• Perspective



Kim H. Veltman
Keynote: Perspective, Space, Time, Imagination
Colloquium: Eyesight Technologies, Faculdade de Arquitectura, U Lisboa, 17 February 2017.

In 1927, Erwin Panofsky, inspired by Ernst Cassirer and the neo-Kantians, published Perspective as a Symbolic Form. Since then it has become the fashion to describe Renaissance perspective as a shift from aggregate to systematic space, as if Renaissance painting was effectively a kind of manual version of photography in its capturing of space and time, four centuries before the invention of photography proper.

Renaissance painting practice and perspective theory reveal a very different reality. While Renaissance paintings depicted increasingly coherent spaces, they often showed events that historically occurred elsewhere and sometimes combined elements from different times within the same space. This paper focusses on examples from Italian Renaissance art, treatment of the Annunciation and some examples of Netherlandish and Northern art.

In terms of theory, Alberti’s manuscripts remained unpublished until 1540. Most 15th c. treatises remained unpublished until the 19th or 20th c. 16th century treatises became common after the 1540’s and included some architectural ruins but were largely imaginary adaptations of ruins, often in landscapes. What was supposed to have been a mastery of reality (space/time) was actually an exploration of the imagination. Hence, to speak provocatively, Erwin Panofsky imposed modern theories of space back onto earlier centuries and taught us misread Renaissance painting in terms of 19th c. neo-Kantian theories.

1. Introduction

The history of linear perspective has numerous paradoxes. In the early 20th century a number of modern artists (e.g. the cubists)i rejected its rules and there were discussions of perspective being dead. Not unlike similar announcements concerning God (e.g. Nietzsche), they proved premature. Granted, a number of alternative methods evolved: curvilinear perspective, spherical perspective, cylindrical perspective, but linear perspective continued to gain in importance. There were more publications on perspective in the 20th century than in the five previous centuries combined. The advent of computer aided design (CAD) has only confirmed this trend. Computer software (e.g. AutoCAD, Photoshop) typically uses linear perspective and includes light and shade features whereby space and time are integrated in the programme.ii More recently, there is even software to create the time/space effects of impressionism.

According to Emmanuel Goldstein, linear perspective “is a mode of representation specific to capitalism at a particular stage of its development (1988:188)’. Along with the quantification and objectification of space, linear perspective presupposes an individual viewer from whose perspective the imagery is seen.”iv  In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) prepared the way for new attention to perspective through his decision to make space and time a-priori features of human knowledge.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, linear perspective gained new significance philosophically and theoretically, through the work of the neo Kantians. Ernst Cassirer in his Theory of Symbolic Forms (1923-1929), explored three main human functions; the expressive function (Ausdrucksfunktion); representative function (Darstellungsfunktion) and significative function (Bedeutungs-funktion). In his analysis, language, myth and philosophy of language were key symbolic forms. In all this, the shift from an aggregate space to a system space (Systemsraum) marked one of the key shifts in symbolic forms.

Cassirer’s ideas inspired his younger contemporary, Erwin Panofsky, to write his classic Perspective as Symbolic Form (1927), which brought these ideas together in a masterful synthesis. The history of perspective became a history of mastery of space and time, a shift from an Aggregate Space in Antiquity to a System Space (SystemsRaum) during the Renaissance.   

The earliest perspectival demonstrations (c. 1413-1425)vi are attributed to Brunelleschi using a mirror and pinhole (as in a camera obscura) to represent the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence. While no longer extant, they introduced analogies between perspective, the camera obscura and later the camera. Perspective, it was assumed, introduced the methods of photographic realism and naturalism long before the invention of photography four centuries later.

A careful study of Renaissance paintings reveals that the effects of linear perspective were quite different. Yes, there was typically a homogeneous use of space. But it frequently integrated different temporal events within a single pictorial space. More significantly, it represented events from the Old and New Testaments which occurred in the Middle east as happening in towns and cities of Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Mediaeval events, which happened in Rome were depicted as happening two hundred years later in Florence. In some cases, this conscious anachronism leads painters to represent past events as happening in a local environment, wearing contemporary costumes with respect to an event that happened hundreds or even nearly one and a half millennia earlier. Hereby, the historical events become a pretext for social and political commentary concerning (then) contemporary events.   

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