The Politics of Representations

1 – The invention of the artificial perspective, a meeting space for world and idea.

Light operates as the structuring element of ideality in Byzantine art; linear perspective will do the same for the Renaissance period, and will continue to do so with greater or lesser intensity until the dawn of the 20th century. The role of perspective is not only to be the “scaffolding” which helps the building of images; it also carries a symbolic function. One may use the metaphor of language, in the sense that an entity analogous to a subject, an “I”, a person, emerges in the shape of a point in a relationship with the “there” which is a field of visual perception.

As Michel Foucault mentioned in Les Mots et les Choses, perspectiva artificialis, the so-called “artificial perspective”, does not imitate vision, any more than painting imitates the physical space. Perspective is there to offer something to our eyes. Thanks to this instrument, the object is taken, captured, manipulated in the field of vision; painting or photography can use this power in order to capture the “object” in a relationship to desire, as Lacan has suggested in his Séminaire, (Book XI, The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, Paris, 1973). Lacan noted very subtly the analogy which exists between the reduction of man to an eye, and of the eye to a single, fixed point, by the operation of the perspectiva artificialis, on the one hand, and that crucial moment in the European and therefore “western” conscience and science which is the institution of the cartesian subject, or if one prefers the relationship with the cartesian cogito, on the other hand. 

This analogy leads us to reflect on a fault, a break, in the humanist culture of the Quattrocento created by the invention of this “legitimate construction” which is supposedly the expression of such humanistic culture. Reduction of man versus universality of the conscience: are we facing a contradiction within that cultural moment which is called “humanism”? That question reverberates to this day.

As Michel Serres discusses in Le système de Leibnitz et ses modèles mathématiques (1968), the question of the fixed point, of the reference, has been one of the dominating issue of the Classical Age. In this sense, the cogito may be understood as the translation of a theme, of a structure which exists in all the fields of knowledge, and which constitute a world view, a Weltanschauung, related to the Cartesian ideal of a mastery of the world, of a submission of the world to laws which the Reason is capable of discovering or which are, according to the philosophies of Idealism, the very rules which govern Reason itself.

But what is the legitimacy of this fixed point, and who will assign it ? Which is the power able to select it, and to impose it ? Pascal, one of the greatest metaphysicians of his time, wrote in his Thoughts: “so pictures, seen from either too far or too near; there is but one point, indivisible, which is the true place: the other ones are too near, or too far, or too high, or too low. Perspective assigns it in the art of painting. But in truth and in morals, who shall assign it? ” (Thought #381). Pascal answers, of course, that it is God who assigns it, “the folly that comes from God but that is wiser than all the wisdom of man”. (Thought #445). This “mad point” which God assigns is discovered by the Church (not the institution, obviously, but the Eccelsia, the collective body upon which God is acting through his grace), which history must be called precisely that of truth (Thought #858). There was always a powerful relationship between truth and perspective, insofar as truth, in its historical rather than metaphysical dimension, is a matter of perspective. But perspective also brings to light a number of dichotomies, of oppositions. For instance, between the knowledge that derives from a method of spatial representation, from this single point which defines and organizes representation therefore deciding about the vision, and a truth about which that particular perspective tells us nothing, hence the philosophical solution brought by Pascal. The solution can be discarded of course, but not the dichotomy.

There is in any case an obvious relationship between perspective and knowledge, and therefore the control of reality. Reality lets itself be analyzed by some kind of visual interpretation, and the effort to represent a phenomenon, to translate it in terms of spatiality, is a way to make it intelligible. As suggested by Francastel (in La réalité figurative), the Middle Ages believed in the absolute of the substance, while Renaissance believed in the absolute of the laws of the Intelligible.

The coherence which we find in this type of representations is a source of satisfaction for the mind. It is also a manipulation of the forms which confers upon them a character of measurability, an order, thereby generating a trust which undoubtedly belongs to the man of the Renaissance.

However, perspective is not only a way to introduce order in the visible world, to render it intelligible. It is a wider concept which touches upon all aspects of space, which manifests a totalizing intuition, a need to integrate all the elements of the universe into a whole. In his Commentarium Urbanorum, published in 1506, Raffaele di Volterra enumerates the advantages of this “discipline”, i.e. of the art of linear perspective: they include “measuring buildings, composition for architecture and painting, spatial determination of shades and bodies, understanding of the evolution and structure of celestial bodies, etc”. It is, thus, a way to understand the very structure of the cosmos.

