Samuel Y. Edgerton. The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. xvi + 199 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-4758-7; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8014-7480-4.
Reviewed by Dallas G. Denery II (Department of History, Bowdoin College)
Published on H-German (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
In The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe, Samuel Y. Edgerton presents the invention, development, and dissemination of linear perspective as a story of European progress and secularization. While this narrative has, in one form or another, been recounted many times before, by Erwin Panofsky, William Ivins, and even by Edgerton himself, it is worth telling again and again, with ever more refinements, improvements, and nuances, precisely because it touches on questions central to the very conception of the modern world. At the same time, they are questions rooted in a very simple observation. Fifteenth-century Italian paintings look different, often radically different, from any that came before. What is the significance of this development? Does it point to some sort of rupture or break between historical epochs, between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, or is it a difference that masks more hidden continuities than it disrupts? Edgerton has pursued these sorts of questions throughout a productive career and this book, as he notes in his preface, is a further development of ideas that have germinated and flowered in his writings during the past thirty years.
The power of Edgerton's central thesis in this very brief book rests in its clarity and elegance. He focuses on two dates and two men, arguing that their differences reveal the transformation of linear perspective from an artistic practice rooted in medieval religious ideas to a secularized method for picturing the world. In 1425, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), a Florentine jack-of-all-artistic-trades, completed "the most influential artworks [of] the entire European Renaissance" (p. 5). Though lost within thirty years of their completion, we know a fair bit about these two paintings. The first depicted the Florentine Baptistry, the second the Palazzo Signoria. Most importantly, as Edgerton writes, they are the first known paintings to incorporate the rules of "geometric linear perspective" in their pictorial organization. Ten years later, Leon Battista Alberti (1406-72) codified Brunelleschi's artistic innovation in his treatise On Painting (1435), "the first ever to treat the visual arts as an appropriate humanist subject, as worthy of the same intellectual study as the great classics of antique Greek and Roman literature" (p. 7). Significantly, Edgerton argues, Alberti was more than a mere popularizer of Brunelleschi's ideas, and his most significant contribution, commonly referred to as "Alberti's window," marks a subtle shift in the cultural reception and understanding of perspective from the spiritual to the moral, from the religious to the worldly.
Edgerton devotes the early chapters of his book to uncovering a properly medieval context for the initial development of illusionistic art. In terms of art and artistic practice, he contends that we must not read Giotto di Bondone's Assisi and Arena Chapel frescos as early efforts at linear perspective or even as "attempts to represent the illusion of 'real life.'" Giotto's artistic goals were rather different from those that would later inspire Brunelleschi. Giotto's frescos, Edgerton argues, recreate and memorialize "the illusion of stage settings from contemporary miracle plays" (p. 18). Giotto sought to transform the transitory quality of religious performances into permanent objects of meditation and devotion for a public "obsessed with being eyewitnesses to the lives of their sacred heroes and heroines" (p. 16). The desire to improve the devotional qualities of such frescos motivated fourteenth-century advances in illusionistic art. Shifting his focus from artistic to intellectual and theological contexts, Edgerton situates fourteenth-century art more broadly within the context of medieval theories of vision and the tendency of medieval thinkers like Roger Bacon and Peter of Limoges to imagine our moral and spiritual lives in visual terms and through visual analogies. Not only was the science of perspective (the name given to the medieval science of vision) widely discussed in fifteenth-century Florence, but the city's most influential religious figure, the Dominican priest Antonino Pierozzi, peppered his sermons and writings with ideas borrowed from the science of optics, transposing them into reflections on the nature of sin and salvation.
Brunelleschi's artistic achievement, Edgerton contends, only makes sense within a medieval setting in which pictorial illusionism and the science of vision were suffused with religious significance. Why, Edgerton asks, does Brunelleschi instruct his audience to look through a little hole drilled into the back of his painting and to view the painting indirectly, as it appears reflected in a mirror placed in front of it? Part of the answer rests in the tradition of moralized theories of vision. Brunelleschi offers up the method of linear perspective as a vivid confirmation of the Apostle Paul's famous discussion of human spiritual vision in 1 Corinthians 13:12, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face." This is a wonderfully convincing solution to a problem that has long puzzled art historians, but it also sets the stage for Alberti's secularization of linear perspective. In order to simplify the often complicated mathematics and geometry needed to create a painting in linear perspective, Alberti replaced Brunelleschi's mirror with a gridded transparent veil or window. The artist now could simply set up his window to show him the appropriate scene and then copy the elements captured in each square of the grid onto his canvas or sketchpad. This simplification, however, had its price. Without the mirror, Alberti jettisons the explicit religious context in which linear perspective originated. The viewer no longer looks at a mirror image of the world, but at the world itself brought under control through the laws of linear perspective.
