Paolo Uccello's "gran et bel facto darme". The Battle of San Romano

The Battle of San Romano is perhaps the most famous work by Paolo Uccello (Paolo di Dono; Florence, 1397 - 1475). The cycle consists of three panels, preserved in three different museim, and recounts a darmi event of 1432: the battle fought at San Romano between the Florentines and the Sienese.

San Romano, June 1, 1432. In this plain, between Montopoli and Pontedera, took place the gran et bel facto darme, in the words of the chronicler Guerriero da Gubbio, which did not have a decisive effect in the war that had been opposing Florence to Lucca and its allies for three years, but which had the power, in a moment of difficulty for the lily city, to raise its spirits and then gave Paolo Uccello the opportunity to paint his masterpiece.

Various sources speak of a battle that lasted more than eight hours, from morning to sunset, involving, for the Florentine side captained by Niccolò Mauruzzi da Tolentino, some 2,000 horsemen and 1,500 infantrymen, while the enemy front was made up of a larger force of Sienese militia, Genoese, Visconti, and Imperial, led by Alberico da Barbiano, Bernardino Ubaldini della Carda (until recently at the head of the Florentine Republic’s army, but unexpectedly switched to the opposing side), and Antonio Petrucci. Giovanni Cavalcanti speaks of a “great and terrible brawl,” made deafening by the clangor of weapons: “the bursting of lances, and the hammering of swords, and the knocking of horses, the earth with the air made a change of it.” The day was not looking good at all for the Florentines, but at sunset it was the providential intervention of Micheletto da Cotignola, called to the rescue from Tolentino, that unexpectedly turned the tide of the clash.

For a long time, the three panels by Paolo Uccello now on display in the Uffizi Gallery, the National Gallery in London and the Musée du Louvre were thought to be the result of Medici commissioning, mainly by virtue of the fact that in 1492, on the eve of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s death, they were in the Medici Palace in Florence. Research conducted some 20 years ago by Francesco Caglioti revealed a very different story, which we might calllaffaire Bartolini Salimbeni. Today we know how in 1483 the brothers Andrea and Damiano Bartolini Salimbeni, members of one of the city’s most prominent families, had brought the works, inherited from their father Lionardo, to their country villa in Santa Maria a Quinto. The aforementioned Lorenzo de Medici had obtained half of the ownership of the trio of paintings from Andrea, while Damiano was adamant that he would not relinquish his share, despite attempts made to persuade him to give it up. The latter’s determination had driven Lorenzo to a decisive gesture: one of his emissaries, known as Francione, had been sent to Damiano’s Florentine abode, where the latter had taken the three paintings, fearing that they would be taken against his will. We know all this background thanks to a document from 1495, from which we learn how Damiano himself had previously made a request for the return of the Battles, which must therefore have been taken from him. At a time when the Medici had been exiled from Florence, the same deed stipulated about the restitution to Damiano of half the property, with the right to purchase the other, following the recent death of his brother.

Paolo Uccello, La Battaglia di San Romano, Niccolò da Tolentino alla testa dei fiorentini (1438-1440 circa; tempera su tavola, 182 x 320 cm; Londra, National Gallery)
Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano, Niccolò da Tolentino at the Head of the Florentines (c. 1438-1440; tempera on panel, 182 x 320 cm; London, National Gallery)
Paolo Uccello, La Battaglia di San Romano, Il disarcionamento di Bernardino della Carda (1438-1440 circa; tempera su tavola, 182 x 323 cm; Firenze, Galleria degli Uffizi)
Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano, The Unseating of Bernardino della Carda (c. 1438-1440; tempera on panel, 182 x 323 cm; Florence, Uffizi Gallery)
Paolo Uccello, La Battaglia di San Romano, L’intervento di Micheletto da Cotignola (1438- 1440 circa; tempera su tavola, 182 x 317 cm; Parigi, Louvre)
Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano, The Intervention of Micheletto da Cotignola (c. 1438- 1440; tempera on panel, 182 x 317 cm; Paris, Louvre)

Where, then, did the three panels of the Battle of San Romano come from? Verisimilarly their patron was the aforementioned Lionardo di Bartolomeo Bartolini Salimbeni (1404 1479), whom we know from other episodes of patronage of the arts in Florence: lanalysis of the style leads to the late 1430s, and this coincides with a focal moment in the character’s life, which was his marriage to Maddalena di Giovanni Baroncelli in 1438, an occasion that must have led to the embellishment of the palazzo in which the couple would live, located near the church of Santa Trinita. In the Great Chamber of this building a deed of 1480 documents the presence of Niccholò Piccinino’s Rotta, which can be recognized in the Uccellesco cycle, since the same subject is the one mentioned in the above-mentioned resolution of 1495. Originally, the paintings did not exhibit the rectangular format we see today, but closed at the top with an arched profile, consistent with their destination in a room covered by vaults and thus with walls interrupted by lunettes, within which the panels were set: not as gems in a gallery of paintings, as would have been the case in the arrangement later created by Lorenzo the Magnificent in his palace, but as elements of domestic furnishings, in a manner not very dissimilar to the image that other residences of the Florentine upper middle class might have had. The tampering on the supports is the consequence of the various movements to which, as mentioned, the panels were subjected.