The perspectiva artificialis of the Renaissance puts in front of us a closed, immobile world, ordained around an exogenous truth which sets the viewpoint, and the harmony of a mathematical structure in this predetermined context. It is a perfect, timeless, rigid space. Georges Braque said in 1910 that “All the tradition of the Renaissance disgusts me. The rigorous rules which it imposed upon art were a terrible mistake, and four centuries were needed to rectify this” (quoted in Braque et l’espace, Ch. Brunet). This judgement is clearly excessive and short-sighted, as those rules opened an entirely new, and extremely vast, world of representation and visual experience which would otherwise have not prospered; it is interesting insofar as the rebellion of the 20th century art movements, but also more generally the intellectual revolution of the early 20th century, is in part a rebellion against the mindset of linear perspective.

Contrary to the opinion of Erwin Panofsky, whose essay on “Perspective as a symbolic form” published in 1927 remains a reference point of any reflection on perspective, space cannot be considered as infinite, continuous and homogeneous. Space, if it is infinite and homogeneous, if it is open, can only be a center-less space, or a space with an infinity of centers. On the contrary, we are in the context of a polarized space at a time when the most obvious paradigm is the solar system, a time obsessed with astrology and its various ramifications, and therefore by the idea of a universal determinism, a time which has no knowledge yet of infinitesimal calculus or of the Keplerian concept according to which parallels are a mere category of a system of lines which cross in the infinite.

While the Middle Ages, which were dominated by the relationship with a transcendental order, the Renaissance looks for an immanent order of the cosmos. Reality becomes a necessary condition for the understanding of such order, and nature lato sensu is the form taken by reality, it makes it tangible in all its complexity. The laws which govern form are therefore the laws of nature, or at least homothetic to the laws of nature, and the mental process that leads us to conception of nature is the same as the one which leads us to a concept of form, that is, also to art. Perspective is the expression of a law which is common to nature and to the artistic form; it is the method, the mental process which allows to explore and determine the values, which are nothing else than the application of conscience to reality. For the authors of the Quattrocento, perspective makes the relationship between the artist and the world possible. For them, there is a form of identity between science and representation according to the principles of perspective.

It is, among others, the position of Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) who, in his treaty “De Pictura”, makes reality coincide with that which is perceptible, and negates any value to tradition which is considered a collection of ideas accumulated over time, extraneous to any direct experience of reality. On the contrary, Cennino Cennini (1360 – 1427), who wrote his treaty on painting, Il libro dell’arte, around 1390, is a typical representative of the traditionalist school when he writes : “the task of the painter is to discover things invisible, those which are hidden under the shade of natural things”.

What is precisely this perspectiva artificiali, as developed in the course of the early 15th century ? It is in the treaty of architecture of Filarete (1400 – 1469), a Florentine architect and sculptor, that we find for the first time the name of Brunelleschi associated to the discovery of the rules of perspective. However, the formal description of Brunelleschi’s experiments with perspective are known to us from the Vita di Filippo Brunelleschi, attributed to the mathematician Antonio di Tucci Manetti, a friend of the painter Paolo Uccello who was literally fascinated by the matter of perspective. This Life, written sometime around 1475, has been commented many times. It discusses two paintings by Brunelleschi which represent two town squares, the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. A little hole in the middle of the painting allowed the viewer, standing behind it, to see it reflected in a mirror placed at some distance in front. Brunelleschi could deduct by means of this simple device how the image varies in size and shape according to its distance from the mirror.

A key consideration is, firstly, that the standpoint of the painter who represented the Duomo could be deducted precisely from the painting, and secondly, that the position assigned to the eye with respect to the vanishing point is rigorously determined at the place of the hole. It is interesting to observe that the painting also had a mirror fixed on top of its upper border, so that the sky and its passing clouds could be reflected. This mirror functioned as the index of a discontinuity between the domain of what could be represented by means of the perspectiva artificialis and that other domain, the sky and the clouds which, being limitless and centerless, seemed impossible to capture, to discipline into an organized representation, and therefore had to be presented in their “natural” form rather than re-presented. There was clearly a concept of heterogeneity between those two domains of reality. We see that perspective, in the mind of Brunelleschi and his contemporaries, applies to realities obeying what Manetti calls “reasons”, to what seems to proceed from some rational order: buildings, cities, landscapes… By nature, and because of its origin, perspective maintains close ties with the built environment, with architecture. This relationship can also be established at a symbolic level between perspective and the polis, the city in its political dimension.

