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Chapter IV: The Effectiveness of Brunelleschi's Peepshow (page 2)

The Effectiveness of Brunelleschi's Peepshow

We need to discuss your statement here. It contradicts earlier statements in the book, and is not true for most viewers. I am offering a more moderated version of the idea below. I think that I can do this without losing the essential power of the robustness concept. Indeed, I think that you take away the power of the robustness by implying that perspective is ineffective
. Unfortunately, the expectation that an exact projective surrogate would be seen in depth is not confirmed. Although we usually interpret such a picture as the representation of a three dimensional scene when we view it from the appropriate vantage point, the impression is no more compellingly three-dimensional than if we viewed the picture from a different vantage point. The vividness of stereopsis is absent from this experience. Thus to view a rigorous perspective picture from its center of projection is not enough to transform our impression of a picture that represents depth into an experience almost indistinguishable from the perception of objects deployed in depth. At this point, we might conclude that only disparate images seen by the two eyes can produce the sort of vivid experience of depth we are discussing. Such a conclusion would be premature, as we shall presently see. Indeed, one might say that the reason we do not see vivid depth in pictures (whether viewed with one eye or two) is not because they fail to fulfill the necessary conditions for such perception, but rather because pictures bear two kinds of incompatible information, namely, information about the three-dimensional scene they represent, as well as information about their own two dimensionality. It follows that if we could rid ourselves of the latter, the former information should produce a vivid and compelling experience of depth, as striking as stereopsis.


Fig. 4.2 Fra Andrea Pozzo, Saint Ignatius Being Received into Heaven 1691-4). Fresco. Ceiling of the Church of Sant'Ignazio, Rome.

Typical paintings deviate from these ideal conditions in two ways. One is that they often have contradictory depth cues, such as lines that do not diminish in thickness with distance, or the texture of paint on the picture surface. Once several such deficiencies combine to imply flatness, the picture loses its perceptual power to evoke a depth impression. The other deviation is that the depth is lost if the eye moves too far from the ideal center of projection. The range of acceptability is quite large, forming a sphere (or ellipsoid) of acceptanble locations around the geometric location, but if it is too extreme the sense of spatial layout is lost. The typical viewing distance of perspective constructions is about one picture width, far closer than we normally view pictures. Most of the pictures in this book, for example, are 10 cm wide, but you are probably reading the book from about a 50 cm distance, five times further away. One very near-sighted readers can get clear vision at a distance of 10 cm, so few people can experience these reproductions with the eye correctly located at the center of projection. The situation in art galleries is usually similar. We view paintings about a meter wide from a distance of several meters, with both eyes open and often with a strong highlight on the canvas making the painted surface very evident.

One way to reduce the noticeability of the surface of a picture is to have the spectator view the picture from a long distance away. If the picture is so large as to enable the spectator to view the picture from afar, stereoscopic vision, which can under some conditions diminish the experience of depth by supplying us with information regarding the flatness of the picture plane, less effective because of the distance. I strongly dispute the Comerford and Ono claim, but stereo obviously gets weaker with distance So if the spectator's eyes are approximately at the center of projection of the picture and the picture plane is distant, we should perceive the picture in vivid depth. The typical work of art based on this principle is a wall or ceiling painting. It represents a scene in an architectural setting that, even though imaginary, is a continuation of the real architecture of the hall. The best example is Pozzo's ceiling fresco in the Church of Sant'Ignazio in Rome (Figure 4.2. The painting is a very precise central projection of an imaginary architecture onto the hemicylindrical ceiling of the church, which uses a center of projection at the eye level of a person standing on a yellow marble disk in the middle of the nave.2 Maurice Henri Pirenne in his important book Optics, Painting, and Photography (1970) writes about Pozzo's ceiling:

The photograph, taken from the relevant yellow marble disk, shows the painting as it is meant to be seen. It shows little of the real architecture of the church, except the windows. To the spectator standing on the marble disk, the painted architecture appears in three dimensions as an extension of the real architecture. This photograph fails to give the overwhelming impression thus produced in the spectator by this vast painting ...


