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The Painter Who Almost Became A Cheese

ISSUE:  Winter 1994

We all know Paolo Uccello. He’s the loveable 15th-century Florentine painter who pictured Sir John Hawkwood, that “ghostly chessman,” as Mary McCarthy called him, in the dark, gothic cathedral of Florence. He is also the designer of three equally famous paintings of the Battle of San Romano, chivalric romances in which brightly colored toy soldiers or equestrian puppets deploy their richly patterned lances in, of all places, an orange bower, going to war in a garden.

Uccello has always worked his magic in weird ways. Arshile Gorky kept large photographs of the San Romano battle paintings tacked to his studio wall, and we can almost see the complex, multi-faceted forms of the Florentine’s highly intricate art dissolving into the evocative, still surreal abstractions that float in the dreamworld of the modernist’s canvases. Italo Calvino, who loved the romance of Ariosto, who even invented a “non-existent knight,” imagined the armour of Uccello’s horsemen momentarily voided of human presences, filled with birds, next transformed into crustaceans—all this transmogrified into a fantastical battle between avian creatures and shellfish. Gregory Corso, that Beatnik lyricist who spoke light-heartedly of the “knitted lances” of Uccello’s battle, as if evoking so many gigantic knitting needles, listened to the paintings’ metallic music, to “each combatant’s mouth a castle of song, each iron fist a dreamy gong.” Although Uccello’s pictures show soldiers dying in perspective, Corso sees them frozen alive for eternity, never expiring, and he wishes to enter into this timeless enchantment. “How I dream to join such battle,” he writes, “never to die but to be endless a golden prince of pictorial war.” The playful turn of Corso’s fantasy is unmistakable, for he evokes the “flowery tale” of Keats’ “Grecian Urn,” a pastoral of “happy, happy boughs,” of “happy, happy love,” of lovers “forever young.” Like Keats’ lovers, Corso’s soldiers, suspended in art beyond time, will never die.

But who was this painter who so fired the imagination of other artists and poets? Will we ever know? Six years before he died, in 1475, Uccello wrote to the Florentine tax office, in one of the few documents we have of his life, “I am old and sick, my wife is also ill, and I can no longer work.” Such utterances by themselves, however, do not a biography make, and it was not until 75 years after his death that Vasari wrote the painter’s biography in his fabulous Lives of the artists. Uccello emerges here, like the personages of his own art, as himself a fictional character, a bit of a simpleton or fool who paints a camel where he should have painted a chameleon, an artist lost in the study of his “sweet perspective” when his wife called him to sleep, a painter who entered through such a perspective into the realm of uncertainty, as Donatello said, shown an overwrought work, becoming increasingly melancholic, solitary, and strange, almost savage in his decline, dying in poverty and discontent. When Uccello says that because the abbot at San Miniato, where he is painting, has given him so much cheese to eat that he doesn’t know anymore, whether, if this diet is continued, he will remain himself or turn to cheese, he reminds us of Boccaccio’s goofy Calandrino, another painter easily deceived, who is convinced on one occasion that he is invisible and on another that he is pregnant! Playing on Uccello’s name, which means “bird,” Vasari metamorphoses him into a simple reincarnation of the proverbial Calandrino, whose name also suggests a bird, in this case, a little titlark. The word “bird” in Italian also means a simpleton, and as Calandrino is a featherhead, a dodo, a booby, or a turkey, as we might say, Uccello is a bit of a birdbrain, a gull, a gullible fellow. Who ever heard of a painter who became a cheese?

Why was Paolo Uccello, whose legal name was Paolo di Dono, called Uccello? Vasari claims or pretends that he was so named because the painter, who especially loved birds (as well as all animals), painted them into his works because he was so poor that he could not afford to purchase them. But who has scared all these birds away, Italo Calvino asked? There are almost no birds in Uccello’s known works, although, as Vasari says, the painter did render “birds in perspective” in one fresco at Santa Maria Novella. Did all the other birds fly away, like those painted by Bartolo Gioggi in one delightful Boccaccesque story of the 14th century told by Franco Sacchetti? Or is Vasari fantasizing?

Paolo Uccello is part of the menagerie of Vasari’s imagination. He is like Piero di Cosimo, also strange and eccentric, who draws lots of birds and beasts, who is himself bestial in his ways, a sort of wild man, like all the primitive men and women in his landscapes of primordial nature. Uccello resembles, too, Leonardo, who also loved birds, but whereas Uccello wished to keep them, Leonardo would buy them so that he could release them from their cages, giving them their freedom. A lover of other living creatures, like Uccello, Leonardo brought lizards, serpents, and insects into his studio from which he fashioned a Medusa, or so Vasari pretends, and he applied quicksilver to a lizard, adding wings, turning the creature into a sort of terrifying dragon with which he used to frighten his visitors. Otherwise a paradigm of courtly grace, Leonardo was sometimes just a bit weird, indulging in his own “madness” when he made balloons out of the guts of animals.