Let us examine more closely the technical nature of perspectiva artificialis also called “linear perspective”. Alberti will expose it in his treaty De Pictura, written in 1435; it will be published a century later, but is already well known in the Florentine intellectual circles by the mid-15th century. For the first time since Antiquity, linear perspective is not a result of mere intuition applied to an artwork, but enters the domain of mathematical theorization to be subsequently put in practice.

Alberti’s method is based on two main principles:

  • The lines orthogonal to the plane of the painting converge towards a single point, the position of which is determined by the eye of the viewer;
  • The size of objects diminishes in direct proportion to its distance with respect to the viewer.

These two principles allow to establish a mathematically homogeneous space. Its purest figure is the chessboard, or variations thereof such as, for instance, paved floors. The chessboard provides a scale, materializes the abstraction of space before setting objects or people into that pre-existing space.

If we wish to construct the image of a square, the method proposed by Alberti tells us that, considering a vertical line SS’ on the surface of the painting, the projection V of the eye O will be the centre – called vanishing point – where the lines VA and VB which are orthogonal to the plane VSS’ shall converge. In order to draw the square, one needs to find the points where the “visual rays” originating in O cross the vertical line SS’ to reach B (the furthest point of the base of the square),  and draw from there a parallel to AB (see diagram). Alberti imagines that we see the base line from one side, O being the eye. By superposing this drawing with the original triangle VAB, SS’ being used as a pivot, we can draw the parallels to the base line. The method can be easily extended to any number of squares or rectangular figures.

There is a simpler method proposed by canon Jean Pèlerin, alias Viator, in his treaty “De artificiali perspectiva” dated 1505. What differs from Alberti’s method is the use of the so-called “distance point”. Starting from the same triangle as Alberti, Viator determines a point “d” on the parallel to AB which crosses SS’, with a distance Vd which is equal to the separating the eye from the surface of the painting. The line dV crosses the line SS’ in C’, from which it is possible to fin C on the parallel to AB. The method of Viator provides for a more receding perspective than that of Alberti, for an equal distance of the plane to the eye. Viator’s method is reproduced by da Vignola (1507 – 1573), the great theoretician of Renaissance architecture, in his treaty Le due regole della prospettiva pratica, in 1583.

Of course, both methods are artificial in the sense that they do not provide for an exact reproduction of the optical experience, and the distortion is all the more apparent as one gets nearer to the painting. At the extreme, if one is very close to the surface, the method of Viator will show us a triangle, which is clearly not what occurs in reality. We are facing a codification of space, of the visible, rather than an optically perfect reproduction.

In order to better understand the disruption introduced by linear perspective with respect to previous methods of spatial organization, let us consider two examples taken from 14th century painting. In a medieval miniature illustrating the Bible of Nicholas of Lyra (1270 – 1349), a doctor at the Sorbonne whose commentary of the Bible (Postillae perpetuae in universam S. Scripturam) was the first ever to be published, though long after his death, one can see that each element of architecture is treated separately, using different “schemes” of construction, none of which is coherent with the others: there is no homogeneous space. The difference in size between the various buildings results from a symbolic, not optical, hierarchy; the Holy of Holies is larger in size. A certain spatial depth is suggested, but the perspective is reversed, both to show more components of the scene which would otherwise be hidden from our sight, and to give a feeling of expansion towards the divine, which is usually symbolized by a gilded background.

The paved floor is also represented with what amounts to an inversed perspective intuitively built, and specific to each part of the composition; an apparent contradiction exists between the detail with which each tile is painted, and the absence of any realistic rendering of the floor. What matters is not what actually meets the eye, but to convey some idea of the essence of what is being considered, and of its intrinsic qualities,such as being glorious, precious, holy, and so on. This de-structuration of space will of course reappear in the 20th century with an entirely different set of values and purposes.

