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Alberti's Narcissus: "Tutta la Storia"

From: Mediaevalia
Volume 33, 2012
pp. 169-194 | 10.1353/mdi.2012.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The origin of this essay lies in an earlier conference paper that discussed the roles of Minerva and Narcissus in helping to elucidate Alberti's single point perspective scheme from his treatise On Painting (della Pittura) of 1435. That project has been developed in a series of studies about what I perceive to be an epistemology of vision shared with the theologian/philosopher Nicholas Cusanus (1401-1464). Continuing to explore that interest, I will reemphasize the role of Minerva, as well as that of perspective. My principle aim, however, is to elaborate the importance of Narcissus, who bears—in this treatise—the awesome responsibility for having been "the inventor of painting." How does Alberti come to such a strange, and/or ironic, conclusion? How does Ovid's morally blind youth, doomed to die from his paralyzing affliction of self-absorption, come to such prominence at the dawn of our modern culture? There have been answers, though they have largely fallen short of Alberti's insistence on having told "the entire story." Before getting to Narcissus, however, it is necessary to offer some important background.

To begin with, given the notion of a "science" of vision underlying Alberti's perspective system, we need to know that "science"—scientia in Latin or scienzia in Italian—meant simply "knowledge," though not in the more modern positivistic sense. Rather, as Charles Trinkaus has pointed out, it had a broader connotation as "knowledge of all matters human and divine" (scientia omnium rerum divanorum et humanarum) pursuant to the achievement of wisdom. Wisdom—sapientia in Latin and sapienza or prudenza (commonly) in Italian—was the goal and was attainable only with knowledge of the two realms, divine and earthly. Significantly, Alberti never employs the word science in either the Italian or Latin editions of On Painting. Nevertheless, as we shall see, his contextualizing of knowledge in terms of what a painter must know is placed squarely in the hands of wisdom, which fits well the general understanding that encouraged, as Trinkaus suggests, a "science" distinguishing, respectively, the senses and the intellect in order to understand how things divine and human are related.

Implied here is an inherent relationship in which humanity could assess the heavenly from its earthly realm, and do so through vision, widely held to have been the highest faculty of sense knowledge directly related to the mind's capacity of intellect. Moreover, inherent in a "science" of vision was the ability to see the unseen, even the unseeable, divine—God. Clearly, insight, mental seeing, was the path to knowing higher orders of reality. Philosophically, then, the nature of physical reality, rather than the physical reality of nature, may have been closer to Alberti's concerns. Certainly it was for Cusanus and for other thinkers we will encounter, including Leonardo da Vinci.

Alberti most succinctly captured this in his single point perspective construction from On Painting where he projects—and here I summarize—a vision of the finite natural world onto a twodimensional surface painted to look as if it extends to infinity. A very simple diagram denotes this relationship (Fig. 1). We see on the right (a) what was traditionally defined as the pyramid of vision that contained all the rays coming to the eye from an observed phenomenon, and (b) a similar pyramid of perspective painted upon a flat surface (s). We see, as well, the "centric ray" (c) (Fig. 2), which, held to be the strongest, defines the clearest area of focus for the eye


Click for larger view
Figure 1. 

Author's drawing


Click for larger view
Figure 2. 

Author's drawing

and connects the two apexes. Pyramid b appears to mirror pyramid a, but, while a represents finite vision, b captures the idea of gazing "as if to infinity." The entire scheme is based on the relationship of finite and infinite realities, one within which we see, the other which we can only ponder.

Yet the observer of a painting that employs this construct is presented with an "infinite" filled with recognizable elements from the physically real world, which seems to look back mirror-like along the centric ray. Leonardo's Last Supper (Fig. 3) easily reveals the implication...



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