Thursday, October 6, 2016



In the left aisle of the Florentine Cathedral, painted in fresco on the wall are two huge
equestrian warriors, John Hawkwood, 1436, by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475,) to the right, and Niccolo
da Tolentino, 1456, by Andrea del Castagno, here at left:
Each warrior is imagined as an
equestrian statue on a pedestal that serves as a pictorial sarcophagus.
(For our purposes
we must ignore the frames which
were painted later in 1524 by Lorenzo di Credi.)

Each is painted as if sculpture made of material other than paint. Uccello's Hawkwood is faux bronze (hence the green color) and Castagno's da Tolentino is faux marble, with the pedestal created in the same material.

While the Florentine Cathedral itself is even today a space that is meant for civic ceremony as much as religious ceremony, these painted images of warriors on horseback still seem to stand at odds with the Christian function of the church for worship. Even if we think of both these battle generals as Christian knights, the very presence of these tomb monuments to condottieri (mercenary soldiers) suggests a military purpose for a church dedicated to Mary (Santa Maria del Fiore) and used for masses to celebrate Mary's son.
          When we find out more about each of the men portrayed in these frescoes, that sense of
strangeness does not disappear.
This blog will discuss Uccello's Hawkwood. Next blog will take on Castagno's Da Tolentino.


I show two photos of the Uccello fresco because the first is good for allowing the viewer to see the Latin inscription, the second is good for the color which is closer to the original. The two coats of arms below the sarcophagus are those of John Hawkwood.  The Latin inscription identifies the man:
 LATIN on sarcophagus in painting:

                                    IOANNES ACVTVS EQVES BRITTANICVS DVX AETATIS S
                                                              PAVLI VGIELLI OPVS
Latin as we would read it today:
                                    IOANNES ACUTUS EQUES BRITTANICUS DUX AETATIS S
                                                              PAULI UGIELLI OPUS
Inscription in ENGLISH (my translation):
                                   John Hawkwood, British knight, considered in his day
                                   the most cautious leader and ablest in military strategy.
                                                             Work by Paolo Uccello 

Who was this Englishman honored in Florence with a funerary monument in the middle of
the city's Cathedral? Two good books on his life have recently been published:
Sir John Hawkwood by Steven Cooper, (2008, Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley, South Yorkshire), with many illustrations and photos, and John Hawkwood by William Caferro (Johns Hopkins, 2006), which traces documents about Hawkwood's life all over Europe. A short summary of their findings:

John Hawkwood was born in England in the little village of Sidle Hedingham around 1320.
He died in Florence, Italy, in 1394. He was a soldier of fortune, the general of a private army of
mercenary warriors from various backgrounds, many of whom were English. He began his career
as a soldier in France in the Hundred Years' War and continued into Italy following the White
Company in the service of various city-states: Pisa, Milano, and Florence. John Hawkwood is quickly
considered a great leader of his men, creates his own army separate from the White Company. He manages to survive with his band of 4,000 soldiers by marauding, by drawing up contracts with various city-states, by retreating in winter, by threatening his force against various cities, such as Perugia, Siena, Florence, Urbino, Gubbio. He is usually anti-papal and pro-Milan, but occasionally can be bought off by contracts where he agrees not to attack a city-state if he is paid in money or goods to keep his soldiers content. At the end of his life and after travelling over much of central and northern Italy he buys up property in England as if intending to return there in retirement. He marries off his daughters to other condottieri and writes a will in Florence, where he dies. His body is later taken back to Sidle Hedingham. End of short summary.

Florence feels obliged to him for keeping Milanese and papal forces away from the city
for a period of about thirty years, 1364-1394, as well as for directly working for Florence in the years
1377 to 1394. Thus it follows that the Florentine Republic gives him an elaborate funeral in the Cathedral when he dies, and then promises his heirs a bronze statue in his honor for a funerary monument in the church. His popularity and legend are so great that the funerary honor is maintained through both Albizzi and Medici governments, but as time passes, the funds for bronze diminish and eventually Paolo Uccello is commissioned to paint a substitute bronze statue on the wall of the aisle in 1436, forty-two years after Hawkwood's death.
Paolo's first idea for the fresco is rejected, perhaps this preparatory drawing made prior to the
final image:
Rather than showing the knight in direct profile, as the finished fresco does, this preparatory
drawing shows his horse slightly in 3/4 view from behind, revealing the back end of the horse.
Could this view have been objectionable to church authorities and thus changed to the direct
profile view that reveals less of the rear end?

