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Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Today we take linear perspective for granted.  I've taught it to children as young as 8 or 9 years old. Evidence suggests that painters of the Roman era had a working knowledge of perspective, but the skill seems to have been lost until the early Renaissance when Giotto di Bondone began using it, seemingly on an intuitive basis around 1300. Ambrogio Lorenzetti also seems to have had some more advanced knowledge in the use of perspective as well, but it remained for the Florentine painter-sculptor-architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, to formalize the rules and rediscover the use of the vanishing point, lost for perhaps 1000 years.

Brunelleschi's perspective demonstration
The art historian and critic Georgio Vasari claims that Brunelleschi went so far as to paint a perfect example of his discovery which he operated much like a public peep show. He painted a very realistic depiction of San Giovanni (the baptistery) in Florence with a peep hole in the middle. The viewer peeked in from the back, seeing the image by way of a mirror on the other side.  The effect upon the "peeker" was said to be astounding, though the work no longer survives. A whole new realm of realism had been imposed upon painting.

Brunelleschi's device
as seen by the viewer before
the actual structure.
The impact of the reintroduction of linear perspective into painting was similar to that of other visual inventions down through history. They have that effect upon people. When the Luminere brothers first displayed motion pictures in Paris, crowds were treated to the projected images of locomotives bearing down upon them, invoking screams and cringing, even though intellectually they knew it was just a "show", and a black and white one at that. Several years ago we saw the movie Titanic. Holding my wife's hand, she said I kept trying to "raise" it off the arm rest in response to certain heroic efforts on the part of those on the screen, unconsciously perhaps, trying to "raise" the ship. Reality is a strange phenomena. In art, then as now, it takes some getting use to.

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