Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 25, 2011
Samuel Y. Edgerton The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. 224 pp.; 105 b/w ills. Paper $19.95 (9780801474804)

When John Addington Symonds described the Renaissance for the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, he did not mention perspective. Admittedly, the visual arts were rather sweepingly described. But the idea that the Renaissance inaugurated a scientific view of the world came later. Jacques Mesnil in 1927, for instance, described how medieval work had held the observer’s attention by force of the religious subject, and how perspective made it possible to establish a coherence within and beyond the picture space on aesthetic grounds alone. This new device served “to reinforce the unity of the work and to communicate its rhythm to the spectator” (Jacques Mesnil, Masaccio et les débuts de la Renaissance, The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1927, 120–121). So perspective construction might correlate with a secular outlook, but there lingered a reluctance to accept an identification of science and artistry. Mesnil had warned against conflating the work of Brunelleschi, an engineer, with the art by which levels of reality were manipulated at will. Masaccio’s “brusque affirmation of the third dimension” could be chalked up to realism only if realism were carefully defined, for his was a style endowed with plenty “de la structure logique, de la cohesion rigoureuse, de la rude vigueur, de la concentration plastique” (110). Mesnil not only minimized any contribution Brunelleschi might have made to the fresco in Santa Maria Novella, but was intent upon keeping the criterion by which Masaccio was judged well within the realm of art. Mario Salmi in 1947 still echoed this point of view: “la norma scientifica dell perspectiva lineare non ha una sua traduzione banalmente illusiva della realtà, è liricamente tradotta dalla fantasia dell’artista” (Mario Salmi, Masaccio, Milan: U. Hoepli, 1948, 128).

That language of description has vanished, blown away first by the crisp exactitude of John White’s reasoning in The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space (John White, The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space, London: Faber and Faber, 1957). There, realism is no longer a shunned word but is balanced with a keen sense of how the artist deliberately uses perspective devices to control the observer. Brunelleschi and Donatello are brought in as fellow travelers. As White characteristically proclaimed near the end of his discussion of Masaccio’s Holy Trinity (1425), “the analytic mind is able suddenly to comprehend the full artistic value of a thing which the inarticulate eye accepted from the first” (1972 edition, 140), i.e., the meshing of mathematical determinism with an adequate portrayal of the Godhead.

Symonds did not need to prove that the Renaissance was important, but only to make it come alive for a readership that already believed. What has changed most across the time span of Samuel Edgerton’s three books on fifteenth-century Florentine perspective (Piero della Francesca frequently gets the short end of the stick, a situation rectified by J. V. Field’s Piero della Francesca, A Mathematician’s Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) is the status of this premise. Whereas in 1975 the reader was encouraged to remember an accomplishment that had never really received the acclaim it deserved (“Today we are tired children of their [Brunelleschi’s and Alberti’s] discovery; the magic of perspective illusion is gone, and the ‘innate’ geometry in our eyes and in our paintings is taken for granted” [Samuel Edgerton, Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective, New York: Basic Books, 1975, 4]), now the tone has grown a bit more insistent. Brunelleschi’s lost perspective panel paintings are deemed “the most influential artworks produced during the entire European Renaissance” (5), for they have changed how Westerners see. (Edgerton’s first book came out shortly after Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972], and its influence is still felt here; Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shift, much in evidence in 1975, is less so in 2009.) Edgerton fit solidly into the art history of 1975 when he asserted that, “As linear perspective fixed their eyes more intensely on the natural world, these humanist craftsmen became quasi-scientists” (164).

Perspective became the answer to the newly obtrusive question, why was the Renaissance important? Since it was no longer important as the model for modern art, the answer had to relate to science rather than only to art. Perspective, which Clement Greenberg made sound totally outmoded, could link the Renaissance with modernity through science, not so unlike the link between perspective and the liberal arts in Alberti’s day. Edgerton’s first book played a part in this process, which culminated in Martin Kemp’s The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990). Looking back a bit, Helen Gardner characterized the Early Renaissance as a time in which “arose a scientific search for a more adequate type of expression” in 1936 (Helen Gardner, Art through the Ages, revised edition, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1936, 390), but not in the first edition of 1926; she included the Trinity fresco only in 1948. In 1956, John Spencer’s English translation of On Painting appeared; it was then described in the first posthumous edition of Gardner (1959), which still did not associate Brunelleschi with perspective, but instead Ghiberti.

