Florence and the invention of linear perspective in painting

Do you remember your drawing lessons at school when your teacher explained you how to draw a correct one-point perspective scheme? First, you had to draw a horizon line, choose your vanishing point and then you sketched the construction lines. Within this scheme you then located all the objects you wanted to draw: an interior of a room, a landscape or a cityscape. In fact, one-point perspective is a drawing method, which allows you to represent how objects appear smaller as they get further away. Thanks to one-point perspective you can reproduce on a flat piece of paper three-dimensional objects, so they look realistic and your drawing can give the impression of depth. I have made for you this little drawing (I know, I am not a very skilled painter), to show you how it works.



Example of a one-point perspective scheme.
Example of a one-point perspective scheme.








Believe me or not, but the introduction of this scheme, which obviously can be rendered much more complex, was a great revolution of the Western painting and it originated in Tuscany.

From the times of Giotto, in fact, the Tuscan painters started to use the so-called intuitive perspective. It means that they started to construct three-dimensional spaces, in which they located the protagonist of the painted stories, using the parallel construction lines, but these lines did not converge into one single vanishing point. In some cases, like in the Birth of the Virgin by Piero Lorenzetti the perspective scheme became quite complex but the artists tended to use multiple vanishing points. They did not try to coordinate the entire composition according to one single point. By doing so, they managed to represent a convincing three-dimensional space but they could not offer to the spectator the illusion of depth.

Piero Lorenzetti, Birth of the Virgin, 1342, Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
Piero Lorenzetti, Birth of the Virgin, 1342, Siena, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.

The things started to evolve at the beginning of the fifteenth century in Florence when a group of friends, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio, started to experiment with the illusionary potentialities of linear perspective. The reconstruction of how it all went and how these three creative minds managed to elaborate a coherent perspective method is relatively complex. The history of this invention was reconstructed using two different kind of sources: on one hand the scholars analysed some of Donatello and Masaccio’s works from the beginning of the century and observed the gradual evolution of the perspective scheme. On the other, they investigated Brunelleschi’s biography written around 1480 by Antonio Manetti, which contains some precious information about Brunelleschi’s perspective experiments. Manetti recalls that Brunelleschi made two very particular perspective panels, which he used to demonstrate the illusionary power of the perspective. The first panel represented the Florentine Baptistery. It was supposed to be viewed standing in front of the Florentine cathedral with the Baptistery behind. In the middle of the panel there was a special hole, a sort of a viewer. The spectator was supposed to hold the panel by the eye holding a mirror in the other hand. In this way he would have observed the painted image of the Baptistery reflected in the mirror. As the upper part of the panel, corresponding to the sky, was covered with a thin layer of silver the real sky reflected in it. The image of the reflected sky, animated by the movement of the clouds pushed by the wind, would have completed the image observed by the spectator and increased the illusionary effect of the experiment.


Brunelleschi's perspective panel.
Brunelleschi’s perspective panel.

There was also a second panel. It represented the Palazzo Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria as they are seen from the entrance to the square from today’s Via Calzaiuoli. The panel was rectangular and it had to be held in two hands. The upper part of it, however, was missing. The spectator was supposed to look at the image standing in Piazza della Signoria and he had to find the place in which the painted image would cover the real buildings. In this way the real sky would complete the image, making it more realistic and reinforcing the illusion.

The scholars wrote pages about these experiments[i] because Brunelleschi’s panels were truly unusual objects. They were not simple paintings but articulated objects, projected to interact with the spectator in precise places and they were meant at producing illusionary effect.

To paint these panels Brunelleschi had to understand the geometry of perspective projection. It means that if they really produced the illusion of depth, Brunelleschi had calculate the distances and the proportions between the architecture and the wooden panels on which he painted the buildings. He measured the distances from the points of projection to the represented object, he measured the size of the buildings and the size of the wooden panels and he coordinated it all.

These experiments took place around 1419. Exactly in the same time Brunelleschi’s best friend, Donatello, sculpted the figure of St. George for the facade of Orsanmichele. At the base of the tabernacle he put a bas-relief with the scene of St. George fighting against the Dragon. On the right side of the composition the sculptor located a portico, strongly influenced by Classical architecture, and the figure of the princess who watches the cruel fight. Here, for the first time, the architecture and the human figure obey to the rules of proportion and geometry. The portico and the figure of the princess follow the perspective scheme and the invisible construction lines, which meet in one vanishing point. Moreover, Donatello applied to the relief his particular technique of “schiacciato” or “stiacciato”. He represented the depth using different levels of relief. The objects closer to the viewer are sculpted in high relief and the relief becomes always more superficial as the represented objects get further away. This technique will be later used also by Ghiberti in his famous Gates of Paradise made for the Baptistery between 1425 and 1452.


