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Chapter III: Brunelleschi's Peepshow and The Invention of Perspective (page 1)

Brunelleschi's Peepshow and The Invention of Perspective

Fig. 3.1 Depiction of Brunelleschi's first experiment.

"The masters of the subtle schools Are controversial, polymath."
T.S.Eliot, from "Mr. Elior's Sunday Morning Service," 1920 (Eliot,1963 p. 58)

t least a decade before Alberti's theoretical work, Filippo di Ser Brunellesco (1377-1446) painted two panels in the course of an experiment that according to Edgerton "marked an event which ultimately was to change the modes, if not the course of Western history" (1975, p. 3 see also De Santillana, 1959).1 Although these two panels have not been preserved, they are probably the first pictures to correctly embody linear perspective. The first panel was a view of the church of San Giovanni di Firenze, later known as the Florentine Baptistry, as seen from a point about five feet inside the portal of the as yet unfinished cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, across the Piazza del Duomo. According to Brunelleschi's biographer of the 1480s, Antonio di Tuccio Manetti, in order to constrain the viewer to place his eye at the center of projection, Brunelleschi
had made a hole in the panel on which there was this painting; ... which hole was as small as a lentil on the painting side of the panel, and on the back it opened pyramidally, like a woman's straw hat, to the size of a ducat or a little more. And he wished the eye to be placed at the back, where it was large, by whoever had it to see, with the one hand bringing it close to the eye, and with the other holding a mirror opposite, so that there the painting came to be reflected back; ... which on being seen, ... it seemed as if the real thing was seen: I have had the painting in my hand and have seen it many times in these days, so I can give testimony. (Trans. by White, 1968, pp. 114-17)
Figure 3.1 shows a reconstruction of the first panel and how it was held. Figure 3.2 shows a picture of the Baptistry from the location at which Brunelleschi depicted it. This demonstration illustrates that the projection method, Brunelleschi's peepshow (as Arnheim, 1978, called it) is an effective method for the creation of an illusion of depth.

Fig.3.2 The Baptistry from the location at which Brunelleschi depicted it


Manetti and Vasari thought that Brunelleschi had gone beyond this brilliant demonstration; they claimed he had invented perspective. Here is Manetti's account:

Thus in those days, he himself proposed and practiced what painters today call perspective; for it is part of that science, which is in effect to put down well and within reason the diminutions and enlargements which appear to the eyes of men from things far away or close at hand: buildings, plains and mountains and countrysides of every kind and in every part, the figures and other objects, in that measurement which corresponds to that distance away which they show themselves to be: and from him is born the rule, which is the basis of all that has been done of that kind from that day to this. (Trans. by White, 1967, p. 113)

Manetti and Vasari notwithstanding, the current consensus is that he developed the costruzione legittima but did not know the costruzione abbreviata developed later by Alberti.2 It would take us too far afield to discuss the various ingenious reconstructions of the method Brunelleschi used in painting these panels without using the costruzione legittima. But because there are some tantalizing clues to why his method did not become public knowledge, we need to explore the question of Brunelleschi's priority. For one, it was a great struggle for him to come to grips with perspective. Vasari reports that he spent long hours debating matters such as perspective with his friend Donatello: "Donatello, being then a young man, held in esteem as a sculptor, Filippo began to hold intercourse [have deep discussions] with him, and such an affection sprang up between them that it seemed as if the one could not live without the other..." [It looks as though the publishers have now shut down web access to Vasari's Lives, so we will have to get a print copy to expand on this quote.] Donatello's first known work in perspective is the predella of `St. George and the Dragon' from about 1417. Although this panel appears to have an accurate vanishing point, it is in a poor state of repair and has only a few relevant lines of projection. In Kemp's (1990) words:

Donatello has created an unprecedented sense of atmospheric space behind the plane of the marble panel. At this stage, however, the techniques appear to be predominantly suggestive and intuitive rather than geometrically precise. The receding lines of the arcade, in front of which the princess glides, do converge to a definite point behind the saints' back, but most of the other architectural features seem to be judged by eye rather than measurement. The tiles of the pavement within the building are incised freehand and do not conform to a precise system. There is nothing, in terms of measured perspective, that goes beyond Trecento methods - but an ambitious mind is obviously at work.
In fact, this description applies not just to Donatello's early work, but to all his before the the publication of Alberti's book. For example, his silver panel depicting the "Dance of Salomé at the Feast of Herod," dated to between 1423 and 1427, the period of the intense discussions among Brunelleschi, Toscanelli and Masaccio, employs a dramatic perspective staging for the action that is commonly cited as evidence that Donatello was employing Brunelleschi's new conceptualization. Given their closeness, and Donatello's inaccuracies during this early period, it is hard to see how Brunelleschi's ideas had progressed beyond the shop practices of the trecento.

Mariano Taccola3 reported Brunelleschi to have said:

Do not share your inventions with many persons; share them only men who understand and love science. If you disclose too much about your inventions and achievements you give away the fruit of your genius. [Prager and Scaglia1972 p. 11]
Maybe he was loath to reveal his method, just as a magician is loath to disclose his gimmick.4 According to Taccola, Brunelleschi had complained that
When listening to the inventor, many people belittle and deny his achievements, so that no one in honorable places will ever again listen to him. Then after some months or a year, these persons use the inventor's words in speech or writing or design.[Prager and Scaglia1972 p. 11]
Why would Brunelleschi be afraid that people would belittle his achievements? Perhaps, as Lynes (1980) thinks, Brunelleschi had good reason to be secretive: He had used an empirical, not geometric, method to create his panels; but he deceived his contemporaries and claimed to be the originator of the costruzione legittima. This is not inconsistent with Vasari's 1996 Adlerian analysis of Brunelleschi:
Nature has created many men who are small and insignificant in appearance but who are endowed with spirit is so full of greatness and hearts of such boundless courage that they have no peace until they undertake difficult and almost impossible tasks and bring them to completion, to the astonishment of those who witness them. ... Thus, we should never turn up our noses when we meet people who in their physical appearance do not possess the initial grace and beauty that Nature should bestow upon skillful artisans when they come into the world ... And many times those with poor features ... work to embellish ugliness of body with strength of intellect. This can be clearly seen in Filippo di Ser Brunellescho ... [Vasari 1998 p. 110]

1 Gioseffi (1966) estimates Brunelleschi's first panel to have been done between 1401 and 1409; according to Kemp (1978), it is prior to 1413; Edgerton (1975), following Parronchi, puts the date at 1425.

2 Recent reconstructions of his methods are in Arnheim (1978), Edgerton (1975) Kemp (1978), Lynes (1980), and Pastore (1979) plus Parronchi and Sinisgalli. It has been proposed that he used the architectural methods of the costruzione legittima, projection through a muslin veil, direct projection onto the mirror, etc.

3 Engineer and artist, 1382-ca. 1453

4 We will discuss this idea further in Chapter 9.

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