Turning now our eyes to the Last Supper of the famous altarpiece by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1260 – 1318) known as the Maestà, we are faced with a combination of the great byzantine tradition and a formal language which remains gothic, in the wake of Cimabue and Giotto. Space is clearly organized so as to provide a certain depth to the scene, and in particular the beams of the ceiling create a manner of central perspective which helps focus on the face of Christ. However, the lateral walls have a different vanishing point, while the table cloth is closer to an axonometric view; it is painted in order to show to the viewer what lies on the table, and in particular the bread and the wine that are going to be shared on the occasion of this first Eucharist. Space is fragmented in order to speak about what is important, not to give any illusion of reality.

Last Supper – Maesta – Duccio di Buoninsegna

The Sienese painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290 – 1348), mostly known for his Allegory of Good and Bad Government in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, painted in 1344 an Annunciation which is among the first paintings of Italian art known to us where lines orthogonal to the surface converge towards a single vanishing point situated roughly in the middle of the painting. The structuring of space is left entirely to the floor, which reproduces the paradigmatic form of the chessboard, while the bodies of the angel and the Virgin Mary are turned slightly towards the viewer, their shoulders in some visual coherence with the deemed perspective. Still, the pavement is drawn empirically, without the use of any “distance point”: there is no exact proportionality between distance and the diminishing size of each tile. And more evidently yet, there is no spatial consistency of the painting as a whole, the throne of the Virgin being treated in a “gothic” manner.

In the Annunciation which Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted ten years earlier for the Chapel of San Galgano, in Montesiepi, the attempt to structure the space in a similar “illusionist” manner was already present, but the difficulty of painting a fresco, which implies speed of execution, combined with a lack of precise method, did not allow to fully achieve the apparent aim. It would be another century until a geometric method would be devised and systematically exposed in writing.

The most radical breakthrough will be accomplished by Masaccio with the fresco of the Holy Trinity, which was painted between 1426 and 1427 in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It is one of the most decisive moments in the history of painting, and a manifest of all the ideas which have been impregnating the art world, and humanism in general, during the early phase of the Renaissance. Masaccio founded a new visual universe within a short period, as he died very young in 1428, aged only twenty-seven.

The Trinity includes one of the first painted architectures to be fully consistent with the principles of artificial perspective. The vanishing point is located on the central vertical axis, at the level of the floor, where the two figures are kneeling approximately 1.75m above the floor of the church itself, the level of a standing viewer. The fresco is thus painted in accordance with a perspective di sotto in su, i.e. in a low-angle view, with the motif entirely above the horizon. This creates a continuity between the real space where the viewer finds himself, and the fictitious one in the painting, contributing to a dramatization of the scene. The iconology is that of the so-called “throne of grace”, which becomes common in Florence in the late 14th century, though the Father is standing instead of sitting on a throne: an innovation all the more surprising that we can actually see one of his feet, and that His size is the same as that of Christ, making Him definitely look as a human, something which had not previously happened. The kneeling donors, probably from the Lenzi family, are looking at each other, not at the Trinity; their piety seems somewhat artificial, self-celebrating, as if they were presenting to their time and to posterity a daring pictorial and intellectual innovation rather than expressing their faith. Red, after all, is the colour associated with power.  

There is a juxtaposition of two formal lexicons, insofar as the donors are kneeling in the position of orants  typical of medieval funerary monuments, while the painted architecture is a synthesis of the formal investigations of the time, while influences from the North are also discernable; for instance, Saint John and the Virgin are dressed as Burgundians. As noted by Ernst Gombrich, Masaccio’s Trinity brings together the image of a fairly realistic chapel, which could have been built in Florence at the time when it was painted, and a purely symbolic image, that of the Trinity which is beyond the possibility of representation. By doing so, it would seem that God endorses or encourages the building this new world, with its new values, of which this chapel is the metaphor. But one could also read it as a theological manifesto which reinterprets God Himself according to the concepts of Neoplatonism embedded in this architecture.

