(b. 1397, Firenze, d. 1475, Firenze)

Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood

Fresco, 820 x 515 cm
Duomo, Florence

In 1436 the administrators of the Opera del Duomo in Florence commissioned Paolo Uccello to paint a fresco in the Cathedral, a monument commemorating the English soldier of fortune Sir John Hawkwood (Giovanni Acuto for the Italian) who had died in 1394; Hawkwood had led the Florentine troops to victory in the battle of Cascina (1364). Still in the Cathedral today, the fresco was restored in 1524 by Lorenzo di Credi, who added the elegant frame with the grotesque pattern decorations.

The fresco is a splendid example of how Uccello used the new means of expression (perspective and sculptural quality) in a totally personal way; adding to them the monochrome effect of "terra verde", the painter has succeeded in creating the illusion of a statue, standing on a plinth. The base is shown in foreshortening, so as to be seen correctly from below, whereas the warrior in on his horse is drawn in full frontal perspective. This seemingly contradictory use of the rules of perspective, which has given rise to innumerable debates, is further evidence of the originality of Uccello's language. The unnatural movement of the horse, which is raising both its right legs at the same time, was pointed out as a serious mistake by Vasari, but it is justified by the consistency of Paolo's perspective construction.

In the Monument to Sir John Hawkwood there are also some elements derived from Masaccio's painting, like the trompe 1'oeil perspective of the base, very similar to the base below Masaccio's Trinity, and the sculptural relief of the horse and the rider created with a strong chiaroscuro. And furthermore, as in all Masaccio's works, the light comes from the left and is very natural. But there are just as many elements that clearly distinguish Paolo's art from Masaccio's: Uccello's realism is much more analytic than synthetic, in other words it is more similar to the late Gothic style than to Masaccio's. Uccello's analytic realism blends extremely well with his geometrization of forms, which contributes to the overall effect of abstractism conveyed by his works. In other words Paolo's compositions are more abstract and symbolic than natural: this painting is more a portrayal of the idea of a warrior than of a warrior in flesh and blood.

The administrators of the Opera del Duomo did not appreciate the fresco at all, and ordered Uccello to paint it again, which the artist did. We do not know exactly what Paolo changed, but he probably just toned down the colours, which were considered too bizarre.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.