It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Norris Kelly Smith : An Eccentric Stance

Paolo Uccello, "The Deluge"

Obviously, Norris Kelly Smith,
like everyone else
who is interested in Renaissance perspective,
is fascinated by Uccello,
so he brings him back on stage
and gives him
his own chapter.

And none of Uccello's works
are more fascinating than the "Deluge"
which seems to defy interpretation.

Who is that big guy
strolling towards stage right?

Two scholars of this piece (Mario Salmi and Pope-Hennessey)
ignore him altogether,
while two others (Boeck and Enio Sindona)
call him a "praying man",
and M.L. Gengaro identifies him as "Noah"
but does not explain why he
does not resemble the bearded Noah
who is emerging from a window in the ark.

Smith has the intriguing notion
that Uccello was responding to this biblical passage
that begins the story of Noah
by explaining the great wickedness in the world:

“Gigantes autem erant super terram in diebus illis.
Postquam enim ingressi filii Dei ad filias hominum, illaeque generunt, isti sunt potentes a saeculo viri famosi” (Gen. 6:4)

And then Smith notes that Uccello
had recently painted the above series of "Viri Famosi" in Rome
(depending upon how one dates his paintings)

Was that large, central figure in the "Deluge" intended to be one those "vir famosi" ?

The gesture that the giant is making with his right hand is surely not one of prayer but of defiant rejection. He turns his back upon the closed and fortress-like ark on the left, symbol of the inscrutability of divine judgment (what of the little boy who lies dead and bloated at the man’s feet—did he deserve to die?), and he turns his face away from Noah and Noah’s kind of salvation on the other side. He has no recourse to sword or cudgel. nor does he strip himself naked and climb into a barrel in order to save his own skin, as does the poor frightened man behind him. Finding God’s justice to be incomprehensible, he stands his ground with stoical calm and accepts his fate, though declaring to the end, in the manner of Job, that he has done nothing to deserve annihilation.

I find this
a quite compelling

"Plainly Uccello was taking his stand which may or may not have been that of his patron) with regard to an ethical problem that lay at the very heart of quattrocento humanism: the relation of the Pursuit of personal fame and glory to Judeo-Christian ethics. Once more we are brought back to the polarity between the secular and the sacred, the Town Hall and the Baptistery, the temporal and the eternal"

Although one may note
that this kind of "taking a stand"
has nothing to do
with the point-of-view
by a system of linear perspective.

Smith then considers
this version of St. George and the Dragon where

"the character of the image derives from the utter uniqueness of Uccello’s perspectival standpoint"

By which he means Uccello's eccentric attitude towards chivalry,
rather than an Albertian grid, there being:

"no evidence of the artist’s having begun with that celebrated first step of laying out a gridiron pavement that would enable us to chart all of the relationships among figures and objects. Instead, it looks as if an incompetent gardener had been instructed to lay down squares of sod so as to provide an appropriate turf for this chivalrous performance—but had bungled the job badly."

And yet -- doesn't that "badly bungled turf"
establish a spatial relationship
among the all the figures and objects
just as sharply as tiles on the pavement
might have done?

Rogier Van der Weyden

Here's the same scene
with no grid at all,
and the poor damsel,
as well as the cave,
appears to float in the background.

More than that,
Uccello's grid
makes the pictorial stage
feel more like a public square
and less like a dreamy vision.

Smith also suggests that the damsel
is using the dragon
to lure a foolish knight,
but I'd say that the lure
is her own elegant self,
and the dragon is the barrier
that protects every healthy personality.

So this looks like European sexual courtship to me,
with a very ugly monster set between
the yonic cave and the phallic lance.

(In the Chinese version,
the ugly monster appears
after the lance has entered the cave)

Here's a close up of the knight.

How beautifully
crisp and sparkling
is the 15th C. Italian world.

And here's a delicious detail
from Uccello's other version
of St. George.

We need to remember
that it's the aesthetic joy
rather than the narrative wit
that has kept these paintings
in the history of art.

There's kind of a grid
in those receding fields,
but the lines are following
a sense of design
rather than some rules of geometry.

Notice that there's no skulls/bones
in that dragon's lair.

It more closely resembles
something like a bower
in a romantic palatial garden.

And this courtship has advanced
to the point
where the dragon
is about to be dispatched
just as the lance is pointed
directly at m'lady's womb.

I think that Smith is wrong
to consider either one of these versions
to be exemplary of "an eccentric stance"

Battle of San Romano, Uffizi

Now the discussion turns
to those three famous paintings
that depict the Battle of San Romano.

Which also gives us the opportunity
to compare the web galleries
of the those three famous art museums
that hold them.

And the Uffizi wins hands down,
since it is the only one of three
to sign up for the Google Art Project
which has happily included its San Romano
in its virtual gallery.

What delicious details!

Smith mentions the one shown above
which he says shows a
rabbit chasing a dog chasing a rabbit,
thus exemplifying Uccello's sarcastic view
of the kind of pseudo-battles
fought by the mercenary armies of the day.

and Smith would have us note
the headgear of some combatants
which seems more
fashionable than martial

Battle of San Romano, National Gallery, London

Here's the best head gear of all.

Battle of San Romano, Louvre

I was a bit surprised
that the Louvre
comes up last in this comparision,
since it's done such a good job
of offering big, multiple views of sculpture.

But there's also a conservation issue
with this piece
since all the silver leaf has been tarnished,
and what once must have been glorious
now appears a bit shabby.

But still
it's magnificent.

Though Smith is getting
a more sarcastic message:

"Renaissance warfare was a good deal deadlier and more destructive than Machiavelli pretended; nevertheless, the conventional practice of the art of war as it was conducted in Italy in the fifteenth century was manifestly open to ridicule."

