Lorenzo de’ Medici: Destroyer of Art?

Lorenzo de’ Medici (also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent) is well known for being a great patron of the arts during Renaissance in Florence.  However, it is also supposed that Lorenzo de’ Medici may have destroyed (in part) a series of paintings in his collection: Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano (c. 1435-56).

Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano consists of three different panels, which unfortunately are now separated into museums within three different countries.  During the Renaissance, though, these paintings hung in the bedroom of Lorenzo de’ Medici.  Here are the panels (as they appear today), shown in sequential order of their intended left-to-right placement:

 Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano (Niccolò da Tolentino Leads the Florentine Troops), c. 1438-40; National Gallery of Art, London

Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano (Bernardino della Ciarda Thrown Off His Horse), c. 1456; Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano (Micheletto da Cotignola Engages in Battle), c. 1435-40; Louvre Museum
Do you notice anything curious about these paintings?  There aren’t any depictions of the sky, and the large flag in the National Gallery panel has been cropped. And, surprisingly, the panels were probably cut under Lorenzo de’ Medici’s direction.  After Lorenzo de’ Medici gained possession these panels (he stole at least one of them from its rightful owner), Lorenzo probably cropped the paintings so they would better fit on his bedroom wall.  Originally, Uccello’s panels were arched at the top (they were originally commissioned to be placed on walls with vaulted ceilings) and likely included bits of sky.  Restorer Leo Stevenson has recreated one of the Uccello panels to how it may have appeared originally (see right).
Do you like the panel better with a patch of sky?  I do.  But as J and I watched “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” episode on the Uccello panels, he commented that he actually liked the cropped paintings better.  J thinks that the confined, restricted scenes help to emphasize the chaotic feeling of battle.  I think this is an interesting idea.  Would Lorenzo de’ Medici have preferred the cropped painting for this same reason?  Maybe.  But it seems like Lorenzo’s motives were more practical than aesthetic.  I’m disappointed, though, to know that such a well-known patron of the arts took the liberty to hack off a portion of Uccello’s panels.
The Battle of San Romano is one of the featured works of art in “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” BBC series. If you’re interested, you can win a copy of this episode by entering my giveaway to receive a free DVD set of “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” BBC series.  Hurry and enter!  The giveaway ends tomorrow, 30 June 2010.
  • heidenkind says:

    I actually like them better without the sky, too. But maybe that's just because it's what I'm used to when I think of this painting. It definitely has a different feeling in the recreated version.

    Art pieces are altered or damaged by their owners all the time; that's just the nature of the beast. I doubt LdM thought to himself that he was destroying a priceless work of art. I mean, he could just as easily have decided the panels didn't fit and thrown them away–then we wouldn't know what they looked like at all.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Il Magnifico, the man who nurtured Michelangelo and Botticelli a "destroyer of art?" Never!

    Be careful with such contentious headlines M! We are deeply indebted to Lorenzo for many of the beautiful things we know from Quattrocento today.

    "Cropper of Redundant Sky?" is a better way to describe him :)

    The vertically asymmetrical shape of the alleged original dimensions also changes the aesthetics of the piece entirely.

    There is a reason the aspect ratios of theatres and widescreen TVs are that rectangular shape. It is more pleasing to the eye.

    H

  • shelley says:

    It always makes me sick to learn of a tapestry being ruthlessly chopped to fit a specific space. I always wonder what the mentality was to be so wasteful. Why not just roll the sides under & pin it? Or why didn't Lorenzo choose a different room to hang these works?

  • M says:

    Ha! I hoped I would spark a wee bit of controversy with my title.

    I agree with heidenkind, I don't think that Lorenzo de' Medici thought that he was damaging these panels by cutting them. (Or, perhaps he regretted that he needed to crop them, but found it necessary for one reason or another? We don't know all of the details.) Like heidenkind and H Niyazi mentioned, we definitely are indebted to Lorenzo for even having these panels at all. Really, we owe much to Lorenzo, not only for his collection, but his patronage of art in general.

    Nonetheless, I still am surprised to learn that Lorenzo completely changed these panels from the effect and look that was intended by Uccello. It seems out-of-character for Lorenzo, someone who helped to champion and encourage the art of the Renaissance. I doubt that Uccello would have been pleased to see his art altered so drastically. Would Uccello have complained that his paintings were destroyed or ruined? I think it's possible.

    And Shelley, these are actually tempera paintings on poplar wood panels, not tapestries. (I don't blame you for thinking that these are tapestries, though. There is a lot of analysis and discussion on how Uccello's style is "tapestry-like." I could have easily thought the same thing.) But what if these were tapestries? Then chopping off the sky would have been completely inexcusable, like you mentioned.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.