Uccello and the Problem of Space

The other night I was watching an old episode of the detective series Lewis and it reminded me of something I wanted to blog about but never found the time. The episode in question, The Point of Vanishing, involves a discussion of a painting which can be found in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford:


I won’t spoil the plot by explaining its role in the TV programme, but this work – called “The Hunt in the Forest” or “The Night Hunt” or some other variation on that title –  is by one of the leading figures of the Early Renaissance, Paolo Uccello, who was born in Florence and lived from about 1396 until 1475. He was most notable for his explorations of the use of perspective in painting, and specifically in “The Problem of Space”, i.e. how to convey the presence of three dimensions when the paint is confined to only two. This picture accomplishes this not only by having a clear vanishing point in the centre of the composition, but also by the arrangement of the figures. Notice how the figures in the foreground are generally moving in the plane of the canvas, but towards the centre they are heading away from the observer. The composition thus acts like a funnel, drawing the viewer’s eye into the centre of the picture and then off into the distance, and the darkness.

Two other things are of interest here. One is that it’s not at all clear what is being hunted, or even whether there’s anything out there in the darkness at all. Is the hunt a metaphor for something else, perhaps the pursuit of something unattainable?

It’s also clear that Uccello wasn’t as interested in realism as he was in geometry and proportion. The horses, dogs and people are drawn in a rather primitive style reminiscent of mediaeval painting.  I think that suggests a metaphorical interpretation of the subject matter.

I see this painting as  a brilliant experiment in geometry rather than an attempt to depict a likeness of an actual event.  Reading about Uccello reveals him to have been somewhat obsessive about perspective – his  friend, the great artist Donatello, remarked that Uccello  spent too much time studying and not enough painting – but his contribution to the development of painting techniques during the Renaissance period was immense.

Although Uccello may have taken it to an extreme, interest in the formal, geometric, aspects of art wasn’t at all unusual in this period. I blogged a while ago about another favourite Renaissance artist, Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492) whose life overlapped with Uccello. He combined his work as an artist with a distinguished career as a Mathematician. It would be surprising if Uccello and Piero della Francesca never met, but a quick search didn’t find any definitive evidence that they did.

Another great example of Uccello’s art is this:


It is one of the three panels of The Battle of San Romano. Again, the living figures are simply drawn – the bodies, weapons and bits of armour on the ground look like they might be toys on a nursery floor – but the way the painting gives the impression that everything is receding into the distance is remarkably effective.

But the best example of Uccello’s work that I’ve seen in the flesh (so to speak) is this:


This – Flood and Waters Subsiding –  is a fresco located in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Unfortunately it’s quite badly damaged – not only have the colours faded badly but parts of the plaster have crumbled away entirely. Fresco is a notorious fragile medium and it’s sad that so many great Renaissance works of this type have been lost over the years. However, despite the disrepair, this is still an amazing piece. Perhaps helped by the semi-circular space into which it was designed to fit, this work manages to convey a sense of vorticity; There’s not so  much a vanishing point as a point of origin and the action seems to swirl around it as well as to emerge from it. Note also that in contrast to the previous two paintings, the figures in this one are very lifelike, although the fading of the colours gives them a rather ghostly appearance. It’s also interesting that this work pre-dates The Hunt in the Forest by at least twenty years so the movement away from realism was something that happened in later life.

I’ve often wondered why I feel so intrigued by Early Renaissance Art. Of course these works are beautiful or exciting or in some other way pleasurable to look at, but there’s much more to it than that. They inspire curiosity. What is going on? Who are these figures? What is being hunted? Why is everything arranged in that particular way? And the act of looking at a painting like that , and being curious, perhaps reminds us that curiosity is so important for its own sake.


3 Responses to “Uccello and the Problem of Space”

  1. Reblogged this on The Renaissance Mathematicus and commented:
    Nice post on Renaissance master of linear perspective Uccello

  2. I think that tv series has real class …even better than MORSE

  3. Agree Cormac, when you spend as much time as me arguing that the BBC is one of the jewels in the crown of British culture, and something that every other in the country in the world would envy, its hard to remember that Lewis and Morse are not produced by the BBC. So it is possible for commercial television to produce quality programming. Not that Rupert would recognise quality programming if it smacked him in the face.

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