This brilliantly structured and colourful painting depicts part of the battle of San Romano that was fought between Florence and Siena in 1432. The central figure is Niccolò da Mauruzi da Tolentino on his white charger, the leader of the victorious Florentine forces, who is identifiable by the motif of 'Knot of Solomon' on his banner.
This panel is one of a set of three showing incidents from the same battle. The other two are in the Louvre, Paris, and the Uffizi, Florence. This painting and its two companion panels were commissioned by the Bartolini Salimbeni family in Florence sometime between 1435 and 1460: only the Uffizi panel is signed. Lorenzo de' Medici so coveted them that he had them forcibly removed to the Medici palace.
The pictures may originally have had arched tops designed to fit below Gothic vaults. They were made into rectangular panels in the 15th century, possibly by Uccello himself. Uccello was much preoccupied with one point linear perspective, seen here in the foreshortening of shapes and arrangement of broken lances.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): In the early-15th century, the citizens of Florence locked horns with their local rivals, Siena, at the Battle of San Romano. The Florentine painter, Paolo Uccello, painted a series of three pictures re-imagining the conflict – one of which now hangs in the Sainsbury Wing of the Gallery. Leah Kharibian met up with the Italian Renaissance historian, Serena Ferrente, to discuss the painting – and hear how tensions between Florence and Siena survive to this day.
Leah Kharibian: Serena, the foreground of this large painting is absolutely crammed with battling figures on horseback with a vast crowd of mounted knights all bristling with lances charging in from the left. Can you tell us what’s going on and who’s who?
Serena Ferrente: On the white horse is Nicolo di Tolentino, the conditerie who’s the general of the Florentine army during the battle of san romano on the 1st of June, 1432. They are in the countryside between Florence and Siena and there is a section of the Florentine army that is charging the Sienese army.
Leah Kharibian: And so the Sienese – well, actually very small numbers of the Sienese – are on the right-hand side and one of their shields has fallen to the ground. It’s not looking very hopeful for them, is it?
Serena Ferrente: No, no, this is probably not exactly how the scene would have looked – as far as we know, we have chroniclers reporting the details of this episode.
Tolentino was a very adventurous conditero and he found himself almost isolated in the midst of the opposing enemy army but he fought bravely for almost three hours until help came.
Leah Kharibian: It beggars belief that idea of clunking around in armour on horses for hours on end, but anyway, before we get onto Tolentino, because I want to ask you more about him, could you explain about this phenomena of Italian cities like Florence and Siena fighting each other?
Serena Ferrente: Yes, this goes actually back to the beginning of the history of Italian city states in the late 11th and 12th centuries, but in the 15th century it was still continuing. What is happening in this period is that Florence is expanding. It’s trying to build what historians call a regional state, and Siena is resisting this expansion. But the story is not so simple, because the most powerful ally of the Sienese in this case is the Duke of Milan who is also expanding and would like to expand at the expense of Florence. So Florence is here fighting both an imperialist war and defending itself from the Duke of Milan who is the ally of the Sienese. So this is part of a longer history and an episode, a narrative that could go straight into the mid-16th century when Florence actually managed to conquer Siena for good.
Leah Kharibian: Yes, they finally do see Siena in. And so Tolentino, just to get this right, he’s a conditeri, he’s a mercenary, so he’s hired by the Florentines to lead their army or what?
Serena Ferrente: Yes, yes, all Italian states of the period and a number of European states as well hired mercenary companies. Conditeri were at the same time military leaders and businessmen really. They signed a contract called a condota – hence condoteri – with a state, a republic, or a prince, and usually the terms of the contract were that they would fight for their employer for a year and the following year they were free to be employed by anyone else really, but not against previous employer.
Leah Kharibian: Oh, I see, so they couldn’t use privileged knowledge to their... That sort of makes sense – sounds like modern business practice to me. But finally Serena, as an Italian, when you look at a work like this, that so obviously glories in the triumph of one city – Florence over another – the great rival Siena – is this something that you recognise? Does it still exist today? Or does it seem like a sort of... something of the dim and distant past?
Serena Ferrente: Well, civic pride and rivalries between cities are still very much alive in Italy and Tuscany in particular. What exists today is more a spirit of joking nostalgia for a new era of free republics rather than something as dramatic and politically decisive as 15th-century civic pride.
Leah Kharibian: And is it still that the Sienese might potentially get quite cross at the thought of rivalry from a Florentine? Does it translate into football or something?
Serena Ferrente: Yes, when the football teams of two Tuscan towns meet, which doesn’t happen often because they play in different leagues, but when they do, certainly episodes of the medieval history of the two towns are frequently rehearsed, so they’re part of popular culture in this sense. It is something that still has an impact today.
Leah Kharibian: Wonderful, thank you so much.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Serena Ferrente.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty Nine, November 2010