Renaissance Science – VII

In the last post we looked at the European re-invention of moveable-type and the advent of the printed book, which played a highly significant role in the history of science in general and in Renaissance science in particular. I also emphasised the various print technologies developed for reproducing images, because they played a very important role in various areas of the sciences during the Renaissance, as we shall see in later posts in this series. Parallel to these technological developments there were two major developments in the arts, which would have a very major impact on the illustration in Renaissance science publications, the (re?)-discovery of linear perspective and the development of naturalism.

Linear perspective is the geometrical method required to reproduce three-dimensional objects realistically on a two-dimensional surface; the discovery or invention of linear perspective is usually attributed to the Renaissance artist-engineer and architect, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), about whom more below, but already in the Renaissance it was often referred to as a re-discovery. This Renaissance re-discovery trope was very much in line with the general Renaissance concept of a rebirth of classical knowledge. Here the belief that linear perspective was a re-discovery is based on the concept of skenographia in ancient Greek theatre, which consists of using painted flat panels on a stage to give the illusion of depth. This is mentioned in Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 335 BCE) a general work on drama. More importantly, from a Renaissance perspective, it is briefly described in Vitruvius’ De Architectura libri dicem (Ten Books on Architecture) from the first century BCE. Once again, as we shall see later, Vitruvius’ De Architectura played a central role in Renaissance thought. In his Book 7 On Finishing, Vitruvius wrote in the preface:

In Athens, when Aechylus was producing tragedies, Agathachus was the first to work for the theatre and wrote a treatise about it. Learning from this, Democritus and Anaxagoras wrote on the same subject, namely how the extension of rays from a certain established centre point ought to correspond in a natural ration to the eyes’ line of sight, so that they could represent the appearance of buildings in scene painting, no longer by some uncertain method, but precisely, both the surfaces that were depicted frontally, and those that seemed either to be receding or projecting[1].

Of course, ancient Greek theatre flats no longer exist, but some Greek and many more Roman wall paintings have survived, which very obviously display some degree of perspective. However, closer analysis of these paintings has shown that while they are in fact constructed on some sort of perspective scheme it is not the linear perspective that was developed in the Renaissance.


Villa of P. Fannius Synistor Cubiculum M alcove Panel with temple at east end of the alcove, the north end of the east wall Middle of the first century B.C. Boscoreale (Pompeii), Italy Source:

Although linear perspective was not strictly a re-discovery, it also didn’t emerge at the beginning of the fifteenth century out of thin air. Already, more than a century earlier the so-called proto-Renaissance artists, in particular Giotto (1267–1337), were producing paintings that displayed depth based on a mathematical model, when not quite that of linear perspective and not consistent.


‘Jesus Before the Caïf’, by Giotto (1305). The ceiling rafters show the Giotto’s introduction of convergent perspective. B. Detailed analysis, however, reveals that the ceiling has an inconsistent vanishing point and that the Caïf’s dais is in parallel perspective, with no vanishing point. Source

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Renaissance sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455) used linear perspective in the panels of the second set of bronze doors he was commissioned to produce for the Florence Baptistry, dubbed the Gates of Paradise by Michelangelo.


A panel of Adam and Eve in Ghiberti’s “Gate’s of Paradise”. Photo by Thermos.Source: Wikimedia Commons

As already stated, Brunelleschi is credited with having invented linear perspective according to his biographer Antonio di Tuccio Manetti (1423–1497), he compared the reality of his painting using linear perspective of the Florence Baptistery with the building itself using mirrors.


Filippo Brunelleschi in an anonymous portrait of the 2nd half of the 15th century (Louvre, Paris) via Wikimedia Commons

According to Manetti, he used a grid or set of crosshairs to copy the exact scene square by square and produced a reverse image. The results were compositions with accurate perspective, as seen through a mirror. To compare the accuracy of his image with the real object, he made a small hole in his painting, and had an observer look through the back of his painting to observe the scene. A mirror was then raised, reflecting Brunelleschi’s composition, and the observer saw the striking similarity between the reality and painting. Both panels have since been lost. (Wikipedia)


Brunelleschi left no written account of how he constructed his painting and the first written account we have of the geometry of linear perspective is from another Renaissance humanist artist and architect, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) in his book On painting, published in Tuscan dialect as Della Pittura in 1436/6 and in Latin as De pictura first in 1450, although the Latin edition was also written in 1435. The book contains a comparatively simple account of the geometrical rudiments of linear perspective.


