1 February 2007

Through the Veil (Crosby continued)

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 5:35 pm

We all know the story of the Renaissance painters’ transition from flat Medieval iconography to more naturalistic, perspectival representations. The new style relied on a trompe l’oeil effect to project the impression of a third dimension back into the painting, as though the observer were looking through a window at the scene behind it. To achieve an accurate perspectival effect, artists had to capture the moment and the empty space.

We think of realistic art as the visualization of a scene at a single instant in time — kind of like a painted snapshot. Medievalists tended to paint whole stories: a single painting might, for example, depict Paul’s ship going aground, Paul struggling to shore, and Paul preaching to the pagans. Even the single moment is depicted “on the move”: the artist might show three sides of a rectangular building, which can’t be seen by standing in one place. We’re also used to seeing objects depicted in context, which means leaving spaces between things. Medieval artists didn’t do that: they crowded all the objects together — a style known as horror vacui, or fear of empty spaces (thanks to Jason Hesiak for that bit of art knowledge). It’s hard to represent either breadth or depth accurately without making room for the vacancies that spread the world apart.

Painting started moving toward modern realism in mid-13th century Italy. But even Giotto, the first acclaimed master of the new techniques, didn’t achieve perspectival accuracy. Ptolemy’s ancient method of representing surfaces via geometric gridwork, brought to Florence in 1400, had as much impact on painting as on cartography. A perspectival painting is like a geometrically accurate map of the scene depicted by the artist. The Florentine Alberti formalized perpsectival painting technique based on ancient Greek optical theory:

Seeing was a matter of information being acquired by the eye through a cone (or, as it was often called, a pyramid) of light extending out from the eye. An accurate picture was a slice of that cone, vertical to its central axis, made at whatever distance from the eye the picture taker selected.

To implement Ptolemy’s geometric techniques, Alberti recommended that the painter set up a veil between himself and the subject. The veil, a gridwork of fabric, was the slice through the visual cone.

One was to paint or draw not what one knew to be true about the scene — for instance, with parallel lines always the same distance apart — but strictly what one saw. What one saw was parallel lines angling toward each other the farther they extended away from the observer. One could measure how much they converged in appearance by gazing at them through the veil and counting threads. Then one would transfer that to a flat surface on which one had carefully drawn lines equivalent to the veil’s threads. The veil enabled the painter to quantify not reality, but something more subtle: the perception of reality.

Medieval Italian streets and floors really are constructed from a gridwork of stones or tiles, but the reason they appear in all those masterpieces by Leonardo and Raphael and Michelangelo is to establish the costruzione legitima, the perspectival geometry on which Renaissance painting was based.

The intellectuals of the Middle Ages respected mathematics in the abstract and tended to veer away from it in practice. Those of the Renaissance respected mathematics, especially geometry, and utilized it extravagantly in practice… The artists of the Renaissance avant-garde, who were often architects, engineers, artisans, and mathematicians as well as painters, were obsessed with space-as-geometry.



  1. John,

    Thanks for the shout out. One thing…can’t forget that it was clear to them (Alberti, Durer, ect.) that what MAKES the “construction” “legitimate” is not the painter’s perception, his approximation of perspectival reality from his side of the gridded veil, but that the ratios generated by the rules of proper persepctive (the perpective construction itself, and not “the painter’s perspective”) were the same harmonious ratios that are generated by the Platonic solids and studied by Pythagoras on down…and apear in the ratios and inter-ratios of the human body and all throughout nature. This is “the harmony of the spheres” whose ratios inter-play with the eternal Forms that stand beyond and are what make Man. These same ratios appear both in Alberti’s perpectival paintings and in the invisible grid that lies behind his architecural plans…a grid that served as a precursor to the “grid plans” of modern masters such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies VanderRohe.

    Corbusier’s “Piloti” (in reference to his fascination with flying) and “domino plan” are particularly interesting because they are about lifting up off the GROUND…and perspective is all about the Ground and the Vanishing Point, which in Renaissance Ideal City perspective painting was called the “point of flight”.

