By Susan Grundy
PhD Dissertation, University of South Africa, 2008
Abstract: Before the publication of David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters in 2001, it was commonly believed that the first artist to use an optical aid in painting was the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Hockney, however, believes that the use of projected images started much earlier, as early as the fifteenth-century, claiming that evidence can be found in the work of the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. Without rejecting Hockney’s pioneering work in this field, I nevertheless make the perhaps bolder claim that Italian artists were using the aid of image projections even before the time of Jan van Eyck, that is, as early as 1270. Although much of the information required to make an earlier claim for the use of optics can be found in Hockney’s publication, the key to linking all the information together has been missing. It is my unique contention that this key is a letter that has always been believed to have been European in origin. More commonly referred to as Roger Bacon’s Letter I show in detail how this letter was, in fact, not written by Roger Bacon, but addressed to him, and that this letter originated in China. Chinese knowledge about projected images, that is the concept that light-pictures could be received onto appropriate supports, came directly to Europe around 1250. This knowledge was expanded upon by Roger Bacon in his Opus Majus, a document which arrived in Italy in 1268 for the special consideration of Pope Clement IV. The medieval Italian painter Cimabue was able to benefit directly from this information about optical systems, when he himself was in Rome in 1272. He immediately began to copy optical projections, which stimulated the creation of a new, more individualistic, mode of representation in Italian painting from this time forward. The notion that projected images greatly contributed towards the development of naturalism in medieval Italian painting replaces the previously weak supposition that the stimulation was classical or humanist theory, and shows that it was, in fact, far likely something more technical as well.
Introduction: Although art history is concerned primarily with the surface of the painted image, absolute currency is given to the real object as art. It could be said, therefore, that paintings have more than one level of value. The object per se, that is, the canvas, the wooden panel, the icon, the altarpiece or other type of painted support, will have one price. This object will be owned either by a person or an institution. Knowledge of the original painted image, which was previously dispersed beyond the physical boundaries of the resting place of the art object by such means as lithographs, other artists’ copies, etchings, and so on, is now generally available through the medium of photography. It could even be argued that without photography the modern discipline of “art history” would not exist in its wider application, as the previously inaccessible painted image is now able to be photographed and rapidly disseminated through digital processing in printed publications and on the Internet. This photographed image of the painted object receives another value to the physical painted object, and we call this copyright. Strictly speaking, while the creator of the artwork is alive, and for seventy years after his or her death, the copyright of the surface image remains with the artist. Practically, the owner of the art object controls the copyright, and what remains most valuable is the actual painted object.