The Battle of San Romano

An animation legend transforms a Renaissance painting into a densely woven dance of shapes and colour.

Knights on horseback clash in battle in an adaptation of Paolo Uccello's 15th century painting.

Georges Schwizgebel has long been regarded as a master of animation, having screened and won awards at nearly every festival you could think to mention. His work isn't exactly difficult to come by—high-definition scans of 16 films covering the first 40+ years of his career are available to watch for as little as $1 each or $10 altogether—but for the most part, anyone looking for a free introduction to his work has had to settle for trailers and brief extracts.

That's why it was such a pleasant surprise to see Schwizgebel's 2017 film, The Battle of San Romano, pop up as a Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere in December. Not that his other films aren't worth rustling up some pocket change to watch, but it's always nice to offer animation fans a gateway before asking them to take the plunge.

The Battle of San Romano is quite brief, running to just two-and-a-half minutes including credits, but it shows off a lot of what makes Schwizgebel's films so hypnotic. Inspired by high art (2016's Erlkönig drew from Goethe, Schubert, and Liszt, while San Romano is adapted from Paolo Uccello's 15th-century painting), he brings to his work a consummate eye for detail and a knack for creating intricate looping structures. He is also highly adept at moving his imaginary camera through 3D space, giving his paint-on-glass animations a unique depth and fluidity.

As it's adapting a painting, San Romano is more two dimensional than much of Schwizgebel's catalog, but that doesn't diminish the film's drama. Panning his camera around the canvas, he brings each portion of the scene to life in tightly woven loops. Sometimes the movement is what you might imagine from seeing the painting, completing the motion of a horse bucking or knights rushing into battle. More often, though, the movements are something else altogether, with disconnected elements of the painting morphing from one segment to the next in a complex dance.

It's a unusual way to adapt such a straightforward art work, and often the in-between stages of the transformations echo abstract art, the solidity of the painting replaced by a protean blur of making and remaking. It's as if Schwizgebel's film unlocks the painting, opening its imagery to the viewer's imagination. Having seen it through the animator's eyes, the original comes to life, full of energy, motion, and magic.

The Battle of San Romano

dir: Georges Schwizgebel

syn: A movement within a painting, which begins with the savagery of a battle and comes to a halt in a rendition of a masterpiece of the 15th Century; The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello.

2017

Vimeo interviewed Schwizgebel in December, 2021 for their Staff Pick Premiere blog.