15th Century Italian Painters
This paper discusses the revolutionary usage of perspective, three-dimensional representation of painting on a flat surface began to seep into art around the time of the Renaissance. This style added a realistic quality to paintings starting around the 1400’s. By reflecting on various resources I will report on these perspectives by comparing several pieces of Renaissance art.
Linear perspective, or mathematical perspective, involves projecting the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface, such as paper or canvas (Art Institute of Chicago, 2003). A great example of the linear perspective can be found in Tommasso diSer Giovalnni di Mone Cassais’ painting entitled Trinity with the Virgin, Saint John the Evangelist, and Donors (Stokstad, pg. 327, 2007). This Florentine artist was nicknamed Masaccio, which means big Tom and is a shorted version of his given name, Tommasso (My Studios, n.d.).
The Trinity can be found in Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence and was created sometime between 1425 and 1428, the year of Masaccios’ death. The illusion set forth in this fresco painting was a funerary monument and alter table positioned inside the wall. This kind of framed niche commonly seen in churches is called an aedicula (Stokstad, 2007). The painting stands 21’ x 10’5”. Pure vibrant colors add to the paintings life-like quality as its size makes the viewer feel there could actually be a hole in the wall where the barreled-vault stretches behind. Structured lines throughout the painting add to the point of focus, which is Jesus on the crucifix. The design is complimentary of the sign of the cross with arranged symmetry.
The painting can be divided into three sections; the figure of God standing behind Jesus being crucified, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist to Jesus’ immediate left or right, and the donors or commissioners of the painting on the outsides of the columns in the painting. The donors are seen at eye level of the viewer while the other four figures seem elevated. The strongest point of three-dimensional effect is seen in the barrel-vaulted ceiling shown above God and Jesus. It is though you could look up and see that very same ceiling extending behind the figures in the painting. The square tiles seem to get smaller and change in shape as they make their way towards the back wall. The culmination of the shapes creates one solidified object and effect (Art Institute of Chicago, 2003).
Although, the Trinity contains theological figures it carries no religious meaning and is only a demonstration of skill by the painter, Masaccio (Art Institute of Chicago, 2003). The first series of experiments to demonstrate the mathematical theory of perspective was Filippo Brunelleschi, an architect also from Florentine. In 1415, Brunellechi painted the Bapistry of Florence on the surface of a small mirror. After drilling a small hole in the middle of his painted mirror, he held the blank side up to his eye to look through and see the actual building. With a second mirror, he was able to alternate his view of the actual building and the painted mirror to ensure that his painting was a true three-dimensional copy. The results of this experiment showed that it was possible to analyze a structure in a mathematical system, allowing a true translation of three-dimensions figures on a two-dimensional surface (Dauben, 1991).
The linear or mathematical perspective starts with a central vanishing point. For example, on Masaccios’ painting, Christ’s feet are the vanishing point and the eye level position for a viewer. From this single point, imaginary lines called orthogonals can be drawn diagonally to display the horizon view. This kind of linear, or mathematical perspective, offers the viewer an extension of real space and a sense of depth (Stokstad, 2007).
Foreshortening is another technique that was developed and employed during the time of the Renaissance. It can be most clearly seen in Andrea Mantegnas’ oil painting entitled Mourning over the dead Christ (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007). The technique refers to a visual effect where the distance between the viewer and an object, or in this case an individual, seems shorter than it actually is (Stokstad, 2007). In this painting, we see Christ’s full body as though we are standing at the foot of his deathbed. An initial glimpse of this painting makes you believe the body of Christ is cleverly set within the set of canvas, when they actual case is that great foreshortening was done to distract your eyes from the blatant fact that Christ’s head is larger than his feet; an opposing view of actual perception which would have shown the feet to be larger since they are closer to us (Side Step, 2007).
Atmospheric perspective is similar yet quite difference from the newer mathematical perspective. In a painting with atmospheric perspective, the color and clarity helps to communicate the sensation of space and distance. As objects become farther away, their tone lightens, blurs and detail fades. Closer objects have a more vibrant color and their detail is focused and precise (Stokstad, 2007).
