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

Andrea del Castagno ‘Niccolò da Tolentino’ (left) and Uccello ‘John Hawkwood’ (right)

Uccello, Andrea del Castagno: John Hawkwood, Niccolò da Tolentino Duomo Florence
photo: 林高志

On the north side in the side aisle of the Santa Maria del Fiore, two frescoes with the military leaders, Hawkwood and Tolentino, can still be seen today. Further down on the same wall hangs a painting of Dante by Domenico di Michelino. These three artworks are the remnants of what was once intended to be a grand program.

Domenico di Michelini after Alesso Baldovinetti ‘La Divina Commedia di Dante’ 1462 In situ

Domenico di Michelini after Alesso Baldovinetti ‘La Divina Commedia di Dante’
photos: Jastrow and situ: Charles

Artworks depicting famous figures or distinguished citizens of Florence were supposed to be installed in the Duomo, known as the Uomini famosi. This included writers, poets, thinkers, and military leaders such as Petrarch, Boccaccio, Dante, Hawkwood, and Tolentino. Castagno had completed a series of famous figures in 1451, five years before he began his fresco of Tolentino, at the Villa of Filippo Carducci in Legnaia. Click here at Web Gallery of Art for Castagno’s Uomini famosi [famous people].

Andrea del Castagno

Andrea del Castagno ‘Dante’ c. 1450

On July 13, 1433, a competition was held for a new design of a painting for Hawkwood. The mural of Hawkwood from 1395 had become quite outdated, and furthermore, this mural had been affected by a leak from a window. The instruction to the artists for the new artwork was as follows: “Anyone who wishes to submit a model or drawing must send it to the supplier, and the Masters of the Works will judge who is best suited to carry out the commission.” Borsi F. en S., ‘Paolo Uccello’, Harry Abrams, New York 1994 p. 302

It is not known whether Uccello made a design drawing. Three years later, on May 30, 1436, Uccello was commissioned to paint a fresco in monochrome colors: terre verte. Monochrome and the green earth color, terre verte, were chosen because the painting was supposed to resemble a real equestrian monument. Even during Hawkwood’s lifetime, it was decided that a marble monument should be placed on his grave in the Duomo. However, this expensive project was never carried out. A cheaper solution was found in 1395 by Agnolo Gaddi and Giuliano Arrighi (also known as Pesello) to create a mural. These two artists had previously made a monument for the condottiere Piero Farnese. This sculpture of wood, cloth, and papier-mâché stood inside the facade until the 19th century. The green earth color that Uccello had to use does not evoke marble but bronze. The explanation for the use of terre verte can be found in the inscription.


Giovanni Acuto, British knight, the wisest leader of his time and a great expert in the art of warfare.

John Hawkwood was called Giovanni Acuto in Florence. The term “cautissimus” is borrowed from Plutarch. This Roman writer mentions that after the conquest of Taranto, a bronze equestrian monument was erected on the Capitoline Hill in honor of Fabius Maximus. “Cautissimus” indicates that Hawkwood was seen as a modern version of General Fabius Maximus. This is likely the reason why Uccello used a color that resembles bronze.

In May 1436, Uccello began painting. A month later, on June 28, the patrons communicated that ‘it was not painted as it should have been,’ so a new version was required. In three months, Uccello completed his fresco. The artist received 54 lire for his mural, covering an area of forty-two square meters, including the first version.

Uccello John Hawkwood detail fresco

John Hawkwood

John Hawkwood, starting as an apprentice tailor under the English king Edward III, rose to become a military commander. He fought in the Hundred Years’ War. After its conclusion in 1360, he went to Italy, where he fought for Venice and Milan. From 1370 until his death on March 17, 1394, he served as the condottiere of Florence. His funeral was costly, totaling 410 florins. The funeral procession began at the Piazza della Signoria and ended at the Baptistry, concluding in the Duomo, where Hawkwood was interred in the choir. A year before his death, Hawkwood was made an honorary citizen of Florence. The city council decided to erect a tomb monument for the military leader in the Duomo. Instead of a monument, a mural was created, as mentioned earlier. In the same year, 1395, the English king, Richard II, requested Florence to transfer Hawkwood’s remains to England, which the city council granted.

During his stay in Venice, 1425-1430, Uccello must have seen the equestrian statue of Paolo Savello in the Frari Church. However, it was primarily the famous four horses of San Marco that influenced him.

Four Horses San Marco, Venice

Four Horses San Marco, Venice
photo replicas: Alejandro

In the series “Uomini famosi,” which included Hawkwood, Bicci Lorenzo painted the first in 1422 in the right aisle the tomb monument of Cardinal Pietro Corsini. This fresco, too, is a painted version of a marble tomb monument. The second mural painting in the series of famous men is that of Hawkwood. Uccello adopts Lorenzo’s tripartition: console, sarcophagus, and the cardinal becomes the military commander on horseback (the frame around the painting was added in 1524 by Lorenzo di Credi). The composition of the mural is constructed according to strict geometric formulas. Thus, the hind and front legs are positioned at the end of the sarcophagus lid, while the nearest hind leg is placed exactly in the middle of the central axis in the image plane and the sarcophagus. Horse and rider are precisely symmetrical to the console with the sarcophagus.

Uccello ‘Study for the Equestrian Monument to Sir John Hawkwood’

Uccello 'Study for the Equestrian Monument to Sir John Hawkwood'
Cabinetto dei Disegni, Uffizi, Florence

The fresco is thus divided into two equal parts. In a drawing (this is one of the earliest examples of a drawing made on squared paper for transfer), now in the Uffizi, the geometry is even more pronounced than in the final painting. For instance, the rear of the horse is circular, while the curve of the neck and head forms a clear, round geometric line.

The armor also consists of tight geometric shapes. Hawkwood’s face, which has been strongly affected by time, has few naturalistic elements. With this inclination towards geometry at the expense of naturalism, Uccello anticipates the three paintings he would later create of the Battle of San Romano (Wikipedia). While Uccello painted, Luca della Robbia (1431-1438) worked on his cantoria for the Duomo. The leaf motif on the console clearly shows that Robbia’s cantoria served as an inspiration for Uccello.

Uccello ‘ Equestrian Monument to Sir John Hawkwood’ 1436, 820 x 575 cm detail

Uccello ' Equestrian Monument to Sir John Hawkwood' detail: Horse and Hawkwood

Continuation Florence day 6: Uccello, Andrea del Castagno: John Hawkwood, Niccolò da Tolentino II