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Why was The Brunelleschi Window Abandoned? (page 1)

Why was The Brunelleschi Window Abandoned?

"The objects tingle and the spectator moves
With the objects. But the spectator also moves
With lesser things, with things exteriorized
Out of rigid realists... "
Wallace Stevens, from "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," 1949 (Stevens, 1972, p. 335)


Fig.9.1 Edgerton's depiction of Brunelleschi's second experiment.


n Figure 9.1, we can see a reconstruction of Brunelleschi's second panel,1 described by Manetti as follows:

He made in perspective the piazza of the palace of the Signori of Florence,... in such a way that the two faces are seen completely... : so that it is a wonderful thing to see what appears... . Here it might be said: why did he not make this picture, being of perspective with a hole for the eye, like the little panel from the Duomo toward Santo Giovanni? This arose because the panel of so great a piazza needed to be so big to put in it so many different things, that it could not, like the Santo Giovanni, be held up to the face with one hand, nor the mirror with the other... He left it to the direction of the onlookers as happens in all other paintings of all other painters, although the onlooker may not always be discerning. (Trans. by Edgerton, 1975, pp. 127-9) .


Fig.9.2 Droodle.


Brunelleschi and the painters of the Renaissance abandoned the peepshow not only because it was unwieldy2 but, I believe, for two deeper reasons: one is the "gimmicky" effect of a peepshow, which transforms it into mere entertainment; the other is the robustness of perspective, which has as its consequence the potential for the creation of extraordinarily powerful psychological effects.

To better understand why a peepshow smacks of gimmickry and mere entertainment, I propose to digress here and analyze the interesting notion of gimmick. Take prestidigitation. Shows of legerdemain are displays of extraordinary virtuosity, incomprehensible to the uninitiated, but which lose much of their charm once the trick is revealed. To be sure, it is always fascinating to look closely at an extraordinarily able performer or artisan demonstrating his or her skill, but a person who has learned the secret of a magic trick cannot watch its performance and still experience the surprise and awe induced by objects seeming to violate the laws of nature. Similarly, to have looked into the back of a perspective cabinet reduces our interest to a curiosity about technique. In this respect, magic and perspective cabinets are like the droodle3 shown in Figure 9.2. Once you have been given its title,4 you cannot regain your visual innocence with regard to the picture.

We say of such displays that they are merely entertaining gimmicks. It is true that such objects occasionally prod us into comparing our state of mind before and after our insight into what made us experience the illusion, thus inducing in us a metaperceptual experience, which engenders an understanding of the workings of our mind. Nevertheless, they are not primarily designed to do so, nor is that their predominant effect. When illusion is the core of an experience, as it is in magic or perspective cabinets, the work that gives rise to the illusion becomes particularly ephemeral because the mechanics of the illusion rather than the work itself become the focus of the experience. In contrast, to have been backstage at the theater or to have visited an artist's studio very rarely diminishes the power of the finished work of art and often leads us to reflect upon the role of illusion in art.


Fig.9.3 Kenneth Martin, Chance and Order Drawing (1981). Pencil. Private Collection, Connecticut


The claim that works that hinge on illusion are mere gimmicks because of the ephemerality of the experience they afford must be reconciled with the observation that the work of certain influential modern artists suffers from a similar ephemerality. There are two ways to proceed: Either we can accept the complaint of some that much modern art is mere gimmickry, or we can analyze the nature of the ephemerality of certain kinds of modern art and ask what sets it apart from perspective cabinets and the like.

It is a commonplace that modern art evolved by violating accepted norms of "subject matter, but more importantly composition, figure-ground relationships, color, scale, and tactile values" (Burnham, 1973, p. 46). Jack Burnham calls these violations formal transgressions. But there is another, more important, violation of norms that modern artists have engaged in, which Burnham calls historical transgressions. These are violations of our conception of the indispensability of the artist's choices and of the artist's voluntary control over the artistic product, on the one hand, and of the indispensability of the physical persistence of the work, on the other. Artists have relinquished voluntary control over the work of art in two ways: by introducing randomness into the process of creation, and by relinquishing key aspects of the fabrication of the work. Randomness has entered the process of creation with the introduction of aleatory methods of pictorial, poetic, and musical composition.5 An example of this in the pictorial domain is one of Kenneth Martin's aleatory drawings (Figure 9.3).


Box 9.1 The aleatory process that generated Figure 9.3 :

An 8-by-8 square grid was numbered from the top in horizontal rows from left to right.
The numbers from 1 to 64 were written on small cards, which were shuffled. Thirty-two pairs of numbers were picked at random (without replacement, so that no number was drawn twice) to determine how each of the 64 intersections in the grid would be connected to one (and only one) other intersection. The 32 pairs were set down in 4 columns of 8.
A single line was drawn for each pair in the top row: 27 ?60, 9?16, 63 ? 41,and 36?53.
Pairs in all the other rows were interpreted likewise, except that sets of parallel lines were drawn. Pairs in row 2 were taken as instructions to draw pairs of parallel lines, pairs in row 3, instructions to draw triplets, and so on.
Take 3 ? 42, leftmost in the second row. The first of the two parallel lines connected intersections 3 and 42. The second line connecting 3 and 42 lay to the right of the first (assuming the line was oriented toward intersection 42). We do not know how Martin determined whether the expansion was to be to the right or to the left: Twelve of the 28 multiple connectors expand to the right, and the remainder expand to the left.
This drawing reflects the order in which the lines were drawn: a set of parallel lines is always interrupted by preexisting sets of lines. For instance, the pair of lines 3 → 42 was drawn before the pairs 43 → 33 and 37 → 25; therefore, the latter seem to be occluded by the former where they happen to intersect. Thus, if each set of lines intersected its immediate precursor (which is not the case: We cannot tell by looking at the drawing the ordinal position of pair 31 → 45 in row 2), the drawing would have 32 distinct layers in depth.
Martin uses the same set of random pairs for several drawings and paintings. For instance, the drawing Chance and Order X/6 (Martin, 1973) differs in the order of drawing the connecting lines, and in the rule for right or left expansion.

1 Martin Kemp (personal communication, 1982) has pointed out that this diagram is somewhat misleading. He writes: "The worst of the inaccuracies is that the pavement patterns were not orientated as shown. This makes quite different sense of the perspective. The sides of the Piazza are not aligned at right angles as shown."

2 It has been suggested that Brunelleschi painted the first panel on a mirror (leaving the upper part of the panel unpainted to reflect the sky and the moving clouds) and that large mirrors were hard to come by in the fifteenth century (Krautheimer, 1974).

3 "Droodle" is a riddle-like neologism coined by Roger Price that combines the words "doodle" and "riddle."

4 "Giraffe passing in front of a window."

5 On randomness in musical composition, see Cage (1973, pp. 57-61).

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