Visually, Christ is clearly shown as the path between humans and divinity, he is in the exact center of the composition, “linking” the Father and the Spirit to the earthly world. And the saints, St John as well as the Virgin, are one step above the floor on which the donors are kneeling, as befits their greater proximity with the divine. But despite this theologically orthodox hierarchy, the “mathematization” of God makes Him more distant, more theoretical, less of a person. We can read in this Trinity the beginning of a long intellectual and cultural journey where the previous intimacy between God and man is progressively transformed into a mere idea, which would later become an idea open to debate. Pierre Francastel provided a similar analysis (in La figure et le lieu): the donors “have a double vision : they see on the one hand their God in His classic form; they also see a new universe to be built on imaginary bases and following a mental process that is totally different from the other. That is not all. The Cross is standing in front of a sarcophagus which belongs to both intellectual and figurative systems. It refers on the one hand to the Christian and medieval theme of Christ’s tomb, and on the other hand to the sarcophagi that Florentine Renaissance is starting to introduce in Christian sanctuaries in honor of the heroes of the new world”. Masaccio’s Trinity is typical of the fusion of the Christian world and the Ancient world as re-read by the Renaissance, typical of a form of ambivalence of this culture. Artists are creating “the imaginary frame of the new ideology of glory”, as Francastel puts it.

The system of linear perspective, which “carves” a codified and homogeneous compartment within the totality of visual perception, does not aim at establishing some form of identity between the universe as perceived and the universe as represented. The point is to capture fragments of reality and then associate them, in accordance with a narrative, on a limited surface, so as to provide an illusion, the illusion of veracity of this particular narrative which has nothing to do with any form of realism, any form of conformity with an observable reality.

Let us now consider The Foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore by Masolino da Panicale (c. 1383 – c. 1447), who worked before Masaccio in the Cappella Brancacci, and later became a master of linear perspective, perhaps above Masaccio himself. The painting, executed around 1425, shows the superposition of two imaginary planes. In the lower part, Pope Liberio is drawing the foundations of the church to be built after the miraculous snowstorm which, in the summer of 358, is supposed to have left on the ground the contours of a basilica.The design of the church is made in accordance with the rules of linear perspective, which are again used in the arcades to provide spatial consistency to the scene. More surprisingly, a number of clouds are disseminated on the same horizontal level, as if to create a ceiling above which, in a completely distinct celestial realm, Christ and the Virgin are observing and blessing the scene from a kind of circular mandorla, which figures the opening to the heavenly kingdom. In this painting, the lower part is therefore that of terrestrial, tangible realities designated as such by their being organized in a space defined by linear perspective, while the upper part belongs to a world where the laws of nature do not apply and therefore where any figuration is not an actual portrait, or a depiction of some phenomena, but the symbol of a reality unreachable by the senses.

On the other side of the retable is a representation of the Assumption of the Virgin, one of the very first of its kind since the Church had only recently elaborated this doctrine; an image justified by the fact that the basilica founded by Pope Libero would be the first one to be dedicated to the Virgin, after the Council of Ephesus proclaimed her sanctity in 431. On that side of the retable, the methods of perspectiva artificialis are clearly irrelevant.

A third interesting example of the use of linear perspective at its dawn is provided by the Flagellation of Christ, painted by Piero della Francesca sometime between 1468 and 1470.  On the right-hand side, we are witnessing a kind of “visual summary” of a historic episode, that of the Congress of Mantova convened in 1459 by Pope Pius II in order to discuss how the Turkish menace was to be faced, a few years after sultan Mehmet II had taken Constantinople and destroyed the remnants of the great Byzantine civilization. On the left-hand side, we have the Flagellation of Christ, which belongs of course to the domain of the sacred Scriptures, and symbolically represents the suffering inflicted by the Turkish invaders on the Church, and on Christianity itself.

Flagellation – Piero Della Francesca

Sitting on the far left is John VIII Palaiologos, the penultimate Byzantine emperor, who ruled between 1425 and 1448; he belongs to yet another “sub-space” in the painting, that of a historic individual watching with sorrow the historic events unfold, events which are transformed, in his own heart or mind, into the Flagellation itself.

History occurring on “real space-time” is where the floor is covered in ochre tiles outside the building, while events occurring in “mental space-time” are where the pavement is in black and white tiles, under the portico. Although all the painting is governed by the same rules of perspective, the portico exacerbates the division between a “mathematical/idealized” universe belonging to the mind, or the spirit, and a human environment which is optically consistent but not “idealized”. The former is in the background and in a closed space, as something which did occur and is “closed”, the latter is in the foreground and in the open, as something which can still be played out, open to human initiative.