Strange artists who love animals are everywhere in the poetical imagination. Leonardo’s disciple Rustici, himself a magician, had many snakes in his home, Vasari says, and he kept a porcupine under his table, which rubbed itself against the legs of his visitors, like a dog, to their considerable discomfort. Animals were everywhere to be seen in the house of the painter Sodoma, who was called “Little Fool” by one of his patrons. Sodoma kept badgers, squirrels, marmosets, asses, horses, jays, fowl, turtledoves, even a raven which answered in perfect imitation of its master’s voice, whenever anyone knocked at the door. Sodoma’s house was, Vasari states, a veritable “Noah’s Ark.” The painter possessed all the animals and birds that poor Uccello desired.

Whereas Uccello is related by implication to all these strange, animal-loving painters, he is explicitly connected to the eccentric, hermetic Pontormo, who also lived in solitude. The art of both painters, Vasari says, comparing them directly, is overdone, too labored, essentially transcending the bounds of the respective artists’ natural gifts. No less than Uccello does Pontormo fantasticate contrived pictorial devices that, leaving the real world behind, reach beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable in art.

When we step back and look at Uccello afresh, we see that in the excessive fantasy and obsessiveness of his perspective quests he is the Don Quixote of painters, an artistic ancestor of the Knight of the Doleful Countenance. Poetically seeking to refashion the world in accord with his perspective dreams that rise beyond “reality,” Uccello is a knight-errant of painters, as Quixote, steeped in the conventions of romance, is himself a poet, reimagining the world in accord with his chivalric fantasies. No matter that the Arno Valley of Uccello is far in time and place from the plain of Quixote’s La Mancha. No matter that we cannot easily trace the path from one place to the other in the maze of imagination. The simple, foolish, deluded, even mad Florentine painter is a Don Quixote avant la lettre, tilting at the windmills of perspectival fantasy. The beloved books of Euclid on geometry and optics are to Uccello what Amadis of Gaul is to Don Quixote.


Is not our quixotic painter, possessed by perspective and out of touch with the real world, as Vasari dreamed him into being, not the first obsessive artist in the history of art? And if so, is he not the ancestor, too, of the mad, obsessive painter, Frenhofer, a type of Dr. Frankenstein in art, in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece? Balzac’s crazed old painter had labored for ten years on a portrait of a courtesan, seeking not just to paint her likeness but to invest her with the spirit of life! When he finally reveals his picture to Poussin, the image is a multitude of fantastical lines, a fog of formlessness. Under this confusion, no less baffling than Uccello’s overdone perspective studies shown to Donatello, there does appear a perfectly rendered foot—a dim clue of the unattainable goal of the mad painter, who expires immediately after exposing his “masterpiece.”

Although we cannot easily trace the obscure path from Uccello to Quixote, the maze from Uccello to Frenhofer and from Frenhofer back to Uccello is threadable. Haifa century after Balzac told his romantic tale of futile artistic ambition, Marcel Schwob retold Vasari’s fable of the legendary Uccello, rewriting it through Balzac’s own tale of art. Schwob’s story, told in his Imaginary Lives, is a fable of tender pathos. Lost in the folly of his perspective studies, Uccello lives like a hermit. One day he beholds a young girl, his Beatrice, his Laura, who smiles at him. Noting all the subtle forms of her face, as only he can, Uccello loves her and takes her home with him. In the evenings when Brunelleschi comes to study with Uccello, she falls asleep in the circle of the shadow cast by the painter’s lamp. When she awakens in the morning she is surrounded by all the birds and beasts painted by Uccello. Although the artist never painted her portrait, he nevertheless distilled all of her forms in the crucible of his art, likened to that of an alchemist, in which he also gathered all the lineaments of plants and stones, of the rays of light, of the waves of the sea. Lost in his studies like a hermit in his devotion or an alchemist in his search for a universal elixir, Uccello becomes forgetful of the young girl who eventually perishes, starving to death. Uccello now studies the contours of her inert body, as he once recorded them in life, creating not a portrait as such but new forms of art.

Uccello becomes old, Schwob writes, and no one can comprehend his work. One sees in it only a confusion of lines. After working for years on an oeuvre supreme, Uccello creates not the image of the earth, plants, animals, or men but only a jumble of lines. Although Donatello thinks his painting flawed, Uccello believes he has worked a miracle in art. When Uccello finally dies in his garret, his eyes are fixed on the mystery revealed to him, as if he had achieved his unattainable goal. In his hand he holds a round piece of parchment covered with interlacing lines that radiate from the center to the circumference and back again. Like Frenhofer, upon whom he is modeled, Schwob’s Uccello believes that he has created a chef d’oeuvre, whereas all that one sees in his supreme achievement is a confusion of forms.