In 1975, Edgerton made the following claim: “His [Brunelleschi’s] mirror experiment was a feat, not just of aesthetic marksmanship, but of perceptual upheaval and theological reinforcement. Directly or indirectly, it had implications which extended irreversibly to the entire future of Western art—and to science and technology from Copernicus to Einstein” (4). Both the books of 1991 (The Heritage of Giotto’s Geometry: Art and Science on the Eve of the Scientific Revolution, Ithaca: Cornell University Press) and 2009 make remarkably similar arguments. What classicism had done for the Renaissance in the nineteenth century, perspective would do for the second half of the twentieth. The theory of perspective tied the Renaissance to contemporary norms of knowledge, i.e., to empirical and experimental inquiry, and thereby the Renaissance was certified as a topic for knowledgeable people. The Renaissance provided the historical pivot to a scientific world view.

What has changed since 1975 is a matter of emphasis: medieval optics, and particularly Arab medieval optics, plays a bigger part in the more recent work. Perspective does not so much mark the beginning of a new world as mark “the last gasp of the spiritual middle ages” (7). St. Antonino’s preaching invoked the metaphor of mirrors to describe limited knowledge, as in I Corinthians 13, and Brunelleschi arranged the viewing of one of his perspective panels via a mirror; chapter 4 explores this coincidence, also with reference to Fra Filippo Lippi’s work. Marcia Hall’s concept of a relief style has been incorporated in the current account, and connected with the belated publication in 1540 of Alberti’s treatise on painting. The connection lies in the idea that the illusion of the third dimension might be achieved as though in front of the picture plane rather than behind it. The camera obscura, so much talked about recently, is suggested as ancestor of the telescope (it is briefly mentioned in Alberti’s putative autobiography). But whereas in 1975, Brunelleschi’s experiment was something he wanted “to come to the notice of his townsmen” (5), now it is said to have produced “startled excitement”: “within weeks” it was being adopted by several Florentine artists (6). “Even when artists consciously violated perspective rules, they were acknowledging its cultural importance” (2009, 6). After such a claim, it really seems a matter of faith that perspective changed the world, and indeed, Edgerton relies on words like “miracle” (more liberally in 1975, it is true, and not just of perspective but of Renaissance art and thought, e.g., 32) at the same time that he associates perspective with mapmaking and astronomy. Perspective construction manages to belong both to medieval faith (it stemmed “from the longing of medieval Christians to feel that God and his holy works be more palpably present and immanently concerned with the problems of their daily lives, assuaging their feelings of spiritual emptiness caused by the loss of Jerusalem” [20, 2009]) and to the lunar landings (268). The significance of Alberti’s metaphor of the window, for Edgerton, is a shift to seeing Nature “not as a divine mystery revealed by geometry, but as worldly perfection framed by geometry” (8). The next step is the telescope.

The illusion of empty yet significant space may be counted among the most startling of innovations by Renaissance artists. The geometry of perspective and the rigorous planning of Renaissance architects went hand in hand. When Le Corbusier developed his module, he did so partly at least in emulation of the organic unity of Renaissance building, all developed from the column, that abstract emblem of a person, symmetrical and proportional. Bramante followed on Brunelleschi and made the scheme more fully three dimensional, a project carried on by Palladio, among others. All this may be taken as given and significant. What is at issue is whether the use of systematic perspective by Renaissance painters and relief sculptors distinguished their work from the ancients or is one more point of comparison, albeit partial comparison (the discovery versus invention debate Edgerton discounted in 1975 (6)); secondly, whether its being a monocular construction seriously obviates the claim that Renaissance painting provided a convincing illusion of natural appearances, and thirdly, whether the historiography of Renaissance perspective has not become more noteworthy than both its theory and practice in the fifteenth century, for it was seldom pursued with absolute rigor, in part because the viewer seldom would have been able to stand in just the right spot for maximum effect. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ceiling illusionism, the works of Andrea Pozzo and the Galli-Bibiena family, went gloriously ahead despite the distortions inherent in most of the viewing positions, all forgotten in the joy of finally standing where one belonged. In between, during the sixteenth century, most painters got by with knowing how to show a few banked steps and a receding cornice. For a shocking revelation that changed patterns of vision, linear perspective had a somewhat uneven development. One might wish for a history of perspective that was able also to accommodate its role as delightful visual toy, e.g., in the work of Vendramin de Vries and Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, among others.

The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope is compact and affordable, a convenient introduction to Edgerton’s work rather than a substantial revision of the earlier books. Yet it does manage to achieve both an amplification and a condensation of that previous work. It has its moments of fun, such as suggesting Galileo as a founder of landscape art—and not without a drop of seriousness in the claim. Despite the title, only the last two chapters and postface deal with the effects of perspective theory outside of the art of fifteenth-century Florentines. There is much to be learned from this book, not only about Brunelleschi and his peers, but also about ongoing difficulties in finding the right way to talk about the accomplishments of the fifteenth century. The current strains on a traditional conception of the Renaissance and of issues of periodization can be felt here, if only by the vehemence of certain assertions. Here, but not only here, the Italian Renaissance is in danger of disappearing into the Middle Ages on one side and modernism on the other.

Patricia Emison
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Hampshire