This parting of both spaces is further reinforced by the light, which comes from the left and designs drop shadows on the ground in the “human” part, while it does not have the same origin in the symbolic side, as it emanates both from the right, as can be seen on the column, and from Christ Himself, lighting the ceiling above Him.   

Some words deserve to be spent on the relationship between artificial perspective and the social and political context of the 15th century. The configuration of a painting is the reflection of the imaginary structures which inform the artist. The medieval system which had satisfied society for six or seven centuries ceased to be adequate to representations, to the mental universe being elaborated. Once codified around the end of the 15th century, the conventional system of “artificial perspective” will remain the frame of reference of figurative thought and practice in Europe and its American extensions until the late 19th century. The geometry of space is one of the key elements of this new system, as well as the conception of the human figure as an autonomous source of meaning, and the progressive substitution of the Christian narrative by human tales and experiences. During the Middle Ages, figurative elements are not signs which directly represent a sensitive experience, but the vehicles of a traditional culture which refers to a set of canonical texts, be it religious or from Ancient Greece.

There is a nexus between the strict construction of visual space and the emphasis on the human figure, a figure that is not an archetype but the expression of a particular human person. Hence the question of the situation of man in a particular section of the real world. This nexus translates in particular in the use of drop shadows of people in paintings, notably after Masaccio, an obvious sign – as already noted a hundred years before by Dante in his Inferno – of a presence in space, of individual life.

An interesting example of how this new figurative order reflects the new intellectual and political order while continuing to use the lexicon of the older one resides in the “Battles” of Paolo Uccello. Paolo di Dono, alias Paolo Uccello (1397 – 1475), is a Florentine painter, and student of Ghiberti. As Piero della Francesca or Filippo Lippi, he belongs to the second generation of the Renaissance, the one that immediately followed the great precursors : Masaccio, Masolino, Brunelleschi, Donatello and Van Eyck, to name but a few. It is Uccello’s generation that brings the new figurative order from a disparate collection of individual inventions to a more mature phase, where these inventions are eventually brought to bear in a systematic manner. A third generation will come, towards the end of the 15th century, with the great Venetians Bellini and Carpaccio, with the synthesis of Mantegna, with Botticelli and Perugino, and the three giants who close the cycle of the Renaissance, Raffaello, Leonardo da Vinci and Giorgione, to whom one needs to add, as to the three Musketeers, a fourth, Michelangelo.

Let us look at three paintings of the Battle of San Romano, which commemorate the victory of Florence over Siena in 1432, under the command of Niccolò da Tolentino. They were painted between 1455 and 1460. This historic episode is depicted as if it were a ritual, as if it belonged to the Holy History.

Uccello’s horses are simultaneously images of horses and archetypes, signs referring to contemporary values. They are mounts for the soldiers who are, as a social class, progressively replacing the clergy in the structures of government. They are icons of tournaments, and therefore symbols of nobility, and reflect aristocratic virtues. With the 15th century, chivalry is no more of any practical military use: as such, it died at Azincourt, in 1415. It rather represents a class ritual, and the Renaissance ideal of virtù. This untranslatable word was born with the Greek concept of ἀρετή, a way of excelling at some task, and of being inclined to the Good. The Latin virtus reflects the manly (vir) and warlike values of Rome; by the Renaissance, it is understood as referring to a number of moral qualities such as courage, generosity, magnanimity and wisdom, all necessary to be capable of governing, the supreme task.  In the Italian cities of that period, classes are less radically separated than in other places; aristocrats, bourgeois, clerics, all live on a fairly equal footing. Most trading families aspire to nobility, and acquire titles of nobility; in Florence, there is no such thing as hereditary power until the Medici. There is indeed a tradition of fighting against any form of hereditary power, and in particular the nobility which is based on the principle of hereditary power. At the beginning of the 15th century, old aristocratic families are trying to regain some of the governing power, which is mostly held by rich merchants. Although their values are those of economic success, they wish to be seen as sharing and embodying traditional aristocratic ideals such as honor and magnificence.

The horses of Uccello remind us of the medieval chivalry and its rituals, in particular the tournaments. The painting of the National Gallery in London is a clear reminder of the well-known mosaic of Alexander the Great at Issos; the condottieri are shown as heroes straight out of the Antiquity.

