Friday, November 8, 2013

Renaissance perspective: Sandro Botticelli, Paolo Uccello, Piero della Francesca, and Leonardo da Vinci

Besides aesthetics, art history involves much detective work, as well as a keen knowledge of history itself. All of those elements are present in the "Private Life of a Masterpiece" DVD series. I watched the exceptionally rich collection devoted to Italian Renaissance painters and can't wait to view the other three. As one of the commentators remarks, "it was an age when image making was almost a magical process." It was also an age when artists' study and application of perspective (particularly by Leonardo, Uccello, and della Francesca) made viewers feel that they were personally immersed in a scene. All of these large paintings portray the figures within them near life size.
The ownership and original placement of two of the masterworks profiled—Sandro Botticelli's La Primavera (above) and Paolo Uccello's The Battle of San Romano—were discovered in Florentine archives relatively recently. Both were wedding gifts and were hung in bridal chambers. (The marriages were arranged in both instances, as was the norm.)
Male–female pulchritude and the incredible diaphanous effects showing Botticelli's mastery of tempera. In two of the programs, modern-day artists demonstrate the slow and laborious technique of egg tempera painting on fresco used by Botticelli and della Francesca. It was an unforgiving medium, and correcting mistakes was difficult—but the results were splendid.
The Botticelli belonged to a Medici youth and the Uccello to a member of the Lionardi Bartolini Salimbene family (although it was eventually appropriated by Lorenzo de Medici; more on that later). Among its many attributes, the Primavera evokes the fecundity of nature and the epitome of physical beauty, both female and male. Venus, the goddess of love, is depicted in a natural arch—a typical placement of the Virgin and Christ Child (one the most popular subjects of the era, along with the Crucifixion). The work would have been meant to have been viewed from below, and its tapestry-like qualities would have made it consonant with wall hangings and with the ornately decorated chests the Medici favored.
Paolo Uccello created his depiction of a decisive battle between Florence and Milan as three panels, showing the events of one day. Commissioned for a vaulted room, the panels originally had arched tops, so that the sky over the mountains would have completed the scene. Lorenzo de Medici cut them off, however, to make them fit into the space where he wanted to put them. In 1743, the panels were bequeathed to the city of Florence, but only the middle one (above) was displayed in the Uffizi. The outer two ended up in the hands of art dealers and eventually made their way to the Louvre and the National Gallery in London, respectively.
I wondered to myself about the un-warlike headgear, but apparently the general was going for the element of surprise and didn't wait to put on his helmet. Below, a detail of the London panel and a completion by Leo Stevenson of the left panel as it might have looked originally.

Piero della Francesca's compelling Resurrection (circa 1463) has long been a fixture in the town hall of Sansepolcro in Tuscany and an object of pilgrimage for visitors from around the world. The image is the official icon for the village, and a special window has been created so that it can be viewed from outside at all times. It was famously saved from bombing during World War II by an astute British officer who had read about the work in a book by Aldous Huxley (who called it "the most beautiful painting in the world"). Ironically, the town itself nearly did away with the masterpiece several centuries after it was completed by plastering over it. (Such are the vagaries of art appreciation!) Della Francesca worked like mad on his perspective to get the illusion of depth from the flat surface and to create an aura of timeless immanence in the unprecedented portrayal of the risen Savior. (It was also positioned to be looked at from below.)
Besides art experts of many nationalities, the programs include cultural figures such as Camille Paglia (who talks about the pre-Raphaelite passion for Botticelli) and botanists (who discuss the hundreds of flowers in Primavera and their significances). In the program on Leonardo, drama students make a live tableau to demonstrate the revolutionary emotive groupings he created for his version of the Last Supper. Only one drawing (below) remains to show how he worked to conceptualize it. (Previously, the apostles and Christ had been all lined up in a row, with Judas occasionally on the other side of the table.)

Above: The Last Supper, detail; the painting in situ—the rear wall of the refectory in the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery in Milan. (Carlo Ferraro/Corbis)


  1. This post is wonderful, particularly the shot of The Last Supper in place, so I know how it would appear if I ever get there.
    Vasari tells me Paolo Uccello (Paolo of the Birds) got his nickname from his love of birds and other animals. He was too poor to keep pets, so he covered his home with paintings of cats, dogs, birds, and any animals he could find in drawings.
    The sleeping soldier in brown is alleged to be a self-portrait of Piero Della Francesca, whose studies on mathematics and perspective distinguished him, says Vasari, as the foremost geometrician of his time.
    Botticelli stopped painting when he became a disciple of Savonarola. As a result, he nearly starved to death in old age, save for the help of Lorenzo de Medici.
    My thanks to the British soldier who stopped the bombing so that The Resurrection would survive unscathed! Art appreciation has its benefits.

  2. Warhol had his 15 mintues of fame; now art lovers have only 15 minutes to gape at masterpieces like the Last Supper and the Sistine Chapel (after standing in line for hours). The program did say that the soldier is a self-portrait. Poor Botticelli ... I cringe and moan when I think of more transcendently beautiful paintings being consumed by Savonarola's bonfires.

  3. I absolutely love books which feature well-done reproductions of paintings. When I visited Italy, there was art at every corner, and being a photo junkie, I wanted to take pictures of EVERYthing. Unfortunately, from a conservation standpoint, this is not good for many paintings and most places restrict photography. It was exceptionally painful being inside the Sistine Chapel and not being able to take any pictures (Michelangelo is one of my favorite artists.) The solution, I bought a well produced book from a gift store which had page sized reproductions of Michelangelo's work (The Sistine Chapel took two pages.) This is great because, although I like to pretend I am an expert photographer, the pictures are better better quality of what I could have done and I get to take the artwork home with me. Daedalus has many such books filled with art this holiday season that I plan on purchasing.