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Chapter III: Brunelleschi's Peepshow and The Invention of Perspective (page 2)

Brunelleschi's Peepshow and The Invention of Perspective

Brunelleschi's small stature is effectively captured in the reputed group portrait, where Masaccio depicts himself looking out from behind the noble young Alberti with Brunelleschi tailing along in the rear.ADD THE PICTURE. Who said that it's B.'s portrait?

In all fairness, we should note that Vasari also wrote:

Heaven also endowed Filippo with the highest virtues, among which was friendship, so that there never existed a man more kind or loving than he. In his judgement he was dispassionate, and whenever he considered the measure of another man's merits, he set aside his own interest or that of his friends. [Vasari 1998 p. 111]

But this encomium does little to mitigate the impression of Brunelleschi's deviousness left by Vasari's gripping description of his rivalry with Lorenzo Ghiberti over the assignment of the latter to share the commission to raise the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

The story of this rivalry opens in 1417, when Brunelleschi was among the several Florentine architects consulted by the trustees of the Works Department of Santa Maria del Fiore and the consuls of the Wool-Makers' Guild on the difficult problem of raising the cupola. After Brunelleschi had worked out an approach to the problem,

... pretended not to be concerned with the project; indeed after he took leave of the [trustees and the consuls], he declared that had been asked by letter to return to Rome. Once the consuls

After Filippo returned, he presented his ideas to the consuls and wardens and suggested, most honorably, that architects from Florence, Tuscany, Germany, and France also be consulted. Although his scheme was well-received, he was asked to make a model for the consuls to study. "However, he showed no inclination to provide one; and instead he took his leave of them, saying that he had been approached by letter to go back to Rome." The wardens begged him to stay, had his friends plead with him, offered him an allowance; but Filippo left for Rome. In 1420, Filippo and the foremost architects of his day were assembled to present their plans. Because Filippo's plan was by far the simplest, he was called "an ass and a babbler" and dismissed from the audience. But Filippo refused to leave and "he was carried out by the ushers, leaving all the people at the audience convinced that he was deranged. "Nevertheless, Filippo managed to have another hearing called. At the meeting, he persisted in his refusal to present a model, but challenged

the other masters, both the foreigners and the Florentines, that whoever could make an egg stand on end on a flat piece of marble should build the cupola, since this would show how intelligent each man was. So an egg was procured and the artists in turn tried to make it stand on end; but they were all unsuccessful. Then Filippo was asked to do so, and taking the egg graciously he cracked its bottom on the marble and made it stay upright. The others complained that they could have done as much, and laughing at them Filippo retorted that they would also have known how to vault the cupola if they had seen his model or plans. And so they resolved that Filippo should be given the task of carrying out the work. (pp. 146-7)

But a group of workmen and citizens managed to persuade the consuls that Filippo should be given a partner. When Filippo heard that his friend Lorenzo Ghiberti, whom he had assisted in polishing the superb reliefs Lorenzo had made for the doors of San Giovanni, had been selected as his partner and was to receive a salary equal to his own,

he made up his mind that he would find some way of insuring that Lorenzo would not last too long on the job. One morning or other [in 1426] Filippo ... bandaged his head and took to his bed, and then, groaning all the time, he had everyone anxiously warming plates and cloths while he pretended to be suffering from colic ... After Filippo's illness had already lasted more than two days, the steward and many of the master-builders went to see him and kept asking him to tell them what they should do. But all he answered was: "You have Lorenzo; let him do something." (pp. 150, 152)

Seeing that the work on the cupola had almost come to a standstill, the wardens complained to Filippo, who said:

"Oh, isn't that fellow Lorenzo there? Can he do nothing? I'm astonished - and at you too!" The wardens answered: "He will do nothing without you." And then Filippo retorted: "I would do it well enough without him." (p. 153)

Filippo returned to work believing that he had persuaded the wardens to dismiss Lorenzo. But he was wrong; they didn't. And so "he thought of another way to disgrace him and to demonstrate how little knowledge he had of the profession" (p. 153). He proposed to the wardens in Lorenzo's presence that the next stage of the work be divided between them. Lorenzo was in no position to disagree and was allowed to choose the task he preferred. When Filippo had finished his part, Lorenzo had barely finished a fraction of his, and Filippo let it be known that Lorenzo's work was not competent. When the wardens caught wind of this, they asked him to show them what he would have done. Filippo's response impressed them so deeply that "the wardens and the other artists ... realized what a mistake they had made in favouring Lorenzo." Filippo was made "overseer and superintendent for life of the entire building, stipulating that nothing was to be done save on his orders" (p. 155). Although Lorenzo was disgraced, he continued to draw his salary for three years, thanks to his powerful friends.

