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Chapter I: The Arrow in the Eye (page 5)

The Arrow in the Eye

Let us now see what the arrow in the eye may have meant to Renaissance artists. Beyond the observation that rays of light traced from points on an object into the eye suggest arrows penetrating the eye (see Figure 1.3), perspective and arrows were compared in several texts written by Mantegna's contemporaries.

In 1435, about two decades before Mantegna painted the Archers Shooting at Saint Christopher, Alberti wrote On Painting, which contains the earliest known geometric and optical analysis of linear perspective.7 After his exposition of perspective he writes:

These instructions are of such a nature that [any painter] who really understands them well both by his intellect and by his comprehension of the definition of painting will realize how useful they are. Never let it be supposed that anyone can be a good painter if he does not clearly understand what he is attempting to do. He draws the bow in vain who has nowhere to point the arrow. (Emphasis ours. Alberti, 1966, p. 59).8


Fig 1.12 Andre Mantegna, Saint Christopher's Body Being Dragged Away after His Beheading (1451-5). Fresco. Overtari Chapel, Eremitani Church, Padua.

Fig 1.13 Leon Battista Alberti, Church of San Francesco, Rimini (Tempio Malatestiano) (foundation laid 1450).


Because Mantegna had most probably read Alberti's treatise.9 The arrow in the eye (which represents soldiers who have just drawn the bow in vain) could have been a veiled reference to Alberti's text.

The perspective effect of the trellis above the window is very strong, underlining the reference to the Albertian perspective construction, although Mantegna did not find a way to bring the point of convergence to the King's eye itself. The trellis itself is strongly reminiscent of the one immediately above the large-scale painting of St. Christopher by Masolino in San Clemente (back ref), forming the staging for a dramatic Annunciation scene. Indeed the architecture in the fresco is strongly reminiscent of Alberti's style.10 For instance, the bridge in Saint Christopher's Body Being Dragged Away after His Beheading (Figure 1.12) is very similar to the flank of Alberti's Church of San Francesco (the Tempio Malatestiano,11 (Figure 1.13). Furthermore, the frieze in Mantegna's fresco that passes under the first floor in which the King of Samos was hit in the eye reminds one of the frieze that serves as a pedestal for the columns of the Tempio Malatestiano's flank (see Figure 1.14). In this context, we are also led to notice the similarity between the inscription visible on the facade of Mantegna's building and the inscriptions on the funerary urns on the flank of the Tempio Malatestiano (Figure 1.14). Furthermore, there is a resemblance between one of the onlookers watching Saint Christopher's body being dragged away and a portrait of Alberti (compare Figure 1.15 to Figure 1.16 ). Finally, the main event taking place in the fresco on the left(the tyrant being hit in the eye by the arrow) is seen through a window. Given all the other evidence that indicates that this fresco is an homage to Alberti, the location of this crucial scene in a window may be a reference to Alberti's window, a central concept in perspective, which Alberti explains as follows:

First of all, on the surface on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is to be seen 12 .

7 Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) was not himself a major painter. He was a papal secretary, playwright, mathematician, lawyer, cartographer, humanist, architect, linguist, and cryptographer - in short, the prototypical Renaissance man. In 1435 and 1436, he published De pictura in Latin and Della pittura in Italian (Alberti, 1966). See Gadol, 1969.

8 See J. R. Spencer's footnote 52 in Alberti, 1966, p. 117. in which he suggests that the source of this aphorism is in Cicero, De oratore, I, xxx, 135; De finibus, III, vi, 22.

9 We know that they met, but we have no evidence that they did so before 1460, a few years after the Eremitani frescoes were painted (Puppi, 1974).

10 This observation was made by Arcangeli (1974) and by Pignatti (1978).

11 This temple was a "modernization" of the monastic Church of San Francesco in Rimini, which was designed as a temple to the Renaissance tyrant Sigismondo Malatesta, and for which the cornerstone was laid in 1450.

12 Quoted by Edgerton (1975, p. 42), from Grayson's (1972) translation. We will return to this concept in Chapter . This key concept is often unjustly called the Leonardo window (Pirenne, 1970) or da Vinci's pane (Danto, 1981); it ought to be called Alberti's window after its originator.

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