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Lives of the Great Painters
Vasari's Paolo Uccello


Paolo Uccello would have been the cleverest and most original genius since the time of Giotto if he would have studied figures and animals as much as he studied and wasted his time over perspective, for although it is an ingenious and fine science, yet he who pursues it out of measure throws away his time, makes his manner dry, and often himself becomes solitary and strange, melancholy and poor, as Paolo Uccello did. Donatello, his great friend, many times said to him when Paolo showed him his circles and his squares and his balls with seventy two faces, all drawn in perspective, and all the other fancies in which he wasted his time, "Eh, Paolo, this perspective of yours makes you leave what is certain for the uncertain; these are things which are no use except for men who make inlaid work." In S. Miniato, outside Florence, he painted the lives of the Fathers, in which pictures he made the fields azure, the cities red, and the buildings varied, according to his own pleasure; and in this he did wrong, for things that we suppose to be of stone ought not to be painted of any other colour. It is said that while Paolo was engaged on this work, the abbot of the place gave him scarcely anything but cheese to eat; and this thing becoming an annoyance, Paolo, who was timid, determined not to go there any more to work. And when the abbot sent for him, and he heard himself asked for by the friars, he always sent word that he was not at home; and if by chance he met a couple of that order in Florence he would set off running as hard as he could to escape them. But one day two of the youngest and more curious of them overtook him, and asked him why he did not come to finish the work he had begun, and why he took to flight whenever he met any of the friars. Paolo replied, "You have ruined me altogether, so that not only do I flee from you, but I dare not pass by any place where there are carpenters; for your abbot, with his tarts and soup all made of cheese, has so filled me with it that I am afraid of being boiled down for glue, and if I had gone on any longer I should have left off being Paolo and become cheese." The friars returned home in fits of laughter and told the abbot about it; whereupon he persuaded him to return to his work, promising that other food besides cheese should be supplied him.

He painted many pictures of animals, of which he was very fond. He made a great study of them, and had always in his house paintings of birds, cats, and dogs, and any kind of strange animal that he could get a drawing of, not being able to keep live animals because he was poor; and because he delighted most in birds (uccelli) he was surnamed Paolo Uccello. Among other pictures of animals he made some lions fighting together, which by their motions and terrible fierceness seem to be alive. But the most strange was a serpent fighting with a lion, exhibiting his fury in fierce contortions, with the poison issuing from his eyes and mouth, while a peasant woman who is present taking care of an ox, most beautifully foreshortened, is running away in terror.

In the cloister of S. Maria Novella also he painted the creation of the animals and the deluge. He was the first who gained a name for landscapes, carrying them to more perfection than any other painter before him. In S. Maria del Fiore he also made a monument to Sir John Hawkwood, the English captain of the Florentines, who died in the year 1393, a horse of extraordinary size, with the captain upon it. The work was considered and really is very fine for pictures of that sort, and if Paolo had not made the horse moving his legs on one side only, which horses do not naturally do or they would fall, the work would be perfect. Perhaps he made the mistake because he was not used to ride or study horses as he did other animals; but the foreshortening of the horse is very fine. Paolo was taken by Donatello to Padua where he was working, and there he painted some giants, which were so fine that Andrea Mantegna held them in the highest esteem. He also painted in fresco the loggia of the Peruzzi, introducing in the corners the four elements accompanied by an appropriate animal; for the earth there was a mole, for water a fish, for fire a salamander, and for air the chameleon, which lives upon it and takes every colour. And because he had never seen a chameleon, in his great simplicity he made in its stead a camel opening its mouth and swallowing the air to fill its stomach

Such great pains did Paolo take in his works that he left behind him chests full of drawings, as I have heard from his relatives themselves. In his house he had a picture of five men who had distinguished themselves in art: Giotto the painter, as the beginning and light of art, Filippo di Ser Brunellesco for architecture, Donatello for sculpture, himself for perspective and animals, and for mathematics Giovanni Manetti, his friend.

It is said that being entrusted with the painting of S. Thomas over the gate of the church dedicated to that saint in the Old Market, he resolved to put into the work all he knew, and to show how much he was capable of; and so he made a screen round him that none might be able to see his work until it was finished. And one day Donatello, meeting him all alone, asked him, "What is this work of yours which you keep shut up so close?" To which Paolo replied, "You will see in time." Donatello would not urge him any more, expecting to see something marvellous. But one morning, going into the old market to buy fruit, he saw Paolo uncovering his work, and saluting him courteously, Paolo called upon him to say what he thought of his picture, eagerly desiring to know his opinion. Donatello, looking at the work carefillly, replied, "Ah, Paolo, now that it is time to cover it up you are uncovering it." Paolo was greatly afflicted, that by this his last effort he had earned much more blame than he hoped to have earned praise; and he shut himself up in his house as if he had disgraced himself, not having courage to walk abroad any longer, giving himself up to perspective, and remained poor and obscure until his death. His wife used to say that Paolo would sit studying perspective all night, and when she called him to come to bed he would answer, " Oh, what a sweet thing this perspective is!" And if it was sweet to him, his work has made it valuable and useful indeed to those who have studied it after him.

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