Fig. 4.3 Andrea Mantegna, ceiling fresco (completed 1474). Camera degli Sposi, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua

The result of all this work is striking ... from the floor, the spectator is unable to see the painted surface, qua surface. It is impossible to determine where the ceiling surface actually is. From the position marked by the yellow marble disk, the arches supported by columns at both ends of the ceiling are seen to stand upright into space. They are seen in three dimensions, with a strength of illusion similar to that given by the stereoscope ... (Caption of Figure 7.5, p. 81; p. 84)

The Pozzo ceiling is the pinnacle Actually, I think it culminated in Tiepol, so I suggest a different word of a tradition of illusionistic painted architectures begun by Mantegna.3 In the Ducal Palace in Mantua (Figure 4.3), he had painted an illusionistic parapet that appears to break through the ceiling. Around it, in extreme foreshortening, we see several putti4 precariously perched on a narrow ledge and other figures peering down over the parapet. Almost half a century later, Peruzzi undertook a far more ambitious exercise in illusionistic imaginary architecture. On the walls of a room on the second floor of the Roman villa he designed for Agostino Chigi, the Pope's banker, he painted frescoes that represent balconies from which one can see beautiful views of Rome (Figure 4.4).


Box 4.1 Photographing illusionistic walls: Most of the published photographs of this wall fresco do not do justice to the power of the illusion it imparts, because they are not taken from the center of projection, which is not in the middle of the room, but in the doorway across the room from the right-hand door seen in Figure 4.4 . For this reason, the imaginary architecture looks in these photographs as if it were askew with respect to the rest of the room. An exception is shown in Figure 4.5. See also Footnote 3, Chapter 5.

Neither of these works is extensive enough to provide an illusion as powerful as Pozzo's, nor did either artist prescribe an ideal vantage point from which the painting ought to be seen.

A second way to diminish the impact of cues for flatness was discovered about the middle of the seventeenth century when there flourished in the Netherlands a popular art - the "perspectyfkas," the perspective cabinet. Some of its practitioners were major artists of the Delft School, such as Pieter de Hooch and Jan Vermeer.5 Pirenne describes one of them:

There is in the National Gallery in London a cabinet containing two peep-shows painted by S. van Hoogstraten (1627-78). One of these peep-shows [reproduced in Mastai, 1975, plate 1971] represents a seventeenth century Dutch interior consisting of a hall with a black and white tiled pavement, opening on two furnished rooms with a view of a street and a canal. All this appears in three dimensions when viewed through the peep-hole. This peep-show looks very much like a real interior, extending far beyond the dimensions of the cabinet. The scene is painted in perspective on the inside surface of the box, from one single centre of projection, the centre of the peep-hole. The painting is carried over in a continuous fashion from one wall of the box to another. In the hall the tiles, two chairs and a dog are painted partly on the wall, and partly on the floor of the box. It is hardly possible to tell on which surface of the cabinet the various parts are painted. When something of the actual wall of the cabinet can be distinguished, the painted view is seen `through' the wall. (1970, p. 85, footnote I; see also Wheelock, 1977)

LEFT:Fig. 4.4 Baldassare Peruzzi, fresco (ca. 1515). Salla delle Prospettive, Villa Farnesina, Rome. Photograph taken from center of room see Figure 4.5
RIGHT:Fig 4.5 Peruzzi, fresco. Same as Figure 4.4 except that photograph was taken from center of projection of painting

2 It is rather easy to dismiss this ceiling as kitsch, an example of the "enticing and popular iconography of sentimental baroque" that, according to Wylie Sypher (1978, p. 246) "accompanied a decay in rational theology and the rise of mere dogma in its place. The sensorium in its most literal activity became the instrument of faith. As the baroque imagination materialized itself at the familiar level, illusion became mere deception whenever the artist gave up the double world courageously erected by high-baroque art, and tried to obliterate entirely the distinction between the heavenly realm and the world of the worshipper... Heaven is entirely accessible in Fra Andrea Pozzo's ceiling (1685 ff.) in Sant' Ignazio, where the majestic soaring architecture, itself painted, is almost obliterated by the swarming angelic hosts flying about the very windows of the clerestory and obscuring the values of both illusion and reality by their facile descent. This art makes transubstantiation `easy' and credible."

3 A survey of perspective paintings on non-vertical surfaces, which includes many of the works in this tradition, is Santapá (1968).

4 Plural of putto, which is the Italian term for "cherub."

5 See Koslow (1967) for a review of perspective cabinets. Illustrations of all of them may be found in Leeman, Ellfers, and Schuyt (1976).

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