Page 1  ·  Page 2  ·  (  Page 3  )  ·  Page 4  ·  Page 5
Page 6  ·  Page 7
  « »
Chapter I: The Arrow in the Eye (page 3)

The Arrow in the Eye


Fig 1.9 Domenico Veneziano, Madonna and Child with Four Saints, also known as La Sacra Conversazione or the Saint Lucy altarpiece) (ca. 1445). Panel. Galeria Uffizi, Florence.

One should not, however, expect the vanishing point in Renaissance paintings always to point to an element that is important to the narrative. Sometimes the vanishing point interacts with the more visual elements of the painting, such as in Domenico Veneziano's Madonna and Child with Four Saints (Figure 1.9), in which the folds of the Madonna's cloak form a triangular pattern as it drapes between her knees. The downward-pointing vertex of this triangle (which is echoed in the decoration between the arches) is also the vanishing point of the perspective. It should be noticed, however, that Domenico uses the fan of orthogonals to organize many important features of the painting. For instance, the eyes of Saint Francis (the figure on the left) fall upon an orthogonal; the left eye of Saint John (the second figure from the left) and the tips of the thumb and the index finger of his right hand fall on an orthogonal; the right eye of Saint Zenobius (the second figure from the right) and the tips of his index and middle fingers are also aligned on an orthogonal. In some cases it falls on a point in a distant background landscape, such as in Pietro Perugino's Virgin Appearing to Saint Bernard (Figure 1.10) or in empty space (as in many other Annunciations, where the vanishing point lies between the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin).

To these three uses of perspective (the illusionistic, narrative focus, and structural focus) Warman Welliver has recently added a fourth: "The new rules of perspective drawing gave to the painter and relief sculptor ... a new code for concealing allusion and meaning in his work." He shows how perspective enabled Domenico Veneziano and Piero della Francesca to translate the floor plans of complex buildings - the architectural dimensions and proportions of which bore allegorical or symbolic significance - into painting. Here is his analysis of certain aspects of Domenico's Sacra Conversazione (Figure 1.9).

The most obvious factor in Domenico's scheme of dimensions and proportions, as might be expected, is three. The elemental shape from which the pattern of floor tiles is derived is the equilateral triangle; the viewing distance, or invisible floor, is three times the visible floor; the Gothic facade consists of three bays and is three G [ = the interval between columns of the Gothic loggia] high (including the putative entablature) by three wide; the floor is feet wide at the baseline and the total depth of the architecture beyond the baseline is 27, or 33 feet.

A second and less obvious element in the proportions is the interplay between 2 and 3. We look across a floor which is 3/2 G deep at an elevation (without the entablature) of which the base is 2/3 G below eye level and the proportions above eye level are 2:3. The overall proportions of the elevation, 23 :3.2 The proportions of the four large rectangles of floor into which the plan forward of the exhedra naturally divides are, beginning with the invisible floor, 3:2, 1:2, 1:3, and 2:3.

No doubt the theological allusion of this coupling of 2 and 3 is the expansion of the dual deity to the Trinity with the coming of Christ. (Welliver, 1973, p. 8)

Fig 1.10 Pietro Perugino, Virgin Appearing to Saint Bernard (1488-9). Panel. Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Having seen how important perspective could be for Renaissance art and the central role it played in Mantegna's Archers shooting at Saint Christopher. Two tragedies befell this fresco painted on the wall of the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani Church in Padua. By the time this fresco was first photographed in color, during the Second World War, it had deteriorated to such an extent that its bottom third and the figure of the saint on the left were defaced beyond recognition; on March 11, 1944, soon after it was photographed, the entire east end of the church, which contained the Ovetari chapel, was destroyed in an American air raid on the nearby railway yards of Padua. Frederick Hartt writes:

Only pathetically small fragments of Mantegna's frescoes were recovered, and these ... are now mounted in the chapel upon frescoes reconstructed from photographs. The reconstruction, however painstaking, gives only an echo of the lost masterpieces2 (Hartt 1969, p. 350).

2 From Discovery News online, June 23, 2003: Collected and wrapped up inside 73 boxes, the fragments were sent to the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro in Rome, where all the attempts to recompose the pieces failed.
Many feared the frescoes could never be repaired. They remained in the boxes until 1994, when, during a conservation treatment, they were photographed and transferred onto 38 CD-Roms, a procedure that has paved the way to a computer-based recomposition.
"Overall, there were 80,735 fragments. The majority was relatively small, with a surface area of five to six square centimeters. Only a computer-based technology could have solved the puzzle. At the end, our virtual reconstruction will tell art historians whether it is possible to embark on a real restoration project," Domenico Toniolo, professor at Padua University's department of physics and responsible for the project, told Discovery News.

< Previous       Next >