The rider and horse are seen by the viewer as though directly on, the pedestal as though "da
sotto in su" (from below, looking up) in the finished painting. Hawkwood is caught and his motion held fast, along with that of the horse, in a sharply contoured silhouette of a general in armor, holding his general's baton as if on parade, and wearing a hat that distinguished him from his ordinary soldiers:
The closest ancient precedent would certainly have been available for Uccello to see, in Rome,
in front of the Lateran, the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (c. 2nd cent. A.D.), thought
in the Renaissance to be a statue of the first Christian emperor, Constantine:

(It should be pointed out that this statue was moved by Michelangelo in 1538 to the piazza he designed on the Capitoline Hill, but was brought indoors in 1981 to save the bronze from pollution;
a horrible plastic brown statue was substituted in its place in the middle of the Campidoglio while the
original is now in the Capitoline Museums.) Uccello could not have seen it on the Capitoline, but
he could have seen it in front of the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano.

In both the horse lifts his front right leg while the figure on its back looks forward and moves his
right arm. Aurelius is bearded, hatless,
and wears no spurs; his right arm is extended forward, either in greeting to his soldiers, or in celebration of a captured enemy body that originally might have knelt under the horse's right hoof,
as in this bas-relief of Marcus Aurelius:
But the general (no pun intended) evocation of a great Roman emperor, Constantine, would have added to the touted leadership qualities of Hawkwood spoken about in the Latin inscription painted on the sarcophagus of Uccello's fresco. We don't have any documentation of Uccello's having seen the Aurelius statue or having been to Rome, but since many artists of his period went to Rome and made drawings, (and we know he went to Venice), it is possible he had seen it or a recreation of it to rely on for his own condottiere. While his Hawkwood is not gesturing to a prisoner, he is in parade
gear as though reviewing the troops as Marcus Aurelius may be.
        One more word about the Latin inscription. It is a phrase that is directly lifted from a description on a plaque of the ancient Roman general from the 3rd cent. B.C., Fabius Maximus (280 B.C. to 203 B.C.)At the bottom of a plaque that has survived from the period, the General Fabius is said to be:
(4th row from bottom):"Dux aetatis suae cautissimus et re militaris peritissimus habitus est..."
It is this phrase which is repeated on Hawkwood's plinth beneath the equestrian image.
(Plaque example in Rome, Museum of Roman civilization.)
Fabius Maximus was the Roman general who, along with several others, tackled the problem of defending the city of Rome from Hannibal (247-181 B.C.,) after Hannibal had crossed the Alps with his elephants and had ransacked much of the land around Rome.
 Fabius head

Statue of Fabius in Vienna.
Fabius managed to defeat Hannibal (Hannibal's portrait below)

