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Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano (probably about 1438–1440)

by Paulo Uccello (1397-1475)

Medium: egg tempera with walnut oil and linseed oil on poplar
Dimensions: H 182 x W 320 cm

One of three panels that comprised the whole scene, this large-scale History painting recalls a Florentine victory over the neighbouring Sienese. The Italian artist is described by his biographer Giorgio Vasari as becoming quite obsessed with perspective – he recounts the story of how Uccello's wife complained that the artist stayed up all night wrestling with vanishing points and exclaiming, 'Oh, what a lovely thing perspective is!'

Do you think he was successful in creating a real, three-dimensional space that you could walk into? Or, do you think that the real conflict was between two and three dimensions for this artist? In one sense it appears flat and in another modelled in space. Where are these much-celebrated lines of perspective (linear perspective) most evident? Can you spot the use of foreshortening? What, in contrast, makes this painting feel flat and decorative?

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano

Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano probably about 1438-40

Paolo Uccello (1397–1475)

The National Gallery, London

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the figures and what's going on in the background and around them.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views.  

Tip: use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version on The National Gallery's website.



Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • Who or what does the artist want us to look at first? Is there a focal point?
  • How is action expressed? Does this battle scene appear realistic?
  • Does it feel safe to walk into this scene? Would it be peaceful or noisy, ordered or chaotic? Explain your answer.
  • Is it a true-to-life realistic painting? Why or why not? (Tip: ask your students to consider scale and proportion, shadows and shading)

Suggested activity: 'I spy...' sketches

This activity will encourage your students to keep looking. They will need a pen or pencil and small squares of white paper (or sticky note pads).

Split your students into pairs. Ask them to take turns looking at the picture and saying 'I spy something beginning with the letter...'. The other student should then do a quick sketch of what they think their partner is looking at.

After a few rounds of the game, come together again as a class and make a circle around a clear space in the room. Ask your students to take turns laying down one of their sketches on the ground, placing it in relation to the other sketches and where the figure or object is located in The Battle of San Romano.

Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):

Figures – Expression & Gesture


Colour (e.g is colour used expressively or decoratively?)

Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.


Comparison activity

Compare The Battle of San Romano with Elizabeth Southerden Thompson Butler's 1881 painting Scotland for Ever!

In order to support the discussion, you may wish to focus on the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Composition (e.g. movement), Space and Scale.

Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano

Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano probably about 1438-40

Paolo Uccello (1397–1475)

The National Gallery, London

Scotland for Ever!

Scotland for Ever! 1881

Elizabeth Southerden Thompson Butler (1846–1933)

Leeds Museums and Galleries


Cross-curricular activity: Dance and Movement

Move into a gym hall or outdoor space, or clear space in the classroom, for a Dance and Movement lesson.

Task your students with reinterpreting The Battle of San Romano as a dance piece. Without making physical contact with other students, what movements can two opposing teams make to express the drama of conflict? How will their battle conclude? Throughout, ask your students to reflect on their use of expression, gesture and pose like the figures in the painting.

Detail from 'Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano'

Detail from 'Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano'

If you don't feel confident to run a class focused on dance, you can find support for creating a dance for ages 7–11 on BBC Teach; the guidance and CPD film related to a dance exploring 'The Blitz' may be particularly useful for supporting your students to create a piece inspired by Battle of San Romano.

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