Alexander the Great at Issos – Mosaic (2nd Century B.C.)

Now, these battle scenes from another age are set in a completely different environment, which reflects the new methods of spatial construction. The tournament spears had become militarily anachronistic, but they are used by Uccello to visually materialize the lines which support the construction of linear perspective, with the condottiere himself at the vanishing point.  Uccello also inserts in his paintings this most speculative of objects, the mazzocchio, a kind of collar which it is extremely complex to properly represent by means of the linear perspective, and which sums up the considerable amount of research carried out by the painter about the proper representation of space : an allegory of an intellectual battle, so to speak, which doubles on the military one. The mazzocchio is the very symbol of the new figurative regime which has now been put in place.

In La Réalité figurative, Pierre Francastel writes : « a notion like that of symmetry is not the product of a direct apprehension of the outside world, common to all men throughout the centuries; it constitutes a social reality”. For the Greeks, symmetry implies a harmony between each part and the whole, and between the whole and an ideal model; it is a matter of “just proportion”, “correct measure”. According to Parmenides (born c. 515 B.C.), for instance, the Earth being a perfect shape cannot be anything else but spherical. Symmetry is therefore a notion closer to musical eurythmy. For educated persons living in the Quattrocento, the question of symmetry – of which perspective is but one aspect – is to be placed in the wider context of the relationship between man and universe. In his third Book, the Roman architect Vitruvius (81 B.C. – 15 B.C.) had explained how the proportions of the temple should reflect those of the human body; a notion very much akin to the doctrine of the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm, which was very common by the end of the 14th century. It will indeed inspire the famous image of the man with extended arms and legs inscribed in both a circle and a square, the two fundamental figures of the Euclidian geometric universe and symbols respectively of the celestial and terrestrial worlds.

This image of homo ad quadratum et ad circulum will prosper for two centuries, and both Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer will put this idea that there exists a law of nature by which the proportions of the human body reflect the cosmic order at the heart of their aesthetics. The world is informed by the concept of symmetry: symmetry of the body parts, symmetry between the body and the universe, symmetry of all basic figures in the cosmos.

However the space of the Renaissance is not a closed one, overdetermined by a transcendental principle. As Leonardo writes in the Codex Atlanticus, “il sole non vede mai nessun ombra”, the sun – i.e. the absolute, the archetype – never sees any shadow. After Alberti, and in a context that has re-introduced man at the center of the universe, Western art will naturally move towards the use of directed light, which implies laterality, and, without opposing the spatial symmetry reserved for the architectural components of the painting, it will elaborate a system which is not unidimensional. After 1500, the way to conceive the relationship between man and universe will take a Greek “bend”, closer to the notion of harmony than to that of geometric symmetry. The pictorial space will get close to a musical space.

In later centuries, academism will resort mechanically to the Renaissance system of artificial perspective, as a mere construction recipe. The western “figurative order” will continue to be based for a long time on the principle of symmetry, either adding layers of complexity such as multiple vanishing points, or mixing it with is opposite, which is laterality, through the use of light; the great “luminists” Giorgione (1477 – 1510), Tiziano (1488/89 – 1576) and Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) brought this combination of opposites to its apex.

Since the first experiments of Brunelleschi to the Classical period, that represents the triumph of symmetry and of the illusionist space, architecture is the art form which was thought to best demonstrate the greatness of man, its vocation to dominate space and triumph over time. As pointed out by the art historian André Chastel (in Art and humanism in Florence), architecture had become the ultimate form of art for the Florentines. The dome of the cathedral of Florence was considered as one of the marvels of the world, equal to the great marvels of Antiquity.  When papal monarchy was restored in Rome after the schism of 1378 – 1418, the architectural imperative became a political and moral necessity for popes Nicholas V, and later Sixtus IV, and Julius II: it was a means to consolidate the institution through visual means.

The rejection of gothic forms is fast, and radical, in religious architecture. Mathematical rigor is applied, lines and volumes are combined so that nothing be concealed to the eye, with the internal volume looking unified and homogeneous, in conformity with the ideal sought by Alberti. The harmony of creation is made visible by the corresponding harmony of the building. One of the most notable architectural developments of the 15th century is the appearance of the central ground plan building, and its rapid spreading between 1480 and 1520. Examples include the churches of Madonna di San Biagio in Montepulciano, by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, and of Santa Maria della Consolazione in Todi, by Cola di Caprarola.

