The Art of War: Uccello and Machiavelli

Uccello Battle of San Romano

About the Artist

Paolo di Dono, an early figure in the development of perspective in Quattrocento Italian painting, was born in 1397 in Florence. He earned the nickname “Uccello” for his paintings of birds (uccelli), though it was his “intoxication” with the new science of perspective around which Vasari’s life of the artist turns. Uccello’s works include a fresco of an imagined equestrian monument to the English mercenary John Hawkwood completed in 1436 in the Florence Cathedral, and a panel including portraits of himself, Giotto, Brunelleschi, Donatello (a close friend after whom Uccello named his son), and his friend the mathematician Giovanni Manetti. Despite his associations with leading lights of the day, Vasari portrays Uccello as socially isolated, partly owing to his intense devotion to his art, dying lonely and unhappy in Florence 1475.

About the Painting

Uccello painted three panels illustrating the battle of San Romano, fought between Florence and Sienna in 1432. The panels were long thought to have been made for Lorenzo de’Medici, though recent scholarship indicates that the Bartolini Salimbeni family commissioned them between 1435 and 1460, only to have them forcibly taken by the Medici sometime after their completion. The panel depicts Niccolo Mauruzi da Tolentino’s charge against the Siennese in Florence’s victory at San Romano. The panel was bought by the British Museum in 1857; it was painted in egg tempera on a poplar panel, measuring 181.6 x 320 cm. The other panels are in the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

About the Author

The Italian Renaissance man of letters (political philosopher, poet, playwrite and musician) Niccolo Machiavelli was born in 1469 near Florence. He entered into that city’s service as an ambassador and clerk in 1494, the same year that the city expelled the long-ruling Medici family and reestablished republican government. Machiavelli served ambassadorial posts in France, Rome and notably with Cesare Borgia, one of the main subjects Machiavelli’s The Prince. Machiavelli also organized and led Florence’s militia from 1503 till 1506. In 1512, the Medici regained control of Florence, and Machiavelli was arrested and tortured on suspicion of conspiracy against them, and eventually left the city to relative penury on a small farm nearby. There he wrote The Prince (1513) and other important works, including the Art of War (published 1521), and The Discourse on the Ten Books of Titus Livy (completed by 1519, published in 1531). Machiavelli became somewhat reconciled with the Medici during the 1520s, and completed a commission for a History of Florence for them in 1525, but died in 1527 before completely regaining the Medici’s favor.

About the Book

As noted, The Prince was the first of Machiavelli’s major works (and the most notable in his legacy) in 1513, during the first year after he left Florence with the Medici’s resumption of rule. The author originally had dedicated the book, a study of effective leadership and rule of principalities (though Machiavelli’s republican sentiments are evident in places), to Giuliano de’Medici, though revised it on Giuliano’s death to address his nephew Piero di Lorenzo de’Medici (grandson of Lorenzo “the Magnificent”). Lorenzo is unlikely to have read the work however, and it was only published publicly in 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death.

Related Books and References

Vasari, “Life of Uccello”

Machiavelli, History of Florence

_________, The Prince

Griffiths, Gordon. “The Political Significance of Uccello’s Battle of San Romano.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 41 (1978): 313-316.

Starn, Randolph and Loren Partridge. “Representing War in the Renaissance: The Shield of Paolo Uccello.” Representations, No. 5 (Winter, 1984): 32-65.

War’s Lessons and Commemorations

At the start of Chapter 14 of The Prince, Machiavelli says that “A Prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules.” Apart from training to keep his troops and himself ready for battle, the Prince should “read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have borne themselves in war” and take “as an exemplar one who had been praised and famous before him.”

How might we read Uccello’s panel as an illustration of the “art of war?” Some accounts of the battle bemoan Tolentino’s charge as a blunder that almost lost the day, though others color it as an exemplary episode of courageous daring. And though Machiavelli characterizes him as a “mediocre captain,” Tolentino’s later service to Cosimo de’Medici might well explain that family’s appropriation of Uccello’s image as a prized palace adornment.

At any rate, Uccello’s panel commemorates Tolentino and his charge. But how? Are there any lessons in warfare of the kind that interested Machiavelli in Uccello’s painting? If not, how would you characterize Uccello’s painting specifically as a comment on Tolentino and the battle he engaged?

The Art of War

Uccello’s is but one of countless images that have been made of warfare. Find at least five other images of warfare to compare to Uccello’s, and compare them for what they convey about this subject. You may choose to compare images from a similar time frame as Uccello’s (roughly the 14th – 16th centuries), or from a range of times and places. A few images that may be interesting to compare with Uccello’s are Albrecht Altdorfer’s Battle of Alexander at Issus, prints from Goya’s The Horrors of War, photographs of the Spanish Civil war by Robert Capa, and/or Picasso’s Guernica,

Uccello’s Art and War

How does Uccello use his own art to depict the art – or artlessness – of war? Does the battle itself seem confused or orderly (a distinction Machiavelli had in mind in his own lessons for Princes)?

Make a diagram of Uccello’s image that captures how its space and action are structured. Consider, for example, the near foreground under the main action. How has Uccello constructed this space? Here and elsewhere, take into account how Uccello used color, shape, line and the (then new) technique of linear perspective to arrange the elements of his composition.

Does how he arranged this image give any indication as to what Uccello intended his viewers to see of war? What does studying his image’s construction do to your perception and understanding of or feelings about it?

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