Giovanni Bellini’s painting entitled Saint Francis in Ecstasy can surely be viewed as an example of the early atmospheric perspective used in Renaissance paintings (Stokstad, pg. 304, 2007). The foreground of the picture shows an elated Saint Francis greeting the first light of day with his chest exposed to the radiant light. To the right or just behind him, we see the individual leaves painted on the trees and the careful strokes that created the swells in the grayish-green stones climbing behind him. As we move towards the background and further in the distance, the objects are not embellished with the same light Saint Francis enjoys. There are animals grazing in the hills to his right or upwards of the painting. A donkey, geese, and a flock of sheep blend into the lightness of the grasses. Our attention is drawn to the front of the painting because of the light shed on Saint Francis and the objects immediately surrounding him, but the atmospheric perspective adds to the focus as well.
Les Tres Riches Heures was a collection of paintings creating the succession of months. The Limbourg brothers, Paula, Herman and Jean are responsible for creating this work and uncontested display of atmospheric perspective. This major work was produced for the duke of Berry in about 1413-1416. On Februarys page we see a brightly snow covered ground which is vivid in the foreground and less subtle in the higher more distant portions of the painting. Although the overall tone is a dreary gray, the women’s clothing remains vivid as they sit in the farmhouse for warmth. In the far top left corner we see the steeple and surrounding structures that make up the closest town. A Shepard is lead by donkey up the hill to the faint and shaded town. I feel the distance in this painting is effectively expressed through the colors and blending used to create this work (Stokstad, pg. 307, 2007).
This fact holds true for the other eleven months on this hand painted calendar. October is another substantial example of the atmospheric perspective. A lofty castle looms in the top half of this painting. The peaks are shaded in blue and the sky behind the structure is an awesome color of blue. There are people standing near the walls surrounding the castle who appear very small and indistinct. In the bottom half a man rides a horse while the women tend to the tilling and sowing of the land. There are definite horizontal lines stretching over the face of the canvas which emphasis the levels and depth within the painting (Univ. of Chicago, 2006).
Although various artists used both perspectives across Europe, mathematical perspective became more popular in the areas of Southern Renaissance, or Italy. From cities of Rome, Florence, Milan and Ferrara, artistic excellence sprung from painters such as Botticelli, da Vinci, and Fra Angelico or Guido di Pietro. Atmospheric perspective remained in the Northern Renaissance in areas north of Italy such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Artists such as Charonton, the Limbourg Brothers, Jan van Eyck and Hans Holbein the Elder continued to use their atmospheric perspectives to create works of art (CTU, 2007).
Prior to the Renaissance and usage of mathematical and/or atmospheric perspective, artists concerned themselves with illusion and an imaginative reality. The content of their work was a representation of life and placement of items within the canvas were more about symbolism. The perspective qualities added a three-dimensional quality to the works being created at this time and prepared the artists for shift into the next century and practice.
The Art Institute of Chicago: Science, Art Technology. (2003) What is Perspective? Retrieved September 15, 2007, from http://www.artic.edu/aic/education/sciarttech/2d1.html
Colorado Technical University Online. (2006) Art Appreciation: Phase 3 Course Material. Retrieved September 13, 2007, from https://campus.ctuonline.edu/MainFrame.aspx?ContentFrame=/Classroom/course.aspx?Class=23719&tid=39
Dauben, J. (1991) Brunelleschi and the Origin of Linear Perspective. Retrieved September 15, 2007 from http://www.kap.pdx.edu/trow/winter01/perspective/
Mourning over the Dead Christ, The. [Photograph]. Retrieved September 15, 2007, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/eb/art-5540
My Studios. (n.d.) Masaccio 1401-1428? Retrieved September 15, 2007, from http://www.mystudios.com/art/italian/masaccio/dates.html
Side Step. (2007) The Best Artistic Masterpieces. Retrieved September 15, 2007, from http://www.sidestep.com/travel-info-g100384-t27518-the_best_artistic_masterpieces_northern_italy_italy
Stokstad, M. (2007) Art: A Brief History. (3rd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
University of Chicago: Division of Humanities. (2006) Les Tres Riches Heures Du Duc De Berry. Retrieved September 15, 2007, from http://humanities.uchicago.edu/