The labyrinth of literary history is often more complex than we allow. Might we not wonder in the first place about the very sources of Balzac’s story, which is rooted, whatever the exact intermediary path might be, in Vasari’s fables of strange, solitary artists like Uccello, who, aspiring to the perfection of their art, labored slowly and haltingly over a long period of time only to produce works that were confused or deformed. Although Balzac sets his tale in a Paris of earlier times, writing an allegorical “fable of modern art,” this fact should not prevent us from penetrating to its taproots in Italian legend. If ever the full history of obsession is written, englobing the history of the obsessive artist, this account will need to channel the meandering migrations of Vasari’s fables of artistic obsession into the mainstream of modernism.

Balzac’s fable of art, appropriated by Schwob and projected retrospectively into Vasari’s fable of Uccello, worked its spell on Zola, whose novel L’oeuvre, translated with Balzacian license as The Masterpiece, is about the Frenhoferian artist Claude Lantier, said to be inspired in part by the real painter C6zanne, who later identified himself spiritually “as the very person” of Balzac’s story. This induces vertigo—a real painter identified with a fictional artist, who descended from an imaginary Boccaccesque painter, who was fabricated from a real artist. In the intricate maze of history, the boundaries between the real and the imaginary dissolve, the real becoming fictional, the imaginary becoming real—Uccello becoming a Calandrino, Frenhofer, who descends from Uccello, coming to life as Cézanne, who says in effect, “Frenhofer, c’est moi.”

But the story does not end here, for the obsessive Frenhofer also becomes the subject of contemplation of Picasso, some of whose playful drawings for The Unknown Masterpiece evoke the elaborate jumble of lines of Schwob’s Frenhoferian Uccello, Balzac’s Frenhofer, and Vasari’s protoFrenhoferian Uccello, lost in the uncertainty of his confused, overly contrived perspective devices, an artist who labors unrelentingly, if not anxiously, against the freight of negative critical judgment and failure. Uccello also comes to mind when Picasso’s friend Apollinaire writes in praise of Douanier Rousseau, a painter of animals, flowers, and children, of primitive dreams and jungles, the supposedly naive painter whom the poet likens to Uccello. Uccello thus emerges in the modern imagination as a sort of quattrocento primitive like Douanier Rousseau, although Apollinaire does acknowledge that Uccello’s technique is superior.

The labyrinthian paths of Uccello lead us back and forth through history, as through a maze—back to Ruskin, convinced the painter “went off his head with love of perspective,” forward to Joan Mirò, fascinated by the artist’s pictorial structures, and back again to Swinburne’s contemporaries, who found the poet’s very likeness in the Battle of San Romano. But before we depart this bewildering network of poetical fantasy, let us attend to one of the most beguiling transformations of Uccello in the modern period, this a poem by Giovanni Pascoli, from the Italic Poems, recalled by Calvino, a free rewriting of Vasari’s biography of Uccello no less imaginary than Schwob’s vie imaginaire of the painter.

In Pascoli’s poetical fantasia, after Uccello returns from the market, where he has seen all the birds he cannot afford to purchase, he sadly paints one of them, also adorning his room with fields, flowers, and trees, filled with all the other birds he could not acquire—titmice, nightingales, swans, ravens, eagles, doves, birds with blue, red, green, and yellow plumage. So lost is Uccello in the contemplation of his beloved, imaginary birds that he is deaf to the bells of the cathedral sounding the hour of Ave Maria. Saint Francis appears to “frate Uccello,” telling him that he must not covet the little birds, which should be allowed to keep their freedom. Speaking to Uccello as he had once preached to the uccellini, the little birds themselves, the saint miraculously brings to life all the birds that Uccello had painted in his house. They fly down to the artist, who, as the nightingale sings, blissfully falls asleep. Uccello is here less a fool in art than a fool in Christ, a saintly figure who, following the spiritual lessons of St. Francis, is vouchsafed a final blessing.

Although the “real” Paolo Uccello, as we noted, is a shadowy figure, scarcely known to us from the small corpus of paintings and documents that have survived, all of which, by themselves, hardly constitute a “life,” the painter looms larger than life in the imagination as a legendary figure. A quixotic, obsessive painter, no less preoccupied with birds than with reaching the unattainable perfection of perspective, he is the great grandfather of all modern artists, real or imaginary, who strive to achieve the unattainable in their art. But in contrast to the complex, dark temperaments of the modernists, real and imaginary, of Frenhofer and Cézanne, Uccello, who pursues the complexities of perspective, is, finally and perhaps paradoxically, a bit of a simpleton. Working in solitude, he is a saintly hermit, a devoted scholar of Euclid, an alchemist among painters. Scarcely tragic, he is pathetic, sweet, and ingenuous, a primitive, a child, a madman, who embodies the fantasies of Romantic innocence, spirituality, imagination, and even insanity. Contemplating this odd, gentle fool, who was once almost turned into a cheese, as he thought, we can only wonder at the amazing powers of fantasy itself, which has metamorphosed Paolo di Dono into the strange, captivating being who haunts our poetical imagination no less than he was once so sweetly possessed by his own strange perspective.


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