Antonio di Puccio, otherwise known as Pisanello, after his native town of Pisa, was once the most celebrated artist in all of fifteenth-century Italy. Masaccio, Donatello, Ghiberti and Brunelleschi famously transformed painting, sculpture and architecture during the early Renaissance; yet none of that revolutionary gang of four was as famous, in his own time, as Pisanello. The forgotten man of the Renaissance, the neglected genius of the golden age of Italian art, his work is the subject of this autumn’s main exhibition at the National Gallery: a belated attempt to rescue a great man’s reputation, given that Pisanello died approximately 550 years ago, but none the less laudable for that.


“You equal nature’s works, whether you are depicting birds or beasts, perilous straits and calm seas”  the humanist poet Guarino wrote, in an encomium of Pisanello written around the middle of the fifteenth century. “When you paint a nocturnal scene you make the night-birds flit about and not one of the birds of the day is to be seen; you pick out the stars, the moon’s sphere, the sunless darkness. If you paint a winter scene everything bristles with frost and the leafless trees grate in the wind. If you set the action in spring, varied flowers smile in the green meadows, the old brilliance returns to the trees, and the hills bloom; here the air quivers with the song of the birds…”


Pisanello was, as Guarino’s words indicate, admired above all for his skill and accuracy in depicting the natural world, a talent most thrillingly displayed in his sketches of the flora and fauna of fifteenth-century Italy. So subtle is Pisanello’s draughtsmanship in these beautiful and rarely shown drawings and watercolours, so accurate his observation of the precise texture of a bear’s fur,...

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