Uccello,  Andrea del Castagno: John Hawkwood, Niccolò da Tolentino II

Uccello ‘ Equestrian Monument to Sir John Hawkwood’ 1436, 820 x 575 cm
Frame from 1524 by Lorenzo di Credi

Where the two equal squares, horse with rider and the architecture, come together, also lies the boundary of the two different perspectives. Hawkwood and his horse appear as a relief emerging from the wall. You see it slightly from above. However, the pedestal with the sarcophagus has a perspective from below, or sotto in su. This perspective is best appreciated when standing slightly to the left of the fresco. This corresponds to the light coming through the windows in the side aisle. Uccello softened the point where the perspectives and squares intersect by painting patterns on the concave frame of the lid resembling the imprints of horse hooves. The mural was transferred onto canvas in 1842. Unfortunately, it now hangs too low, diminishing the effect of perspective. The original placement was at a height of 8.20 meters from the floor.

Uccello ‘John Hawkwood on his horse’

By representing horse and rider as a relief without foreshortening, it is not a portrait but a painted version of a bronze equestrian monument. Giorgio Vasari clearly had a different opinion on this matter. He assumed a portrait, as described in his ‘Lives of Paolo Uccello’.

“This work was and still is considered a splendid example of this type of painting; and if Paolo had not depicted the horse as if it were only moving both legs on one side – which horses naturally do not do, as they would fall over (likely this happened to Paolo because he himself could not ride horses, and was not as familiar with them as with other animals) – then this work would be entirely perfect, for the proportions of the horse, which is enormously large, are entirely correct; and on the pedestal are the following words: PAVLI VCCELLI OPVS.” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel I blz. 129 (oorspronkelijke uitgave 1568).

Pedestal and inscription

The commission also specified that the work should be painted to resemble a tomb. Uccello used the color terre verde to suggest bronze. Castagno, on the other hand, aimed to depict a monument in marble. Therefore, he used the dark green antico verte for the background, which enhances the white of the rider and the marble.

Andrea del Castagno ‘Niccolò da Tolentino’  1524
After the intervention in 1524 by Lorenzo di Credi

The shape, dimensions (820 x 514 cm), proportions, composition, dual perspective, and lighting indeed correspond to the mural of Giovanni Acuto (Hawkwood). However, Castagno clearly deviates from Uccello in one aspect.

Four Horses San Marco, Venice

photo replicas: Alejandro

In the style of Castagno, the illusion of movement is central. This is something you see with many artists from the mid-fifteenth century. A comparison with Uccello immediately makes it clear that Castagno has depicted both rider and horse lively and dynamically. In contrast, Hawkwood and his horse appear lifeless and static. Like Uccello, Castagno was inspired by the four horses of San Marco. It is striking that all the horses of San Marco have their neck and head turned. This posture gives a much livelier and more natural impression when compared to the horse of Giovanni Acuto.

Andrea del Castagno ‘Rider and Horse’
Uccello ‘Rider and Horse’

How does Castagno create the illusion of movement and liveliness? The fluttering ribbon behind the rider’s neck, the billowing folds of the cloak, the three strips of the horse harness bulging, the movement of the tail. The meticulously rendered bones, tendons, and muscles, the turned head of the horse give the impression that we are not dealing with an equestrian statue, but with a flesh-and-blood horse. Tolentino’s horse’s hind legs appear to be in motion. Hawkwood keeps the staff close to himself while Tolentino extends his right arm forward. Castagno does not use a geometric formula like Uccello; instead, movement and liveliness take precedence for him. Uccello paints two coats of arms on the console.

The inscription reads:



Castagno depicts two figures, each with a coat of arms. These figures stand out significantly in terms of size. Moreover, they seem to have been added solely to display the coats of arms: a Gordian knot on the right and a lion on the left.

Andrea del Castagno ‘Niccolò da Tolentino’ detail

photo: Sailko

However, besides showcasing the coats of arms, these figures serve another important function. This can be seen, for example, in Desiderio da Settignano, who at the same time Castagno painted his fresco in the Duomo, carved the tomb monument of Carlo Marsuppini in the Santa Croce. Here too, two figures are present: children displaying a shield.

Desiderio da Settignano ‘Tomb monument of Carlo Marsuppini’ 1453      Zoom out

photos: Sailko

Here originally, the coats of arms of the Marsuppini family were painted. Such figures served the function of making it clear to the viewer that they were not just facing a monument, but also a tomb. Additionally, they guard the tomb. The figures painted by Castagno serve the same purpose. They also make a political statement: ‘here lies the body of an important supporter and defender of Florence,’ something that the present-day visitor to the Duomo is likely to completely overlook.

Continuation Florence day 6: Giotto ‘Enthroned Madonna with Child (Ognissanti I)