Donatello, St. George fighting against the dragon, bas-relief, ca. 1417, Orsanmichele (orignal in the Bargello Museum).
Donatello, St. George fighting against the dragon, bas-relief, ca. 1417, Orsanmichele (orignal in the Bargello Museum).

However, in his relief for the tabernacle of St. George Donatello did not coordinate the entire scene with the perspective scheme but only its part. It was only around 1427, when Masaccio painted the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, that a coherent one-point perspective was used in painting. This fresco was a true revolution. In its lower part it represents a sarcophagus, two columns on both its sides hold an altar. On the altar we see two kneeling donors. Behind them there is a chapel with an altar. God the Father stands on the altar and holds Christ on the Cross in front of him. The Holy Spirit in the figure of a dove flies between them. Under the cross stand St. John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, who looks towards the spectator and with her hand indicates the body of her son. The painted space of the chapel was projected on the wall with such mathematical precision that it was possible to reconstruct the size of the cuboid painted in the fresco. The geometrical complexity of the projection and the architectonic details represented in the painting induced the scholars to think that it was Filippo Brunelleschi to calculate and to draw the architectonic frame for the scene. In fact, the architecture painted by Masaccio closely resembles Brunelleschi’s projects for the Sagrestia Vecchia, San Lorenzo Basilica and the Pazzi Chapel. Moreover, Filippo’s high proficiency in mathematics was confirmed by his success in constructing the dome for the cathedral (do not miss my article about Brunelleschi’s dome). Therefore, the hypothesis about Brunelleschi’s involvement in Masaccio’s Trinity seems highly plausible.

With the Trinity the theoretical basis for a correct one-point perspective were fully elaborated but one more step was needed to render this practice widely known and used by the artists outside Florence and outside the narrow circle of Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio. What these artists needed was an authority who would give relevance to their inventions, and they were lucky enough to meet a person able to promote the novelty of the Florentine art. This person was Leon Battista Alberti, a humanist and intellectual, descendant of a wealthy Florentine family of bankers and merchants. Despite the Florentine origins, Alberti was born and lived outside of the city, as his family was banned from Florence because of some political conflicts. In 1432 Leon Battista he was nominated abbreviator at the court of the pope Eugenius IV. This was the moment when he probably came back to Florence at least for some time. In fact, in 1431 the act of banishment for the Alberti family was withdrawn and Leon Battista could return to his fatherland. In Florence he met Donatello and Brunelleschi, who was about to finish the work on the dome. Unfortunately, he could get to know Masaccio only through his art, the frescoes in the Brancacci chapel and the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, because the young painter had died in 1428. Alberti, fascinated as he was by the Classical culture recognized and admired the novelty of the Florentine achievements. After his stay in Florence he started to work on a treatise on painting – Della pittura (On Painting) – and in his text Alberti put in order and codified Brunelleschi’s perspective method. Thanks to his humanistic education and deep knowledge of medieval optics and theory of vision, he was able to provide a coherent description of the perspective device. He offered a wider theoretical context of the invention and by doing so he legitimized the use of perspective and confirmed its intellectual weight. First, Alberti wrote the treatise in vernacular Italian[ii], then he translated it into Latin. In this way the text could fulfill two different functions: on one hand it could circulate among the artists who wanted to learn how to apply the perspective to their paintings. On the other hand, the Latin version circulated among court circles and among the Humanists and the intellectuals. It spread the knowledge of perspective among the commissioners and people interested in the revival of Classical antiquity.

Thanks to Alberti’s Della pittura the knowledge of perspective device became more accessible and it could finally spread outside of the narrow circle of the artists who elaborated it. In fact, after 1435 the paintings that applied the perspective became always more frequent. In few years the perspective became almost compulsory and the painters who wanted to obtain prestigious commissions needed to possess this skill and to use the perspective with ease.  Some of the artists showed particular interest in this device, among them Paolo Uccello, Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci. Piero wrote his own treaties on perspective De prospectiva pingendi (On the perspective of painting) around 1474 and Leonardo included some considerations on perspective in his manuscripts published after his death in the Trattato della pittura (Treatise on Painting). The perspective became a widely known and used device, but its story started in Florence and here we can trace its birth almost step by step.



[i] Few references for curious readers: R. Arnheim, Brunelleschi’s Peepshow, “Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte no. 41 1978, pp. 57-60; S. Y. Edgerton Jr., The Renaissance rediscovery of linear perspective, New York 1975; M. Kemp, Science, Non-Science and Nonsense: The Interpretation of Brunelleschi’s Perspective, “Art History” no. 2 1978, pp. 134-161.

[ii] L. Bertolini, Sulla precedenza della redazione volgare del De pictura di Leon Battista Alberti, in Studi per Umberto Carpi. Un saluto da allievi e colleghi pisani, ed. M. Santagata, A. Stussi, Pisa, 2000, pp. 181-210.