BOOK REVIEW / In the frame: Paolo Uccello

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The Independent Culture
IN their fat and handsome monograph, Paolo Uccello (Thames & Hudson pounds 60), Franco and Stefano Borsi set their man up, from the start, as an enigma - a 'notoriously strange and secretive character' whose adherence to the Gothic style, fantastical compositions and cavalier way with perspective meant that he was relegated to the sidelines of the emerging Renaissance.

This is not meant as a tease, of course, but it is a very good way to start a fairly technical book about an artist who is a great favourite with non- specialists (is there something about his quirkiness, his dark cartooning, that makes him so instantly sympathetic?) There are two distinct ways of regarding artistic heroes of the deep past, and it's a matter of temperament in us, I suppose, that makes us tend towards one or the other: either the mighty, coherent intellects that were not only representative of their time but defining of it, or the wayward, asocial eccentrics, brilliant but always oblique. The former makes us believe we can decode their ways of thinking, and inhabit them ourselves; the latter, in its essential timelessness, also makes us believe that we know the person, since she or he could just as easily (we imagine) be living and working now. (In Uccello's case, it's easy to suspect that his reputation for strangeness has grown from a simple lack of documnetary evidence, a gap which has been filled by conventionalised, repetitive anecdote.)

Both these extreme ways of thinking about the place and personality of artists are illusions, of course: in almost every case the truth must lie somewhere in between. Just as illusory, perhaps, are the major labels that we plaster over past centuries, chopping them into convenient time- bites to make them easier to swallow: as soon as we name Gothic and Renaissance, we must shore up our preconceptions to make them crisper, to give them contrast. The chief aim of this meticulous book is to melt those battle-lines - it is precisely, say the authors, in synthesising the Gothic and Renaissance traditions that the rounded artistic personality of Uccello can be shown.

It's a brave aim, and one that gives their work an interest wider than the purely art-critical: we ought, after all, always to attempt this kind of synthesis, for every artist or writer. Modern critical and biographical study doesn't need the method so badly, since a rich store of detailed information makes superfluous the generalisations based on period preconception. But Uccello gives his investigators a hard time - partly because of the 'misfit' they identify at the start, and partly because too much of the evidence about him is circumstantial - by the end of the book, he feels as elusive and enigmatic as ever, his back turned to us, in half-darkness, like so many of the figures in his paintings.

The authors embark first of all on a detailed portrait of Florence between 1397 and 1475. It's an intriguing section in itself, quite apart fron its value as background to Uccello. 'If pretensions to 'total history' are beyond our reach,' the authors comment, 'some effort can still be made to restore the context, reduce the margin of incomprehension, and recreate - through induction at least - the climate and atmosphere in which the man and artist moved, worked and reacted to the voices of his time.' That 'through induction at least' gives a whiff of danger (although I think the translator, Elfreda Powell, may have meant 'inference'), but they don't fall into the trap of too much deduction, too much wise hindsight. Architecturally, socially and economically, they document the place and times, then move on to the art of the day, dutifully slotting Uccello into the overall picture.

A more biographical section is called 'Places Asociated with Uccello', and includes not only the sites of his frescos and lunettes but also places in which he lived and worked. From this point onwards, the book becomes more technical - but by now we are in a mood for it. 'La dolce prospettiva' turns out to be a complete lesson in perspective, not quite for beginners, but replete with dimensions and vanishing points. There's also a full catalogue raisonne at the end of the book.

The illustrations, despite being given lavish treatment with fold-out sections and many details, are reluctant to come to life: the thinness of paint and characteristic murkiness that make the originals so teasingly fascinating are the very qualities that make them die on the page. It is as if the artist, after all this scholarly and detailed attention, has slipped through our fingers once again, elusive to the last.

(Photograph omitted)