A Matter of Perspective
Updated: Sep 9
“The most beautiful thing, apart from the figures, is the barrel-vaulted ceiling drawn in perspective and divided into square compartments containing rosettes foreshortened and made to recede so skillfully that the surface looks as if it is indented.”
Giorgio Vasari, regarding Masaccio's "Holy Trinity" fresco, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1550
It was reportedly a sunny day in Florence when a curious crowd gathered at the unfinished Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore. They gathered to witness an unusual demonstration by Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi was already well known by the Florentine public. In 1402, he emerged as one of two finalists vying for the prestigious commission to fashion new doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni. Lorenzo Ghiberti was the other worthy contender, and a peculiar proposition arose: both Brunelleschi and Ghiberti were asked to collaborate on the task. However, for reasons unknown solely to Brunelleschi, he declined this joint venture. Consequently, Ghiberti was awarded the commission, and Brunelleschi disheartened, departed from Florence.
Seeking inspiration and knowledge, Brunelleschi embarked on a transformative journey to Rome. The ancient Roman ruins that graced the cityscape became his veritable classrooms. After immersing himself in the grandeur of Rome, Brunelleschi eventually returned to Florence. During this time, he received news of an unprecedented competition that would define his legacy—an opportunity to construct the majestic dome atop the Duomo.
But the demonstration planned for that day was not about building a dome but about painting. Brunelleschi positioned himself within the middle doorway of the church, granting him a captivating view of the Baptistery of San Giovanni situated beyond the Palazzo. He had meticulously painted this very view onto a canvas panel. However, he replaced the sky with polished silver and introduced a minuscule aperture in the canvas. Brunelleschi stationed an observer precisely at the marked spot. He instructed them to turn the painted side of the canvas away and then peer through the small aperture. The observer held a mirror at arm’s length. Brunelleschi asked what the observer saw. The observer replied, “The Baptistery, Ser Filippo.”
The observer saw the reflected image of Brunelleschi’s painstakingly crafted painting. But the observer had difficulty discerning whether he was looking at the painting or the actual scene. What Brunelleschi had done was use geometry to create the illusion of perspective. He determined the vanishing point, the point on the horizon where parallel lines converge, and this is where he drilled his hole.
What Brunelleschi demonstrated was linear perspective, but to those watching, it was nothing short of magic. Brunelleschi is credited with rediscovering linear perspective, a concept lost since antiquity. His original work in this area has been lost. Still, his contemporary, the artist and biographer, Antonio Manetti, claimed to have seen Brunelleschi’s panels and drawings used for the experiment. It is believed that he developed the concept from his studies of classical architecture while in Rome. Here, he perhaps observed how parallel lines converge upon a vanishing point of the horizon. During his studies, he became a master at the measuring techniques used by surveyors, and he applied mathematics to scale and proportion. In this way, he made the leap from architecture to painting.
The origins of perspective in the Western world can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who dabbled with this concept in theater and painting. Greek stage designers incorporated perspective elements into their sets, while Greek painters showcased a rudimentary understanding of perspective on vases. The Greeks primarily drew inspiration from the study of optics, with Euclid’s work “Optica” defining key concepts like visual ray and visual cone that would later influence Brunelleschi’s development of linear perspective.
The Romans inherited and furthered Greek traditions. Pliny the Elder, a Roman philosopher, claimed that imagines obliquae or “slanting images” had already been developed as early as the 6th century BCE. This technique, which utilized perspective, found widespread use in Roman art, as seen in wall paintings such as those discovered at the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor near Pompeii. These paintings demonstrated a certain level of comprehension regarding how parallel lines converge within the depicted scene. Renowned Roman architect Vitruvius, in his work “De Architectura,” laid out principles related to horizontal plans, vertical elevation drawings, and perspective drawings, shaping the design and construction of many buildings in Rome. It is evident how Brunelleschi arrived at similar concepts through his meticulous study of classical Roman architecture.
However, with the decline of the Roman Empire, these valuable ideas faded into obscurity or were disregarded. One contributing factor was the influence of Plato, who regarded perspective as a deceptive play of light and shadow meant to bewilder the mind. The Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus, who lived in the 3rd century, even praised the flat artwork of Ancient Egypt for accurately portraying figures’ proportions. Plato’s philosophy profoundly impacted the early Christian Church, permeating aversion to perspective in Christian art throughout the Middle Ages. In this period, artistic goals focused on representing the divine rather than the human experience. The most significant figures within a painting were rendered larger and placed in elevated positions. In contrast, all other figures were diminished in size, regardless of their actual placement within the pictorial space. There was no impetus to develop a rational system for accurately representing the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface. Towards the latter part of the Middle Ages, artists began experimenting with various techniques to achieve more realistic depictions of distance and volume. Still, these efforts were neither consistent nor integral to Medieval artwork.
In the 14th century, the rise of humanism marked a significant shift that would drive the Italian Renaissance. Humanism advocated for a return to studying classical literature, art, and architecture, recognizing the lessons to be learned from antiquity. This shift involved transitioning from understanding the world through divine revelation to understanding it through the lens of the human experience. (For more about humanism, listen to Episodes 19 and 20 of the I Take History With My Coffee podcast.) Brunelleschi embraced the humanist tradition wholeheartedly, and this perspective motivated his journey to Rome to study the remnants of ancient architecture. It was here that he sought answers to the challenge of constructing the dome for the Duomo, and it was here that he rediscovered the principles that would enable a more realistic portrayal of the world in art.
Contemporary to Brunelleschi was the painter Masaccio, who, in 1427, received a commission to create a fresco for the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. Masaccio’s “Holy Trinity” is considered one of his most significant and influential works. The fresco embodies groundbreaking perspective techniques and delves deeply into religious symbolism. Depicting the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in a complex architectural setting, it is the earliest known example of an artist applying Brunelleschi’s discovery of linear perspective.
Masaccio intentionally painted the scene from a low vantage point, providing viewers with the sensation of looking up at the figure of Christ. The parallel lines, or orthogonals, appear to descend from the ceiling coffers and converge downward toward a vanishing point located at the base of the cross. Speculation suggests that Masaccio used a nail in fresh plaster and strings to transfer the orthogonal markings onto the surface. Remarkably, these lines are still visible in the painting today.
Masaccio’s contemporaries were captivated by the realism he achieved in the fresco, igniting a genuine desire among Renaissance artists to master this new technique. They aimed to render an accurate illusion of space that aligned with the humanist spirit of naturalism, encompassing the representation of both the human figure and the world. Artist and architect Leon Battista Alberti would later codify Brunelleschi’s ideas in his treatise “On Painting,” published in 1435. This work would serve as the foundation of Western art, establishing a standard practice that has endured for over five centuries.
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Brunelleschi's Dome: Ross King
The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective: Samuel Edgerton