR OPEN UNIVERSITY TYPE MUSINGS ON FOLK.. DUNNO IF THAT WORKS.

  14. Gea Jones says:

    very good talk ,..thankyou

  15. Qthelost says:

    Please keep up the great work National Gallery! Because of your channel I get to sit in on lectures and talks from Louisiana. And I always enjoy hearing Dr. Campbell talk. Please keep broadcasting as many full lectures and talks as you can. Thank you!

  16. Darla McFarland says:

    Very exciting picture! Surprisingly abstract. Thanks for this wonderful talk.

  17. Thomas Tymstone says:

    Thank you National Gallery for these excellent talks on painting, artists and culture. Thank you Dr. Campbell for your excitement and joy in sharing what you find interesting and these paintings and these artists, but I must say Americans of African decent haven't been known as "Afro Americans" for some time. This is not a dig but a correction. Otherwise carry on with your fine works for all to enjoy. 👍🏾🎨🖼️

  18. Sue Bailey says:

    Such a help understanding the painting.

  19. John Amper says:

    Remarkable story!!!

  20. Michael Angel says:

    Another Great lecture, thank you !

  21. Tianx says:

    Love these talks. Keep them coming.

  22. Wille k says:

    23:30 "Richard Reed", I assume she meant to say "Robert Reed"?

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