"When he chose to make Niccolo da Tolentino and his mercenaries look like dolls astride toy horses, he must surely have meant precisely that: that these men were not uomini famosi, that their battling was only a carefully controlled game.
are reported to have died."

We see only a sham battle, devoid of all sense of dramatic destiny, a battle that is shown to be fought mainly by men who have no faces, no eyes, no capacity for intelligent thought.

"Uccello’s battle is quite literally bloodless. Of the seventy spears he has represented, sixty-four are carried vertically, as by knights on parade, six are shown to be lowered in combat position, and only two make contact with an adversary. The fallen cavalrymen in the Uffizi panel look like chess pieces that have been carelessly knocked over; the four crossbows that figure so prominently are pointed toward the sky, as if they were trumpets rather than weapons."


These knights are on parade
as they should be on the walls of a palazzo.

Isn't it possible that the noble patrons
(the upstart Medici)
wanted to portray themselves as
elegant rather than ferocious
to the important people
who visited them?

Perhaps if Smith
were more taken
by the rich, voluptuous design
he would see these paintings
as something more like jewelry
and less like historical documentary.

And he would less concerned
with the exactiude of
the Albertian grid:

"Much has been written about the broken spears that are said to have fallen into an Albertian grid on the ground, revealing once more Uccello’s obsession with the wonders of the costruzione. In fact, the orthogonal spears do not come at all close to defining a single-point construction. They are like the haphazardly placed squares of sod in St. George and the Dragon and similar squares in the Louvre Rout of San Rornano panel, all of which mock the very idea that there is some intelligible principle of order that might make these scenes accessible to rational understanding."

The intelligible principle of order
is quite undisturbed by
deviations from geometric perfection.

We have a stage,
we have a foreground,
we have a background,
we have a very clear sense
of how well the costumes were made.

The elements of a grid
make it feel more like
a public square
than the dream world
suggested by the flatness
of a tapestry.

And the stance which
the Medici are taking is:

"Here we are,
aren't we elegant,
don't we deserve to be here?"


Let me return for a moment to Erich Auerbach’s comparison of a passage from the Odyssey with the story of Abraham’s sacrifice from the book of Genesis. He observes that the latter is “oriented toward truth” in an altogether different way from the former. The protracted adventures of Homer’s hero constitute a good story, but the events remain essentially external both to us and to Odysseus himself, who is not changed by anything that befalls him. We are invited to witness events that take place in the immediate foreground. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, on the other hand, Auerbach finds the events to be “fraught with background,” even though no object or person is described and only a minimal number of words are exchanged. “The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected, we are rebels.

We can discern a similar contrast when we compare the imagery of the Limbourg brothers, Lorenzo Monaco, and Benozzo Gozzoli with that of Masaccio, Donatello, and Van Eyck.

Having shown that Uccello was Biblical rather than Homeric
in his "Deluge", Smith assumes that he will also be
a demanding teacher in the "Battle of San Romano"

But wouldn't their intended locations,
the one for a church,
the other for a palazzo,
allow for a significant difference?

In painting The Deluge Uccello was declaring, in effect, “Here is where I take my stand, bearing witness to a truth on the validity of which I am prepared to stake my integrity as a man.” When it came to dealing with The Sacrifice and Drunkenness of Noah he could discover no ethical issue he might address himself to, wherefore the paintings seem hopelessly pedestrian in comparison with The Deluge, even though they are rendered in the same “style.” The situation he faced in dealing with the Rout of San Romano was altogether different, for in that case he was convinced, it would seem, that neither the event itself nor his patron’s attitude toward the event was “oriented toward truth.” It was a matter of uncommonly good luck that he should have been able to paint the battle scenes in a manner that pleased his patron and at the same time allowed him to make clear that the battle was not to be taken seriously. It should not surprise us, and it probably did not surprise him, that such commissions were few and far between.

Who can account for taste?

It should not surprise us
that anyone's commissions
are few and far between,
either now,
or 500 years ago.

Bearing all these things in mind, we can see how grievous a distortion Vasari perpetrated by picturing Uccello as having been fanatically obsessed with the mechanics of perspectival rendering. Perhaps during the long periods when he waited for a good commission to come along, he whiled away his time by making ingenious constructions such as the faceted chalice or the seventy-two-sided polyhedron (now lost). But those inventions had nothing whatever to do with his standpoint. For some reason, perhaps because of his temperament, the challenging commissions were not given him. Certainly he cannot have taken seriously the repellent little story that he had to illustrate in The Desecration of the Host toward the end of his life, probably in order to keep bread on the table. Little wonder that, as in the battle scenes, he should have resorted to using puppellike figures on an artificially shallow foreground stage and beneath a black sky, in a world without sunlight. He, at least, knew how severe were the demands that the new perspective imposed upon an artist.

Why couldn't Uccello
have been fascinated by perspective
as well as by the moral implications
of the stories he was telling?

And if his first priority
were not to making things look beautiful,
how could he have been so successful
in doing so?

But now,
let's take a look
at this hateful
anti-Semitic fantasy
painted near the end of his life.

Did Uccello
make this
just to raise
a little badly needed cash?

was he "taking a stand"
here as well?

Must our answer
depend upon whether
we would take that same stand as well?

(BTW - I think the above panel
is the most delightful,
even if it does
show my Jewish ancestors
cowering in fear
from the righteous anger
of their bloodthirsty Christian neighbors.)

Who is getting hauled off by the devils
and the angels with black wings?

Is that the vendor
in scene one
who sold the host
to the hated Jewess?

Or... is it the civil authority
who gave his blessing
to burning some innocent Jews?

Admiring Uccello,
I prefer to think the latter.

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