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Chapter II: The Elements of Perspective (page 1)

The Elements of Perspective

Fig. 2.1 Masaccio, Trinity (ca. 1425). Fresco. Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

ook at Masaccio's Trinity (Figure 2.1), the most accomplished painting by the first artist to use rigorous perspective.1 Why it looks compellingly three-dimensional will be explained in Chapter ??. In this chapter, we will discuss the geometry that underlies perspective; in Chapter we will look at the origins of perspective.

We, in the late twentieth century,take photography for granted as the prototypical physical embodiment of picture taking, and perspective as its mathematical model. But for the artists-scientists of the Renaissance the introduction of perspective required a complex mesh of innovations: They had to envisage the very concept of "taking" a picture, to understand the optics implied by this operation, to abstract the geometry underlying the optics, and finally to discover ways of translating these abstractions into practical rules of thumb that anyone could apply in order to draw scenes in perspective. In the Introduction, we have already encountered Alberti's description of his key concept of taking a picture. Let us quote it again:

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 (See Figure 2.2).


Fig. 2.2 Representation of Alberti's window (perspective drawn using a front picture plane). Engraving (modified) from G. B. Vignola, La due regole della prospettiva practica, 1611..


Before we analyze the relation between the Alberti window and perspective, a distinction must be made between the study of perspective as the theory of picture taking and the practice of drawing in perspective. In the remainder of this chapter, we will deal mostly with the theory of perspective, that is, with the nature of the geometric transformation that allows us to represent a three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional surface, and with certain features that all perspective representations have in common. After presenting these notions in some detail, we will dwell briefly on the procedure that Alberti invented, but because this is a very complicated topic to which numerous textbooks have been devoted, the reader should not expect to learn from this book how to draw a perspectivally correct representation.2


1 The first known painting by Masaccio is the San Giovenale Triptych, dated the 23rd April, 1422, in which the vanishing lines are accurately coordinated across the three panels. His close collaborator, Masolino da Panicale also used accurate convergence in his Colonna altarpiece ("The Miracle of the Snow") dated soon afterward. The dating of Masaccio's Trinity is uncertain, but it may have been his last painting, completed just before he died at age 27 in 1428.

2 Gill (1974, 1975) is useful in this regard.

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