The painting in the Santa Maria Novella 5/11

The work of Paolo Uccello in Chiostro Verde 1/1

Paolo Uccello detail of ‘Five famous men’ c. 1500-1565

‘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.118 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.

Bay with frescoes by Uccello Chiostro Verde Santa Maria Novella large size
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Chiostro verde Santa Maria Novella Uccello courtyard

On the right, at the second and fourth bays, you will find the frescoes of Uccello. 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.

Paolo Uccello ‘Creation of  Adam and Eva’
Uccello 'Creation of  Adam and Eva' Chiostro Verde Santa Maria Novella

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.

Uccello ‘Creation of the Animals and the Creation of Adam’ c. 1424-1425
perspective drawing with vanishing point
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Uccello 'Creation of the Animals and the Creation of Adam' c. 1424-1425 Chiostro Verde Santa Maria Novella

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.

The Creation of Adam and Eve and the Fall

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.119

Uccello ‘The Fall’ c. 1424-1425 Masolino c. 1425
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Uccello 'The Fall' c. 1424-1425 Chiostro Verde Santa Maria Novella

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.120 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 Creation of Adam: Ghiberti en  Uccello
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Ghiberti 'The Creation of Adam' Baptistery

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.

Uccello 'Expulsion from Paradise' Chiostro Verde Santa Maria Novella

The Flood and the Sacrifice and Drunkenness of Noah

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 1447.121

Uccello Chiostro Verde large size
Uccello Chiostro Verde fresco

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:

‘‘[…] in this scene, he rendered the dead bodies, the storm at sea, the fury of the winds, the flashes of lightning, the uprooting of trees, and the terror of the men with such great pains, artistry, and diligence that it can hardly be described. And in perspective, he painted a foreshortened dead body with a crow pecking out its eyes, and a drowned child whose body, bloated with water, forms a large arch. He also depicted in this work a variety of human emotions; for example, two men who are fighting on horseback with little fear of the water […] As usual, he diminished his figures by means of lines in perspective, and he painted mazzocchi and other things in this work which are certainly very beautiful.’

‘[…] Similarly, he painted in perspective a wine-cask curving around on every side [about Noah’s Drunkenness], which was considered very beautiful, as well as a trellis full of grapes, whose lattice-work of squared timbers diminishes towards a vanishing point. But here Paolo made a mistake, for the diminishing lines on the lower plane, where the feet of the figures are placed, go along the lines of the trellis, and those of the wine-cask do not follow the same receding lines. I am truly astonished that such an accurate and careful painter could make such an obvious mistake.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Lives of the Artists’, trans. J.C. Bondanella and P.E. Bondanella, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, part II p. 79 (original edition 1568).

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

The Flood, Noah’s Sacrifice and His Drunkenness perspective: two vanishing points
After thee restauration 2016     The Flood
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Uccello 'The Flood, Noah's Sacrifice and His Drunkenness' Chiostro verde Santa Maria Novella zondvloed

 

Donatello ‘The Miracle of the Repentant Son’ c. 1446 Sant’Antonio Padua large size
Donatello 'The Miracle of the Repentant Son' c. 1446 Sant'Antonio Padua

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.122

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.123The 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.124

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:

‘Nature provides […] that we mourn with the mourners, laugh with those who laugh, and grieve with the grief-stricken. Yet these feelings are known from movements of the body. We see how the melancholy, preoccupied with cares and beset by grief, lack all vitality of feeling and action, and remain sluggish, their limbs unsteady and drained of colour. In those who mourn, the brow is weighed down, the neck bent, and every part of their body droops as though weary and past care.’ [..] ‘I would say a picture was richly varied if it contained a properly arranged mixture of old men, youths, boys, matrons, maidens, children, domestic animals, dogs, birds, horses, sheep, buildings and provinces; and I would praise any great variety, provided it is appropriate to what is going on in the picture. When the spectators dwell on observing all the details, then the painter’s richness will acquire favour. But I would have this abundance not only furnished with variety, but restrained and full of dignity and modesty.’

Leon Battista Alberti, ‘On Painting’, trans. Cecil Grayson, Penguin Books, London 1991, book 2, 40-41, pp. 78-79  (original edition 1435).

The Flood and the Recession of Water two details
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Uccello The Flood and the Recession of Water Chiostro verde Santa Maria Novellaa

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 1909.125 It is not known whether Uccello used cartons.

Restoration of Uccello’s frescoes in Chiostro Verde 2016
Restoration of Uccello's frescoes in Chiostro Verde 2016

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