Uccello in the Chiostro Verde (Santa Maria Novella)

Chiostro Verde       Other side      View from above      Aerial

Chiostro Verde Santa Maria Novella Florence
photos: Albertus82 and side: Kotomi_

Paolo Uccello
Anonymous ‘Five Famous men Giotto, Uccello, Donatello, Manetti, Brunelleschi” Louvre Parijs INV 267

‘The little bird’, as Paolo’s nickname suggests, must have been very impressed by the linear perspective in Masaccio’s Trinity. On the other side of the wall from where Masaccio made his fresco, in the green cloister, Uccello painted two frescoes with stories from Genesis. Three of the four sides already had frescoes. Unfortunately, little has remained of them. It likely depicted stories from the Old and New Testament. Of course, Uccello had to adapt his frescoes to the iconological program of the cloister yard.

Portrait Paolo Uccello

On the right, at the second and fourth bays, you will find the frescoes of Uccello. The other two frescoes are probably the work of his studio. Each bay is divided in two tiers: a lunette with beneath it a rectangular part which is separated by a painted frame. The width of the lower part is twice the height. This creates a wider size, reminiscent of the panels Ghiberti used for his Gates of Paradise.

Uccello fresco's chiostro verde restauration
MET (Italian and Dutch)

Each of these two parts is painted with two stories from Genesis. This formula is based on Ghiberti, who was working at the same time on his second door for the Baptistery. In contrast to Ghiberti, however, Uccello used a rigid way of arranging them: one vanishing point, which made scenes appear as a unified whole, or two vanishing points with ‘annex stories’ between them, as a clear separation, like a rock formation in the creation.

Creation of animals and Adam Creation of Eve and the Fall    Creation of Eve   Sinopia
Lorenzo Ghiberti ‘Creation of Adam and Eve and Expulsion’

Uccello Creation of animals and Adam Creation of Eve and the Fall
photo sinopia: Sailko and creation Eve: Richard Mortel

In order to unify the two point perspective compositions (two vanishing points), Uccello painted a black and white striped stringcourse around the lunette. These stripes are foreshortened and lead to one central vanishing point in the middle of the lunette. This painted stringcourse was an extension of the ribs painted with the same motif in the vaults of the cloister. Unfortunately, these decorations on the ribs were removed during a restoration in the nineteenth century. Uccello’s work is very Florentine because he took into account the surroundings of the painted work. Adam’s arm curves in such a way that it runs parallel to the curved frame of the lunette.
In addition, each pair of scenes is divided exactly in the middle by the central axis of the lunette, reflecting the division of the bays in the cloister.

Creation of animals and Adam       Creation of Adam

Uccello 'Creation of animals and Adam'
photos Creation Adam and expulsion from Paradise: Richard Mortel

The Creation of Adam and Eve and the Fall

Masolino ‘Adam and Eve’

First, Uccello painted the Creation of the Animals in the last bay, and Adam in the lunette. The Creation of Eve and the Fall are depicted below. Obviously, Ucello produced this work earlier than his second fresco for this cloister. The dating, c. 1424-1425, is based on the Gothic-looking rocks and the rather decorative folds in the cloak of God the Father. The somewhat strange poses of Adam and Eve are strongly reminiscent of earlier works by Ghiberti and Masolino.

Masolino 'Adam and Eve'

Uccello ‘Fall Adam and Eve’       Masolino ‘Adam and Eve’

Uccello 'Fall Adam and Eve' detail
photo: Richard Mortel

For years, Uccello worked in the workshop of Ghiberti and spent time with Michelozzo and Masolino in Venice. The reclining Adam is based on one of Ghiberti’s panels of the Gates of Paradise depicting the same subject. Possibly, Uccello saw designs from Ghiberti’s sketchbooks when he worked in this artist’s workshop In the upper right corner of the lunette, Adam is receiving the gift of life from the rushing God. On the other hand, the Lord, who is creating the animals, is standing quietly.

The landscape itself is reminiscent of Donatello’s work. With only a few trees, painted at the bottom, a considerable impression of depth is created. Donatello had already employed this effect in his low relief works for the Orsanmichele (Saint George). The strongly foreshortened depiction of Christ’s nimbus is very striking. Is this an indication of Uccello’s interest in perspective? In the lower part of the wall plane there are two more stories: the Creation of Eve and the Fall. The wooded background, that covers the picture plane, unifies the stories. The landscape is more reminiscent of a decorative carpet than of real nature. Lastly, the Expulsion from Paradise can be seen.

Paolo UccelloThe Flood and the Sacrifice and Drunkenness of Noah

Uccello 'The Flood and the Sacrifice and Drunkenness of Noah'
photo: MenkinAlRire

Clearly, the work in the second bay dates from a later period. By then, Uccello had fully mastered the rules of perspective. Even though the exact dating remains unclear, Franco and Stefano Borsi, authors of a monograph on Paolo Uccello, assume that it dates from 1447.