This type of building, by design perfectly symmetrical, integrates at once all the Vitruvian conceptions. The outside volume is the exact mold of the inside volume, it is visually autonomous, isolated from the urban fabric which it does not touch on any side. It virtually organizes space around itself as a perfect object of which the rest of the city would be the shrine, just as in the utopian cities of Laurana.

The formal unity which exists between the central ground plan building and the space created by artificial perspective is obvious when considering numerous examples of such architectures in 15th century painting, such as for instance the Dispute of Jesus with the Doctors in the Temple, painted by Pinturicchio around 1500 for the Cappella Baglioni of Santa Maria Maggiore di Spello, the Betrothal of Mary painted by Perugino in 1504 or the Delivery of the Keys to St Peter executed by the same Perugino in 1481-1482 for the Sistine Chapel. These architectural objects “freeze” space around them, and make it unchangeable, immobile, definitive.

A place of perfection impregnated by divine harmony, and therefore the template for a terrestrial utopia. There is obviously no necessary link between the widespread use of central perspective and any political system in particular, but there is a relationship between the figurative system developed by the Italians, or others in the Flanders, in the 15th century and a worldview ever more distant from transcendence, which considers that humans can build a harmonious system by themselves if only they manage to understand the laws of the universe, of which linear perspective is an analogon, and put them to use. However, this immobility is stifling, and will soon become animated by light, subtle distortions, illusions of movement, the depiction of individual feelings and character. Humanity will seep into the archetype until it destroys it.  

The organization of the visual and the political space do share common points, such as the unicity of the viewpoint which determines the seat of power and legitimates the projection of a just “vision” of how society should be, or the visibility of society in all its components so that nothing may escape the understanding and the action of the rulers, and of course the implicit idea of hierarchy, since what is far away is smaller than what is closer. Classicism will bring the analogy to its ultimate consequences with the concept of absolutism, where the king is by definition the only legitimate and just viewpoint, where the court is a theater, where society is controlled by an organized hierarchy of administrators, and where the administration starts – with the instruments available at the time – to measure all that is measurable on the land and in society.

Control in our contemporary condition does not manifest itself apparently by the use of such templates of symmetry and central perspective; but in reality, by assigning the equivalent of coordinates to each individual at multiple levels, and therefore a place on what is a multi-dimensional map, and more recently by assigning these coordinates according to a number-based rationality deployed via algorithms, we have only brought a similar approach to a higher level of efficiency and made it invisible to the eye.   

There is a growing body of work adopting a “constructivist” approach of reality, according to which what we call reality at a particular point in time is the result of a construction at three different levels: individual, with our brains creating an illusion of coherence of what we perceive of the world, collective through the building of a minimal social consensus allowing us to share enough common references to live together, and anthropological to the extent humans create narratives which allow those individual and collective constructions to make sense and thus reassure us.

The coherence of the narrative and that of reality were always in a strained relationship, hence the use of models, whether mathematical, economic, astronomical or others, in order to bridge the gap by bringing reality one step closer to what our intellectual tools could apprehend. Artificial perspective is one such category of models.

This constructivist approach is further encouraged by our technical ability to manipulate images, and physical perceptions in general, which are naturally interpreted by the brain as closer to the reality of the world than any linguistic description; by progressively severing the link between perception and world, and by creating models which are more and more “realistic”, the status of reality – and the distance between reality and the images or models that mimic reality – is becoming less perceptible. There is therefore a risk that the constructivist approach, helped by the extraordinary progress made in “mimicking” the world, lead us to mistake the model for the world itself, because the internal coherence of the model leads us to believe that it is necessarily actionable in the world. That would be the ultimate stage of the Promethean attempt: humans producing reality by dreaming the world. The dream, or the model, are always a reduction, and the passage of the one to the other meets with a form of resistance which powers have always tried to stifle, whether by coercion or persuasion. Artificial perspective was in a sense a template for this bringing together model and reality, and the fashion of “ideal cities” or “concrete utopia” that flourished during the Renaissance an attempt at “shaping reality into the model”.

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