    See: http://www.lesterkorzilius.com/pubs/ma/vua_vs/09.htm
    What that site calls “Supports”, Le Corbusier called “piloti”.




    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 2 February 2007 @ 1:38 am

  2. Thanks, Jason. Crosby talks about the revival of Plato in northern Italy near the beginning of what would become the Renaissance. Platonic theory is what helped move perspectival painting beyond Giotto’s praxis. Maybe this neo-Platonic emphasis on ideal Form has something to do with why neither the Reformation nor the Enlightenment came out of Italy.

    I read your link to Corbusier’s 5-point architectural manifesto. When I read his proposal that residential space should begin 3-5 meters above ground level I thought, well, that’s how it works in Europe anyway. Retail space is on the ground floor, with the housing units stacked on top. The first floor in a European building is what we Americans call the second floor. But then I realized that Corbusier wanted to eliminate the ground floor altogether, to put the building up on stilts.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 February 2007 @ 10:23 am

  3. Yeah, John…just to be clear, though, I don’t think he was as interested in eliminating the ground floor as “elevating” the building. “Point of flight”.

    And what’s this about why the Enlightenment nor Reformation came out of Italy? Please explain more. That’s interesting.



    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 2 February 2007 @ 6:45 pm

  4. Jason — As if the building were hovering in midair? That the entry is a kind of gangplank onto a spacecraft?


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 February 2007 @ 9:48 am

  5. I propose that the Enlightenment was an outgrowth of the Reformation. Most of the key Enlightenment figures came out of Protestant countries. The Reformers thought it was important to build their theologies on systematic analysis of the written revelation of Scripture, rather than on inspired mystical insights or tradition. To that extent Luther and Calvin were empiricists trying to make sense of Scriptural data, rather than Greeks looking behind the data to pure Spirit. This focus on the data is what characterized Enlightenment science.

    The revival of Plato in Italy got the Florentines to focus on pure Form instead of pure Spirit. Their third dimension was spatial rather than iconographic. This spatial idealism may have kept the Florentines from focusing closely enough on the subjects they painted for their own sake rather than as imperfect manifestations of a Platonic ideal. It wasn’t until the Protestants smashed the icons that you got realistic art in Rembrandt and the Dutch masters. It’s because the realists were interested in visual data for its own sake. And perhaps also narrative data, since Rembrandt’s paintings do capture a sense of story.

    So what do you think? Does that make sense? Is it possible?


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 February 2007 @ 10:38 am

  6. That does make sense about the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Thanks.

    As for Corbusier’s piloti…that is a very legitimate question in my mind…that reveals a stronger understanding of what architecture is than most published architects. However, to answer your question, Corbusier’s work – if you just read the words, dig for meaning, and see the photos – can in fact appear as though it were “hovering in mid air”. In Medieval perspective paintings of the Ideal City, however, the “point of flight” occurs at exactly the “joint” between ground and sky (Ground above and Ground below), earth and heaven. The is precisely the play of an architecutral master, to keep the building at play BETWEEN the two Grounds…for the building to serves AS the join-ing. Most architecture that does this must be “experienced” in person, in acutality. This, in general, is what Le Corbusier was doing.

    Most architects’ building – exactly because their buildings really look/are no different from the graphic “elevations” drawn on paper, exactly because they are not grounded – appear as spacecraft…even though most architects have no interest in “edification” or “elevation” of the human being.

    Does THAT make sense?




    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 3 February 2007 @ 11:54 pm

  7. I like the whole idea of a “manifesto.” I think there ought to be manifestoes for everything. Have you ever read Antonin Artaud’s manifesto for a “theater of cruelty”? Schizophrenic, sure, but also visionary.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 February 2007 @ 7:40 pm

  8. In referencing this post for Melody I just noticed that you had responded to me!! After all this time!! No I haven’t read Artaud…only about him a bit.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 28 December 2007 @ 10:57 am

  9. BTW…I got this book for Christmas :)


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 28 December 2007 @ 11:07 am

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