The Revival of Equestrian Monuments during the Italian Renaissance

Equestrian monuments were revived during the Renaissance (Pope-Hennessy, 1996). Unfortunately, most classical equestrian monuments had been destroyed during the Middle Ages due to a widespread view of eradicating all pagan images and statues (Avery, 2012). Yet, there were a few monuments that outlived this blanket rejection and survived to inspire later generations of artists up to this day: the monument to Marcus Aurelius located in Rome; and the Horses in San Marco, Venice. This article focuses on two equestrian monuments, both dedicated to condottieri nevertheless executed in differing media: Donatello’s Monument to Gattamelata (1453), a free-standing statue made in bronze lost-wax casting located in the Piazza del Santo, Padua; and Paolo Uccello’s Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood (1436), a recommissioning in fresco found in the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiori, Florence.

In the Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood, Uccello has triumphed in creating a picture that tangibly conveys authority, serenity, and dynamism. We can see this in the use of chiaroscuro to represent the forms of both horse and rider, and through an efficient  commPaolo Uccello - Sir John Hawkwoodand of perspective that, although not naturally accurate, has been constructed in such a way that transmits a clear sense of power. Uccello’s Sir John Hawkwood has been considered a template for the efficient construction of perspective (Meiss, 1970). The composition has been divided into two separate perspectives: the lower part comprising the base and the sarcophagus, which are viewed di sotto in su; the remainder of the composition, the horse and rider, are depicted in profile (Hudson, 2006). The latter gives a more intimidating impression than if the perspective was accurate, otherwise the underbelly of the horse would be in the main focus. This effect was achieved through the utilization of fresco, and could not have been done so through other media such as sculpture (Hudson, 2006). Vasari (2008) had stated that the stance of the horse was unnatural, however this statement has been refuted by Temple-Leader and Marcotti (1889) as a gentle gait that could have reflected a level-headed personality.

Donatello’s desire to excel made him rise above a mere duplication of a classical monument. In the Monument to Gattamelata, we can observe a reference to the surviving classical style, yet also a reinterpretation which resulted in an increased realism previously unseen Donatello - Monument to Gattamelata(Pope-Hennessy, 1996). This monument can be considered a cenotaph: enhanced through the all’antica motifs that decorate the monument, as well as the mock entrance to a tomb (McHam, 2000). Increasing the funerary decorations could have been chosen to lessen and distract the spectator from the regal appearance of the whole monument, with its authoritative figure riding a horse that mirrors this posture, in addition to the imposing size of the monument (McHam, 2000). The colossal pedestal that holds this monument serves both to literally elevate the sculpture as well as the status of the person it depicts, which is further amplified by locating it in Padua’s largest square. The facial features of Gattamelata do not reflect the actual appearance of the condottiero, and the fusion of classical and contemporary armour has created a bold image that shows the individuality evocative of the new humanist way of thinking (McHam, 2000).

Equestrian monuments became an established symbol of the Italian Renaissance (Pope-Hennessy, 1996). In both Uccello’s and Donatello’s monuments, despite being executed by two artists that excel in their respective techniques and styles, we cannot ignore that the presence of a horse itself elevates the perceived authority of the condottieri.


  • Avery, C. (2012).Equestrian monument. Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 5, 2016,
  • Hudson, H. (2006). The Politics of War: Paolo Uccello’s Equestrian Monument for Sir John Hawkwood in the Cathedral of Florence. Parergon, 23, 2, pp. 1-28.
  • McHam, S. B. (2000). Looking at Italian Renaissance Sculpture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Meiss, M. (1970). The Original Position of Uccello’s John Hawkwood. The Art Bulletin, 52, 3, p. 231.
  • Pope-Hennessy, J. (1996). Italian Renaissance Sculpture (4th Ed.). London: Phaidon Press Ltd.
  • Temple-Leader, J. & Marcotti, G. (1889) Sir John Hawkwood (L’Acuto): Story of a Condottiere. G. Barbèra, accessed March 8, 2016,
  • Vasari, G. (2008). The Lives of the Artists. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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One Response to The Revival of Equestrian Monuments during the Italian Renaissance

  1. Pingback: Rachael Wilner’s Art History Blog | I am alive, p < .05.

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