Presumed self-portrait of Leon Battista Alberti Source: Wikimedia Commons


Figure from the 1804 edition of Della pittura showing the vanishing point Source: Wikimedia Commons

A much fuller written account of the mathematics of linear perspective was produced in manuscript by the painter Piero della Francesca (c. 1415–1492), De Prospectiva pingendi (On the Perspective of painting), around 1470-80.


An icosahedron in perspective from De Prospectiva pingendi Source: Wikimedia Commons

He never published this work, but his ideas on perspective were incorporated in his book Divina proportione by the mathematician Luca Pacioli (c. 1447–1517), written around 1498 but first published in 1509. Pacioli’s book also plagiarised another manuscript of della Francesca’s on perspective, his De quinque corporibus regularibus (The Five Regular Solids).


Piero della Francesca by Giorgio Vasari Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mathematicians and artists continued over the centuries to write books describing and investigating the geometrical principles of linear perspective the most notable of, which during the Renaissance was Albrecht Dürer’s Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt (Instructions for Measuring with Compass and Ruler) published in 1525, which contains the first account of two point perspective. Dürer is credited with introducing linear perspective into the Northern Renaissance.


Dürer, draughtsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Reclining Woman

Naturalism is, as its name would suggest, the development in art to depict things naturally i.e., as we see them with our own eyes. Linear perspective is actually one aspect of naturalism. In her The Body of the Artisan, Pamala H. Smith writes the following:

It is difficult to know where to begin a discussion of naturalism (which can encompass the striving for “verisimilitude,” “illusionism,” “realism,” and the “imitation of nature”) in the early modern period, for the secondary literature in art history alone is vast. David Summers has defined naturalism as the attempt to make the elements of the artwork (in his account primarily painting) coincide with the elements of the optical experience[2]. (Her endnote: Summers, The Judgement of Sense, p. 3)

Smith also quotes in this context Alberti, “[He] put it in about 1435, making a picture that was an “open window” through which the world was seen.[3]” There is no neat timeline of events for Naturalism, as I have recreated above for linear perspective. Smith gives as her first historical example of Naturalism the so-called Carrara Herbal produced in Padua around 1400, with till then unknown, for this type of literature, unprecedented naturalism in its illustrations.[4]


Violet plant – Carrara Herbal (c.1400), f.94 – BL Egerton MS 2020.jpg Source: Wikimedia Commons

As we will see in a later blog post it was in natural history, in particular in botany, that naturalism made a major impact in printed scientific illustrations.

Although, they still hadn’t really adopted the techniques of linear perspective it was the artists of the Northern Renaissance, rather than their Southern brethren, who first extensively adopted Naturalism, most notably Jan van Eyck (before 1390 – 1441). An attribute of the Naturalism of these painters was the use of mirrors in their paintings to symbolise the reflection of nature or reality.


Jan van Eyck Detail with mirror and signature; Arnolfini Portrait, 1434 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Once again, we meet here Albrecht Dürer, who is justifiably renowned for his lifelike reproduction of various aspects of nature in his artwork.


Albrecht Dürer Young Hare, (1502), Source: Wikimedia Commons


Albrecht Dürer Great Piece of Turf, 1503 Source: Wikimedia commons

It is important to note here that although this picture looks very realistic, when first viewed, it is actually an example of illusion or hyperrealism. There are none of the old or withered plants that such a scene in nature would inevitably have. Also none of the plants obscure other plants with their shadows, as they would in reality. What Dürer delivers up here is an idealised naturalism, almost a contradiction in terms. This conflict between real naturalism and the demands of clear to interpret illustrations would play a significant role in the illustrations of Renaissance books on natural history.

However, as we shall see in later posts both linear perspective and Naturalism made a massive impact on the scientific and technological book illustrations that were produced during the Renaissance.

[1] Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, Eds. Ingrid D. Rowland & Thomas Noble Howe, CUP, 1999 p. 86

[2] Pamala H. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution, University of Chicago Press, 2004 p. 9

[3] Smith, p. 33

[4] Smith p. 33

1 Comment

Filed under Book History, History of science, Renaissance Science

One response to “Renaissance Science – VII

  1. James Harrison

    This discussion explores some of the same issues discussed in Daston and Galison’s book Objectivity, though that work focuses on the 19th Century. Your comments about Dürer’s Great Piece of Turf reminded me of the debate about whether Haeckel was cheating in his hyperrealistic, “improved,” depictions of embryos.

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