The Most Innovative Moment in Art History — The Invention of Perspective
“The history of art is a history of vision, but also in a whole new way of seeing and conceptualising the world.” — Martin Kemp
The Della Pittura was conceived by the perfectionist Battista Alberti in the early Quattrocento. His motivations both personally and for artists led to an intellectualisation of the arts and saw it earn a status that remains a domain to marvel at. The debate as to whether Alberti was the first theorist of art lies between the tensions of originality and attribution. The significance of the treatise is evident in the works of Renaissance artists as well as being the origin of art theory discourse as we know it today.
Alberti, like any young person, strived to be financially secure in his chosen profession. As a skilled painter with an avid interest in mathematics and science, he strived for renowned status, eventually earning a “most honourable name and reputation.” He mixed with circles of humanists and other talented men. He invented the camera obscura as well as the velo, born out of his obsession with vision. Ultimately, he wanted to present himself as an intellectual. Alberti’s bronze plaque of his own profile exerts “pride, sensibility and disillusion,” but the Della Pittura was what fulfilled his desires. Vasari wrote, “ when fame and reputation are concerned the written word is more enduring and influential than anything else; for, provided they are honest and innocent of lies, books travel freely and are trusted wherever they go.” However bias his statement was, Vasari explained why the Della Pittura was so enduring, the medium of literature being pivotal to Alberti’s success.
With Alberti’s individual aspirations at the forefront of his writings, he needed to create a shift in the arts to an intellectual height to achieve his goals. Early in the Quattrocento, artists were known only as craftsmen. They belonged to guild’s such as the bottega and followed the notion of creation as colla mano, of the hand. Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook explains this practical aspect of creating crafts. Other texts such as the Trattato d’Abaco and Il Libro d’Arte attempted to codify practical skills, but still treated the arts as crafts. This was supported by the socioeconomic climate where the origin of a man’s career would lie with his fathers’ status. It was less expensive to complete an apprenticeship. These generations of artists lacked tertiary education and opted for “a counsel of perfection” in workshop training instead.
The artists exercised practical problem solving skills to represent nature on the flat surface with paint. In City by the Sea by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, it is evident the composition of the work does not look like the scene should appear in reality. The flatness of planes built upon one another to represent distance does not connect with the viewers eye harmoniously. One could not gather the sense they could walk through the small streets that appear in front of them. The aesthetic aims of artists were different. In contrast, The Ideal City by Luciano Laurana permeates the surface of the painting where the viewer feels invited into the space. The architecture resonates with the mind as almost tangible. There is a clear direction our eye wants to follow; the empirically correct use of line makes the exercise of viewing the work one of absolute ease. Geometry, mathematics, optics and technical skill are evident in the final product that transports the participant to a piazza in Italy.
In the first book of Della Pittura, Alberti set out to “instruct the painter how he can represent with his hand what he has understood with his mind.” He facilitated a shift in the arts from collo mano to colcervello, with the mind. He championed the seven liberal arts and stated the content of the treatise will only be “worthy by their art of the ears of learned men.” Initially the book was written in Latin, only readable by the highly educated then reprinted in Italian so the codex could reach a wider audience. He upheld the painters required a “thorough knowledge of geometry” to be able to apply the rules on offer. A stage of intellectualisation was in motion.
Alberti also saw a niche for stylistic advancement. Like Vasari, he valued the aesthetic of classical antiquity but his vision looked to the basis of nature itself. “This scientific basis of naturalism was the one way in which the artists of the early renaissance believed they might surpass antiquity.” He mastered the rules of foreshortening and invented the velo to facilitate practical application. He championed the eye as apex of a visual pyramid and defined the picture plane as the intersection of this pyramid. His expectations for the rendering of anatomy and fabric were supported by instruction for construction. He wrote of how to inject liveliness into the work, “the figures should move with a certain beautiful agreement towards the main subject of the action.” Alberti also documented how to apply composition, colour and perspective with the utmost precision so the artists could create “an organism analogous to those created by nature.” The realm of the arts had lend itself to realism.
Piero della Francesca’s enigmatic painting The Flagellation readily demonstrates the ideals the Della Pittura expresses. The subtlety of situation and narrative allows the viewer to engage with the quiet features and observe the precision with which it is rendered. Foreshortening is accurate and the positioning of figures is correct following the ideal “no learned person will deny that no objects in a painting can appear like real objects, unless they stand to each other in a determined relationship.” The composition is mathematically drafted, orthogonal lines clearly defining the picture plane intersecting the optical pyramid. Where light and shadow falls is done with purpose to help convince the viewer of what is being presented. The painting looks right to the viewer’s eye. The employment of pictorial conventions in the manner Alberti dictated creating a sense of the absolute.
To say Alberti was the first theorist of art is an enigmatic statement. There had been many art commentaries published before Alberti by the likes of Lucian, Pliny, Philostratus, Horac Durandus and Theophilus, but their origin remained literary. What exclusively belongs to painting and no other art form is the notion of perspective. In validating whether Alberti was the first to devise perspective is problematic. The man himself attributed his findings to Brunelleschi, Donatello, Ghberti and Masaccio. These artists had practiced the theory Alberti described in his treatise. The issue lies with whether practice or theory won the race.