The choice of the artist to whom to entrust the commission fell to Paolo Uccello probably because a few years earlier he had proved, in an undertaking of such prestige and public impact as the frescoing of the Monument to Giovanni Acuto in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (one of the manifestos in painting, of Florentine humanism), of representing with the dignity of the ancients a celebrated man darme such as had been the condottiere already in the service of the Republic, comparable to those Niccolò da Tolentino or Micheletto da Cotignola who had been honored protagonists of the Battle of San Romano.

The interpretation of the subjects illustrated in the cycle is not unambiguous. We are wont to read them starting with the London panel, in which Niccolò da Tolentino, at the head of the Florentine militia, moves battle to the opposing front, while in the background appear, in addition to some infantrymen grappling with pikes and crossbows, two soldiers fleeing into the distance, who may be the emissaries sent to Micheletto da Cotignola. The second element of the series, best known to us, is that of the Uffizi, the only one to contain, by way of heraldic decoration of the shield placed in the left corner, the signature PAULI UGIELI OPUS. It celebrates the defeat of the army opposed to the Florentines, with a condottiere (usually identified as Bernardino Ubaldini della Carda) being unseated by a long horizontal spear that also cleaves the painting in half. The third panel of the triptych, now in the Louvre, is recognized as the decisive moment for the fate of the clash, with the lirruzione of Cotignola and his armies, which would have routed the enemy force. The tone of these paintings parallels the dellepicstyle of late medieval literature, from chansons de geste to chivalric novels, which must have been still alive in both secular culture and the visual sensibility of the early Renaissance. The idea of the tussle is made evident by the harnessing of militiamen, the interlocking of spears, the array of weapons and armor (mostly executed with metal foils), and the colorful assemblage of banners and standards, but there are few traces of blood. Everything appears more like a depiction of a tournament, over which a sense of metaphysics and abstraction dominates. Uccello even seems to take pleasure in the wooden models he has likely used to study the horses’ lanatomy: not only do the movements or the bolted motion always maintain a static evidence, but where the animals have collapsed to the ground, as noted in the very close-up of the Uffizi episode, it is like seeing the horses of the merry-go-rounds, disassembled from the mechanical frame that kept them standing and abandoned as useless toys. Also left on the ground as relics of battle are the shields, the pieces of armor resembling out-of-use contraptions, and likewise the reclining soldiers, elements of a still life that have otherwise become useful in the creation of the perspective grid, no less than the grid of broken pikes or the squares of turf, directed toward a central point of view that comes to delimit a veritable chessboard of geometric directrices. Epic more playful and intellectual than realistic.

Paul’slesprit de géométrie expresses itself, again with intentions of sublime abstraction, in the creation of bunches resembling faceted prisms, hoisted on the heads of some knights, in the Battle of the Uffizi. This type of headgear, typical of early fifteenth-century Florence, is transformed by the painter into a virtuously foreshortened polyhedron, obviously implausible in the context of a real clash, but consonant with the intellectual attitudes of the Uccellesque vision. On this side, a bridge connects the artist to Piero della Francesca, who precisely in the perspective Florence headed by masters such as Paolo Uccello had carried out his training: with their protagonists caught in acts and movements suspended beyond the dimension of time, the colorful inlay of cubic forms, the two battle scenes in the cycle of the True Cross in San Francesco in Arezzo could not exist without the precedent of those commented on here.

As we know him today and from what Giorgio Vasari narrates, Paolo was primarily known at the time as a fresco painter, less so as a painter on panel, especially in the large format. With their considerable size, the three episodes of the San Romano tussle therefore constitute a significant exception, since they are moreover the highest example, in the field of fifteenth-century panel painting, in the illustration of the battle theme. But they are also the foundation of their author’s modern fortune. It was only in the climate of the Avant-gardes that the extraordinary rediscovery of Paul took place in the culture, not only Italian, of the twentieth century, thanks to the stances taken by intellectuals and artists, from Schwob to Picasso, from Soffici to Carrà and De Chirico, all the way to the horsemen immobilized on the ground rendered by some impressive frames of the film Lancelot du Lac (1974) by Robert Bresson.

This contribution was originally published in No. 6 of our print magazine Windows on Art Magazine. Click here to subscribe.