It was a scorching summer day on June 1, 1432 on the outskirts of the Italian village, San Romano. The men clashing in a deafening sound of shields, swords and hooves – fully suited in armor – could literally roast alive. It was chaos. The opponents were city states. Florence vs. Milan and Siena. The armies were predominated by soldiers of fortune. The battle lasted for several hours, and as the swords thrust into chests and lances broke asunder, the melee finally gave way to the Florentines. The day had been won. But history was not going to forget this scorching battle. A couple years after the bloodshed, Uccello would be commissioned by a Florentine banker to create the triptych. It was going to be hung – out of all places – in his bed chamber. Eventually, the paintings were stolen and badly mistreated by an Italian Godfather of sorts. In those hands they would loiter in obscurity until the paintings were brought to public attention centuries later, but soon divided up and dispatched to three different European cities. They have never been seen together since.
The “Battle of San Romano” is a favorite triptych of mine. It is a thunderous avalanche of Renaissance chivalry. I can never quite get over how exuberant a portrayal this is of warfare in comparison to other works. Nowadays, it is extremely unfashionable to depict combat in such fervent belief. However, this was the Renaissance. Romanticism was never out of sight. The panels may seem like a boys-own adventure, but don’t mistake the masterly status as idealistic blindness. The paintings glimmer with some radiance, not necessarily a quality known to war paintings, especially when one compares this to the stark black and white of Picasso’s “Guernica,” or Goya’s apocalyptic darkness in “The Third of May.” The mind behind these sumptuous canvases was Paolo Uccello. A distinguished Italian artist with these three panels being his crowning achievement. And they are, quite simply, near cinematic dynamite.
“The Battle of San Romano” does comes across as a claustrophobic, chaotic melee. This may seem all too intimidating to the viewer. But it shouldn’t be. I’m convinced that the “Battle of San Romano” does not push the viewer to oblivion with a disdain for warfare. One is not left with a sick stomach after being subjected to a ruinous part of humanity. Goya, Picasso and Nash did that so well that one does not need to be riddled with that feeling. Here though, one is impressed by the thrill. It’s like Michael Curtiz meets egg tempera (the medium of the works). I can readily imagine this as a smashing Hollywood blockbuster from the 1930’s, with the same charm and the same rambunctious action, that does indeed give it a campy feel in a way. Though in the end, it is definitely that pulsating color that gives a ceaseless lift to me. After being so used to darkness being used for indeed a dark moral matter that is warfare,”The Battle of San Romano” does restore some naive, innocent notion that battles can look enthralling. It reminds me of Tennyson’s electrifying poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” In these three panels, the anti-war message of Wilfred Owen does not fit into the picture at all.
“The Battle of San Romano” possesses a capacity for ordered madness that not even Pollock could dream up. There is something to be said for the skill of the painting itself. Uccello was going into artistic no man’s land. And he did it solely through obsession. Linear perspective was his source of passion in these paintings. At this point in time (1440’s), perspective had really started to come in vogue in early Italian Renaissance artworks. Artists were simply crazed by the possibility of a geometrical precision. Art had witnessed a dramatic change, maybe comparable to the introduction of sound to film. Due to the depth of perspective, paintings became more believable. Uccello was one of the first to prominently use this method to bring order to a scene which is completely devoid of sanity. What is interesting though is that the perspective could have been even better. The panels seem to have this claustrophobic feel to them that may or may not detract from the paintings, but originally this feel was not the case. In the beginning of their history they were arched paintings, but the reader will hopefully remember that Italian Godfather I mentioned earlier. Apparently, when he stole the paintings they did not fit well into his bed chamber quite right. He decided to employ the services of one of his henchmen in cutting off the arches to the paintings. Thus altering the original look to the artworks. It is a sad calamity, but no doubt reaffirms the selfishness of some people when it comes to art.
Uccello is such an endearing painter, embodying the romance and the scientific of the Renaissance, yet such an underrated artist even today. As much as the art-goers of London, Paris and Florence much cherish their three separate panels, one can tell that these works take the backseat in comparison to the giants of war tributes that we know today. I feel that the recognition of our “realistic” masterpieces today has come at a cost. It has become so popular today to strangle the enjoyment out of any depiction of war that, unless it has blood and guts galore in the typical Saving Private Ryan, Tarantino fashion or ponders the evil of it, one would fear to be ridiculed for holding Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano” in high esteem. Some of the public and faux critics would rather worship “the reality” of war, that they would not find the visual innocence – or dare I say it, the enchantment of Uccello’s paintings – at all appealing. People will become dulled by the reality sooner or later, and a viewer such as I would want a different stylistic take on war. It’s just to me, romanticism – think of the Blimp character in the Powell and Pressburger film, an archaic bumbler that still believes in honor in war – is more palpable to me than the realism of warfare. Even after reading the poems of Wilfred Owen, I’m more detached and his vision incomprehensible to my eyes, which I guess is the whole point of war to one who hasn’t seen it. Which is why I find the realism of some art works insufferable, because it is making the viewer morally obligated than out of anything. “The Third of May” is still a great painting and so is “Guernica.” The thing is, the artists had seen the damage. Uccello didn’t, which makes him more accessible to a modern viewer like myself.
Yet no popular artist really seems to be concerned with taking a different angle. There should be no wonder why. Contemporary popular artists tend to distance themselves from the subject of war. Artists such as Hirst and Koons continue the legacy of Warhol in that art can be a business, and a loathsome one at that. Art is all about the money (Warhol admitted as much) and different war paintings are not in fashion. Christie’s, Sotheby’s and even the box office is the real measure of “art” today. In the mainstream, there is no space for the innovator. One would have to search through the dreck to find the gold. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, which makes me feel elated to think that I will be able to look in the future at the good, and not the ugly and the downright bad of today’s commercial “masterpieces.”