Edgerton's explanation of both Brunelleschi's and Alberti's methods is compelling and he does a remarkable job of capturing the excitement and anxieties that this new style of painting generated among artists like (surprisingly) Fra Angelico, Masaccio and Raphael Sanzio. There is no doubt, as well, that this innovation excites Edgerton himself, and the passion of a seasoned teacher seeps through and invigorates much of this book. Indeed, early on, he positions himself as a defender of tradition, expressing "concern that the subject of perspective in the arts has fallen victim to a new wave of art criticism that no longer considers it a positive idea" (p. xiv). It is clear that Edgerton thinks of it as transformative and a sign of progress. Linear perspective, he argues, implies a uniform and secularized conception of space and thus prepared the way for later thinkers associated with the scientific revolution, like Nicolas Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. It enabled technical progress by allowing for more accurate blue prints of complicated machines, and even undergirds modern computer modeling.
There is a great deal of truth to these sorts of claims. Unfortunately, Edgerton achieves some of this clarity by ignoring questions that his own argument raises, indeed, that many Renaissance artists themselves raised. One sign of this is his tendency to place the word reality and its variants in scare quotes without ever defining it. He refers to a "naïve" manner of representing visual "reality" (p. 4), the understanding of sacred "reality" during the Middle Ages (p. 13), and the advent of "secular realism" (p. 41). Invoking Panofsky's notion of symbolic forms, Edgerton at moments seems to accept a sort of vague relativism in which every culture has its own equally valid conception of reality: "Many Westerners," he cautions, "are too certain that because perspective is so rooted in scientific geometry, the 'realism' it produces must be absolute" (p. 5). Little of what follows this brief warning, however, would dissuade someone from assuming that it is absolutely true, that it alone allows for the accurate representation of reality. Edgerton half-heartedly suggests that it cannot be absolute because it "was thoroughly inspired by the quite unmodern spiritual assumptions of European Christians" (p. 5). But this is hardly a good argument and, were it true, Euclid's laws, having been developed in a particular time and pagan place, would likewise lose their claim to absolute truth. Edgerton's sympathies clearly lie with a history of intellectual progress rooted in the discovery of linear perspective whose truth is confirmed, among other ways, through its conformity to mechanics of the eye's optical organization, its seemingly easy assimilation by non-Europeans (by Dominican-trained Aztec artists, for example, in the sixteenth century), and the ways in which it allowed Galileo to see the moon for what it is, a pock-marked, craggy planet, much like our own.
But then why Edgerton's vacilations on the "realism" captured in this representational method? The answer, I suspect, has to with the implications of this practice. In his understandable desire to streamline his narrative, Edgerton silently passes over one of the most intriguing passages in Alberti's treatise. Reflecting on the implications of linear perspective and invoking the pre-Socratic proto-relativist philosopher Protagoras, Alberti notes that all our visual knowledge is relational. Objects only appear larger or smaller in comparison to each other, and if everything were vastly enlarged or reduced in size, they would still look the same to us. The fourteenth-century Parisian theologian Nicole Oresme had made similar observations, for identical reasons, about our knowledge of size, motion, and the structure of the heavens, suggesting that they pointed to the instability of human claims to secure knowledge. Throughout the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, artists explored the disorienting aspects of perspective, using it to create visual distortions and tricks of anamorphoses. Edgerton mentions these briefly, only to affirm that "when artists consciously violated perspective rules, they were acknowledging its cultural importance" (p. 6) and that "no matter how complex, each [distorted] perspective scene retains a clue that will indicate the artist's original viewing angle" (p. 72). Edgerton here is a bit too quick to push these examples aside as curiosities external to the rationally stabilizing power of linear of perspective. As Stuart Clark has recently (and persuasively argued) in Vanities of the Eye (2007), artists and intellectuals at the time exhibited much less confidence in this than does Edgerton. In other words, the power of linear perspective to create visual illusions put in question the illusory status of much, if not all, human visual experience. It is telling, in this regard, that René Descartes was far from the only proponent of the new sciences to reject the medieval science of vision, comparing vision to tactile experience, while simultaneously asserting that what appears in vision differs greatly from what really exists.
None of these observations are meant to diminish the value of Edgerton's book, but rather to highlight his sympathies and predilections as a historian. Written to reach a broad audience, self-consciously brief with footnotes kept to a minimum and historiographic controversies almost entirely bypassed, Edgerton's book offers a compact and historically grounded narrative of the origins and importance of linear perspective. Indeed, it is a credit to the seriousness with which he takes his work that even here, in what could all too easily have been a mere summary of past books, he has incorporated important original research and insights. It does, however, leave the academics among us hoping he returns to these questions again and in greater detail.
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Dallas G. Denery II. Review of Edgerton, Samuel Y., The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe.
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