Paolo Uccello, Stories from the Life of Noah, c. 1447-8, Chiostro Verde, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
I mentioned, a few days back (Picture Of The Day 32) – I think it was Sunday – that I would come back to the great polymath of the Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti. And just a couple of days before that, last Friday, I was sitting down to write and Radio 3 launched into their sing-a-long, Somewhere over the Rainbow. It’s not what I tune into Radio 3 for, to be honest, but the great bonus is that you don’t hear the rest of the Nation (or at least, the Radio 3 contingent) singing. Nevertheless, this painting naturally sprang to mind – as it had previously, passing the numerous rainbows displayed in windows, which I have seen throughout the town on my daily walk and weekly shop. It’s a symbol which is being used without most people realising why, I suspect.
The rainbow is used as a symbol of hope, this meaning coming from the story of Noah, which you can find at the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis Chapters 6-8. The rainbow is almost the end of the story – it has rained for 40 days and 40 nights, the floodwaters have lasted 150 days, but the land is now dry. Noah has grown food, and given a sacrifice to God in thanks for being saved from the flood. God has appeared in the sky to accept the sacrifice, and, as a sign of his covenant with Noah, he places a rainbow in the sky to reassure him that it will never happen again – whenever the rainbow appears, it is a sign of hope that things can only get better. He was not referring to New Labour. In typical fashion for Uccello, God’s appearance is quite alarming: he has flown in upside down. This is not the cardboard cut-out of God sitting upright on the clouds, familiar to fans of Monty Python, but Uccello’s attempt to create something new and real, using the innovative techniques of perspective. Even now it seems rather surprising, a little shocking, even. Noah stands directly beneath God, his hands raised. Haloes mark both of them out as holy. Noah is surrounded by his wife (who remains nameless, so is universally known as ‘Mrs Noah’), his three sons Japheth, Shem and Ham, and their wives (also unnamed). You can’t see them all in the detail here, nor are any of them very clear. Sadly this fresco is not in a terribly good condition.
As you can see, a lot of the plaster has been lost. It was just one of a cycle of frescoes painted in the main cloister of Santa Maria Novella, the largest Dominican Friary in Florence – the Chapter House, discussed in POTD 24, leads off of it. The cloister is open to the elements, and although each of the four sides is covered, they are still subject to fluctuations of temperature and humidity throughout the year. Worse than this, and with a certain irony, the frescoes suffered from Florence’s own deluge, the catastrophic flood of 1966. Painted onto fresh plaster, the frescoes didn’t respond very well to the rising waters. As the walls were also waterlogged, the frescoes were removed (if you know what you’re doing it’s not too hard to detach fresco, apparently), only to be returned later. This one has recently been restored, and exhibited in the relatively new Santa Maria Novella Museum. Most of the images I am showing you are post-restoration: there is nothing that can been done about the centuries of damage which have resulted from exposure to the elements. It is one of two stories on the lower part of the wall. On the right of this detail you can see part of the Drunkenness of Noah. This is probably Ham telling his brothers – well, I’ll tell you that story another day. What you can see, though, is the vine which Noah has grown, which Uccello has painted in rather breath-taking perspective – he really had mastered the basic principles even if his application of them was sometimes a little… eccentric, I suppose. Vasari, writing in the mid-16th Century, certainly thought he was bonkers. I think that’s the correct translation from the original Italian. You can also see a hint of the wonderful woven wall of Noah’s garden shed.
But how, you might be asking, does Alberti come into this? He wrote his commentary on painting – rather conveniently called ‘On Painting’ – in 1435, in Latin. One of his intentions was to raise the status of his subject among his learned (or at least, rich) patrons, as they were far more likely to be able to read Latin than artists were. However, realising that, to have a direct influence on painting itself, it would be useful if the artists could read the book, he translated it into Italian the following year. It was the first text to describe how to ‘do’ perspective, the technique having been devised by Brunelleschi some 20 years before, and then put into practice by Masaccio and Donatello among others. Nevertheless, the perspective of the pergola is almost certainly indebted to Alberti. But the influence becomes more obvious if you look at the image at the top of the wall.
