• Perspective



Kim H. Veltman

Paradoxes of Perspective: Ideal and Real Cities

Published in: Convegno internazionale. Imago urbis. Images des Villes. Towns
Images. Commission Internationale pour l'Histoire des Villes," Bologna, 2002, Roma:
Viella Libreria Editrice, 2003, pp. 89-100.

1. Introduction
2. Roots in Antiquity
3. Narrative Tradition
4. Physical Realism
5. Theatre
6. Perspective and Surveying
7. Synthesis
8. Conclusions
Bibliography: Primary Literature
Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

There is a received wisdom concerning the development of linear perspective. In Antiquity, we are told there was some or perhaps even a complete mastery of the rules of (linear) perspective. During the Christian Middle Ages a focus on other-worldly spiritual values undermined this realistic treatment of worldly, physical space. From the thirteenth century onwards, there was a revival in naturalism, which culminated in the Renaissance (rediscovery) of linear perspective at the time of Brunelleschi (c.1415-1425). In theory this should have brought about a revolution in the realistic representation of towns.

In practice this was not immediately the case. A seeming realism in the depiction of the built environment is evident already at the time of Giotto at the beginning of the fourteenth century. On closer inspection, however, this seeming realism serves another purpose. It is subordinated to the interests of narrative2 and leads to ideal rather than real cities. This tradition continues in the sixteenth century in the context of theatre. As a result many constructions are rhetorically convincing but are physically unlikely or even impossible.

From this insight emerges a much more complex early history of perspective, whereby we can discern two fundamentally different purposes: one is concerned with depiction of idealized spaces for storytelling and narrative; another is concerned with quantitative measurement and realistic measurement of the physical world. The roots of these different purposes can be found in Antiquity. The evolution of linear perspective is at first more closely linked to idealized narrative than to physical realism. Only gradually do these two purposes coalesce to become one. But this process takes more than a century and a half. It is not until the mid sixteenth century that this process becomes clear and not until the early seventeenth century that it becomes fully codified. Dramatically stated: there was no “revolution” in linear perspective. There was a commitment to realism which began as early as the 12th century and which took four centuries to evolve into the laws of perspective as we now know them.

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