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The Invention of Perspective And The Evolution of Art (page 4)

The Invention of Perspective And The Evolution Of Art

Gablik can make her case only if she can demonstrate that Renaissance artists used perspective rigidly and concretely:

The belief that the universe is ordered and rationally explicable in terms of geometry was part of a deterministic world-picture which viewed nature as stable and unchanging, and considered that mastery of it could be achieved by universal mathematical principles. The spatial illusionism of one-point perspective reflected a world which was permanent and fixed in its ways, modeled on an absolute space and time unrelated to any outward circumstance. One has only to look at [paintings by] Piero della Francesca (see Figure 11.5] or... Bellini (see Figure 11.6] to sense this immutability of things: a world is portrayed in which chance and indeterminacy play no part. From this vantage point, we can sec how a totally mathematized philosophy of nature was the dominant influence on the course of Western painting, and how these processes of mathematics offer themselves as a bridge from one stage in the development of art to the next.

In the Renaissance, geometry was truth and all nature was a vast geometrical system. (The book of nature, Galileo Galilei wrote, is written in geometrical characters.5 ) Perspective images were based on observation, but they were rationalized and structured by mathematics. For Alberti in 1435, the first requirement of a painter was to know geometry; and Piero, in De Prospettiva Pingendi, virtually identified painting with perspective, writing three treatises to show how the visible world could be reduced to mathematical order by the principles of perspective and solid geometry. [Gablik,1976, p. 70]

Fig.11.5 della Francesca (attrib. doubtful),Perspective of anIdeal City (ca. 1470).Panel.Galleria Nazionale delle Marche,Palazzo Ducale, Urbino

Fig.11.6 Gentile Bellini,Procession of the Relic of the True Cross (1496) Canvas.Accademia,Venice.

These views stress the rigidity, the rationality, and the immutability of the laws of perspective. Undoubtedly, there is some truth in Gablik's portrait of an era fascinated by geometry. But fascination is not fetishism. During the Renaissance, geometry was always subordinate to perception: I have shown how the geometry of central projection was routinely violated to counteract its perceptually unacceptable effects. We have seen that perspective was far from being a single, closed, logical system that was repeated over and over. Gablik's has produced a caricature of Renaissance art, which even with regard to its use of perspective was far from being rigid and uncompromising. To be sure, perspective was used for a representational purpose, and in that respect it remained tied to the concrete objects it served to represent. But it also served to explore other aspects of experience. Indeed, it is possible to make a case against Gablik's position by applying a slightly different set of Piagetian concepts. Taking my analysis of the effects of perspective as a point of departure, one might argue that the Renaissance artists were exploring the nature of egocentrism and ways of using perspective to free oneself from one's special vantage point. To do so is a sign of one's ability to transcend egocentrism. One might argue that the Cubists were engaged in a similar exploration, but can one say that they were, in this respect, more advanced than were the Renaissance artists? And certainly one would not claim that Sol LeWitt's sculpture is part of such an investigation. I am convinced that by carefully selecting the dimensions along which comparisons between different periods of art were made, one could develop an argument that any period in art is more advanced than all the others.6

We have disagreed with Goodman; perspective is not mere convention. We have disagreed with Gablik's; sophogeny does not recapitulate ontogeny. And Panofsky was mistaken on some matters. But Panofsky had an extremely useful formulation of the importance of perspective: It served as symbolic form. Even though perspective has a very sturdy geometric and perceptual foundation, which makes it, in some sense, the best method to represent space on a flat surface, the question of whether perspective is "true" is far less important than the inquiry about how perspective was put to use by Renaissance artists in an artistic context. I have tried to answer this question and to show that these uses were far removed from the oversimplified view of perspective as a procrustean system in the service of crass illusionism. Perspective often enabled the Renaissance artist to cast the deeply religious contents of his art in a form that could produce in the viewer spiritual effects that could not have been achieved by any other formal means. In that sense, perspective should be viewed as "symbolic form."

5 The phrase, written about two centuries after Brunelleschi's demonstrations, comes from Galileo Galilei's(1999) response to Lothario Sarsi, who had written a book attacking Galileo, Astronomical and Philosophical Weighing Scales. Galileo chose the title - The Assayer - because assayers test the accuracy of commercial scales, and he is assaying the accuracy of Sarsi's critique. Here is the passage:

I seem to detect in Sarsi a firm belief that, in philosophising, it is necessary to depend on the opinions of some famous author, as if our minds should remain completely sterile and barren, when not wedded to the reasonings of someone else. Perhaps he thinks that philosophy is a book of fiction written by some man, like the Iliad, or Orlando Furioso - books in which the least important thing is whether what is written there is true. Mr. Sarsi, this is not how the matter stands. Philosophy is written in this vast book, which continuously lies upon before our eyes (I mean the universe). But it cannot be understood unless you have first learned to understand the language and recognise the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and the characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures. Without such means, it is impossible for us humans to understand a word of it, and to be without them is to wander around in vain through a dark labyrinth...

6 A thesis similar toGablik's was presented by Gowans (1979), apparently formulated without knowledge ofGablik's book. As one who disagrees with this theory, I find some satisfaction in noting a 700-year discrepancy between their chronologies. According to Gowans, the Piagetian stage of formal operations was attained by the Romanesque period (twelfth century), whereas according to Gablik it wasn't attained until late Impressionism (late nineteenth century).

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