As manipulative as Brunelleschi may seem here, this episode is still consistent with Vasari's depiction of him as a kind, gentle, and lovable genius who never was "blind to merit and worth in others." Ghiberti had little architectural ability, and Vasari concludes, "in some respects unfortunate" who "was always having to contend with someone or other." Even though Vasari testifies to Brunelleschi's good moral character, and claims that he only defended what was legitimately his against Lorenzo, there are nagging doubts: If Filippo and Lorenzo had been faithful friends, why did Lorenzo agree to share an honor he had not earned? And why was Brunelleschi so secretive? Did he really have a reason to fear plagiarism? After all, the other architects were willing to present their models and discuss their plans in public. Furthermore, we know that his secretiveness was not an attempt to hide incompetence; he was reputed to be the only architect who knew how to raise the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore despite the apparently competent solutions that he had had to fight off from the other architects.

But it is likely that Brunelleschi's strange behavior in the episode of the cupola was the outcome of an attempt to hide the fact that his creativity was intuitive rather than analytic. Twice Brunelleschi did not give a theoretical account of a major achievement of his. Perhaps he knew how to erect the cupola but could not explain why this method was correct, just as he knew how to paint startlingly realistic and perspectivally correct panels without knowing the rules of the costruzione legittima. When Brunelleschi developed his approach to perspective and when he sought the commission for the erection of the cupola, he may have been behaving as he had during the episode of the egg; that is, he may have invented a trick to paint pictures in perspective without having developed the underlying geometric theory, and he may have come up with methods to erect a tall cupola without having a rigorous rationale to offer. Perhaps in both cases he allowed people to infer that he understood the process more conceptually than he really did, and in both cases he was unreasonably worried about having allowed people to believe that he knew something that no one could legitimately expect him to know. As a result, he allowed people to think that he was mad rather than present his plans for the cupola; perhaps for the same reason he destroyed the panels, in order to take his secret with him to the grave.

This supposition gains further support from Vasari's description of Brunelleschi's interaction with Paolo Toscanelli when he arrived in Florence in about 1424, fresh from taking mathematics at the University of Padua. With presumably a decade's experience in academic geometry, Toscanelli took the role of explaining the perspective construction analytically. Apparently Brunelleschi treated the explanation with some scepticism, for Vasari describes him as going away to ponder the geometry and repeatedly returning in triumph with difficult counterexamples to falsify Toscanelli's analysis. It seems that Toscanelli was able to refute Brunelleschi's test cases, clearly suggesting that the latter did not have a full understanding of the geometric details even at this late date, although Vasari does not relate the details of their discussions.5

The dating of the tussle with Toscanelli may have some bearing on that of Brunelleschi's "peepshow" experiments. Parronchi (1964) uses this issue to suggest the latest date of 1425 for these demonstrations, on the basis that it was the discussions with Toscanelli that gave rise to Brunelleschi's motivation for them. The earlier dates are, in fact, in grave doubt because they are based on the idea that Brunelleschi's discovery must have preceded all accurate one-point constructions, which is reverse logic based on the recollections of Manetti some sixty years later CHECK, and in any case is based on works whose construction does not stand up as accurate when subjected to careful scrutiny (whereas othe works with accurate floor-tile constructions from the previous century are dismissed without mention). It is far more convincing to consider events with firm dates, such as the accurate perspective in Masaccio's ????? Triptych and the arrival of Toscanelli in Florence, than the supposition that Brunelleschi must have been the one to introduce perspective because he dazzled Florence with his demonstrations.

Thus it seems that Alberti, and not Brunelleschi, invented perspective as a communicable set of practical procedures that can be used by artists. Otherwise Brunelleschi, driven by ambition as he was, would have made sure that Alberti did not receive acknowledgment of priority in the discovery of the costruzione legittima. So Filippo was not only an extraordinarily ambitious, competitive, secretive, slightly paranoid, cunning, somewhat manipulative genius. He was, if our speculative analysis of his personality is correct, a man deeply concerned with disguising the nature of his creativity, afraid that he would not be held in high esteem unless he was thought to possess abstract theoretical knowledge.6

5 The picture of the two intellects battling it out through different types of expertise does not imply that Toscanelli had a complete analysis of the geometric requirements, and none has come down to us through his writings. We are left with the impression of Toscanelli as a creative dilettante applying general principles to a problem of interest, without seeing the need to develop a rigorous analysis beyond the game of one-upping Brunelleschi's challenges. The actual quote is:
Messer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, having returned from his studies [in Padua], invited Filippo with other friends to supper in a garden, and the discourse falling on mathematical subjects, Filippo formed a friendship with him and learned geometry from him. And although he was not learned, he would reason on all matters from his own practical experience so as frequently to confound Toscanelli.

6 We thank Michael Sukale for suggesting that Brunelleschi may have only intuited the technique of raising the cupola without having formulated the underlying theory.

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