Great Works: The Battle of San Romano 1438-40 (182 x 320cm), Paolo Uccello

National Gallery, London

The pity of war? The squalor of war? The no-holds-barred misery of war? Not necessarily. It rather depends upon three quite separate factors: the subject matter of the painting, who may have commissioned it, and the point of view of the artist. What we know for sure is that art often tells lies about history because history belongs to the victors, and they do so love to be reminded of their victories, which, in the mind's eye, stretch and stretch away into the future.

Take this great painting by Paolo Uccello, for example. It is one of two by this master which hang in Room 54 of London's National Gallery. This painting of the Battle of San Romano, which brazenly dominates an entire wall, is not really a painting of a battle at all because that battle, according to some, was little more than a skirmish between two perpetually warring Italian city states, Florence and Siena. That skirmish happened on 1 June 1432, just north of Florence, close to the town of Montopoli in Val d'Arno. It was painted in about 1540, just eight years after the skirmish itself took place. Uccello did three separate versions, and the glossiest of them is in the Uffizi in Florence because Lorenzo de Medici was so enamoured of the scene that he snatched it from its original owners and hung it in his Florentine palace in the belief that the image would do the reputation of the Medicis no harm at all. The version we see here is also magnificent, but it lacks some of the gilding that it would once have had. More's the pity.

It is a wonderful painting, and all the more beguiling because it tells such brazen lies about the nature of warfare. It is so decorous in its portrayal of the balance of forces, for example, so exquisitely fussy in its detailing. See how the gorgeous, plumped-out, pumpkin-like, quangle-wangleish hat of the leader of the Florentines, Niccolò da Tolentino, utterly dominates the centre of the scene – that hat and Niccolò's gorgeous, rearing, bulbous-eyed white horse, which has all the look and the almost festive unreality of a carnival charger into whose rump we might wish to slip a coin in order to make it buck and heave pleasingly, are enormously visually arresting. This hat seems to be handed to us ceremoniously, like a casket from the hands of Portia. And beneath that hat there is the serenely disinterested face of the military commander himself, who was in fact a mercenary.

Look, too, at the face of the beautiful boy who rides behind him, he with the spillage of golden curls. Why are they not wearing protective headgear, too? Well, they would be much less affecting if their faces and heads were disguised in that way, wouldn't they? The boy looks fresh-faced as an angel wrested from an icon.

How astonishing that these two should have such beautifully disengaged expressions on their faces when they are in the thick of battle! And thick is exactly the word. Squeezed, close-pressed might be others. So artful is Uccello's composition, it is as if he has squeezed all the action into the foreground: see how all that luscious vegetation, complete with those mysteriously bulbous orange fruits – they look a little like the kind of fantastical fruits that might have been painted by Henri Rousseau nearly 500 years later – seem to press the cavalry towards us, and how the rising fields behind, once again, contribute to that visual sense that everything of urgency is happening at the front of the canvas – which means in front of our very eyes.

And yet, the commander and his gorgeous male companion aside, it is not so much warfare that we are seeing here as pageantry – see how those lances are tilted in the same direction, and how little evidence of genuine gore or human suffering of any kind there is to be seen. No, much more important is the careful delineation of all that beautifully articulated armour, and the caparisoning of those horses.

There is death here, certainly – yes, there is a foreshortened corpse in full armour lying on that lovely pink carpet of ground that serves as the central killing field. And yet here, once again, there is nothing of the mess, squalor and the sheer disorganisation of battle. Everything is beautifully disposed, broken staves like a carefully plotted move in an intense game of spillikins. And the way in which that dead man is lying puts us in mind not so much of death, as of the fact that Uccello was completely besotted by the relatively new discovery of single-point perspective, ever so concerned, always, that everything should be just so, even in death.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

The Florentine painter Paolo Uccello (c. 1396-1475), having served as an apprentice to Lorenzo Ghiberti, made paintings that combine an often quite severe formal rigour with a fantastical imagination; his colour schemes in particular are rich and unpredictably various. The three versions of 'The Battle of San Romano' (the third of which is in the Louvre) are his best known works.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine