Friday, December 09, 2005

Getting Some Perspective

Painter Paolo Uccello died on December 10, 1475 in Florence, Italy at the age of 78.

An early Italian Renaissance master, Uccello was an obsessive student of the science of perspective as proposed by Leonbattista Alberti. Legend has it that Uccello once refused to follow his wife to bed, acknowledging "What a sweet mistress is this perspective."

Nonetheless, Uccello displayed an astonishingly original approach, ultimately taking his studies almost to the point of comedy: in his most famous works, the panels comprising The Battle of San Romano (c. 1445), weapons and pieces of armor seem to have fallen on the ground along grid-like Albertian orthogonals which illustrate the underlying perspective of the picture, and one soldier has even managed to die along one of these orthogonals. In his dramatic fresco Deluge (1445-47) in the Green Cloister at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, lightning bolts and ark hulls converge on the vanishing point and a ladder floats in perfect parallel to the ark, once again revealing the Albertian grid.

Uccello's quirky use of perspective may have resulted in two of his patrons complaining of the "unconventionality" of his work, and he seems to have received few commissions. It is thought that he was asked to repaint an equestrian portrait of Sir John Hawkwood in the Duomo because his deadpan use of perspective logic resulted in too much of the horse's underbelly being shown.

Despite his overarching interest in perspective, Uccello had a light touch when painting human figures, as shown, for example, in the charming, delicate St. George and the Dragon (c. 1456).

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