Paolo Uccello ‘The Flood’      Zoom in      Lightning     Perspective

Uccello  'The Flood'
photo: MenkinAlRire

Vasari discusses quite extensively the frescoes that Uccello painted in the cloister of the Santa Maria Novella. For example, he writes the following about the Flood and Noah’s Ark:

“[…] he painted the Flood, with Noah’s Ark, wherein he put so great pains and so great art and diligence into the painting of the dead bodies, the tempest, the fury of the winds, the flashes of the lightning, the shattering of trees, and the terror of men, that it is beyond all description. And he made, foreshortened in perspective, a corpse from which a raven is picking out the eyes, and a drowned boy, whose body, being full of water, is swollen out into the shape of a very great arch. He also represented various human emotions, such as the little fear of the water shown by two men who are fighting on horseback, and the extreme terror of death seen in a woman and a man who are mounted on a buffalo, which is filling with water from behind, so that they are losing all hope of being able to save themselves; and the whole work is so good and so excellent, that it brought him very great fame. He diminished the figures, moreover, by means of lines in perspective, and made mazzocchi and other things, truly very beautiful in such a work.” Cited from Vasari ‘Life of Paolo Uccello Painter of Florence p. 136 Gutenberg

Uccello The Flood'  detail: mazzocchi

Drunkenness of Noah detail       In its entirety

Uccello 'Drunkenness of Noah 'detail
photos: Richard Mortel
Uccello Uccello 'Drunkenness of Noah 'detail

“Here [Drunkenness of Noah], likewise, he made in perspective a cask that curves on every side, which was held something very beautiful, and also a pergola covered with grapes, the wood-work of which, composed of squared planks, goes on diminishing to a point; but here he was in error, since the diminishing of the plane below, on which the figures are standing, follows the lines of the pergola, and the cask does not follow these same receding lines; wherefore I marvel greatly that a man so accurate and diligent could make an error so notable.”  Cited from Vasari ‘Life of Paolo Uccello Painter of Florence p. 136 Gutenberg

In the upper section of the lunette, one story from Genesis seems to be depicted, but on closer inspection there are two. The Flood can be seen on the left and on the other side is the Recession of the Water. Beneath the lunette is the Sacrifice of Noah and His Drunkenness shown. In his fresco of the Flood, Uccello uses the perspective to emphasize the tragedy of this terrible event. At the vanishing point, the eye is drawn back to the foreground. The vanishing point is further accentuated by the strike of lightning. This is very similar to the work that Donatello made in Padua. Uccello and Donatello were friends. When Donatello received a major commission there, Uccello went with them to Padua. There is a clear connection between Donatello’s ‘The Miracle of the Repentant Son’ and ‘The Flood’ when it comes to the use of perspective.

Unfortunately, because of the poor condition of the fresco, it is impossible to check whether Uccello has indeed made a messy mistake here.

The Mazzocchio

The scale of the figures makes a mockery of linear perspective. Is this to emphasize the enormous confusion and chaos, as if earth is overturning? Although there appears to be only one vanishing point, this is not the case. Each scene, the Flood and the Recession of the Water, has its own vanishing point. The painter’s great interest in perspective can also be seen in the mazzocchio of the young man in the Flood. Research has revealed that Uccello changed the headgear three times. Therefore, this is a real pentimento, or ‘stroke of repentance’, which indicates that in this case the artist painted freehand, without auxiliary lines.

Uccello The Flood detail: 'Mazzocchio'

In the background, a wind god is depicted. Characteristic of what Alberti recommended the painters and what Vasari prescribed, are the different reactions of people to the storm. You can see branches and leaves bending and flying around, people drowning and many different reactions of the figures to the horrors of this disastrous flood. All this fits perfectly with the advice given by Alberti to painters in his Pictura:

“[…] ensures that we mourn with the mournful, laugh with the laughing, and grieve with the grieving. These emotions are recognized through body movements. We observe that the sorrowful, whose feelings and powers are paralyzed as they are burdened with cares and possessed by sorrow, drag themselves pale and on unsteady legs. Those who are sad have a troubled forehead, a drooping neck, and everything falls downward as if it is powerless and neglected. […] I would call a presentation very abundant if, in the right place, old men, grown-up guys, young lads, children, mothers, girls, babies, cattle, puppies, birds, horses, sheep, buildings, and activities are present together; I will praise every excess as long as it aligns with the subject. Because it is such that if the spectators stand still to observe the details, then the painter’s excess earns appreciation. I would like to see this excess adorned with some variety, but serious and moderated by dignity and truthfulness.” Cited and translated from: Alberti, L.B., ‘Over de schilderkunst,’ (vertaling Lex Hermans, Inleiding en annotaties Caroline van Eck en Robert Zwijnenberg) Boom, Amsterdam Meppel 1996 blz. 109 en 107 

Uccello Uccello The Flood detail: 'Dante figure'
photos: Richard Mortel

‘Dante figure’

The proportions of the Ark correspond to those described in the Bible (Genesis 6:13). This also applies to the location of the light opening. The strange ‘Dante figure‘ is certainly not Noah, but who he actually is, remains unknown. He holds his hands in a praying gesture. Is he begging for an end of the flood? As early as the seventeenth century, the frescoes were in bad condition. The used technique, tempera in which large areas are painted a secco, is of course also responsible for this. In addition, for some time after 1853, there were feeding troughs for horses near the bottom of the wall surface. In 1903 the frescoes were removed from the wall. During this process, two more sinopias were discovered. Unfortunately, one of these underdrawings. disappeared in 1909. It is not known whether Uccello used cartons.

Continuation Florence day 5: Lippi, Filippino and the Strozzi Chapel (Santa Croce)