The Poetics of Perspective does not mention that Leonardo was born more than 100 years before Galileo and nearly 200 before Newton, but doing so would underscore its thesis. According to James Elkins, our anachronistic view of perspective, invented in the Enlightenment, systematically distorts our understanding of Renaissance art. Instead of “tracing the outline” of the real nature of Renaissance art, our discussions (to borrow Wittgenstein’s metaphor) merely trace “the frame through which we look at it.” The actual Renaissance view, unlike the modern idée fixe, involved no concept of a unified pictorial space. In the absence of such a concept, “Renaissance authors and artists [End Page 368] thought there were many compatible perspectives, so that their writing and painting evince a ‘pluralist’ approach in strict contrast to the monolithic mathematical perspective we imagine today” (p. xi). The Poetics of Perspective attempts, in six substantial chapters and a brief envoi, to unearth this pluralistic Renaissance approach to perspective buried beneath modern preconceptions.
Elkins identifies a number of differences between the Renaissance view of perspective and modern views. For instance, no longer is perspective “charged with the religious and social meanings it had for the early Renaissance” (p. 2). Why? “Renaissance artists and writers saw many techniques where we see a single discovery” (p. 8). Renaissance artists thought of perspective as a series of rules and techniques for constructing images; modern art historians, in contrast, think of perspective on analogy with tracing a scene on a pane of glass. In contrast to the “object oriented” Renaissance notion of perspective, the modern concept is “space oriented.” For the Renaissance, perspective was “a strategy for making pictures,” but for us it has become “a sign signifying a mental state, a culture, or an expressive language” (p. 17). Renaissance perspective originated as “a construction, an intellectual accomplishment rather than as a transcription of appearances” or a “revelation of optical reality” (pp. 136–38). To its contemporaries, Renaissance perspective suggested “the complicated, unfinished, and partial” rather than “the harmonious, balanced, and whole” (p. 170). We expect a uniform accuracy of perspective through an entire painting, but Renaissance practitioners were selective in their applications of perspective to passages of particular interest or significance. All these differences taken together, Elkins says, imply that our insistence on attributing to Renaissance paintings an isotropic application of perspective based on an ideal geometry is a mistake: “we are looking for something the Renaissance artists did not supply” (p. 226).
Elkins’s excellent book is a corrective for the sort of thing Lillian Schwartz does in the April 1995 Scientific American. In the middle of a series of ill-substantiated conjectures, based on computer manipulations of images and ranging from the claim that Leonardo himself was a model for the Mona Lisa to the assertion that Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection of Christ, plastered over during the seventeenth century, must have been painted “in sunset colors,” she suggests that Leonardo intended The Last Supper to “appear as an extension of the refectory” in which it was painted. She explains the quirks of the painting’s perspective (“Leonardo placed Christ and the apostles up front, tilted the floor and table, designed side walls of uneven lengths and tapestries of different sizes and spacing”) by constructing a computer simulation to show that a person entering the room from what was then the main door “would perceive the supper as taking place in the refectory.” Schwartz’s conjecture may or may not be right, but comparison with her article reveals the major strengths of Elkins’s book. In contrast to Schwartz’s hasty manipulations, The Poetics of Perspective is encyclopedic; it takes scrupulous care to meet on their own ground the many [End Page 369] texts and paintings it examines, and it follows the Wittgensteinian imperative to stop thinking and look. Whatever the promise of the new technologies available to art historians, they can never replace the sort of patient attention Elkins lavishes on the works he studies.