Vasari championed the exercise of both theory together with practice as most “fruitful.” Brunelleschi, according to Manetti, was the first to practice perspective in his architecture and in the invention of his peep show. Though this demonstrated how a painting can look to the eye as it would in reality, he never defined the phenomenon of optics or how conventions were used to present the image on the flat plane. Nor did he divulge how he constructed the Duomo of Florence. Vasari stated, “the advice and writings of knowledgeable artists carry more weight and are more efficacious that the words of work of those who… are merely practical men.” Apples always fell from trees, twigs always ran downstream, but the theory of why it occurred was first attributed to the man who wrote it down.
Alberti was not the only theorist at the time. The statement, “he provided a wealth of material which had never previously been written down in the context of art theory” is a disputatious one. He is said to be part of a “Quattrocento quintet.” Cennini brought the arts into the literary, Piero della Francesca used mathematics to describe method, Ghiberti exercised the science of optics in presenting antiquity and Leonardo Da Vinci presented vast writings on the field.
Where Alberti did innovate was in his observations of colour. This view, however, on who innovated the most in their writings is very narrow in it dismisses Alberti’s acceptance of art theory as a collaborative practice where they “caught light and heat from each other’s thoughts.”
Alberti stated, “let those who come after with greater wits and learning write a book on painting absolute et perfetta.” Leonardo’s Trattato is believed to be based upon the Della Pittura, the artist in possession of the treatise at the time. It was written of the Della Pittura, “his treatise on painting could hardly have influenced artists during this period until reinterpreted by the true creator of the high renaissance style, Leonardo Da Vinci.” Though Alberti demonstrated his theorising with diagrams and architecture, Leonardo, Uccello and Francesco realised his idioms with paint.
It was quoted, the Della Pittura, “once so revolutionary, had become commonplace.” It is a simple mistake to read the rules of perspective in a painting and assume the artist must have constructed it from Alberti’s treatise. It was typical of the contemporary Quattrocento art practice to present works of a gothic style along with linearism as with the works of Uccello and Fra Fillippo Lippi. The book’s significance at the time was likely celebrated for its contemporary discussion, where men alike breathed “a common air,” despite Martin Kemp’s views on their segregation. The practice of what was written in the Della Pittura was only evident much later than when it was completed predominantly by Franscesco and Leonardo. It was also argued painting could have reached the same height it did on its own with the return of classical aesthetic because the pursuit to surpass the art of the past was inevitable.
However, it is in the visual reference to the literary we find direct influence of Alberti’s text in painting. In Mantegna’s Martyrdom of St Christopher the concept of the picture frame as a window through which the scene is to be seen is acknowledged. Upon the vanishing point there lies a window bringing direct attention to his reasoning of Alberti. More so, Alberti speaks of the notion, you require a target before you can draw a bow. In the window we see a man with an arrow in his eye. Could it be Mantegna was gloating about his bullseye in mastering Alberti’s plea for perfection? The work is also geometrically correct. The use of line is exceptional to demonstrate a regression of space where the artist incorporates geometric patterns to emulate tiling and a roofing structure as though it would appear in reality. The combination of both iconography and stylistic adherence to the Della Pittura shows the significance and influence of Alberti’s text on Mantegna.
The ideals in the Della Pittura are evident in art works throughout a period spanning hundreds of years. The reactionary nature of art can be traced back to the Quattrocento. The Modernists in particular referred to the principles defined by Alberti, finding a foundation upon which they built their practice, despite the fact it was a rejection. Even art critics used it as leverage such as Heinrich Wölfflin and his arguments against imitation of nature. In saying so, these art historians including Gombrich and Panofsky debated more with Vasari’s ideals than Alberti’s text.
It would be interesting to observe a conversation between Alberti, Charles Baudelaire, André Breton and Clement Greenberg for I believe they all shared a common desire to define the purpose of art in the literary, meanwhile manipulating the space so the direction of art practice followed their personal preference. Of course this a retrospective judgement; none of them could have foreseen their influence on art history. Nevertheless, the Della Pittura, “was not only the prophecy but the source of academic theory.”
Alberti found himself fame and fortune as well as facilitating an intellectualisation of the arts forevermore. Both collaborative and innovative, he utilised the aesthetics of the past to build upon artistic practice and essentially write the first book of theory on painting as we study today. It is more true to say of Alberti it is in the marriage of both scientific and stylistic theorising that made him the first to write on the subject of art theory discourse as we know it today. The visual translation of perspective into literary terms has proved monumental and withstood the reactionary nature of the progression of art. He codified the new way of seeing art history is built upon and it is preserved in the paintings of the Quattrocento which still remain for us to enjoy in the twenty-first century. “Genius is always above its age.”
Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting and On Sculpture. trs. Cecil Grayson, (London: 1972)
Burke, Peter. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy. (Princeton: 1986)
Blake, William. Annotations to The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1798)
Clark, Kenneth. ‘Leon Battista Alberti On Painting,’ The Art of Humanism. (New York and London: 1981)
Hauser, Arnold. ‘The Social Status of the Renaissance Artist,’ The Social History of Art. (New York: 1985)
Kemp, Martin. ‘Ideas The Ordering of Artistry’ Behind the Picture. (New Haven and London: 1997)
Kemp, Martin. ‘Piero and the Idiots: The Early Fortuna of His Theories of Perspective’ Piero Della Francesca and His Legacy. (Washington, 1955)
Pater, Walter. The Renaissance (Oxford 1967)
Newton, Isaac. A Treatise of the System of the World. (First published 1728)
Vasari. “The Lives of the Artists” Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects. (London and New York 1963)