Letter to my father about "The Battle of San Romano" by Paolo Uccello
21st July 2012, Florence
A film magazine has asked me to write a love letter to one of my favourite artists. But you taught me to love painting so I am writing to you.
When you die, I won’t visit a grave and I think your funeral will pass me by. But every now and then I’ll take a train or a plane to London and stand in front of Uccello’s Battle of San Romano.
Do you realise we’ve been looking at it since I was a little girl? It’s our way of being together and every time we notice something new amidst the horses and the warriors, the flashes of colour, the broken armour and shattered lances. Sometimes you point to the messengers on horseback, fleeing into the Florentine hills. Other times to a boy’s face, the orange fruit on a tree, the men blowing their bugles. I hear the clash of a sword against armour and see a horse’s hoof touch a dead warrior’s hand or the way a foot advances, sensuously, almost softly on the ground. It does something paintings do not normally do. It draws you in and surrounds you, bringing to life smell, touch, sound and time. For me it’s the closest painting has come to cinema. When I am inside it, lost in its game of perspective, I know that cinema can’t be exhausted, because there is so much more to do.
A few times, you barely stop in front of it. You say: “Ah! Uccello.” and move on. Like all the conversations we’ve never had. Then, as we stare at a portrait by Van Eyck or Memling, I can’t resist running back to look at it.
Is it because of you, I’ve always felt that a home is not a country but something one finds in books and art and films and friends?
Last year, reading a book, I came by chance across a story about your father. As a young man, he fell in love with a painting by Monet and fought two boxing matches, bare knuckled, to earn the money to buy it. When he returned with the money and a broken nose and damaged eyelid, the painting been sold. But later in Dublin he, like you, became an art dealer.
I laughed and for the first time felt a bit at home. Would he laugh if he learnt that I had made my first short films with money earned from games of backgammon… or that I have the unshakeable belief that to make art, or to love it, one must be ready to go to battle for it, and that art doesn’t really belong in academies but to autodidacts?
But I don’t remember your father, just the ghost of an image of a very elegant old man on a country road, and a stranger who came up to me at his funeral and explained that your father had saved him and other children from the camp of Bergen Belsen and asked me to never forget.
I have the impression our whole life – as father and daughter – has been spent walking through museums and galleries. If things couldn’t be said or seemed like they couldn’t be mended, we walked in silence up to our favourite paintings. We looked at The Battle of San Romano.
The painting is made up of three panels, now in three cities. The morning part of the battle is in The National Gallery in London; the heat of the battle is in The Uffizi in Florence and the part that you find least powerful, the counter attack at dusk, is in Paris, in The Louvre. But I can’t be sure that is the order. Some people think it is quite different. It may sound strange but I love The Battle of San Romano for its dislocation. I love the anticipation of seeing it, waiting sometimes decades to visit a panel. And if I am in Paris on a Wednesday night, I run to The Louvre before catching the last train to Brussels, to look at it.
When I returned to Florence, a few weeks ago The Battle was no longer in the room where I had seen it, twenty-three years before. I went to look at Leonardo’s Annunciation, walked past the windows giving onto the river Arno, gazed at Titian’s Flora and Venus of Urbino and asked a guard where Uccello was: “Ma. Dove e Uccello?” The guard stood up, astonished, searching the ceiling with her eyes… Then I remembered that Uccello was not his original name. Paolo di Dono had changed his name to Uccello, the Italian word for bird, because he loved drawing birds. So there we were: a woman in search of a painting, a woman looking for a bird; and both of us unable to stop laughing.
They have just restored it. There is fresh blood splattered on the warriors’ helmets. It runs down the armour of a soldier, who has lost his helmet, and the bugles blow, as a warrior prepares to drive a dagger through his neck. A commander, impaled by a lance, slips down the saddle of his rearing horse; his bloodied armour shimmering in the light. Everywhere there is detail: people far off in the fields fetching water, a gold decoration on a bridle, a star shaped spur dangling from a boot… But my eyes keep returning to the warriors trapped in part under their dead horses. I can’t stop thinking how fragile they are – their bodies still and contorted – or of the horror of dieing encased in hot metal.
That evening, lost inside The Battle of San Romano, I didn’t hear the staff and visitors leave or the loud speaker announcing the museum’s closure. A man dangled the keys to the main door in front of me and called out several times: “Signora!” waking me from the dream.
We’ve gazed at it for years or has it gazed at us? As a small child in London, I’d peer up at it; rush past it on a school trip. I felt it changing as I grew taller. You’ve looked at if for decades, from the moment you arrived, a foreigner in England. It’s watched you grow old. And I realise the life and death, we don’t yet know, are already contained inside it. It’s like a game: which part will I see next? How many times will you, will I stand in front of The Battle of San Romano?
What keeps us going back to it, running towards its parts in different countries? It’s not nostalgia. These paintings are not static. Every inch of them is alive and vital. I can never quite untangle them; never get to the bottom of what I’m looking at. I stand in The Uffizi, time has collapsed and I am drawn into the game of perspective again. It’s like the process of remembering; the way one wanders through one’s unconscious, separating out strands of reality from fantasy, not knowing if one has succeeded. It strikes me that in the Florentine heat and carnage, Uccello has painted the battle of the mind. And it haunts me, his, the loneliest of battles – that of an artist creating work far ahead of its time.
On a summer’s day in Madrid, twenty-two years ago, I looked at Picasso’s Guernica. I thought how patiently Paolo Uccello had waited for someone to fully comprehend the enormity of what he had done. Waiting for Pablo Picasso to pick up the strands and strewn pieces on the battlefield and carry on. For no one had noticed the shattered lances were laid out and waiting, like a challenge.
I close my eyes and I think of the invisible thread, that has always been there, linking the ghosts of the past to us, through memories, paintings, book and films… How many times will you and I stand in front of The Battle of San Romano?
Lots of Love Laura xxx
Laura Waddington, “Letter to my father about ‘The Battle of San Romano’ by Paolo Uccello,” La Furia Umana, Paper no. 1 January 2013 (290pages/ publ. Duen de Bux).