by wearing him out, avoiding direct battle with him, skirting his camps in menacing fashion, sending Hannibal false signals about the whereabouts of the Roman army. So worn out was Hannibal by these tactics of bait and switch, then retreat, that he gave up the idea of attacking Rome itself and headed to Tarentum, where he again faced the tricky strategies of Fabian warfare. In the end Hannibal returned to Carthage and left the Italian peninsula alone. Fabius Maximus is considered a great General for circumventing direct battle with Hannibal, and is much lauded by the Roman Senate, even included in Plutarch's work about great men. At first the Roman Senate lambasted Fabius for his indecision, calling him Cunctator, "Lingerer." But since other generals lost their lives and the lives of their men to Hannibal in battle, Fabius was eventually lauded for his "caution" and for his foresight in warfare (re militaris peritissimus). (The discussion as to whether Hannibal purposely avoided direct attack on Rome is for another place.)
         The same phrase taken from the Roman plaque and used to describe John Hawkwood is not chosen lightly. In much the same way that Fabius managed to avoid being killed himself and to avoid having his own troops killed, John Hawkwood was a master of menace and retreat. He would threaten Florence at her walls by bringing his 4,000 men right up to them, then make a compact with the City not to attack if they would pay him a certain sum. Florence would pay. He would announce a battle to armies such as the Milanese army, then not appear on the field on the day of the battle, having taken his troops on raiding parties in Tuscany and Romagna to loot and burn there instead. His fear tactics paid off, as city-states such as Florence, Siena, and Pisa, would regularly pay him to stay away from their surrounding countryside and defensive walls. John Hawkwood today would probably be called an extortionist, a mobster, a blackmailer, not to mention an arsonist, but his strategies in the 14th-century warring between city-states in Italy worked, and the Florentine Republic realized his worth as a private defender for their City.
         One thing not understood by some of the historians of the period is the Tuscan pronunciation applied to the Englishman's name. In some of the documents he is referred to as "Giovanni Auto."
The H of Hawkwood is dropped by Tuscan speakers because H in Italian is not pronounced. They hear the WK as a hard C, which also gets dropped because Tuscan speakers tend to turn hard c's into H's. Hawkwood then becomes "auto" -  a-ooh-toe - because the c of acuto drops out, leaving only the vowels and d. We can tell they are not hearing either the W or D in "wood", the first letter not existing in Italian, and the last disbelieved as an ending since most Italian names do not end in a consonant. With the Tuscan dropping of hard c's, acuto becomes "A-U-T-O." Interesting for linguists because it means that the dialect was dropping c's as early as the 1300's.
         The hat that Hawkwood wears in Uccello's fresco is the mark of a condottiere. 
Cooper points out that a contemporary Chronicle written by Giovanni Sercambi in 1375 has illustrations of battles involving Hawkwood in which he wears the particular hat as attribute. Cooper's illustration of Sercambi is in black and white, but the original was in color, which tells us something else:   John Hawkwood is mentioned in the Italian written above the scene, in red, "Come Messer Johannes aguto chavalca in sul tereno e contado di firenza"(How Sir John Hawkwood (again the problem of no H or WK) rides on the lands and surrounding countryside of Florence.)
Hawkwood is on the far right on horseback dressed in red, with a red hat in the same shape as the hat on Hawkwood's head in the Cathedral fresco. A red hat of this shape must have signified the captain of a mercenary army, as another famous condottiere painted in later years presents himself with the same red cap:
Federico da Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca, 1472              Uccello, 1436 Hawkwood
 Uccello's cap for Hawkwood is green because he wants to give the impression that we are looking at a bronze statue, so he cannot color the cap red. But it is the same type of hat used to distinguish condottieri from men in other careers, and is the same hat that Hawkwood wears in the scene from Sercambi's Chronicle.

Hawkwood as "lingerer," or "delayer" is appropriate here, too. He knows that merely by taking prisoners, as in the manuscript, and by waiting for the governments to pay him bribes, he will ensure his own survival and that of his troops, while also forming a protective fence of men around the towns who paid. The technique allowed Hawkwood to live to an old age, 74. (Average death age in
the 15th century was 30.)
         For the Medici, who paid Uccello to paint Hawkwood's portrait, the quality of "lingering,"
"delaying," must have appealed. Cosimo de' Medici, who began the Medici bank, and who
had to wait from 1433-34 in Venice in exile while the Albizzi ruled in Florence, realized the virtue of
"waiting," "delaying" during that period. Cosimo also used similar tactics to those of the painted military leader in eliminating his enemies in government in Florence. He merely refused to do banking business with the worst of them, and after enough "delay" and "wait," they eventually went bankrupt, and had to come to Cosimo to beg him to let them back in his good graces. Hawkwood's blackmailing techniques were most easily advertised in a laudatory fresco in the public church at the center of Florentine life. Attaching Uccello's name and Fabius Maximus' maxim served to lead the viewer away from the original source of the appreciated wisdom and warning. For the Florentines loyal to the Medici, the message was also clear. As for Hawkwood, the bronze honor was cut down to size. (It causes one to wonder how the Medici had the bronze for Donatello in the 1430's to complete the David in their private courtyard.) In the end, the Florentines had the last laugh, in church.

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