CASTAGNO'S NICCOLO DA TOLENTINO
In the last blog we talked about Uccello's fresco of the condottiere John Hawkwood (1436) in the
Florentine Cathedral aisle. To the left on the same wall, and twenty years later, in 1456, Andrea del Castagno (1419-1457) painted a fresco
of another condottiere, Niccolo da Tolentino.
equestrian statue over a bier standing in for an actual funerary monument for the condottiere (general of a private army.) Niccolo Mauruzi da Tolentino lived from 1350 to 1435 and is buried beneath the fresco in the church.
marble, and the bier beneath made of the same material.
have an ancient precedent:
HIC QVEM SVBLIMEM IN EQVO
PICTVM CERNIS NICOLAVS TOLENTINAS
EST INCLITVS DVX FLORENTINI EXERCITVS.
LATIN more familiar to us today:
HIC QUEM SUBLIMEM IN EQUO
PICTUM CERNIS NICOLAUS TOLENTINAS
EST INCLITUS DUX FLORENTINI EXERCITUS.
ENGLISH translation (mine):
Here you can see painted high above on horseback
Niccolo da Tolentino,
Honored Leader of the Florentine Army.
The bier has two bookend fictive marble soldiers, each holding a coat-of-arms; the left
one holds that of the city of Florence, the right one, the family coat-of-arms of Niccolo.
Niccolo da Tolentino lived in a period (1350-1435) that overlapped with the life of the man painted
next to him, John Hawkwood (c. 1320-1394). Both were condottieri, men who led private armies and
made contracts (condotte) with Italian city-states to protect them with their private armies, hence the name "condottieri." Both wear the hat common to representations of condottieri in the Renaissance, a hat that was usually red but made to look like green bronze in the Uccello painting and to look like white marble in the Castagno painting. Both men had reputations for being good commanders and both were hired by the Florentine Republic to defend the city: Hawkwood, from 1377 to his death in 1394, Tolentino in 1425 and again in 1431 and 1432.
But while Hawkwood is known as an able general and city defender, a role he held during many attacks on Florence over a 17-year period, Tolentino is praised and honored by the city because of his leadership in one important battle, the Battle of San Romano in 1432. Florence in that year is in conflict with Siena, and the armies of both cities range over the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside, avoiding each other and occasionally engaging in warfare. After skirmishes and successfully hiding from each other for months, the two armies eventually meet at the town of San Romano, on the Arno River plain, halfway between Florence and Pisa. The battle lasts two days, after which both sides claim victory, the Florentines saying they won because they took more prisoners. They were grateful to the general of their forces, Niccolo da Tolentino, and when he returned to the city, he was feted in the Cathedral. He was subsequently given a state funeral when he died in 1435, and his heirs were promised a marble equestrian statue monument to him to be placed in the Cathedral. By 1456 the promise was reduced to another fictive monument painted in fresco on the wall of the Cathedral.
THREE THINGS TO NOTE ABOUT THESE TWO FRESCOES OF CONDOTTIERI:
1) STYLE DIFFERENCES
2) HORSE'S EYE
1) STYLE DIFFERENCES - The location of painted generals on horseback side by side, or back to back, on the same wall of the Florentine Cathedral left aisle makes the viewer look at them for comparison. They are the same subject, same height, similar plain color background, and similar bier structures with Latin inscriptions. The horse and riders face the same direction and the horse in each case lifts one hoof. What is different is the artist who painted them and the year they were painted.
But Uccello is still alive when Castagno paints his marble condottiere, and, in fact, had had his own
chance in the years 1438-1455
In the top panel (now in London's National Gallery) Uccello paints Niccolo as the main protagonist of the drama of the battle. Here he wears the perfunctory red hat of the condottiere while riding a white horse.
by armor and he uses a lance to thrust a Sienese opponent back on his white horse:
He does not appear in the third panel (in the Louvre), where the Florentines win the victory. The condottiere in this panel is Micheletto Attendolo, whose flag bears the unicorn, his coat-of-arms.
But perhaps because Uccello had already painted Niccolo in two of these panels, he is not commissioned to paint him in the fresco next to John Hawkwood.
If you place these condottieri side by side, however, it is clear to the viewer that Castagno
has a very different style from that of Paolo Uccello.
Uccello's interest is in perspective and wide planes of color that seem to abstract the beast and his rider, making his image staid and stiff (although perhaps more appealing to viewers today.) Castagno's interest is in movement and ornament and making his horse and rider seem alive on the plinth. He has a sculptor's feeling for the muscles and bones in the horse and rider and uses shadows to convey realistic anatomy. We see bulges on the legs and head of the horse for muscles in motion. Castagno's condottiere and horse seem to be about to ride off the plinth and into real space. The horse turns his head to look at the viewer, Niccolo's cloak flies back behind him as if caught up in the wind created by the horse moving forward, the ties on the cloak sling back behind the neck as if picked up by air, and the tail of the horse is knotted in curved sweeps of horsehair. Even the horse's trappings are lifted up in foreshortened view to give the impression that the horse and rider are in motion.
ribbons extending in S patterns next to the Latin plaque echo the ribbons of the cloak above. In
comparison the Uccello seems stiff, unyielding, and trapped in an unmoving form.
themselves, Hawkwood known for his ability to delay battle and Tolentino known for his
active role in the thwarting of the Sienese army in the battle. But it is also true that attention to anatomy, movement, and interest in ornament, along with chiselled contours for every element, are characteristics we find in any painting by Andrea del Castagno, while the need to abstract surfaces to planes of color and the reduction of hard-edged curves and corners, are characteristics of Paolo Uccello as an artist. These two paintings are perfect examples of what style is, when applied to individual artists.
Which brings us to point 2) EYE OF THE HORSE
If you look at the eye of the horse in each fresco, you will notice a great difference.
Uccello's horse looks forward in profile and ahead toward the altar in the church.
no matter where you move in front of the fresco. If you back down the aisle to the left, the eye looks
at you; if you proceed further down the aisle to the Uccello fresco, Castagno's horse's eye is
still looking at you as you move. The artist has made a connection between viewer and painter, between viewer and condottiere through the illusion of a horse who commands the prospect in front of him no matter where you stand in church. A pictorial feat that is a Renaissance coup repeated by other artists such as Mantegna later.
3) ANIMATION - The lifelike quality of the horse and his eye in the Castagno portrait brings us to the last point. Not only has Castagno made Uccello's horse and rider liven up, but he has chosen a different hoof on his horse than the hoof on Uccello's horse to lift to give the viewer a sense of animation on the walls of the Cathedral.
If you think of the horse as the same horse, the rider the same rider, the back horse in the parade
lifts his left foot, the front horse lifts his right foot; it is as though one horse is moving in dressage
mode through space along the aisle of the Cathedral, left up, right up, left right, clop, clop. It is
as though we are made as viewers to hear the sound of the animation of a single horse as it proceeds
on its way down the aisle toward the altar of the Cathedral. Castagno has purposely not repeated the
same leg lifted by the horse in the Uccello fresco. He wants us to imagine these horses moving in
sequence, like a Disney cel in animation for modern movies, as they carry their condottieri in parade dress toward the center of the Cathedral for the honors they are to receive from the city they saved from peril. The closest thing to indoor movie theater projection a Florentine could get in the 15th century.