This is a photograph of the fresco in situ in the Chiostro Verde, or ‘Green Cloister’, which gets its name from a whole series of all-but monochrome frescoes painted in a pigment called terra verde or ‘green earth’. Uccello himself was only responsible for two bays of the decoration, this, and an earlier one (in terms of both the biblical narrative and his career) covering the Creation. The various gaps and joins you can see, and especially the metal clip on the left, tell you that this photograph was taken after the frescoes had been detached to prevent them from being damaged by the humidity of the wall – and to allow the wall itself to dry – but before the recent restoration.
The upper scene is the deluge itself, in two parts: the early days on the left, where people outside the Ark are struggling to avoid the rising waters, and after the waters have subsided on the right. The image is framed by two views of the Ark. On the left, Uccello creates a breath-taking sweep along the full length of the structure. God’s instructions to Noah were that, ‘The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits’ (Genesis 6:15). On the left we have the full three hundred-cubit length, while on the right is the shorter fifty-cubit end. Within this outer structure God had specified three stories, a window and a door.
You can see Noah leaning out of the window on the right, the dove returning with a sprig of olive just to the left of his extended hand. So where is the raven he sent out a week before? Well, it’s in the bottom right of the scene, at the foot of the Ark, pecking at the body of a dead child. I shan’t show you a detail of that. And who is the man standing proud and erect about two-thirds of the way from left to right? Well, nobody knows. Uccello didn’t let on. The best suggestion is that he is Alberti’s chorus figure, ‘who admonishes and points out to us what is happening there; or beckons with his hand to see; or menaces with an angry face and with flashing eyes, so that no one should come near’, who I mentioned in POTD 32 – although he is not looking at us. His hand – which could be read as a warning gesture – is pointed towards our right. This is the direction that anyone entering the cloister from outside the Friary would approach this fresco, so we could interpret him as warning anyone else who might be approaching, ‘so that no one should come near’. For us, in front of the scene, it is too late. However, this in itself would not necessarily be evidence that Uccello had read Alberti’s book. Let’s have a look at the upper scene in more detail, from a post-restoration image.
Here are a few quotations from On Painting. I am using the first ‘modern’ translation into English, by John R. Spencer, published by Yale, although I have substituted the word istoria (about which whole books could be written) with ‘image’:
‘That which first gives pleasure in the image come from copiousness and variety of things… I say that image is most copious in which in their places are mixed old, young, maidens, women, youths, young boys, fowls, small dogs, birds, horses, sheep, buildings, landscapes and all similar things’.
I would say that most of these are in here. And then again:
‘In every image variety is always pleasant. A painting in which there are bodies in many dissimilar poses is always especially pleasing. There some stand erect… some are seated, others on one knee, others lying. If it is allowed here, there ought to be some nude and others part nude and part clothed in the painting; but always make use of shame and modesty. The parts of the body ugly to see and in the same way others which give little pleasure should be covered with draperies, with a few fronds or the hand’.
Again, that is also the case. It’s also worthwhile looking back to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (POTD 8), where she is covering herself (or pretending to) with her hands. And finally,
‘I am delighted to see some movement in hair, locks of hair, branches, fronds and robes’.
I would say that all of these things can be seen moving in this painting – some, rather alarmingly so. At this point, though, Alberti has a problem, and one that I have mentioned before – again, with the Birth of Venus:
‘However, where we should like to find movement in the draperies, cloth is by nature heavy and falls to the earth. For this reason it would be well to place in the picture the face of the wind Zephyrus or Austrus who blows from the clouds making the draperies move in the wind’.
Botticelli, as I said back in POTD 8, did do this – but then the narrative allowed him to, as Venus was said to have been wafted ashore by the winds. There is nothing in the biblical story of the Deluge which suggests that Uccello could fit similar personifications into his depiction. But look again at this detail.
Directly above Noah’s hand, just above and to the right of the dove, there is a small boy running through the sky, his left leg extended in front of him, the other bent right back, the foot almost touching the side of the Ark – and he is blowing. Not only that, but in the very corner, just tucked in where the edge of the image meets the side of the ark, there is a second face, cheeks puffed, a small jet of air coming out of the mouth. The details are really faint now, and seem to be fainter every time I look. If anything, they are slightly clearer in the pre-restoration photograph above.
I think this is conclusive proof that Uccello had read On Painting. Why else would you include these details? Unless you were slightly bonkers, of course.