The Renaissance Rediscovery of Visual Perpective

In 14__ the Florentine Architect Filippo di ser Brunelleschi stood on the steps of the Duomo and drew a picture of the Babtistery of San Giovanni. This picture launched a cultural movement known as the Renaissance.

Of course, it is absurd to credit a broad social movement to a single act of a single individual. For that matter, those looking for a single cause of the Renaissance are as apt to name Gutenberg’s development of movable type as they are to name the rediscovery of perspective.

Yet, my thesis starts with perspective; so I accuse books crediting the Renaissance to the printing press of a bias toward their medium of choice. Gutenberg’s press may have increased the number of books available for the small number of scholars of the Middle Ages. Perspective, on the other hand, put a painting in every church. Perspective provided an immediate visualization to the literate and illiterate alike. Most important, perspective carried with it an idea: This idea could be describe as the “unification of pictorial space.”

Perspective provides a mathematical framework that unifies the elements of a picture with a single mathematical model. Using very simple geometry, an artist is able to project a realistic 3-dimensional image onto a 2-dimensional surface. The results are magic: With perspective, the canvas transitions from a jumbled collection of disjointed icons to a window facing a new and exciting worlds.

The mathematical model of perspective unified the saints in the foreground with the churches and the distant mountains in the background. More than any other discovery, visual perspective showed the Mediaeval mind that natural laws in the immediate room appear to apply to this entire world in which we live.

It is with the Renaissance rediscovery of perspective that we see the unification of art and science. Looking at the lives of the Renaissance men, we see that the artists are scientists and scientists artist. The new perspective opened the Western mind to the power of geometry, mathematics and science.

Many of the greatest names of the Renaissance (Piero della Francesca, Leone Battista Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Albrecht Dürer, ...) cut their teeth on perspective. It is not a mere coincidence that soon after the rediscovery of perspective, people were again awakened to the possibility that the earth was round. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, we find the inept mathematician Christopher Columbus misusing perspective to miscalculate the circumference of the planet and setting forth on a west bound voyage to Asia. (Fortunately a new world lay between him and his destination, otherwise the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria would have simply provided the creatures of the deep with a tasty treat.)

While the printing press accelerated our ability to propagate ideas, perspective itself carried an exciting new outlook on life; So, I throw my hat in with those who consider the Renaissance rediscovery of perspective as the defining moment of western culture.

The Nature of Scientific Discovery

Indicative of most truly pivotal events, no-one is sure exactly when Brunelleschi drew his pictures. The pictures themselves are lost to time. Even worse, it is highly likely that the Ancient Greeks, who were interested in optics, had mastered the art of perspective thousands of years before Brunelleschi.

Since Brunelleschi learned his mathematical and architectural skills by digging through the ruins of ancient Rome, it is possible that his perspective drawings were inspired by the works of ancient masters. It is also possible that Brunelleschi unlocked the secrets of perspective simply by studying the intricate tiling on the floor of the octagonal Babistery of Saint Giovanni.

Most of Brunelleschi’s biographers make light of his weekend project of rediscovering perspective and launching the Renaissance. Instead, they concentrate on Brunelleschi’s monumental achievement: The capping of the Cathedral (Duomo) of Florence with the largest free standing dome in antiquity. Brunelleschi’s dome still stands as one of the greatest architectural achievements of the western world.

To add scandal to the history of perspective, it is likely that Brunelleschi created his famed drawing with a mechanical aid. His drawings may have been rendered with a device that guided his pen as he simply traced the outline of the Duomo.

Serious mathematicians of today see visual perspective as a lesser topic under the category of optics. I believe that visual perspective has contributed more to the development of the modern western culture than any other event. This rediscovery of perspective taught the Renaissance mind that all of these wonderful things in this world around us are connected.

In the next several chapters, we will develop a quick model of perspective.