Point of view and the Renaissance

Point of view and the Renaissance

By Joseph Goering

Studi rinascimentali : rivista internazionale di letteratura italiana, Vol.1 (2003)

Introduction: It is said of the Florentine painter, Paolo Uccello (1397-1475),

that the discovery of perspective had so impressed him that he spent nights and days drawing objects in foreshortening, and setting himself ever new problems. His fellow artists used to tell how he was so engrossed in these studies that he would hardly look up when his wife called him for a meal, and would just exclaim: “What a sweet thing perspective is!”

The discovery of the laws of perspective and the effect created by painting from a fixed and particular point of view was perhaps the most original and momentous invention of the Renaissance. The ancient Greeks had understood foreshortening, and Hellenestic painters were skilled in creating the illusion of depth, but not before the fifteenth century were the tricks mastered of representing the external world in art according to scientific perspective and from fixed points of view. The Florentine artist Filippo Brunelleschi (d. 1446) is often credited with being the first to apply the mathematical laws of perspective systematically, and other Florentines – Masaccio, Donatello, and, of course, Uccello – followed diligently in his footsteps. Nor was this interest and delight in representing nature exactly as it appeared to an onlooker an Italian monopoly. Jan van Eyck (d. 1441), a contemporary of Brunelleschi, was exploring the same techniques, as were almost all of his contemporaries in the North. When he signed the picture known as The Betrothal of the Arnolfini with the words «I was here» («Johannes de Eyck fuit hic») he was vouching not so much for the legal validity of the human exchange depicted there, as for the historical and scientific accuracy, and thus the authority, of his eye-witness painted account.

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